Five years ago, when I was working full-time at the Constitution Society, we received an unusual missive in the post. A man had written to us explaining that as the UK government had failed to uphold the rights established by the Magna Carta, it had ceased to be legitimate; he had therefore helpfully drafted a new, written constitution for Britain, which he urged us to promote to the public. This constitution, printed on five sheets of A4 paper, was quite different from the usually helpful or informative contributions members of the public often seek to make to the work of the Society. It included provisions against unfair divorce courts, hate speech laws, and “white genocide”, and specified the personal safety of Tommy Robinson (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) as a fundamental constitutional principle. In other words, it was a litany of far-right, conspiratorial grievances, expressed in pseudo-constitutional language.
At the time, it was easy to write this off as an oddity. Today however, it would be much harder to do so. The past three years have seen an explosion of constitutional conspiracism, as people with a litany of perceived and real grievances against the government turn to fictious ideas about the British constitution as a means of laundering said grievances. During the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of individuals and small business owners turned to the Magna Carta, falsely claiming that “Article 61” of the 800-year-old document – the clause that at the time created a council of barons to oversee the King – gave them the right to defy lockdown restrictions. Since then, such ideas have persisted, and it is today easy to find prominent examples of conspiratorial ideas about the constitution being propounded:
- In February of this year, GB News presenter Neil Oliver invited onto his show a man named Will Keyte, who leads a group called the “New Chartist Movement”. Billed by Oliver as a “constitutional expert”, Keyte used his ten-minute appearance to argue that the true nature of the constitution had been obscured by shadowy forces, and that jury nullification disproves the sovereignty of Parliament.
- In April, conspiracist anti-vaccination newspaper “The Light” ran with “Constitutional Crisis” as the headline of its monthly issue. It argued that the King’s coronation oath, with its promise to uphold laws and customs, would force Charles to oppose the political agenda supposedly being pushed by the World Economic Forum by withdrawing Royal Assent from parliamentary legislation.
- In July, ex-footballer Rickie Lambert posted a document on Twitter entitled “I do not consent” that had already been widely shared on Facebook. Listing the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life, it claims the Principles were violated by politicians who acquiesced to pandemic lockdowns, and thus provide grounds for citizens to withdraw their consent to be governed through the normal democratic process.
Although each of these examples involve the invocation of different supposedly “constitutional” principles, they all peddle the same basic lie: that there exists a hidden set of constitutional rules whose invocation by the public can invalidate government decisions and parliamentary legislation. Further to this, they all suggest that these principles are actively being covered up by government elites who fear the challenges to their authority that would spring from any widespread constitutional enlightenment.
From where do these constitutional conspiracies originate? Certainly, the idea of an “ancient constitution” whose existence constrains lawful power is one with deep roots in British political discourse. Developed in the late medieval period, it became one of the key theories used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by opponents of royal authority. However, although contemporary constitutional conspiracism echoes some of this historic language, its primary origins are more recent and more foreign.
Specifically, today’s constitutional conspiracism in the UK primarily draws on ideas and strategies developed in the United States by groups calling themselves “Sovereign Citizens”. Since the 1970s, these groups have drawn on a long tradition of American right-wing, conspiratorial, anti-state activism to develop an idiosyncratic interpretation of the idea of “common law” (in reality, law made by judges rather than legislatures). In their view, not only are contemporary governments illegitimate, but individual citizens can legally opt out of having to obey regulations or pay taxes by citing certain documents or principles, or even just by using certain phrases. Since the early 2000s, theories of this kind have spread beyond the US via the internet, with major countries across the world now seeing their own variants. In Germany, the “Reichsbürger” movement claims that the Federal Republic is an illegitimate regime, and insists that either the 1919 Weimar constitution or the old German imperial system legally remains in force; in Russia, the “Soviet Citizens” deny that the USSR was ever legally dissolved, and seek to exempt themselves from Russian jurisdiction on that basis; in Canada, the “Freeman on the Land” movement rejects taxation by claiming that (what they describe as) English common law takes precedence over the Canadian constitution.
The defining feature of such ideologies – which experts term “pseudo-legal” – is not a particular political perspective, but the idea that there are hidden legal truths which can be used by individuals against governments. Although in Anglophone countries these supposed truths largely relate to the idea of “common law” – and also, in the UK, to the Magna Carta – the sheer variety of “pseudo-legal” movements highlight that they need not always do so. In the countries in which “pseudo-legal” ideologies are present, they have produced numerous instances of civil disobedience, along with reams of unsuccessful, nuisance litigation. In addition, they have on occasion also inspired acts of violence. In the US, the FBI considers Sovereign Citizens to be a domestic terrorist movement, while in Germany one Reichsbürger group was recently implicated in an attempted coup d’état (you may remember “Prince Heinrich”).
In the UK, “pseudo-legal” ideas about “common law” and the rights granted by the Magna Carta first became widespread following the 2008 financial crisis. Although primarily used by isolated individuals attempting to avoid taxes or private debt repayments, they were also promoted by some sections of the left-wing Occupy movement as a potential tactic of resistance against banks and other financial institutions. Since the Covid-19 pandemic however, “pseudo-law” has evolved into a “pseudo-constitutionalism”. In the context of the anti-lockdown movement, Sovereign Citizen-style activism in the UK has transmogrified from the individual level to the collective, becoming an attempted means not only of deflecting private legal obligations, but of resisting nation-wide government policy. For some groups and individuals during the pandemic, invocations of a “Common Law Constitution”, the Magna Carta, or even the Nolan Principles of Public Life became a way of arguing that lockdowns were constitutionally illegitimate, and should thus be legally defied by the population as a whole. Such ideas have since been disseminated widely at anti-lockdown demonstrations, and online via social media – in particular on YouTube, where constitutional conspiracist channels have tens of thousands of subscribers, and often hundreds of thousands of views. Despite having started as an offshoot of anti-lockdown activism, constitutional conspiracism is now increasingly deployed in support of an ever wider set of conspiracist grievances – including anti-vaccination, anti-immigration, anti-globalist, and anti-environmentalist conspiracies.
