Strange Politics: The House of Lords

Sometimes, when you look at America’s Electoral College, our complex primaries, the U.S. Senate’s filibuster and cloture rules, and other seemingly bizarre aspects of how our nation’s government is run, it makes you wonder why we have such an antiquated political system that inherits so many of its rules from centuries past. Then you look at the British political system, and you realize that we learned it from the best!

The British political system dates back to the Middle Ages, and it shows. The ridiculously elaborate State Opening of Parliament ceremonies are a perfect example of this – functionally, it is just the Queen formally opening the year’s session of the British legislature with a speech, but it involves a day’s worth of people in funny-looking uniforms marching to and fro performing centuries-old rituals. It is quite the show for tourists.

Yet it isn’t just the ceremonies associated with the British Parliament that has holdovers from long ago; its very organization is based on medieval principles. Parliament is made up of three parts: (1) The Queen, (2) the House of Commons, democratically elected by the British people to represent the general public, and (3) The House of Lords, representing the British aristocracy. Yes, even in the 21st century, the British government maintains as one of its core institutions a body that draws its legitimacy from feudalism.

The official title of this legislative body is… (*deep breath*)… The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. (Whew!)

Yeah, I’m just going to call it “The House of Lords”.

Its members are referred to as “peers” because the British system of nobility is officially referred to as the Peerage of the Realm. No, I have no idea where that term came from; the word “peer” means “someone who is your equal” and comes from the Latin word for “equal”. This is rather odd considering that British peers are anything but equal – not only do they supposedly outrank ordinary commoners, they have a complicated rank structure in and among themselves! Dukes outrank marquesses, marquesses outrank earls, earls outrank viscounts, and viscounts outrank barons. What’s more, even within the same rank of nobility, there is an elaborate internal hierarchy, with older peerages being above newer titles, and English peers being above Scottish and Irish peers.

Still, no matter where a particular peer fits into this ranking system, those who sit in the House of Lords have an important job to do. They review bills passed by the House of Commons before those bills become law. Now, the House of Lords can’t actually block the House of Commons from passing a bill into law – only the Queen has that power, and she has never once exercised it – but the House of Lords can revise the bill, make amendments to it, and even send it back to the House of Commons with their objections and the implied message “Let’s try this again, shall we?”

Unlike the House of Commons, whose membership is fixed at 650 MPs, the House of Lords has no set limit on the number of peers in its membership. As of this writing, there are 798 peers in the House of Lords, all of whom serve for life. The meeting area for the House of Lords is much nicer than that of the Commons, and its peers sometimes wear fancy ceremonial red robes.

I’m a-lookin’ super fine!

Being a peer is a sweet gig. You get to make everybody address you by a fancy title, you get a coat of arms, and you get £300 a day from the British taxpayer to pay for whatever expenses you may incur as part of your job. In 2015, Baroness Wilcox was criticized for claiming that £300 a day for “travel expenses” even though she lived within walking distance of the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament meets. Oops.

So, let’s say you want to be a peer in the House of Lords. How do you get the job?

Be a bishop of the Church of England – 26 bishops of the Church of England, the official state-run religion of England whose “Supreme Governor” is none other than the Queen, get seats in the House of Lords automatically as part of their jobs. They are referred to as the “Lords Spiritual”, to distinguish them from all of the other members, who are known as “Lords Temporal”. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York get seats, as do the Bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester. The remaining seats are given to the bishops with the most seniority.

Because this guy looks like a politician, right?

So, how do you become a bishop of the Church of England? Officially, you are picked by the Queen, but in practice, she picks the person whose name is recommended to her by the Prime Minister, who in turn recommends the person at the top of a list of suggestions provided by a committee made up of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and other high-ranking church leaders. In essence, if you aren’t an Anglican priest with many years of pious service to your name, the odds of you being picked are slim to none.

Be a hereditary peer – On the other hand, the easiest way to become a peer is to inherit the job from your parents. This is what most people think of when they think of the British aristocracy – the nobles who live in giant estates and pass their titles, lands, and coats of arms on to the next generation when they die.

There are two hereditary peers who automatically get a seat in the House of Lords when they inherit their titles: the Earl Marshall and the Lord Great Chamberlain. Ninety additional seats in the House of Lords are reserved for other hereditary peers, elected to office for life by the rest of the members of the House of Lords.

Earn a Life Peerage – The vast majority of the members of the House of Lords, however, are so-called “life peers”. As one would expect from the name, life peers get a fancy title and a coat of arms just like hereditary peers do, but can’t pass these on to their children. Life peers always are given the rank of baron, are allowed to sit in the House of Lords automatically upon their appointment, and are given their title by the Queen as some sort of reward for public service.

However, it isn’t quite that simple. There are actually two kinds of life peers, who are selected in different ways. For simplicity’s sake, I will call them “people’s peers” and “political peers”.

