Colin the Caterpillar and the Art of War – why it is sometimes sensible not to enforce your legal rights

17th April 2021

Marks and Spencer has decided to add to the gaiety of the nation by issuing a legal claim in respect of Colin the Caterpillar, a chocolate cake.

The actual legal claim does not appear to be publicly available, but the news reports are that the action was launched in the last week at the high court.

Marks and Spencer is quoted as saying:

“Love and care goes into every product on our shelves. So we want to protect Colin, Connie and our reputation for freshness, quality, innovation and value”. 

It must have seemed a good idea at the time.

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Hilarity has ensued.

The respondent to the claim, Aldi appears not to be taking the legal threat seriously.

And nor are many people on Twitter and other social media.

This mash-up of our old friends at Handforth parish council stood out in particular:

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This has all the signs of a publicity disaster for Marks and Spencer.

So why did Marks and Spencer issue the claim?

And what should the company have thought about before bringing the action?

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There is no doubt that Colin the Caterpillar is valuable to Marks and Spencer.

The product has recently celebrated its thirtieth birthday.

And Marks and Spencer have been long aware of competitors’ selling similar products, with the store itself telling us this on its dedicated Colin the Caterpillar page:

“We were the first to retailer to sell a caterpillar, with many supermarkets since trying to emulate this crowd-pleasing cake”.

Colin also has his own Wikipedia page.

And not only does he have these pages, he also has registrations on the trade mark registry.

(Trade mark has two words, by the way – we are not Americans, thank you.)

From a quick (no-exhaustive) search, it would appear that the term ‘Colin the Caterpillar’ was registered in 2009 – though given it had been on sale previously it may have had other intellectual property protection beforehand.

 

This search also showed that last year in 2020 there was a further registration for Colin’s packaging:

The happy news can also be revealed that Marks and Spencer has also registered the term Connie the Caterpillar – though not her packaging.

All three registrations are in respect of class 30:

These registrations in practice and in principle confer a commercial monopoly in products within that class.

(Please note: although I have general knowledge of trade mark law, I am not a trade mark specialist, and there will be things I will have missed – and I am happy to hear from any trade mark specialists in the comments below.)

Here it is important to note that what is protected with these registrations is the name and the packaging of the cakes – and not the cakes and their ingredients themselves.

Colin the Caterpillar and his box are protected, not the concept of a chocolate roll with a happy face on it.

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One of the problems with trade mark law and practice is, in very general terms, that if a protected thing becomes too generic, you can lose the legal protection.

That is why trade mark holders often seem over-vigilant in asserting their legal rights.

Disney for example will assert their rights fearlessly, despite the ridicule and opprobrium.

Readers of a certain age will also remember letters to the press from Portakabin.

No doubt Aldi itself has its own trade mark lawyers who will send out stiff letters to infringing competitors.

(Indeed there are marks registered to various Aldi entities that presumably they would want respected.)

And as Marks and Spencer itself admits on its own website, there are other stores seeking to ’emulate’ the Colin cake.

One tweeter helpfully provides us with examples:

As does another:

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So: the commercial predicament of Marks and Spencer was as follows.

The company had a popular, valuable and distinctive well-established product.

This was a product that took expense to make and also to promote.

The product was protected with registered trade marks for both its name and its packaging (as well as, no doubt, other intellectual property protections such as ‘passing-off’.)

The company faced competition from other stores with similar products.

Some of these rival chocolate caterpillars had similar names and packaging.

What was a company in that position do?

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Here we come to the old distinction between having a legal claim and asserting it.

In essence: just because you have a legal right, it does not necessarily follow that it should be asserted or enforced.

And if a decision is made to assert and enforce a legal right, you have to think through the implications and reactions.

Some companies like Disney will know there is a negative reaction to their enforcement of legal rights – but in such cases the cost-benefit analysis is that the rights are too valuable to lose to the public domain.

And such a robust approach is common in industries where the commercial value is largely in intellectual property.

A cartoon mouse and a portable cabin are not especially complicated things – so what is bought, sold and licensed is often the intellectual property of thing, rather than the thing itself.

And much the same can be said of a long chocolate roll decorated with sweets and icing.

One can imagine how the commercial and legal teams at Marks and Spencer knew that competitors with products with similar names and packaging was creating a commercial and legal risk.

