Today, as Britain goes to the polls, one of the key questions on the minds of voters will be: what kind of leader do we want? Consensual? Cooperative? Forceful? Decisive? But, lurking in the background of what has become a brutal personality contest, is a political debate with a long historical pedigree: How should a leader make decisions? Both May and Corbyn have been attacked in the past for their failure to to consult on policy, and medieval history suggests this is a potentially powerful way to undermine a leader’s authority.
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, just like 2017, were times of great turmoil—both eras featured a credit crunch, concerns for national defence, and popular vilification of immigrants. But the comparisons don’t end there. In both late-medieval England and the post-Brexit UK, these crises provoked wider discussion about the role of counsel in government: who should leaders consult before making a decision; and what happens when they don’t consult appropriately?
Over the last few months, critics unhappy with the policies advocated by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have sought to discredit the leaders’ agendas by suggesting that these policies have been formulated without consulting party big-wigs or industry experts. The controversial social care policies outlined in the Tory manifesto—chief among them the now-infamous ‘dementia tax’—have been attacked not only on their merits, but also because May allegedly drafted them in consultation with a small circle of personal advisers rather than seeking advice from senior government officials. Earlier in the year, Corbyn faced criticism on comparable grounds. Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson told GQ Magazine in January that Corbyn did not consult him on key strategy decisions and that he didn’t know who Corbyn’s chief advisers were.
Many a medieval king would have sympathised with the Conservative and Labour leaders’ plight. Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, and Edward IV all lost their thrones in part because they were deemed to have taken decisions without receiving proper counsel.
The articles passed by parliament in 1399 to justify the removal of Richard II from the throne cited the king’s refusal to listen to the advice offered by aristocrats and judges. These men had supposedly been verbally abused by the king to such an extent that they felt unable to express their true opinions before him. When Warwick the Kingmaker led rebellions against Henry VI in 1459-60 and Edward IV in 1469-70, he tried to legitimate his conduct by proclaiming that the king had been prevented from consulting aristocrats and learned churchmen—his rightful counsellors—and instead listened only to the advice of a small group of self-interested young courtiers. All the nation’s other ills—economic recession in the mid-fifteenth century, the loss of England’s lands in France, rises in crime, foreign attacks on English ports—were attributed to the king’s failure to receive or act upon appropriate counsel.
So why have rebels, commentators, and critics (both in late-medieval and 21st-century Britain) paid so much attention to counsel when there were more tangible financial, military, or social problems facing the nation? It’s probably because criticism about counsel-taking and consultation damages the constitutional status of regimes in a way that attacks on individual policies do not.
In the later middle ages, political thinkers such as Giles of Rome afforded kings pretty much unlimited power to make laws and direct government. The king was seen as a representative of God and the embodiment of the public interest. Nobles, merchants, peasants, and clergymen represented their own individual interests, with only the king capable of rising above the personal or the sectional to consider the common good. As such, it was difficult for the king’s subjects to deny the wisdom or validity of any decisions he made.
But, while the king’s subjects couldn’t challenge policies implemented by the king, they COULD object to the manner in which such policies were made. This is where the issue of counsel comes in. The king could decide what was in the common interest only after receiving information and advice from his leading subjects; for the king’s decisions to be deemed fully valid and advantageous to the public, they needed to be taken after consultation with older and politically experienced men.
So disgruntled grandees like Bolingbroke or Warwick the Kingmaker could gain little by attacking specific political measures taken by their kings. But by arguing that the king had not taken counsel from the noble and learned men of the country, these rebels were able to question the legitimacy of the regime itself and all actions that had issued from it.
Political theory has changed since the later middle ages, but in some ways the rules of the game have remained the same. On 5 June, Armando Iannucci called for young people to vote against Theresa May. One of his concerns was that the British state had become overly centralised, and that May represented the most egregious in a recent line of Prime Ministers making a ‘steady power grab’ in which they aim ‘to consult with only a small circle of personal advisers’.
England’s medieval kings would have recognised Iannucci’s rhetoric all too well. A critique of policy is one thing, but to attack the ways in which a leader obtains counsel is to challenge his or her authority in a much more fundamental and potentially devastating way. Whoever wins today, we can be certain that counsel will continue to be a powerful and divisive issue. Who will be offering counsel on the question of Brexit? We may not talk about ‘counsel’ very much any more, but the question of how widely a leader must consult in order for a decision to be legitimate has never been more topical.
Eliza Hartrich is a Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her research looks at political culture and urban networks in late medieval Britain. She has explored these issues in recent articles, including ‘Locality, Polity and the Politics of Counsel: Royal and Urban Councils in England, 1420-1429’, in J. Rose (ed.), The Politics of Counsel in England and Scotland, 1286-1707, Proceedings of the British Academy, 204 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) [discussed here], and in English Historical Review (2017) [£].
Image: Philippe de Mézières speaking with Richard II, from the British Library [Wikicommons]