  • People’s peers are chosen by the Queen on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, a non-partisan body that selects people on the basis of their expertise in some important field or their outstanding achievements. They include engineers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, journalists, professors, and athletes, among others.
  • Political peers, in contrast, are chosen by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. These are almost always former cabinet ministers, MPs, and political party leaders whose peerages are a reward for their political service. In practice, of course, Prime Ministers almost always pick peers from their own political party and on occasion will create peerages to pack the House of Lords with their supporters to tip the balance of power in their favor. Tony Blair picked 357 life peers, Gordon Brown 34, David Cameron 242, and Theresa May 17 (so far). Needless to say political peers make up the majority in the House of Lords, and are the most controversial. Some have been accused of functionally buying their peerages by donating large sums of money to the Prime Minister’s political party.

Of course, there are a few additional rules that apply to all of the above. To sit in the House of Lords, peers must be at least 21 years old, and a citizen of the UK, Ireland or one of the 53 countries in the Commonwealth, an international organization of former British colonies. Also, you can’t sit in the House of Lords if you are going through a bankruptcy or have been convicted of high treason.

The House of Lords is, without a doubt, one of the strangest political institutions I have ever run across. A holdover of medieval England in a modern democracy, it is a perfect showcase of how history can still shape the modern age. Though there have been numerous moves to reform it over the decades, it is just so quintessentially British that I have no doubt it will continue to play an important role in British politics for the foreseeable future.

Cat Flag would just like to take a moment to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of recent hurricanes. If you want to help, the American Red Cross is actively working to help those affected and has a page to take donations here that go directly to helping victims of Hurricane Irma.

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Valentine’s Day Special: The Man Who Gave Up the World for Love

Valentines Day chocolates by John Hritz

What would you be willing to do for your significant other? What would you be wiling to sacrifice for the one you love? Would you give up the world for him or her?

I know that sounds a bit hyperbolic. “Give up the world for love” sounds like such a cliché that it’s hard to take it seriously. Yet I know a man who did exactly that.

Time for some strange politics.

While nobody in history has ever successfully conquered the entire world…

Though not for lack of trying

Though not for lack of trying

…the British Empire came far closer than anybody else. They managed to create the largest empire in all of human history; at the peak of their power, they ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s land mass. They used to say “the sun never set on the British Empire” because they had so many colonies around the world that whenever the sun was setting in one colony it was rising in another. They ruled India, Canada, much of Africa, the entire continent of Australia, and more! Just look at this map:

All the pink areas were places under British rule

All the pink areas were places under British rule

Yet even as they reached the peak of their power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were still the United Kingdom, a country with a centuries-deep heritage loaded with historical baggage that has produced a very strange political system filled with arcane rules and rituals.

For today’s story, we must begin with King Henry VIII, the infamous English monarch who had six wives when all was said and done. He famously split the Church of England away from the Roman Catholic Church when the pope wouldn’t let him divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Except that story you’ve heard a million times isn’t exactly true. What King Henry VIII wanted from the pope wasn’t a divorce, but an annulment.

What’s the difference, you may ask? Well, a divorce is a dissolution of a perfectly valid marriage, while an annulment is a declaration that the marriage was never valid in the first place. It seems like a minor distinction, but it actually is a very important one. See, even though it split from the firmly anti-divorce Catholic faith, the Church of England continued to refuse to accept divorce just as firmly as its Catholic counterpart. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Church of England finally permitted a divorce and remarriage, and even then, it would only permit it under exceptional circumstances.

This detail will be very important to our story.

Wallis Simpson photo from 1936 by an unknown photographer

We begin, of all places, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. There, a girl was born, named Bessie Wallis Warfield. Her father, a fairly well-to-do Baltimore flour merchant, died when she was very young; as she was growing up, her mother was dependent on the charity of her late husband’s family. A the age of 19, the girl married a pilot from Kansas who flew planes for the U.S. Navy. He turned out to be an alcoholic, though, and the two divorced in 1927.

As their divorce was being finalized, she met Ernest Aldrich Simpson, the New York-born wealthy head of a shipping company. When she married him, she adopted the name history would remember her by: Wallis Simpson. Through her husband, Mrs. Simpson came to be a socialite who brushed elbows with the rich and famous. She eventually followed her husband to England, where she met the man who would change her life: Edward, Prince of Wales.

Edward VIII image by Freeland Studio

Edward was the son and heir of George V, King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India (as the British monarch was known at the time). Born in a palatial “hunting lodge” on one of his father’s royal country estates, his childhood was typical of those in the elites of British royalty and nobility of the time, being mainly raised by hired nannies and privately tutored. He served in the Royal Navy for a time, but when World War I broke out he was barred from serving on active duty in the front lines for obvious reasons. Still, he visited the troops as often as he could manage, making him very popular with the British public. After the war, he toured the British Empire and even bought a private estate in Canada.

When he met Wallis Simpson, by all accounts, he was absolutely stricken with this bossy American who found the pomp and pageantry of British royal life to be something to point and laugh at. He bought her all manner of jewelry and took her on getaways to the Alps and the Mediterranean. Eyewitnesses reported that the Prince was completely dependent on her and that he would do basically anything she asked. Some of his staffers even complained that the affair was getting in the way of his official duties.