It may well be Cuthbert today, but tomorrow it could be Colvin, and before they knew it there would be Colin the Caterpillars everywhere in every store.

And Colin the Caterpillar’s registration renewal was coming up in 2028. 

What else could they do?

#SaveColin

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But.

They should have thought it through.

Presumably there had already been pre-action correspondence between the parties – it is rare for a company to issue a claim in the high court without setting out the case first in correspondence, and there are costs implications if a party does.

And presumably Aldi had denied the claim in correspondence.

Aldi thereby knew what was coming – and not only its commercial and legal departments, but also its media teams and external PR advisers.

Marks and Spencer do not appear to have issued a press release about the claim, but somehow, some way the media soon knew about the claim.

Perhaps this was because of a vigilant court watcher, or a tip-off from somebody, or even part of a media strategy: who knows.

But once the claim was issued at the high court, the dispute went from one set out in private and confidential correspondence between the parties – and into the public domain.

In essence: you lose control of the story.

And when the story is as media-friendly as about chocolate caterpillars called Colin and Cuthbert then there is a high probability that the media will become aware.

But from the news reporting it seems that Marks and Spencer have been caught unawares – while the Aldi press office is having a party with social media generally.

So the question has to be asked: was/is protecting the Colin the Caterpillar name and packaging worth it?

Unlike a cartoon mouse or a portable cabin, Colin the Caterpillar does not go to the heart of Marks and Spencer.

Had Aldi promoted an own-brand range of goods called, say, St Michelle then that would have been different.

And – and I defer here to trade mark lawyers – it may have been perfectly possible to renew the trade mark in 2028 even taking the (current) challenge of Cuthbert at its highest.

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A view had to be taken on the risk of litigation against the risk of not litigating.

As the Art of War showed (and that is still the best practical guide to civil litigation) being able to attack is not the same as it being a good idea to attack.

Here one can ask McDonalds about McLibel – or the British Chiropractic Association and its illiberal and misconceived claim against Simon Singh.

And if the decision is made to litigate then a claimant must be prepared for what can happen next – in terms of commercial and media matters, as well as at law.

This is not to say that people and companies should not assert and enforce their legal rights – indeed, that is what legal rights (and lawyers) exist for – but that the decision to do so is always distinct and separate from being able to do so.

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Declaration: as the blogger ‘Jack of Kent’ I helped co-ordinate the defence campaign in British Chiropractic Association v Singh and I practice in media law as a solicitor, although not in respect of chocolate caterpillars or supermarket stores.

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Constitutions and court-packing

16th April 2021

Over in the United States there is a discussion about ‘court-packing’.

In particular, the question is about the new president should seek to nominate additional justices to the supreme court.

Some liberals and progressives are aggrieved at the current composition of the court.

A number of justices were nominated by Republican presidents who had not won a majority of the popular vote.

The Republican majority in the senate delayed one vote on a nomination and then rushed through another, with no regard to political consistency.

From a liberal and progressive perspective, these grievances are well-made.

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But.

From a constitutionalist perspective, there was nothing unconstitutional in a (Republican) president nominating new justices and a (Republican) senate deciding when to have the votes.

Both the delayed vote and the rushed confirmation were politically distasteful and discrediting.

But they were not unconstitutional.

Conservatives, however, should not take too much heart from this – as there is also nothing inherently unconstitutional about a president seeking to add justices.

This is because the constitution (though not federal legislation) is silent on the maximum number of supreme court justices.

If the Republican shenanigans about the appointment of supreme court justices was within the scope of the constitution, so may be any attempt to add new justices.

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A more fundamental question is about the role of the supreme court.

On the issue of abortion, for example, liberals and progressives have long depended on supreme court jurisprudence, especially Roe v Wade.

Yet it would be better and more sustainable to have fundamental rights sets out in legislation, rather than on the fragile basis of supreme court decisions.

A conservative majority on the supreme court is only as illiberal as the questions that will come before it.

If liberal and progressive policies are promoted and implemented by the route of legislation rather than litigation, then a conservative majority on the supreme court is less of a concern.

Liberal and progressive policies are always better secured by means of legislation rather than by court rulings.

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Cameron, May, Johnson – who, in constitutional terms, is the worst prime minister?

15th April 2021

Future students of history and politics will no doubt have to answer essay questions about who was the worst prime minister out of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

And there is also no doubt there will be those who will aver that, say, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair was worse than any of those three.