Constitutional conspiracism, like the other forms of conspiracy theorising, reflects a wider crisis of trust in society. It is a product of alienation from the state and from established sources of information, and of a corresponding turn, largely via the internet, towards alternative streams of beliefs by those dissatisfied with aspects of contemporary life. Unlike some other conspiracies however, constitutional conspiracism is rarely a standalone or self-contained position – it is unlikely to be the product of specifically constitutional grievances, and people do not adhere to it for solely constitutional reasons. Rather, it is a set of ideas adopted by people already hostile to the state for other reasons, providing them with a language through which to express and legitimise their opposition. Today in Britain, constitutional conspiracism is largely a means of arguing that the UK government has no right to impose lockdowns, promote vaccinations, restrict car usage, or pursue policies in line with the “globalist” agenda of the World Economic Forum.
However, that conspiracy-mongering often takes on this constitutional mien is not a phenomenon that we should ignore. For a start, the embrace of a specifically constitutional register has impacts for the conspiratorial beliefs themselves. As Oxford University legal researcher Francesca Uberti put it to me, pseudo-constitutionalism is necessarily also a form of pseudo-history, as its advocates need to explain how the “true” constitution came to be occluded by illegitimate systems of government. In America for instance, many Sovereign Citizens believe that the US’s original “common law” legal system was secretly replaced by a system of “admiralty law” when the dollar left the gold standard in 1933. Constitutional conspiracism can thus easily accelerate conspiratorial spirals, as anti-government attitudes mutate into beliefs about shadowy conspiracies and deceptions on a grand scale. In the UK today, GB News presenter Neil Oliver’s guest Will Keyte is a good example of this phenomenon. During his appearance on Oliver’s show, Keyte suggested that “monkey business behind the scenes” had kept constitutional truth out of the public consciousness; on other platforms, Keyte goes into more detail, alleging a vast historical conspiracy by the Rothschilds and the Bavarian Illuminati. Following his appearance on Oliver’s show, he also alleged that Oliver had been “reading a lot of things that I had written”, and had met and chatted with him privately.
These kinds of beliefs in turn risk inspiring threatening and violent acts – as they have done in other countries – as people come to believe that those involved in making and enforcing laws are doing so illegally, and that they are acting on behalf of sinister forces. In the UK today there are reports of groups training “constitutional constables” to forcibly resist the actions of police and local government employees, and when in February last year Keir Starmer was harangued by a violent mob who accused him of complicity with Jimmy Saville, one of the group’s leaders was a Youtuber who expounds constitutional conspiracist beliefs about a “Common Law Constitution” as justification for taking direct action. Even beyond violent incidents, the popularisation of constitutional conspiracism is having real-world impacts on the UK’s public services, as local government and the police find themselves confronted by refusals to cooperate on the basis of constitutional conspiracist ideas. Over 40 local authorities now have webpages explicitly devoted to refuting pseudo-legal arguments relating to council tax, while in Warwickshire alone there have been at least twenty attempts in the past year to escape punishment for driving offences on the basis of conspiratorial ideas about “Common Law”.
Constitutional conspiracism no doubt benefits from the in many ways opaque nature of the UK’s actual constitutional system. In the absence of a codified constitution, and with a key role in politics played by “unwritten” rules and conventions, it is not hard to see why the existence of a secret, hidden constitutional code is a notion with intrinsic appeal. Moreover, the recent rise of such beliefs is likely related to the tumultuous past few years of British politics, in which the constitution has come to the fore. During the drawn-out battles over Brexit, constitutional processes became central bones of political contention, while prominent elements of both the “Remain” and “Leave” camps used rhetoric that attacked or denied the legitimacy of Parliament. More recently, Boris Johnson’s fall from office and investigation by the House of Commons Privileges Committee highlighted both the reality of abuses of power by those at the top of government, and the potential power of constitutional norms in challenging them, while also leading some of his supporters to allege an anti-democratic coup. That extreme, conspiratorial versions of such constitutional discussions are now flourishing on the fringes should be a matter of concern to everyone who participates in constitutional debate. Constitutional conspiracism is a growing menace to democracy, and a new challenge for constitutional educators.
Crucially, despite their claim to champion the rights of ordinary people against an illegitimate elite, the vision of the world reflected in the ideas of the constitutional conspiracists is fundamentally anti-democratic: the “constitution” in their view is not one defined by an egalitarian process of decision making, but rather by the power of the individual to defy any collective choices. To oppose such ideas, constitutional educators need not only to call out their falsity, but also to promote an understanding of UK constitutional principles that emphasises its specifically democratic characteristics. The constitution is not a set of trump cards to be used against those in power, but a mean of allowing us all to participate in public life. Our constitutional system exists not only to protect our rights, but also to enable us to make shared decisions through a process of inclusive, democratic politics.
David Klemperer is a PhD candidate in History at Queen Mary University of London, and a former Research Fellow at the Constitution Society.
The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.