The romance between the Prince and the American was seen as scandalous by the rest of the royal family and the British political elite. His parents refused to let Simpson under their roof, and the British press tried to pretend their love affair didn’t exist. However, many took comfort that at least she was just the Prince’s mistress, though he adamantly denied such talk.

Then two things happened that changed everything. On January 20, 1936, George V died. Prince Edward was now King-Emperor Edward VIII, ruler of the largest empire in history. Then, in October, Wallis Simpson filed for divorce from her husband. It was around this time that the new king did the unthinkable: he declared he intended to marry Simpson and make her his queen.

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The reigning British monarch is also the head of the Church of England, a church that refused to allow divorce and remarriage. Simpson was about to be twice-divorced, and for her to marry Edward would be to violate one of the tenets of the Anglican faith. This was on top of the various other reasons many in the British elite opposed the match: Simpson was an American commoner, and royals traditionally had to marry a fellow royal or at least someone with noble blood; plus, Simpson was rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer and possibly even a spy for Germany.

Yet many in Britain actually supported their King. Among the working class and military veterans, Edward was extremely popular, and many felt it was wrong for the politicians to try to block a man from marrying the love of his life. Many Americans were also naturally in favor of the match; they relished the idea of an American becoming a queen.

Nevertheless, the divorces just couldn’t be hand-waved away, not even by the King himself. In November, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin forced the issue, announcing that if the King refused to give up his plans to marry Simpson, his entire government would all resign simultaneously. This threat shot straight to the core of the British constitution. The British monarch is supposed to be politically impartial and neutral, not favoring any political party over another. He or she is also supposed to never interfere in the business of elected government officials. The monarch’s role is as a ceremonial referee making sure the system functions properly, but while he or she can advise, encourage, or warn the British government, he or she may not directly intervene in political matters. Baldwin’s gambit was basically saying, “You can’t marry Mrs. Simpson without directly intervening in political matters.”

Now Edward faced a dilemma. He was being forced to choose which was more important to him: being King-Emperor of the largest empire in history, or Simpson.

He chose Simpson.

Edward VIII abdication image from the National Archives

On December 10, King Edward formally abdicated the throne. His younger brother was now King George VI, and the line of succession to the throne would thenceforth pass to George VI’s children (Which it did, in 1952, when his daughter was crowned Queen Elizabeth II). The next day, Edward left for Australia. His brother gave Edward a new title, “Duke of Windsor”, as a sort of compensation.

On June 3, 1937, Edward and Simpson finally married in a small, private wedding in France. No royals attended the wedding, as the new king forbade them from doing so. The new king did give the couple an allowance to live off of, on the condition that they could not return to the United Kingdom without an invitation. Relations between the couple and the rest of the royal family were strained for years, particularly after the Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Adolf Hitler at his private retreat in October 1937.

Yeah, I can see why that might be a source of contention.

Yeah, I can see why that might be a source of contention.

During World War II, the Duke was appointed Governor of the Bahamas, spending the war functionally in exile in the tropical islands. After the war, they lived in retirement in France, where the Duke died of cancer in 1972. The ageing Duchess ended up with dementia, living as a recluse until her own death in 1986. They had no children.

The abdication crisis, as these events came to be known, had a significant effect on the history of the British Empire’s last days. For starters, it was the first time that British dominions like Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Ireland asserted their independence, insisting that they had to each separately approve of the abdication for it to have effect under their own laws, though each of them ultimately did so. Various statements by Edward before and after his abdication indicate that he saw the Nazis as a possible ally against the threat of communism, and as it is ultimately the British monarch who declares war for the United Kingdom, it is possible he may have tried to stop the British from joining World War II against them. Plus, independence movements were already growing in India, and these events almost certainly emboldened those across the Empire that wanted to throw off the British yoke.

So, yes, history proves that love really can change the world.

The Strange Politics in the History of U.S. Presidential Elections

 

Bryan Sewall 1896 election poster from Wikimedia Commons

Election Day is nearly here, and we will finally be free from all the campaign ads flooding TV and radio stations and YouTube. Until then, however, I thought that this might be a good time to look at the presidential election from a different angle – why do we elect the president the way we do?

I mean, it seems like a very bizarre, expensive, lengthy, and frustratingly complex system, right? First candidates have to run in primary elections in state after state for months to even get nominated. Then, they hold a big convention to show off how awesome their political party is before getting into the nitty-gritty of getting votes. Yet our vote on November 8 isn’t even the actual vote – the actual vote is when the Electoral College gathers in December to translate those red-state-blue-state maps into the final tally that decides who will be our nation’s leader for the next four years. Why do we use such a system?

Well, like so many strange things in politics, it comes down to centuries of history slowly evolving a system from something that seemed simple at the time into something that seems like a tower built with duct tape.