Over on Twitter the comedian and writer David Schnieder offered his view:

 

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From a constitutionalist (and liberal) perspective, there is a case to be made against each of the three.

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Johnson, for example, switched the government’s policy on Northern Ireland and Brexit, negotiated and signed the Northern Irish protocol, and rapidly passed it into legislation without any scrutiny – and we are currently watching the fallout from this.

One can also put against Johnson that it was his switch from supporting Cameron and his political ambition that led May to adopting the hardline positions that she did on Brexit.

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It was May, however, who was responsible for the ‘red lines’ that meant that the United Kingdom would leave the single market and customs union, which in turn necessitated there having to be elaborate provisions in respect of Northern Ireland.

She is also the one that triggered Article 50 prematurely and without a plan, and she even sought to make this momentous notification without an act of parliament.

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But.

Cameron is the most culpable.

However bad May and Johnson have been, they were and are merely dealing (badly) with a situation created by Cameron.

Cameron staked the entire future of the United Kingdom on a single turn of pitch-and-toss – a simple yes/no referendum – assuming that, of course, he would win.

No considerations – let alone plans – were made for the contingency of the votes being for leave.

It was perhaps the most irresponsible domestic political act one can imagine in peacetime.

A ‘macro’ decision that, in turn, led to the bad ‘micro’ decisions of May and Johnson as they sought to give effect to the referendum result.

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And so Schneider may be wrong on this, at least in terms of what the United Kingdom is going through constitutionally.

Looking at it in terms of other policies, one perhaps could take a different view.

But I suspect future generations will be aghast and bewildered at Cameron’s folly.

***

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The judges are only the ‘enemies of the people’ when it suits the government

14th April 2021

For the government. and its political and media supporters, the judiciary are the ‘enemies of the people’.

The view is that that it is no business of activist judges to interfere with what ‘the people’ want.

It is a view that led the London government to oppose the supreme court determining the two Miller cases.

It is also a view that informs the current attempts by the government to limit judicial review and the scope of the human rights act – to the claps and cheers of many who (frankly) should know better.

But it is a shallow view, adopted out of convenience and partisanship.

For, when the political boot is on a different constitutional foot, the government suddenly values an independent judiciary being able to assess the constitutional propriety of a measure:

See Joshua Rozenburg’s detailed piece here.

Also note the response of the London government’s former chief legal official:

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From a political perspective, this referral prompts mixed feelings.

My political view is that a Scottish parliament can and should be co-equal with the Westminster parliament – as the legislatures in Canada and Australia are, even if nominally under the same head of state.

As such, it is frustrating to see the emphatically supported view of the Scottish parliament potentially stymied in this way.

But a political view is not always the same as a constitutionalist perspective.

And under the current constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, this is a question that can be referred to the supreme court – and as such there is nothing unconstitutional about the London government doing so.

(Whether those should be the constitutional arrangements is a different question.)

It is sheer hypocrisy – and there is not other word – for the London government, and its political and media supporters, to pick-and-choose when the supreme court gets to determine constitutional questions.

Either the supreme court is a constitutional court or it is not a constitutional court.

And it should not be regarded as only a constitutional court when the London government wants to face down Edinburgh, Cardiff, or Belfast.

A constitutional court is not and should not be regarded as an imperial court.

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Access to decision and policy-making is a right but not a privilege: David Cameron, lobbying, and regulation

13th April 2021

Let us start with one proposition, so as to see if it is sound or not.

The proposition is: that in a liberal democracy there should be no closed class of those who can seek to influence public policy.

Just as – in theory – any person can go to the lobby of the house of commons or write a letter to a member of parliament, any person can also attempt to speak to a minister or protest outside a ministerial office.

If this proposition is sound, then there is nothing, in principle, wrong with any person seeking to lobby any parliamentarian or minister.

And if that is a correct statement of principle, then it follows that the principle can be asserted by persons one disagrees with or disapproves of – including finance companies and former prime ministers.

Framed in this way there is a certain superficial plausibility to the contention that the former prime minister did nothing wrong in seeking to influence ministers about a company in which he had a personal interest.

Any wrongdoing would, it can be contended, be at the ‘supply-side’ of ministers and officials who wrongly were influenced by such lobbying, not the ‘demand side’ of the person seeking to obtain influence.

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Let us now look at rules.

