Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Monday, September 20, 2004
James Rummel of Hell in a Handbasket writes:
Would you define yourself as a citizen of Britain or a subject of the Crown? And how do you think many of your fellow countrymen would answer? (I realize that yours might not be the typical reply.)
I is a-thinking.

I know how I want to answer: subject. But that's mostly because in British (as opposed to American) political discourse the sort of people who raise this question all want to make Chris Patten President of Britain. Such people think citizen is a nicer word than subject because citizens are democratic but subjects have their heads chopped off. It's no use talking to them about all the citoyens who had their heads chopped off in the the French Revolution either, because that sort of Frog-bashing talk is just the sort of archaic baggage a foward-looking European nation needs to drop.

But what do I think really? Does it matter? In law and daily life the two are pretty much the same. Google for "subject or citizen" and most of the hits you will get refer to legal procedures for gaining or renouncing British citizenship. It seems the lawyers mention both in the same breath to avoid trouble. Then again, that implies there is a "trouble" to avoid...

I gather from my friend (and occasional correspondent on this blog) "ARC" that Edmund Burke wrote much that is relevant to this question. However to claim to be a Burkean on the basis of what my mate said he said is a little desperate. (But if - not that I'm hinting or anything - ARC would like to summarise what he said in writing, my pages are ever open.) I shall just note that if I allow another year to go by without my having read Reflections on the Revolution in France I shall eat my Golden Jubilee commemorative plastic hat.

Back to the point. Consider the following dialogue:

Husband: Will you still love me when I'm old?

Wife: Yes, beloved. 'Till death us do part', that was the deal.

Husband: Would you still love me if I lost my job and all my savings?

Wife: You bet, honey. 'For richer, for poorer'... I trust this conversation is purely rhetorical?

Husband: Of course, sweetling. Would you still love me if I became a serial killer?

Now it's getting awkward. Part of the reason why the wife loves the husband is that she is quite sure he won't take to serial killing. His non-serial-killerness is part and parcel of what makes him him. When we do hear of a wife who finds out her husband is a serial killer we don't blame her for seeking a divorce. There is something admirable as well as tragic about a wife who would say her husband is her husband no matter what his crimes, but to keep our admiration of her we have to stipulate that she expresses her steadfast love for his higher self, you might say, by turning him into the police.

This analogy has got off the point. I should have specified a less extreme crime but don't want to go back and change it now. The point I was trying to make is that in national as in wifely loyalty the object of loyalty changes, both in itself and by external circumstances, yet still retains a continuing identity. Some changes may be so extreme as to break the notion of continuing identity, but they are rare.

Past history is part of that identity. If the husband were to ask, "Would you still love me if I had been born Japanese, instead of, as I am, Kenyan?" the question is not really answerable. The wife may have nothing but friendly feelings to Japanese people generally. But the fact is that the husband she loves would be someone else without his Kenyan upbringing, appearance and culture. Seeking to be other than Kenyan would be a serious step.

Subject was the deal history gave me. If I felt my head was in danger I might feel differently, but it isn't - in fact the subjects of the Crown do rather better in terms of liberty (despite my many fears and complaints on that score) than do many citizens of other countries whose constitutions sound a lot better. It isn't necessary to claim that we do better on all counts against all other countries in order to feel that constitutional monarchy is a good flag to follow.

ADDED LATER: Time for a little libertarian metacontext, as they say at Samizdata. The debate is framed so that one chooses between subject or citizen - but one could say, neither. Actually I wouldn't. But I'd like the choice.