The Early Days of the U.S. Presidency

George Washington painting by Gilbert Stuart

When the Constitutional Convention was held to decide how to structure the national government, there were plenty of arguments over who should hold the executive power. Should he be chosen by Congress? By the states? Should he serve for life or be limited to one term of office? Should it even be one person, or should it be a committee?

Eventually, of course, a decision was made. The president would be one person, who would serve a four-year, renewable term, with a vice-president ready and waiting in the wings to take charge should anything happen to the president. Most notably, it was decided that the President should be chosen by an Electoral College, made up of representatives from each state and with each state getting the same number of seats as they have in Congress. The Framers decided to leave it up to the states to decide how their electors would be chosen. Lastly, they decided that each elector would cast two votes. The candidate who received the most votes would be president, and the one who got the second-most votes would be vice-president.

The Constitution was extremely controversial when it was publicly announced. Eventually, the Constitution was passed, but only as part of a political bargain with its opponents. First, the pro-Constitution faction had to promise to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, and second, George Washington had to be the nation’s first president. Thus, the first U.S. presidential election was actually no more than a mere formality, as the decision had been made beforehand. The Electoral College did meet, but it then proceeded to unanimously pick George Washington as president. Not only that, but when Washington decided he wanted a second term in 1792, the Electoral College obliged and gave him another unanimous victory.

Then Washington did something strange. He didn’t run for a third term. Turns out, he wanted to leave an example for his successors for the republican ideal of limited power and a peaceful transition of power. So, he retired, and in 1796, the Constitution’s plans for electing the president were tested for the first time.

The Worst Election Ever

In those early days, it was the state legislatures that decided who its electors were, and they could cast their vote for anyone. Twelve people ran for office, and when the votes were tallied the most votes went to John Adams, a Federalist, and the second-most votes went to Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. Under the rules of the time, Adams became president and Jefferson became vice-president.

Um, awkward?

This was the only time in U.S. history that a president and vice-president were from opposing political parties. It got even more awkward four years later – in the 1800 election, Adams and Jefferson faced off once again. Just imagine running against your boss while still trying to work together with him to do your job. Surely, the 1800 election would be a disaster.

Well, it was, but not for the reason you would expect. See, after what happened in 1796, the Democratic-Republican electors all agreed to cast both their votes for the two Democratic-Republicans running – Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The plan worked. Too well. The Electoral College now had a tie, and under the Constitution, it was up to Congress to break it.

Except Congress was just as deadlocked. Ballot after ballot failed to get any candidate the majority required, and finally, on the 36th ballot, Alexander Hamilton convinced some of his allies in Congress to cast blank ballots and give Jefferson the win. Thomas Jefferson took office as president, and Aaron Burr spent years steaming and stewing while sitting in the Vice-President’s Office. He believed he would be president if Hamilton hadn’t intervened, and eventually challenged Hamilton to a duel. When they met for a round of pistols at ten paces, Burr shot and killed Hamilton.

After these incidents, it was clear that it was high time to fix the system for picking the president. The 12th Amendment was passed in 1804, just in time for that year’s election. From then on, the Electoral College would pick the president and vice-president on separate ballots. Though the amendment only specifies that electors can’t cast both their ballots for people from their own state, functionally preventing the president and vice-president from both being from the same state, ever since 1804 people have treated candidates for president and vice-president as “running mates” running “on the same ticket”. Having a president and vice-president who get along just seems to be a wise idea.

The People Should Have a Say…

Dewey 1948 election image from the Library of Congress

From here on out, the main trend shaping U.S. presidential elections is a trend toward making the voice of the ordinary American matter more and more.

As early as 1800, some states experimented with having ordinary voters choose their state’s electors. In the 1824 election, 18 states let voters choose the electors. Around this same time, some states began arguing that if electors are supposed to represent the voices of the voters of that state, then they should vote the way the people of the state want them to vote. This was the beginning of the “pledged elector” – an elector bound by state law to cast his ballot for the candidate his or her state’s voters picked.

Many of the very people who wrote the Constitution were absolutely appalled by the idea. No less a voice than James Madison said pledged electors went against the whole idea of having an Electoral College in the first place, namely having a collection of the wisest men in the land deciding who should hold its most powerful position. He tried to get a constitutional amendment passed forcing states to ban the practice. He failed, of course, and the “pledged elector” system proved popular.

Today, all but two states have all the electors in that state cast their ballots for the candidate who won the most votes in that state. The only two holdouts, Maine and Nebraska, divide the electoral votes among the candidates based on how the voters in their state cast their ballots. On top of pledging their electoral votes this way, 24 states have laws punishing “faithless electors” – those who have taken a pledge to vote for the candidate the state’s voters want but then actually voting for someone else. Faithless electors are a rare occurrence even where it is legal, having only happened nine times in the past century, and no faithless elector has ever managed to change the final outcome of an election.

The current system does mean the winner of the most votes of American citizens wins the election most of the time. However, that isn’t always the case. Three times in U.S. history, the winner of the Electoral College vote didn’t match the winner of the people’s vote – in 1876, 1888, and 2000. In each of these cases, of course, it was the electoral vote that mattered. This is one of the objections to the Electoral College system, that it “lets the loser win”.

