Wizard politics

Yet more rumination on Harry Potter. I’m on shakier ground here than I was with wizard technology or pop culture, as I’m not a lawyer or any other kind of expert on law and government. Furthermore, I am an American; most of what I know about British politics comes from Radio 4 topical comedy, supplemented by Wikipedia. So this post is going to be mostly speculation, with more questions than answers.

Potterverse wizards have a very strange relationship to the British government. Most of the wizard characters in the books (with obvious exceptions like Madame Maxime, Professor Karkaroff, etc.) are British nationals who live and work on British soil, but they don’t seem to concern themselves with the Muggle government. I would be shocked to learn that any of them have ever voted in a parliamentary election. The PM, when his name comes up, is referred to as the “Muggle Prime Minister.” It’s not even clear if they regard themselves as subjects of the Queen. The government body they do acknowledge is the Ministry of Magic–but the title “Minister of Magic” suggests that it’s a Cabinet post, which implies a much closer relationship with the Muggle government than is ever demonstrated in the text.

Most of the knowledge we have of the relationship between wizards and the mundane British government comes from chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister.” In this chapter, the Prime Minister (who’s never named, but the commonly accepted chronology of the series puts it in John Major’s term of office) is visited by now-former Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, and there are flashbacks to the PM’s previous meetings with Fudge over the past few years. On the evidence of this chapter, my instinct is to say that the Minister of Magic isn’t a member of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister certainly did not appoint either Fudge or his successor, Scrimgeour, nor has either of them been attending regular Cabinet meetings. In fact, the Prime Minister is only informed of the Ministry’s doings in the event of an emergency, and regards annual visits from Fudge as alarmingly frequent. Any authority he might have over the Ministry is entirely theoretical. At most, the chapter proves that someone in the Ministry of Magic is paying enough attention to Muggle affairs to notice when a new Prime Minister is elected, but this doesn’t seem to have any particular effect on the running of the Ministry.

It seems, in fact, as though the Ministry of Magic isn’t so much a government department as an independent government in itself. Wizards have their own judiciary (the Wizengamot). They have their own laws and law enforcement bodies. They mint their own money–which suggests that if wizards pay taxes, they’re paying them to the Ministry. Given that each successive Prime Minister has been let in on the secret of the wizarding world, I have to wonder if the title “Minister of Magic” was chosen to appease PMs who might otherwise kick up a fuss about wizards being essentially exempt from their jurisdiction.

But wizards being exempt from British law is still a problem, particularly when wizards cast spells on Muggles. Stunning Spells, which are perfectly legal under the Ministry, would probably qualify as assault under Muggle law. Nor do I think the British legal system would look kindly on Memory Charms, though I don’t know enough about the law to say exactly what kind of crime they would be. And Memory Charms are a particularly notable example, because Ministry-sanctioned operatives perform them on Muggles all the time to preserve the secrecy of the magical world. It’s bad enough when they’re merely invading someone’s mind to make them forget they saw a dragon fly by, but in some cases this actually serves to cover up crimes by wizards. For instance, after Harry accidentally inflates Aunt Marge, the Ministry “modifies her memory” to make her forget the incident. Granted, Harry’s attack was unintentional and severely provoked, but making a person forget that she was attacked at all just compounds the crime. And whenever a British Muggle is attacked by a wizard on British soil, the Ministry immediately steps in to do this sort of cover-up–never mind that the Muggle government has a claim of jurisdiction and would probably take a much more severe view of the crime. If the Muggle authorities did manage to arrest and try a wizard for Obliviating a Muggle, would acting on the orders of the Ministry be an effective defense? (Contrast Rivers of London, where the Folly is within the Met’s chain of command and answers to the Commissioner and the Department of Professional Standards–i.e., to Muggles. Part of their function is to prevent breaches of the peace by the magical community.)

