There is a group of people in the UK who believe that, by submitting a document to the government, they can detach themselves from society and thereby avoid all statutory responsibilities. They are predominantly male, intelligent, articulate, and for some reason seem to live in the south-west of England. They call themselves ‘sovereign citizens’ or ‘freemen on the land’, and seem to be a small offshoot from a much larger US-based movement (of which more on the excellent Quatloos! forum). I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of them: despite the number of videos on YouTube, they seem to boil down to a few relatively high-profile individuals. In this article I’ll just refer to them as ‘sovereigns’—you know, as if that actually means something—and try to explain why they really, really get my goat.
I’m not going to delve into the bizarre beliefs held by these people in this post. Suffice it to say that the most prominent British proponent of this nonsense is David Icke (yes, that David Icke). There’s a great article at RationalWiki with all the gory details, but here are some highlights. (feel free to skip this bit to avoid a brain spasm)
- Legislation can only be enforced by consent (‘Pay your tax!’ ‘But I don’t want to!’ ‘Oh, OK.’)
- The capitalisation and punctuation of your name is really, really important (this is why you’ll often see them referring to themselves as ‘Firstname: of the family Lastname’)
- Arcane uses of language make massive legal differences (e.g. ‘understand’ = ‘stand under’ = ‘accept’)
- Law courts only operate under admiralty law (or something)
- The government is a corporation that’s constantly trying to coerce people to enter into contracts with it
This is obviously all nonsense and is barely worthy of discussion: much like creationism, the arguments are so stretched, groundless and specious that they often leave me speechless in wonderment at how an intelligent person could believe such things. The RationalWiki article does a pretty good job of ploughing through this particular field of assorted detritus. Like all conspiracy nutters, sovereigns will respond to criticism with comments like ‘wake up! open your eyes! don’t live like a sheep!’ but will of course be unable to defend the indefensible, except with more reams of pseudo-legal gibberish.
Sovereigns in the US invariably combine their eccentric world view with any number of conspiracy theories. I don’t know what the opinions of their British counterparts might be, but the aforementioned Mr Icke certainly fits the pattern. It seems that sovereigns often believe stuff like
- The 11th September 2001 attacks were a government operation/inside job/never happened
- A super-secret organisation called the NWO, or possibly the Illuminati, runs the world
- President Obama was born outside the US (what’s a conspiracy lunatic without a bit of latent racism?)
- Vaccines are harmful (don’t get me started on this one…)
- Fluoride in the water is a method of government mind control
- …insert more bat-shit-insane stuff here…
Now I’m not suggesting that the more refined British sovereign is quite that mad—and I can only hope that we’ll never see this sort of thing in the UK—but they do seem to have the capacity to wind me up. ‘Why?’ you might ask, ‘isn’t it all just harmless nonsense?’ Well, not in my opinion it isn’t.
My problem with sovereigns is twofold. There’s the question of their motivation, which I’ll come to in a minute, but from a more practical standpoint there is the vastly disproportionate amount of public money and resources consumed by different parts of local and national government, who are trying to wade through reams of meaningless drivel trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. This video of a man wasting a Magistrates’ Court’s time is a good example: leaving aside the issue that making the video is illegal, the court was at a standstill while its beleaguered staff tried to work out exactly what this man wanted. In Birkenhead (yes, I know it’s not in the south-west), someone thinks he managed to arrest a judge (obviously nothing interesting happened apart from lots of shouting and an expensive police presence). A guy called Ben Lowrey (who I actually quite like, despite everything) is suing the police because he doesn’t think that UK legislation applies to him, particularly when it comes to his motorbike. When he loses his frivolous case, the police will have to count the cost of his self-styled ‘experiment’. He’s also been sued for non-payment of income tax; one can only hope that, when the judge gets fed up with his sovereign schlock, his debt will be paid. Meanwhile, time and money is wasted. Public time and public money: the kind that fills pot-holes and employs medics. The sovereigns have a temporarily illusion that their little malarkey is working while the authorities waste their time and money trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
And this brings me to the question of motivation. I do leave it as an open question, because I really don’t know whether these people are simply misguided or actually greedy. I say this because every case I’ve come across involves money. If they wanted to make their point and maybe even set a precedent, it would be far more honourable to test the waters with a case about, say, possession of cannabis. If Ben sued because the police took away his dope instead of his motorbike, it would still be a colossal waste of time but I wouldn’t be able to question his motives (and I am not for a moment suggesting that Ben dabbles in illicit substances; it was merely an example). However, the police seized Ben’s bike because he had no insurance; he’s also being sued for income tax; the guy in the Mags’ Court refuses to pay his council tax; this guy, ditto; same again here. In the US, the sovereign movement is tied up with so-called ‘tax protestors‘, who use all sorts of bizarre arguments to avoid paying what they owe. It looks a lot like the British contingent might have the same aim in mind.
A little knowledge, as the saying goes, is a dangerous thing. Sovereigns remind me of people in their late teens who, having learned a bit about the world, start to put things together in new and exciting ways. Everyone remembers coming up with fantastic ideas with which they could take over the whole world. I had a friend who came out of an A-level physics class determined to use that hour’s acquired facts to design a new kind of coffee cup that would make him the richest man alive. When sovereigns start talking about corporations and contracts and straw men, they might as well be teenage law students who have cherry-picked quotes from law textbooks to construct their own reality. Sadly, the world just isn’t that much fun. There are no aliens in Area 51, Elvis really is dead, Diana died in an accident, 9/11 was a terrorist attack, and British citizens are subject to British legislation. Sorry guys, but in the end you’ll have to pay your dues, just like everyone else.
- The Acts of the ‘Cults and the Rule of Law’ conference in 2013 make excellent reading; Stephen A Kent’s paper on ‘sovereigns’ in Britain and elsewhere starts on page 9. (the paper very flatteringly cites this blog, but sadly gets the URL slightly wrong)
- Head of Legal wrote about two particular cases; he’s far more clued up than I am, and it makes very interesting reading. He also wrote a rather fine piece for the Guardian on the subject.
- Patrick Pretty wrote a very interesting piece about a British ‘sovereign’ sending nonsensical documents to the US in an attempt to avoid extradition on gun-smuggling charges.
- Bombs, Taxes, and Red Crayons gives a good, and often scary, flavour of the lunacy going on across the pond (not updated in a few years)…
- …and this superbly written piece from the Irish Journal in the context of—surprise!—more tax protestors.
Edit 4-Sep-2013: see a summary of the best published and unpublished comments on this post.