In 1969, there was a proposal to amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College and have the presidency decided by a direct national vote of the people. While it breezed through the House of Representatives, and polls indicated it was a popular measure, the Senate blocked it from going forward. Since then, another reform proposal has surfaced that takes advantage of the fact that states have full power to decide how their electors are chosen. The National Popular Vote Initiative is a law already enacted by 10 states. It says that when enough states have passed the law that, collectively, they have the majority vote in the Electoral College, all electors for the states who have adopted the law will be pledged to cast their ballots for the winner of the overall popular vote nationwide.

The Primaries are Born

Of course, when voters go to the polls on Election Day, they have to pick from among the candidates on the ballots they have, unless their state allows write-in candidates. So, who gets to decide who the candidates are?

For about a century, the answer was the national conventions of the major political parties. These were gatherings of top party leaders, who would decide their party’s candidate based on who they thought would do the best job representing their party. This meant that often decisions were made based on backroom deals that benefited political machines, so reformers within the largest political parties demanded a change. Thus was born the primary election – a sort of pre-election where ordinary party members vote on who their candidate will be.

Each state sets its own rules and dates for primary elections, and this is a large part of why primaries are such a long and complicated process. The other part, of course, is the national conventions. Yes, national conventions still exist in all major political parties, but just like in the Electoral College, most of the delegates in attendance are pledged in advance based on the votes of the party members. Some states make all their delegates vote for the candidate with the most votes, some apportion their delegates so each candidate’s share of that state’s delegates matches their share of the votes of that state’s party members, and some states have crazy formulas that make no sense other than to try to somehow control the outcome. Not only that, but in the Democratic Party, so-called “superdelegates” (mostly high-ranking Democrats) are able to attend and vote without having to be pledged to anyone, a practice that has been widely criticized.

The good news for critics of the current primary system is that the states and the political parties are able to change their rules at any time, which means, unlike with the general election, a constitutional amendment isn’t needed to update the system. As we speak, the Democratic Party is changing its rules regarding superdelegates. As more people demand that the system for choosing the president should be “more fair”, and more people elect reform-minded candidates, it seems likely that the system for electing our nation’s leader at both the state and national levels will continue to evolve. Politics is strange, indeed.

Strange Politics: The Bizarre History of Sealand

The Flag of the Principality of Sealand

The Flag of the Principality of Sealand

Let’s talk for a moment about micronations.

As this video explains, defining what is and is not a country is much more difficult than it appears at first. While everyone agrees that the United States, Russia, Japan, Brazil, and South Africa are countries, there are plenty of “countries” that are not recognized as such by many. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, for example, looks like a country when you fly there – they have a functioning government, a clear border, a military, and even a national soccer team – but the only country that recognizes its independence is Turkey. The rest of the world considers it a part of the country of Cyprus that has been invaded and occupied by Turkish troops.

Micronations take this one step further. They are “countries” that lay claim to sovereign territory but are not recognized as countries by anyone, anywhere. In large part, this is because these “countries” are things like the Republic of Molossia, founded by some guy in Nevada who declared his 1.3 acre property to be its own independent nation so he could wear a funny uniform.

This guy actually claims to be waging a decades-long war with East Germany, to give you an idea of what kind of man he is.

This guy actually claims to be waging a decades-long war with East Germany, to give you an idea of what kind of man he is.

Then there’s the Conch Republic, a “country” that was formed in 1982 when Key West, Florida “seceded” from the United States. As you might expect from the laid-back vacation destination, none of the Conch Republic’s “citizens” take their claims of independence seriously. The whole affair was originally set up as a protest movement against the construction of a Border Patrol roadblock on the only highway connecting the island to the mainland. Today, the continued existence of the “Republic” is mainly an amusing tourist attraction. Its motto? “We Seceded Where Others Failed.”

Yet among the many such micronations around the world, there is only one that might actually have genuine claims to be an actual country. Let me introduce you to the Principality of Sealand.

This place.

This place.

Our story begins in World War II. To defend British waters from German attack, the Royal Navy and British Army built a collection of offshore defensive towers and forts. These were designed by British engineer Guy Maunsell, and so they were called “Maunsell Forts”. They acted as a deterrent against amphibious German landings on Britain’s shores and German naval attacks on British shipping. Of course, when the war ended, the need for these towers disappeared, and over the next several years they were abandoned, one by one.

They would not stay abandoned for long. To understand why, we need to talk about, of all things, British radio broadcasting.

Unlike in the United States, where radio stations have almost always been private, commercial endeavors from the very beginning, radio in the UK and most other European countries was completely controlled by the government for decades. The BBC had a legal monopoly on all radio broadcasting until 1972. This was a problem for many young British music listeners. The BBC saw itself as a public service, first and foremost, and therefore didn’t broadcast very much pop or rock music in the 1950s and 1960s. To satisfy this demand, illegal pirate radio stations were set up on many of these abandoned offshore towers that would play the latest hits.

