In her recent speech, Queen Elizabeth began by stating that it was always her Government’s priority to secure the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. What is particularly exciting about this statement is that it recognizes an ancient wisdom, and most neglected subject: subsidiarity.
Any reference to the Queen’s Speech might bring to mind the recent movie, The King’s Speech, in which Colin Firth plays King George VI. In that film, the “speech” is the King’s first radio broadcast on Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939. Today, any reference to “the Queen’s Speech” will bring to mind the annual “Christmas message” to the peoples of the Commonwealth by Queen Elizabeth II, the eldest daughter of George VI. This annual speech, aired every Christmas Day via TV, radio, and the internet, has been a tradition since the Queen’s grandfather, George V, gave the first such speech in 1932, which was broadcast on the radio by the newly fledged BBC. The speech was first televised in 1957, when the young Queen had only been on the throne for a few short years. Since then, it has been a tradition for many families in Britain and the Commonwealth to switch on the TV at the appointed hour, interrupting their Christmas festivities to listen to the Queen’s address.
There is, however, another “Queen’s Speech” which predates and supersedes the Queen’s Christmas message. This is the Queen’s Speech which formally marks the State Opening of Parliament. Unlike the Christmas message, this more formal speech “from the throne” lists the Government’s goals for the new Parliamentary session. In the most recent Speech, given on October 14, the Queen began by stating that “my Government’s priority has always been to secure the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on 31 October” and that the Government “intends to work towards a new partnership with the European Union, based on free trade and friendly cooperation.” She then referenced various Parliamentary bills designed to move Britain forward following Brexit, “seizing the opportunities that arise from leaving the European Union.” There would be an immigration bill, “ending free movement” but “ensuring that resident European citizens, who have built their lives in, and contributed so much to, the United Kingdom, have the right to remain.”
Many other proposed acts of Parliament were iterated in the Queen’s Speech, some more laudable than others, but one particular paragraph will be welcomed by all those who wish to see the resurgence of localism and the devolution of power away from big government and burgeoning bureaucracies. It warrants quoting in extenso: A white paper will be published to set out my Government’s ambitions for unleashing regional potential in England, and to enable decisions that affect local people to be made at a local level.
What is particularly exciting about this statement is its advocacy of subsidiarity, which is defined by no less an authority than Wikipedia as “an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority” and that “political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as “the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.”
As for the thing itself, subsidiarity is derived from the Latin subsidiarius and has its source in Catholic social teaching, especially in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo anno, two papal encyclicals promulgated in 1891 and 1931 by Leo XIII and Pius XI respectively. The classic definition was given by Pius XI in the latter encyclical:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.
The principle of subsidiarity was summarized succinctly by G.K. Chesterton in the all-too-obvious and all-too-often-forgotten maxim that “the cure for centralization is decentralization” and is rooted in that better-known maxim of Lord Acton that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” Ironically, however, the very Biggest Governments, which are furthest from the people they purport to represent, also advocate subsidiarity, as a theory, while running roughshod over it in practice. Thus, for example, subsidiarity is enshrined in European Union law and has been praised in official reports of the United Nations, even as those very institutions are wielding enormous power to enforce universal conformity to the globalist agenda.
Perhaps the final word on subsidiarity and the localism which it necessitates should be given to one of the wisest voices ever to grace the history of human thought. It was Aristotle who put the whole matter most clearly: To the size of states there is a limit as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature or are spoilt. After quoting Aristotle’s words of wisdom, E.F. Schumacher, the great German economist and author of Small is Beautiful, remarked that “the question of the proper scale of things is the most neglected subject in modern society.” Insofar as the principle of subsidiarity enunciated in the Queen’s Speech represents a recognition of this ancient wisdom and “most neglected subject,” we can hope that the United Kingdom might move forward into a post-Brexit future rooted in reinvigorated local government and local economies. This would indeed be a momentous move in the right direction.
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The featured image is a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, and was taken by Joel Rouse from the Ministry of Defense. Photo is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.