As the estimable Dr Hannah White explains in this informative and helpful article, it would appear that the issue of Cameron’s lobbying is not about whether rules have been broken but that there appear to be no rules to be broken.

And so we have a gap.

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But.

There is something wrong.

It may be that there are no rules that have been engaged, still less broken.

And it may well be that one can (just about) aver that the general principle of openness means that any person from you to Cameron can seek to lobby a minister.

But it still seems wrong.

Yet a general sense of wrongness is not the same as effective regulation.

What can be done, if anything can be done?

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Part of the problem is indeed with the ‘supply side’ – any approaches by any person, former prime ministers or otherwise, should be reported and logged, and those approaches must be spurned unless there is absolute transparency.

It is not enough that we have the ‘good chaps’ theory that, of course, no minister or official would be (wrongly) influenced.

The general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean such approaches should be cloaked – the quality of openness that attends the former carries over to the latter.

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Switching to the ‘demand side’ of seeking political or policy influence, the general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean that there has to be an ‘anything goes’ approach.

Just as everyone has the ‘right’ to dine at the Ritz – but it an empty right when one cannot afford it – a right to lobby those with power is an empty right if one does not have connections or the know-how about making such access effective.

Unless lobbying is regulated then there will be a natural tendency for those with money – such as a finance company – and those with the best connections – such as a former prime minister – to have far more effective access and influence than others.

This then undermines if not negates the rights of others, as influencing decision-making, rule-making and policy-making becomes the preserve of those with better connections.

It is the right of the privileged, but one masquerading as a a general right of openness.

Any company should have the right to make representations to the government – but only on the same terms as as any other company.

This would mean that it is the merits of the representation that makes a difference, rather than the extent of the access.

And any lobbyist – of whatever background –  should not have a greater right of access than any other lobbyist.

This means by implication that there are certain individuals – such as former ministers and former senior officials – who if they are to be permitted to approach their former colleagues, should only do so under the full glare provided by absolute openness and transparency, and in accordance with published procedures.

And if such absolute openness and transparency and procedural certainty is not feasible, then they should not be able to directly approach ministers and officials at all – even if it is in respect of their personal interest (as opposed to on behalf of a paying client, which is a gap Cameron was able to exploit).

They can write a letter to a member of parliament, or wave a placard on Whitehall, like anyone else.

***

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The Good Friday Agreement and Brexit

12th April 2021

Before the Brexit referendum, one British politician made an emphatic statement about the impact of Brexit on the position of Northern Ireland:

‘Relations between London and Dublin are by far the warmest they have ever been since Irish independence, and the people of Northern Ireland are among the beneficiaries of that.

‘For that, the credit goes to a whole succession of British and Irish leaders, and to the tireless diplomacy of the United States. Yet it has also partly been facilitated by both countries being part of a common framework.

‘If the UK were not in the EU, the impact on such close relations, though hard to quantify, would certainly not be positive.

‘The Good Friday Agreement was based on the assumption that the two countries would be in the EU together, and the various cross-border institutions it established are built on that.

‘Hundreds of millions of euros of European funds are currently diverted into the border region through a special peace programme.

‘Most important of all, the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be called into question.’

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The key sentence of that passage bears repeating:

‘The Good Friday Agreement was based on the assumption that the two countries would be in the EU together, and the various cross-border institutions it established are built on that.’

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Who was this politician?

Was it some starry-eyed Europhile writing in some left-wing magazine?

No, it was former Conservative foreign secretary William Hague writing in the Daily Telegraph on 9th May 2016.

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Hague’s warning was not the only one – and he was also not the only one to make the connection between the European Union and the Good Friday Agreement.

The then Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, just days before the referendum:

‘When the Good Friday agreement was concluded 18 years ago, the detail of the negotiations and the agreement itself were brought about as a result of intensive engagement by the British and Irish governments in conjunction with the Northern Irish political parties.

‘But often underestimated was the international support for the process, not least that of the European Union.’

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And if one looks at the Good Friday Agreement itself, you will see the following recital:

‘The British and Irish governments […]

‘Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union’

The agreement also expressly provided that the north-south ministerial council ‘consider the European Union dimension of relevant matters, including the implementation of EU policies and programmes and proposals under consideration in the EU framework. Arrangements to be made to ensure that the views of the Council are taken into account and represented appropriately at relevant EU meetings’.