It wasn’t long before the British authorities began cracking down on these illegal broadcasts. However, one of these radio broadcasters, a WWII veteran named Paddy Roy Bates, found himself in a major stroke of luck. After several run-ins with the law for his pirate broadcasts, he holed up on a Maunsell Fort called HM Fort Roughs off the coast of Suffolk. This particular tower was actually just outside British territorial waters, meaning the platform was not under the UK’s jurisdiction. On September 2, 1967, Bates declared the creation of the Principality of Sealand, claiming the abandoned tower to be a sovereign nation with himself as its monarch.

Bates, however, would have to defend his prized new turf, as other envious pirate broadcasters tried to kick him out and claim the tower for themselves. At one point, the Royal Navy decided they had better step in. For their troubles, they were fired upon by Michael Bates, Paddy Roy Bates’s son. Both Bates men were arrested over this incident, but were acquitted on the logic that the British court had no jurisdiction over actions taking place outside British territorial waters.

Soon, Sealand had a flag, anthem, constitution, coins, passports, and stamps – all the trappings of a true country. Meanwhile, the British demolished all of the nearby Maunsell Forts to keep anyone from deciding to copy Bates’s example. For the better part of a decade, Sealand continued its existence as a minor oddity in the North Sea. Then, it very suddenly faced something that many true countries face – war.

In 1978, a group of German and Dutch men with guns led by Alexander Achenbach invaded the tiny country with speedboats, jet-skis, and helicopters, capturing Michael Bates and holding him prisoner for three days before exiling him to the Netherlands. Achenbach proclaimed himself “Prime Minister of Sealand” and intended to build a casino on the platform. The Bates family hired a helicopter and launched a counterattack to retake their country. Using secret caches of weapons they had stashed on the platform, they gained the upper hand and forced the enemy to surrender. Achenbach and his followers were tried for treason and imprisoned.

The governments of Germany and the Netherlands asked the British to intervene and save their citizens who, in their minds, were being held prisoner in an abandoned tower by a crazy British guy. However, the British cited the earlier court ruling that had acquitted Paddy Roy and Michael Bates a decade earlier and said this was not their jurisdiction. In response, Germany sent a hostage negotiator who was able to secure the release of Achenbach and his followers.

Did this mean that Germany had technically recognized the sovereignty of Sealand as a nation? The Bates family certainly thought so, and ever since they have loudly proclaimed that they are no mere micronation, but a legitimate country.

So how does the world’s smallest “country” support itself economically? Here’s a better question: Have you ever wanted to be a Knight, Lord, Lady, Baron, Baroness, Count, or Countess? Thanks to the Principality of Sealand, you can have a noble title of your own for as little as £29.99! You can also buy property on Sealand, a Sealand citizenship ID card, a personalized Sealand coat of arms, a Sealand flag, a copy of the Sealand constitution, the official jersey of the Sealand national soccer team, Sealand postage stamps, Sealand coins, and Michael Bates’s autobiography. Just visit Sealand’s official website, where you can find all of these things and more!

Of course, that’s if you accept the current regime on Sealand as legitimate. Remember Achenbach and his followers? After they were freed, they declared themselves a “government-in-exile” and claimed to be the legitimate rulers of the principality. They have a website of their own, where they proclaim their motto, “Facts are the Enemies of the Truth”. Yes, really.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, the bizarre history of the world’s smallest nation.

Hmm… I wonder if there are any places off the California coast just outside U.S. territorial waters?

 

Strange Politics: How the European Union Works

Flag of Europe

While we in the United States are already in the thick of our presidential election year, the European Union is about to be rocked by one of the biggest and most historic votes in its history thus far. Yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on June 23rd on whether to remain a member of the EU or to leave. While Cameron himself wants Great Britain to stay in the Union, he has faced mounting public pressure to call for a vote, especially in light of both the euro crisis and now the Syrian refugee crisis. Anti-EU politicians have gained in recent British elections, arguing that Europe has too much control over their country. However, pro-EU voices argue that a Britain outside the EU would be weaker on the world stage going it alone instead of being part of a strong group, and would suffer economically as it is cut off from the EU’s free trade market.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the European Union is a very unusual political entity that has no real modern-day equivalent. Legally, it is an international organization whose members are sovereign nations that maintain their own militaries, embassies, seats at the United Nations, and Olympic teams. Nations voluntarily sign up for membership; even now, six countries are trying to join: Albania, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey. And unlike the United States, where we fought a civil war to make sure our states can’t leave our union, the EU explicitly allows its members to leave if they want to. If the British vote to leave the EU, they won’t be the first country to do so; Greenland left in 1985 after a similar vote.

