The first genius of the Anglo-Saxon is political. Above all peoples they have best learned to live without communal violence. Look around the world. How many peoples can be said to have ever accepted elected representative government and the rule of law as a banal fact of life? Britain, the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand certainly, Switzerland and Scandanavia possibly. But where else? Not France which as recently as 1958 overthrew the Fourth Republic. Not Germany which embraced Hitler or Italy Mussollini. Nor Spain so recently loosed from Franco. As for the rest of the world, a man has but to look about him to see how little respect there is for the individual, how foreign the idea of shared power how alien the practical concern by leaders for the masses.
In the general context of Mankind, England has been incredibility successful in solving the central problem of human life, how to live together peaceably. A Canadian academic, Elliott Leyton, has made a study of English murder through the centuries 1. He finds that, taken in the context of her size and industrial development, the rate of English, (as opposed to British murder) is phenomenally low, both now and for centuries past. This strikes Elliott as so singular that he said in a recent interview 2 “The English have an antipathy to murder which borders on eccentricity; it is one of the great cultural oddities of the modern age.”
The political success the English is simply astonishing. No English government has been altered by unconstitutional means since 1688. No thoroughgoing Englishman has killed another Englishman for domestic political reasons since the assassination of Spencer Percival in 1811. (Some English born and raised descendents of Irish Immigrants have killed in the Fenian cause, but they can neither be considered thorough going Englishmen – they consider themselves anything but – nor is their cause a matter of domestic English politics).
The root of this political success lies in the general tenor of English society, but the start of long climb towards representative government and the neutering of monarchy may reasonably be set in the reign of John. In 1215 he was forced by his nobles to sign a charter which granted rights to the free men of the kingdom. This charter, which became known as Magna Carta, was of immense significance. It formally restricted the power of the king. The Pope of the day thought it such an abomination he granted John absolution for its repudiation. Perhaps for the first time since the classical world, a king had been forced to acknowledge unequivocally that there were legal limits to his power.
Like the American Constitution, Magna Carta is an immensely sensible document because it deals with practical matters without hypocrisy. Its two most famous clauses show its importance in the development of the democratic state:
Clause 39 No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled or deprived of his standing in any other way , nor will we proceed with force against him or send others to do so, except by judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
Clause 40 To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice. Magna Carta is not as is commonly said the first formal restriction on the powers of a monarch. The coronation oaths of mediaeval kings regularly contained promises to observe the laws and customary freedoms of England. There was even a previous occasion when Aethelred was forced to agree to formal restrictions on his powers in 1014. But Magna Carta unlike coronation oaths was specific enough to form the basis of law and this time England did not fall as she did in 1014 under foreign rule. It quickly became part of the statute books which developed in the thirteenth century. More importantly it acquired a mythological quality which lasts to this day. Every important English rebellion since 1215 has cited Magna Carta in its defence. The Levellers in the 1640s made it their bible. It was a benchmark which allowed the powers of the king to be progressively whittled away. Never again could an English king claim that such restrictions on the prerogative were unprecedented or unnatural.
Perhaps for the future political development of English politics, the most intriguing clause of Magna Carta was the one which gave a committee of 25 Barons practical power over the king. This committee never actually formed, but the clause has great interest. Once such a council of nobles to restrict the behaviour of the king is accepted as reasonable, it is not such a great leap to the idea of a larger assembly which might do the same. That idea was realised within the century in a Parliament whose members were drawn from throughout the kingdom.
The distinction of the English parliament is not that it is the oldest such assembly in the world (although it is one of the oldest), nor that it was unusual at its inception for parliaments were widespread in mediaeval Europe. The English parliament’s distinction lies in its truly national nature, its longevity and the nature of its development. No other national parliament was meaningfully maintained, that is met regularly, through seven or eight centuries. The English parliament made a gradual organic progression through five stages. It began as a revenue sanctioning, advising and petitioning body. It then added the power to propose and pass laws. This was followed by a sharing of executive power with the King. This arrangement evolved into a complete draining of power from the King and a gradual emasculation of the aristocracy. The final act was a government dominated by an assembly elected under full adult
England’s political development has had an amazing effect throughout the world. The political structures of most modern states are broadly based on the English constitution of King, Lords and Commons, the overwhelming majority having a head of state plus two assemblies. That applies as readily to dictatorships as it does to liberal democracies. Of course, the balance of power between the head of state and the assemblies varies widely and there is much difference between Parliamentary and Presidential government, but they all have their ultimate origin in the example of the English system of government.
The American and French Revolutions both owe their shape and inspiration to England. Most political revolutions since, certainly those in Europe, have been touched by their example.