Indeed, there are eight mentions of the European Union in the agreement.

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Of course, an agreement made in 1998 did not and could not have anticipated the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union in 2016 and then leaving in 2020.

But that shared membership of the European Union was a presupposition cannot be sensibly denied.

As Hague also points out about Gibraltar, shared membership of the European Union was a handy and effective solution to tricky cross-border issues.

The European Union was a useful geo-political work-around for many otherwise insoluble problems. 

And so be departing from the European Union, such advantages of membership were removed.

This should not have been a shock.

Hague set this out plainly in the Brexit-supporting Telegraph, and the Taoiseach also put his name to articles explicitly stating this.

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Brexit, of course, is not in and by itself a contradiction of the Good Friday Agreement – in that the Good Friday Agreement still is in force now that the United Kingdom has departed the European Union.

In the first Miller case, the supreme court was asked to rule against the Article 50 notification, and they stated in respect of the legislation implementing that agreement:

‘In our view, this important provision, which arose out of the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement, gave the people of Northern Ireland the right to determine whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to become part of a united Ireland.

‘It neither regulated any other change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland nor required the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.’

As such continued shared membership of the European Union may well have been a presupposition of the Good Friday – but it was not (as a lawyer may say) a condition precedent.

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The Good Friday Agreement is, in terms of its practical importance, perhaps the most significant single constitutional instrument in the politics of the United Kingdom.

It is of far more practical importance than, say, Magna Carta.

It shapes what is – and is not – both politically permissible and politically possible.

It largely explains the curiously elaborate – and, for some, counter-intuitive – nature of Brexit in respect of Northern Ireland.

It meant that the clean absolute break with the European Union sought by many Brexit supporters did not happen.

The Irish border was to be kept open.

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But the Good Friday Agreement does not only protect the nationalist community, it also should protect the unionist community.

And the Brexit arrangements – with a trade barrier effectively down the Irish Sea – is seen as much as an affront to the unionists as a visible land border infrastructure would have been an affront to the nationalists.  

There is no easy answer to this problem – perhaps there is no answer, easy or hard.

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It took membership of the European Union to make the Belfast Agreement possible.

Perhaps there is no alternative geo-political workaround to take its place.

Had the United Kingdom stayed within the single market and the customs union, even if as a matter of legal form it would not technically be a member of the European Union, then perhaps this problem could have been averted.

But the fateful decision by then prime minister Theresa May in the months after the Brexit Referendum that Brexit would mean leaving the single market and the customs union meant that problems in respect of the position of Northern Ireland would become stark.

And as nods to the articles by Hague and Kenny show, it cannot be averred that the United Kingdom government was not warned.

***

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History vs law – the two disciplines compared and contrasted

11th April 2021

On a superficial level, the disciplines of law and history have a good deal in common.

Both subjects deal primarily with words.

The stuff of history (as opposed to prehistory or archaeology) tends to be written documents – though supplemented with the evidence of other materials.

And the stuff of law also tends to be written instruments and, in litigation, the words of witnesses and lawyers – though supplemented by other forms of evidence.

Neither of these two observations are universal, of course – one can have historical accounts and evidence without any words, and one can have law and litigation without words.

But in the main: words are the thing.

Both subjects also deal with evidence.

For history, this is (ahem) self-evident – and for law, the application of laws and legal instruments will always come down to a given fact situation: did [x] breach the contract or did [y] damage that artefact.

And both subjects tend to deal with the construction of narratives derived from assessments of evidence.

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But there lies the crucial difference.

While in putting together a historical account, there are no rules of evidence – if a piece of evidence is relevant then it can and should be used.

In contrast, in law and litigation there are rules of evidence – some evidence may be highly relevant, but it cannot be put before a court because it is inadmissible.

And the questions of the evidence which are asked by a historian will be different to that of a lawyer.

A historian may well ask ‘what happened’ – but a judge may ask only for that evidence that is relevant to the elements of the criminal offence or civil wrong that is being tried.

In concrete terms, a judge will not be interested in all sorts of circumstantial and contextual information about, say, a theft or a trespass but may look only at that evidence which goes to whether there was permission by a property owner.

And this is why legal records such as judgments or transcripts from trials are sometimes unexpectedly complicated sources to interrogate and analyse for a historian.