However, in many ways the European Union functions like a national government, able to pass EU-wide laws that are legally enforceable in each member country and override any national laws that contradict them. All citizens of EU member countries are also citizens of the European Union. The EU has its own currency, the euro, though not all EU members use it (the British do not). Within the EU, people, goods and services are, in theory, able to travel across national borders without restrictions in the same way we Americans can travel across our state borders, and the Union is supposed to have a single, common customs and immigration policy. However, as we will soon see, the reality is a bit more complicated than that.

The European Union’s, um, “government”

Place du Luxembourg image by JLogan

The European Parliament building, the Espace Leopold, in Brussels, Belgium

The European Union evolved over time from a collection of economic pacts and international agreements, starting in the years after World War II and revised and amended many, many times since. It wasn’t even called “The European Union” until 1993; it had been referred to as the “European Communities” prior to that date. In 2004, there was a proposal to give the EU a formal constitution, but while 18 countries ratified the document, French and Dutch voters rejected it because they didn’t want to lose their independence to a “United States of Europe”. Thus, the plan was scrapped, but a few years later, Europe’s leaders agreed to the Treaty of Lisbon, which adopted many of the provisions of the rejected constitution while still theoretically preserving national sovereignty.

The Treaty of Lisbon basically took all of those decades of treaties and agreements and rewrote and consolidated them into something that could be published in a single book, comprised of two main treaties (the “Treaty on European Union” and “Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”), a Charter of Fundamental Rights, and an extensive collection of extra protocols and declarations. These protocols and declarations primarily act as footnotes to the main treaties that grant individual members special exceptions to the EU rules to take into account unique and unusual situations specific to each member (like the Greek mountain reserved for the exclusive use of Greek Orthodox monks) and/or bribe them into agreeing to the treaty (like the clauses that let the UK and Denmark keep their own currencies instead of forcing them to use the euro).

The current text of the treaties sets up a federal system where the EU has exclusive power over certain types of issues and shares power with member nations’ governments in other areas, with the implication that anything not specifically listed is to be reserved for the national governments alone to handle. It also sets up a whole mess of political bodies to exercise the EU’s powers.

First, there’s the European Council, made up of the various national leaders of each member and meeting at least four times a year. It’s the European Council’s job to decide on what the EU’s policies should be. Often, it meets in a time of crisis to determine by consensus how they should respond to the crisis. It also picks a president, currently Donald Tusk, who acts as symbolic leader of the EU in international relations.

At the end of the day, though, policies and strategies are nothing unless you are able to enforce them. That’s where the European Commission comes in. The Commission’s 28 members are in charge of the EU’s administrative bureaucracy, putting policy into practice. The Commission has a president of its own, currently Jean-Claude Juncker, who functions in many ways like a prime minister, handling the powers of the executive branch of government.

One of the more interesting members of the European Commission is the… (deep breath)… High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Whew! That’s a mouthful. In any case, the High Representative (currently Federica Mogherini) is kind of like a Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense all rolled into one, responsible for all matters relating to the EU’s relationship with the outside world. She controls the European External Action Service, a diplomatic agency that represents the EU abroad, the European Defense Agency, an organization that tries to foster closer military cooperation between the EU’s members, and the EU Military Staff, an organization that commands and controls military operations undertaken by the EU.

Of course, her powers are undercut by the fact that each EU member has its own diplomatic service and its own military. In theory, EU members are supposed to always cooperate with each other in international affairs, but in practice the ongoing tensions between Russia and the west have exposed the fact that this isn’t always the case, with accusations in the news that Vladimir Putin is exploiting disunity within the EU to get a political advantage.

Still, the EU does actually have a military of its own, sort of – various members have volunteered units of their own armed forces into service for the Union, such as the ten-nation (appropriately named) Eurocorps. However, most EU members are also members of NATO, the United States-led international military alliance, and so most international military operations undertaken by the EU’s members are actually NATO missions, not EU missions.

What about those EU laws I was talking about earlier, though? Well, those laws are passed by the EU’s two legislative bodies: the Council and the European Parliament.

For starters, yes, there is a European Council and a Council of the European Union, and they are two completely different bodies. If that isn’t confusing enough, it turns out the Council isn’t even really one body, but 10 different ones with different configurations. Why? It’s because the Council is made up of government ministers from each member, with the specific ministers in attendance based on the matter being discussed. Are they talking about an environmental pollution bill? Then it’s the ministers responsible for environmental matters from each member that have gathered to discuss the bill.

Even the way the Council votes is confusing. You would think that if a simple majority of the ministers in attendance voted for that environmental pollution bill I was talking about, the bill would pass. Nope! The Council makes decisions based on “Qualified Majority Voting”, meaning that a bill has to be passed with the votes of 55% of the ministers whose national populations total at least 65% of the entire population of the EU. Not only that, but there are a handful of matters that require the Council’s unanimous consent, meaning in those cases any one country could block the whole thing if they want.

The European Parliament is far less confusing in how it functions, but it is also the body that most blurs the lines for whether the EU is an international organization or a federal government. The European Parliament is exactly what it sounds like, a parliament elected by the citizens of the EU to meet and pass laws. The Parliament has power over the EU’s budget and most laws have to be passed by both the Parliament and the Council to take effect. The Parliament has to approve the members of the European Commission for them to take office, and it technically has the power (though this has not yet been used) to kick out the Commission with a 2/3 majority vote.

