Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Happy birthday, Tom!

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Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (9 February 1737, Thetford, Norfolk – 8 June 1809, Greenwich Village, New York City)

Thomas Paine was born this day in 1737. He virtually invented the idea that the power of a nation should ultimately rest with the commonality of its people, and that elected politicians should be answerable to the people. Tom Paine is the father of rational values as the basis of a political constitution: that our government, legal system and political engagement should all make sense to average citizens so that they might fully participate. Naturally, Paine had no time for monarchs and monarchy: he wanted values at the heart of a nation rather than a dodgy personality cult. Neither did he think much of the British ‘compromise’ of parliamentary sovereignty, in which we elect politicians using an outdated electoral system who, once elected, are not accountable to the electorate and may do whatsoever they will. The MPs expenses are just the tip of the iceberg of a political system that creates a political class separate and above the people.

From the first page of Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet Common Sense, I take the following quote

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.

I find this statement perspicacious still now of the British political arrangement. Its few centuries of constitutional tweaking has produced a cumbersome and confused system that sends out some very odd messages about the values on which we base this system. The truth is that all talk of British political values and virtues is a veneer applied at a later stage to a modified feudalism.

Not many Britons think the monarchy to be intrinsically wrong (laying aside personality issues as much as their expensive PR campaign will let us), or that parliamentary democracy is also wrong. Many believe that our current arrangement upholds democracy and personal liberty due to its very nature, which it doesn’t. Tom Paine was right, we have pulled the wool over our own eyes, having too long thought our political way of things the best, have not updated our view for a few centuries. Also, the effect of successive British propaganda against the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler, Communism and Terrorism (regardless of the obvious flaws in each of these) has been to reinforce that the British way is right and best. This illogic states it is the best because it isn’t the worst (or what is currently considered the worst).

So, happy birthday, Tom! I’ll raise a pint to you this evening, and pray that British move from sneering at our politicos to something far more critical.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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