The questions being asked or the problems being solved by a judge or a lawyer are not that of someone committed to free historical inquiry – but instead have an immediate purpose in respect of the elements of the case that need to be proved or otherwise.

Judgments in particular can be misleading to the student of history – especially those that are framed as showing that, of course, one party had a more compelling case than the other.

The truth is that if a case was indeed that one-sided then the claim or action would normally not have needed to go to trial.

But a good historian knows that every document – including a legal document – has its own context, and that it was created (and survived) for a reason – and that reason is usually not for the personal benefit of a historian.

And in that respect, law and history are both good as ways of promoting critical engagement with words and evidence. 

It is just that they are not the same, despite their superficial similarity.

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The reason for these reflections is my ongoing attempts to understand and explain practical law and policy by means of critical engagement of written sources.

For example: a good deal of the politics of the last five years in the United Kingdom has been shaped by the structure of Article 50, and by the European Union law on the internal market, and by the Good Friday Agreement.

Such texts have led to all sorts of policy and political contortions and distortions, with things being pushed and pulled in one direction or another just to accord with (perceived) legalities.

A lawyer, however, would never have predicted what happened after 2016 just by looking at the dry, black letter text of Article 50 and other European Union provisions, and by the Good Friday Agreement.

There is a limit to how much one would understand about, say, Brexit or Trump by just looking at legal instruments and transcripts.

But there is, I hope, a valid purpose in doing so.

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Prince Philip, the monarchy, and the precariousness of crowns

10th April 2021

One of the more wonderful rabbit-holes on the internet is to start with one Wikipedia page and to then click and click and to see where it takes you.

And so yesterday, as an exercise, I started with the page of Prince Philip, whose death has been announced, and clicked to find out more about his royal and noble ancestors.

Going down the direct father-to-father line by itself takes you back to Elimar I, Count of Oldenburg (1040-1112), via such splendid fellows as these:

 

 


 

According to Wikipedia, at least, these are the direct forefathers of Philip and thereby of princes Charles, William, and George.

Of course, few will be certain that all this is the case as a matter of historical and biological fact – we are going on secondary historical sources at best.

And, of course, you can back click through the mothers instead, or a combination of fathers and mothers, and so on.

But two things become obvious, whichever way you click.

First, some of the noble and royal families of Europe have been around as noble and royal families for a very long time.

And second, those noble and royal families have often adapted and evolved, as has the nature of lordship and kingship – but sometimes those families do not adapt and do not survive, which is also in the nature of lordship and kingship.

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When we get to Philip’s paternal grandfather we have a seventeen-year old second son of a king of Denmark who was somehow elected king of Greece in 1863.

Then Philip’s father – the fourth son of this almost-accidental king of Greece – was, in turn, exiled, court-martialled and then banished from Greece, and was to live in Vichy France and to die in Monaco.

Previous posts on this blog (here and here) have emphasised that for Queen Elizabeth the crown is precarious.

Her grandfather – who was king when she was born – had been crowned king of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as emperor of India and the other dominions.

But as a child and teenager she saw her uncle forced to abdicate, the United Kingdom forced re-invent itself with Irish independence, and the forced conversion of the empire into a commonwealth.

One suspects that the Queen does not take the crown for granted.

The same, one suspects, was also true of Philip.

Within the previous two generations of his own family, crowns had almost-literally come and gone, and he spent his childhood being quickly moved from one place to another.

Elsewhere in Europe, royal reigns and noble privileges and monarchical systems were abruptly coming to an end, and overseas empires were collapsing.

When Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, there was no particular reason to think that the United Kingdom or the crown itself was especially stable or sustainable.

And it is perhaps only with hindsight that it now looks ‘inevitable’ that both the United Kingdom and crown have continued to the current day.

But against the history of the seventy years before 1952, such stability and continuity is unusual in European terms rather than the norm.

And a good part of that is because the slow and quiet reinvention of the crown under Elizabeth and Philip – which was not perfect, but it did mean that the crown and the royal family continued generally to have high public support and largely avoided partisan political controversy.

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The next generation of the royal family, as with the politicians currently with the charge of governing the United Kingdom, do not – and cannot – have this same sense of anxious fragility as the generation of the Queen and her late husband.

And as such, things will be taken for – and as – granted.

For them, turmoil and reversals are the exception – rather than the norm.

But history is often not like that for more than one or two generations in succession.