And that’s just criminal law. What about government recordkeeping? Many wizard children are born into Muggle families and have no knowledge of the magical community up to the age of eleven. These children have a paper trail: birth certificates, school enrollment, medical records, etc. Heck, even once they’ve started at Hogwarts, I bet their parents continue to claim them as dependents on their tax forms. But as adults? They enter the wizarding world so completely that they disappear from the records. They never get drivers’ licenses, use credit cards, pay taxes (at least to the Muggle government), own a car, register to vote, buy insurance, pay the television license fee… does no one ever notice that all these people’s paper trails have dead-ended? No wonder Muggleborn wizards all seem to leave the Muggle world behind; even if they change their minds later, they don’t have any ID or a credit history!


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11 responses to “Wizard politics

  1. Pingback: Naomi Hinchen on Wizard Politics | Law and the Multiverse

  2. amiablebowfin

    Really good post! I don’t suppose you’d be willing to have it included in the next issue of TwilightZine?

    Also, your point about just how disconnected the Muggle and Wizard worlds are may solve a different problem about Muggle-Wizzard relations: why currency arbitrage isn’t a big deal. There’s some in-universe evidence that the exchange rate between pounds and galleons doesn’t make sense: galleons are worth much less than they should be given the amount of gold that seems to be in them. Why wouldn’t some enterprising Wizard melt some galleons down, sell the gold to Muggles, and have Gringots change the pounds they’d get in return back into galleons at the standard exchange rate, making a large profit?

    Well, given the lack of connection between the two worlds, there are probably major liquidity limitations to the currency market. We know that Gringots will change pounds to galleons—Hermione’s parents have them do so so they can buy her school supplies—but what does Gringots do with the pounds they get from these exchanges? One possibility, I suppose, is that the Ministry uses them to pay Muggle taxes on behalf of the Wizarding community, but it seems really out of character for them to care enough about Muggle law to do so.

    My guess is that, given the small size of the Wizarding population, and the fact that even Muggle-borns pretty much break all contact with the Muggle world—I seem to recall that even Mr. Weasley can’t figure out how to use pound notes when paying for the campground at the World Cup—they have almost no use for pound notes. Given this, I suspect that the goblins impose de facto capital controls: they probably won’t exchange more than some (very small) amount of pound notes to galleons for a given person, and in fact may only do so for Muggle-born Hogwarts students. (They may in fact only be doing so because the Ministry is paying them to.) If someone showed up with enough pound notes to make a melting-galleons-for-gold arbitrage scheme to make sense, Gringots would just say “No.”.

    • HMann

      Considering the small size of the wizarding population, one would expect that there would be an enormous amount of demand for muggle products. Objects from cloth and clothing to toilet paper and all sorts of mundane objects would be easier to purchase than produce. Certainly quite a bit is produced by magic but imagine hand (or magic) crafting every object you possess. Isn’t it much easier to go to your local muggle store to pick up a few supplies?

      • In theory, sure. Diagon Alley and the shops in Hogsmeade sell a wide variety of magical products but few mundane ones–where do wizards get their groceries, since according to Hermione they can’t conjure food from nothing? But if wizards frequented Muggle shops, you would expect to see a lot more everyday Muggle objects in common use. (As I mentioned in an earlier post, it baffles me that even the Muggleborn kids don’t use ballpoint pens.) Clothing is a different matter; we know there are wizard clothing shops, and wizards wear different fashions than Muggles in any case. There are also restrictions on wizards acquiring and enchanting Muggle items lest they pass back into Muggle hands–witness the trouble Arthur Weasley got into over the flying car. As far as I know, though, there’s no reason to forbid wizards from acquiring Muggle objects and using them in an entirely nonmagical way.

        If I ever do a post about this in more detail, I’ll have to title it “Where do wizards get their toilet paper?”

  3. Wizards do need to exchange Galleons for pounds on occasion (Mr. Weasley had to get those pound notes somewhere), but you’re right that demand is probably greater in the other direction. Given that they seem to have unilateral control over the wizard banking system, I wonder if the goblins themselves are pulling some kind of currency arbitrage scam behind the scenes.

  4. Greg

    What you have to understand is that the Wizarding World is more or less in a perpetual state of sedition against the lawful governments of the world. They continually obstruct justice to cover up wizarding crimes against non-magicals, they routinely deny both wizard/witches and sentient non-human magical beings the rights afforded by national and international law, and generally hold that non-magical governments have no say in how magical society lives even within the accepted territories OF the n-m government.

