The rationale behind the maintenance of civil, open society under the rule of law is simple and the history that led up to it equally clear. The alternative is always the same: without a nation state which has the sole right to violence as a last resort; the right to maintain a standing army and police force; the right to levy taxation; the right to defend the entire nation against hostility from other nations – there is only warlordism. Read Shakespeare’s history plays. It is sometimes said that Shakespeare is popular in Africa because the world portrayed in the histories and tragedies is one of tribal conflict. Indeed it is.
Before nation states emerged in Europe there was only this gangsterism, which the verbal gloss and deep psychological insight of Shakespeare cannot disguise. In territories run by competing warlords, there is only perpetual feuding, vendetta, protection rackets. This was Homer’s world as well as Shakespeare’s; it was the norm from the time of the first city states in Mesopotamia until the emergence of the Tudor dynasty in England. It is the default human condition form which we only recently escaped.
The rule of law within the nation state is desperately hard to achieve. The West lazily believed that once communism was over in Russia, such a state would follow automatically, but Russia, which has never had the rule of law, is as far away as ever from democracy.
But if the nation state is hard to achieve it is easier to dismantle. The present government in Britain is busy shrinking the state. Of course, it does not intend to return Britain to a hotch-potch of competing fiefdoms and private armies. Serco is merely an amorphous, unaccountable service conglomerate with a dumbly Orwellian name, not a private army in waiting. But when the government feels no qualms about privatising some prisons, security, the Royal Mail; when it kowtows and capitulates to big corporations that pay tax voluntarily rather than by law – this is a slippery slope that has only one end if it is not reversed. We should like to be able to continue to go to the theatre to see Shakespeare’s histories; we don’t want to be living in the midst of a modern version of that squalid mayhem once again.