In addition to the President of the European Council and President of the European Commission, there is a President of the European Parliament (currently Martic Schultz), who basically acts as chairperson of its meetings. Usually the European Parliament meets at the Espace Leopold in Brussels, Belgium (pictured above), since most of the other EU agencies and institutions meet in Brussels and it’s convenient to have everything in one place. However, the Parliament’s official headquarters, as outlined in the treaties, is Strasbourg, France, and it is legally bound to meet there for part of the year. This has created an expensive headache for its delegates, who have to pack up their offices and move twice a year, a situation that has been described as a “travelling circus”.

Lastly, the judicial branch. The Court of Justice of the European Union is responsible for making sure that EU law is applied uniformly throughout the Union. This gives the court immense power, as it effectively allows the court to overrule the decisions of national courts. In 1964, the court ruled that EU law trumped the national laws of its members, and since then this and later rulings have been interpreted to mean that EU law trumps ALL national laws, including the constitutions of EU members. As one can imagine, many EU members have not been so thrilled with this interpretation. This may be a part of why some British voters may be considering leaving the EU.

The EU’s fuzzy (and not-so-fuzzy) borders

What a border crossing within the EU normally looks like

What a border crossing within the EU normally looks like

Earlier, I mentioned that within the EU there are no border controls, permitting free movement between EU members. That was a half-lie. Technically, the open-border-zone is something a bit different: the Schengen Area. Named for the tiny town where the agreement to open all borders was made, the Schengen Area includes most, but not all, EU members. New members that had joined the EU just recently usually take a few years to apply the agreement to their own borders, as the agreement not only deals with removing barriers between its members but also building up stronger border controls with non-members, participating in police programs that help monitor and catch criminals that try to flee justice from country to country, and protecting their citizens’ private data.

Two EU members – Ireland and (surprise, surprise) the United Kingdom – have an agreement with the EU that lets them stay out of the Schengen Area and continue controlling their borders the old-fashioned way. Meanwhile, seven non-EU members – Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway, San Marino, Switzerland, and the Vatican – have the exact reverse. They have agreed to participate in the Schengen Area even though they aren’t part of the European Union at all.

This points to the other oddity when it comes to European Union membership. Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway have all agreed to participate in the “European Economic Area”, a free trade zone with the EU that has the odd side-effect that most (but not all) EU law applies in the three EEA countries even though they had no say in passing those laws.

Yet another oddity comes from the leftover remnants of the days when European powers tried to conquer and colonize as much of the world as they could. While most former colonies have long since won their independence, a few island territories in places like the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific have chosen to retain their political ties to the mother country. This creates complications when that mother country joins the EU.

France, Spain, and Portugal each maintain far-off territories that are legally part of those countries, in the same way Hawaii is part of the United States. This means these “Outermost Regions” are part of the European Union, and for the most art EU law applies to them as it would on the mainland, but there are sometimes special exceptions allowed to take into account their remoteness from Europe. Perhaps the most famous Outermost Region is French Guiana, on the South American mainland between Brazil and Suriname, which is French soil in spite of its location. It is here that the European Space Agency has built its main launch facility.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France each maintain a handful of colonies that are not legally part of the mother country. These “Overseas Countries and Territories” are, thus, NOT a part of the EU, though they do have a special relationship with it, such as being able to ask for money from the EU to finance their governments.

So, a bit more complicated than it looked on the surface, but at least the picture of the EU’s borders are a bit more clear. The Schengen countries, both EU and non-EU, share a common external border while opening up the borders between each other. The EU’s laws decide immigration and customs policy for its members. Yet the Syrian refugee crisis has shown this to not be nearly so simple, after all.

In the wake of the crisis and the recent Paris terrorist attacks, many countries have started reinstating border controls, building fences and checkpoints to stop people from entering without a passport and a good reason. The Schengen agreement allows countries to do this in emergencies, though critics of these policies argue that these border checks are destroying the very spirit of the EU.

Indeed, the whole “common immigration policy” has fallen apart in the wake of the crisis. Austria unilaterally capped the number of asylum seekers they would accept, in direct violation of EU law. Meanwhile, economically-strapped Greece has been blamed by EU leaders for not keeping its borders with the outside world more tightly controlled, and has been given a three-month deadline to step up border enforcement. In the face of the crisis, it’s become clear that each country is trying to handle the problem in its own way instead of establishing a common, coordinated plan as the treaties intended. Whether Europe’s leaders will be able to pull together and deal with the problems together is yet to be seen.

The past few years have been very hard on the European Union. Between the euro crisis, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the rise of anti-EU political parties, it seems the organization’s future is uncertain. Yet, perhaps the funny not-quite-government with bizarre institutions that have confusing names might be able to make it through. Perhaps. Politics is strange, indeed.