    In the real world, the Wizarding World would have to be exposed and either placed under strict control or eliminated because it’s just too powerful to be allowed to roam free as it wills.

  5. Wizardly Britainia may be in some sense a Corpus separatum within the muggle UK — and more generally, the other states of the Wizarding world to the muggle world. (Alternately, muggle states might be considered client states of the wizarding ones.) These wizarding powers seem to have established themselves as separate entities (via the International Secrecy Statutes) shortly after the Treaty of Westphalia established the international law foundation for defining the modern muggle state. As such, the various coverups may be fall in the same legal/political category as actions by spy agencies (EG: the CIA) sanctioned by one government despite the opposition of the nominally sovereign power in whose territory the agency is acting — they may not like it, and they might occasionally protest when they notice and can figure out where to send the protest to, but there’s little hope in fighting a foe equipped with something indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology.

    I’ll also note that the idea of coinage arbitrage neglects that the coins to be melted are apparently made by goblins. As goblin-forged silver is highly damage resistant, the property might also apply to goblin-forged gold. This might serve to make coins resistant to shaving, clipping… or smelting for arbitrage.

  6. Um, could I point out that technically, while the Cabinet is generally appointed by the Prtiem Minister, technically they are the QUEEN’s Ministers- so, theoretically, the Ministry could simply be reporting only to the Queen, rather than the Prime Minister? ( oh, and yes, the Queen DOES receive reports from the Ministries-and reads them too ( She may be in her 80s, but she’s apparently still as sharp as a tack)) In short, the Prime Minister- and through him, his government- may simply never have been given power over the MoM

    It’s also worth noting that a) Wizarding Britain is TINY compared to Muggle Britain- optimistically, there might be 10,000 wizards in the entire country if Hogwarts is the only school (and since the requirements for Hogwarts are “can do magic” it may well be) and b) they are experts at hiding themselves- they’ve had centuries to refine their procedures. oh, and c) they have the ability to teleport. That means that any attempt by the Muggle world to deal with Wizards would probably devolve into a particularly annoying insurgency ( yes, guns would be quite effective Assuming you got a shot off before the Wizard Disappasated, and actually HIT said wizard in a fatal spot. Quite simply, it’s entirely possible the Muggle government figures that it would cost more than it’s worth to bring the Wizards to heel.

    • Grant

      Without anything from text suggesting any kind of legal loyalty to the queen, it makes more sense to assume that the UK Wizard community (and presumably most of them across the world in the Harry Potter books) exist in de facto independence with common interventions into non-Wizard issues to maintain the secrecy of magic over all else.

      As for the costs of trying to gain control over magic-using humans, it’s certainly an extremely difficult task considering that these are people capable of teleportation, memory alteration, mind control and other powers. On the other hand, with the rise of figures like Voldemort and Grindelwald and the serious inability of the proper Wizard authorities to handle the situations you have to wonder if it’s always more trouble than it’s worth.

      • Crown-Horned Snorkack

        “As for the costs of trying to gain control over magic-using humans, it’s certainly an extremely difficult task considering that these are people capable of teleportation, memory alteration, mind control and other powers. On the other hand, with the rise of figures like Voldemort and Grindelwald and the serious inability of the proper Wizard authorities to handle the situations you have to wonder if it’s always more trouble than it’s worth.”
        “That means that any attempt by the Muggle world to deal with Wizards would probably devolve into a particularly annoying insurgency ( yes, guns would be quite effective Assuming you got a shot off before the Wizard Disappasated, and actually HIT said wizard in a fatal spot. Quite simply, it’s entirely possible the Muggle government figures that it would cost more than it’s worth to bring the Wizards to heel.”