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‘It was Remainers All Along’ – Brexit and Wandavision

9th April 2021

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE TELEVISION SERIES WANDAVISION

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The recent Marvel and Disney-Plus  series Wandavision was a brilliant – almost perfect – piece of television.

In particular it played to the strengths of a story told in periodic instalments, while playing with and exploiting the conventions, techniques and lore of other great television series over seventy years.

But there was part of the story – a misdirection – which makes me think of the current blame games about Brexit.

You may know this misdirection by a merry little song.

That it was ‘Agatha All Along’

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At the point of the series we are introduced to this lovely ditty, there is plausibility to it all being down to the rival witch Agatha.

And indeed: for many her theatrical wink is the compelling tell.

It must have been Agatha all along.

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Except, of course, it was not Agatha all along.

For although Agatha had a certain impact on the plot and the characters, the real causes of the predicament as set out in Wandavision are elsewhere.

The problems instead flow from deeper dislocations, and from distortions of reality, and from the limits of magical thinking.

A false – and ultimately flimsy – world is created, but it is unsustainable and so it comes crashing down.

Happy nostalgic images of the 1950s – and of other decades – are ultimately mere make-believe constructs.

Sound familiar?

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The state of Brexit at the moment is such that it is understandable that those who urged the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union at such speed and with no planning are looking to blame others.

But it is difficult to blame Remainers.

Those blaming Remainers for the shape of Brexit forget that Remainers were not even capable of winning a referendum.

Remainers also had a real opportunity to delay Brexit – or at least have a further referendum – in the the months before the December 2019 general election – and they were not even capable of accomplishing that either.

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At each important point of Brexit – and especially in the crucial few months after the referendum result – the government and its political and media supporters prioritised speed and lack of substance over everything else.

Hardly a thought was employed as to the implications of ‘red lines’.

And once there was an agreement text, the race was on to ‘get Brexit done’ as swiftly as possible, with no proper consideration as to what was being agreed.

As I have averred over at Twitter, the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Irish protocol were the result of five distinct political steps taken by the prime minister Boris Johnson.

 

The shape and manner of Brexit has many causes – but the overriding ones are specific political decisions made by pro-Brexit governments and parliaments when they had majorities in the house of commons – before June 2017 and after December 2019.

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One cannot sensibly hold that Remainers can be held primarily responsible for anything to do with Brexit – other than complacency before the June 2016 referendum and ineptitude before the December 2019 general election.

Of course, there will be Remainer ‘leaders’ – professors and lords and QCs – who like Agatha may tweet theatrical winks to the camera.

And this may in turn provoke Brexit supporters into singing that it was ‘Remainers all along’.

But the tune does not make it true.

It was Brexiters all along.

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Do ‘Appeals for Calm’ work?

8th April 2021

Another evening of disturbances in Northern Ireland.

And so another round of ‘appeals for calm’.

Of course: such a call is the responsible thing to do – and nothing in this post should be taken to gainsay this.

But do such appeals actually work?

Does this – almost ritualistic – reflexive speech act ever have the intended effect?

And if so, how?

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A cynic may contest that one function of ‘appealing for calm’ is to just give something ‘community leaders’ something to say and do – a gesture as empty and meaningless as ‘thoughts and prayers’.

As such there could almost be a circular definition – a ‘community leader’ is the person who ‘appeals for calm’, and ‘appealing for calm’, is what a ‘community leader’ does – thereby a ‘community leader appealing for calm’ is almost a tautology.

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But such cynicism may be misplaced, for there appear to be many examples of appeals for calm that have had efficacy:

And from my home city of Birmingham:

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So there are historical instances where the ‘appeal for calm’ seems to have had the intended political and social effect – though of course there may be other features present.

But the ‘appeal for calm’ has another important function.

And this is that it will be significant when the expected speech act is not made by a particular individual.

Here we have an example from just three months ago:

Silence as a signal.

As so often with language and politics, it can be more important when certain words and phrases are not used than when they are.

This is true not only for formal texts such as laws, but also for rhetorical acts in certain situations.

An ‘appeal for calm’ thereby might or might not work – but a failure or obvious refusal to ‘appeal for calm’ can have unwelcome consequences.

Appealing for calm is therefore an important piece of political behaviour – both for what it can achieve and also for what may happen if the appeal is not made.

Words matter, but so does silence.

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