        The Muggles tried their best, back in 17th century. They lost.
        Have a look at the problems Muggles have with Real IRA – just a couple hundred adults, no superpowers, no defensible safe spots like Hogwarts, Diagon Alley et cetera.
        What´s odd is that wizards withdrew to secrecy, rather than try to win the conflict. Yes, there are only a few thousands of wizards, with annual class of 40 at Hogwarts. Well, there are only a few hundred hereditary peers. A few thousand Normans defeated the English at Hastings, and subdued the 300 000 peasant households written in Domesday Book.
        In 1990s, Muggle Prime Minister still cannot defend his office against uninvited visitors. If wizards wanted to defeat Muggles, they could easily kill, capture or put under Imperius Curse any Muggle leaders who dared to resist them.

  7. Still the magic community is not monolithic in their culture, believes and ethnic orientation. Significant part of the community is muggle-born, thus bearing values and identification with the nation-state, culture they were born in, they celebrate Christmas, they watch soccer in England. On the other hand in magic communities in other states, not of western origin, say host-cultures of Egypt, or Japan, or Latin America, they wouldn’t celebrate same holidays, they would have different culture, both muggle-born wizards and “pure” ones. So where does their loyalty lie? There is no evidence of any kind of cultural identification in magical world such as we have in the international system, they don’t have a flag, an anthem, a standing army or language. Wizards from France are certainly of French culture, they speak French, they identify themselves as French.

    This all is to mean that if there is a conflict between muggles and wizards, both communities would be extremely heterogeneous. Some wizards will fight on the side of muggles, some will fight for their family values (Malfoys) some for their host motherlands, some for their own interests. You wouldn’t expect wizard community of Egypt (since it is mentioned in the books) fighting the government of the UK. Allegiances would be separated, and even considering super-powers magic community possesses, they too would be divided. For example some wizards might work for the UK in the conflict, in order to get some personal benefits, there isn’t lack of wizards angry at the MoM and at the same time not so nazist toward muggles as Voldemort. Weasleys are quite close to muggles and don’t share chauvinistic ideas of wizard superiority. In the case of conflict this family would be neutral at the least or even fight for muggles, protecting them. Consider also non-human magical creatures whose rights are often neglected, they could change sides if offered better conditions and “freedom” in the world where muggles bring wizards to justice. The elves, trolls, centarusses… one would argue that magical creatures are strongly bound to traditional rules, but Dobbey (bless his soul) comes to enjoy freedom after all his struggle. Similarly many slaves in southern states (US) would be reminiscent of slavery times of the security and certainty of plantation life, but after all – the promise of freedom is stronger than any magic. Winning over their little hearts practically guarantees victory, since house elves are the most powerful magicians in the magical world. This would be the main objective for the muggle government. Goblins don’t seem to care much about anything except money, something world governments could provide for them. These are too disproportionately powerful actors, who have total monopoly over the wizard economy. There are enough gentlemen who share goblins’ ideals and interests on the wall street than within magic community. The hell, goblins would be the most fit creatures in the modern world.

    Neglecting the whole argument just by bringing up super-powers of wizards is superfluous, one could look at the X-men series to see how conflict between ordinary people and those with powers might unfold. Allegiances change and it doesn’t seem like wizards have homogeneous strong loyalties to their government. Take Hermiony, put her into the context of 1942, Luftwaffe is bombing her parents house, Nazi soldiers are shooting at them, would She use her powers outside Hogwarts to save her parents? Would she go fighting Hitler after that? Does Ministry change laws during the ward? It would be interesting to discuss the events of WWII during the time of Grindewald’s uprising, since there are clear parallels. Did German wizards fight English ones, for instance? Do Bulgarian wizards even have same parliamentary government structure as the Ministry of Magic or does it resemble that of post-communist countries?

    So magic communities are not independent state-conclaves like Vatican in Italy, but rather Diasporas, people that share arcane cultural, life-style bonds, who are pretty much independent, but operate within the host country, more or less resembling Indian reservations in the U.S. Who knows, may be Choctaw people do have magical powers, we don’t know they believe they do. And in the case of war, they wouldn’t be drawn to fight in for the stars and stripes, but some of them might want be willing to help, like Navajos deciphering Japanese cryptography with their super-powers granted by the peculiarities of their own language.

    With love from Kazakhstan.

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