England: the mother of modern politics

I was tempted to entitle this essay “England – the mother of modern democracy” because  the political structures of any state which calls itself democratic today owe their general shape to the English example. In addition, many modern dictatorships have considered it expedient to maintain the form of representative democracy without the content.

But democracy is a slippery word and what we call by that name is very far removed from what the Greeks knew as democracy. The Greeks would probably have described our system as oligarchy – rule by the few. Many modern academics would agree, for they tend to describe representative government as elective oligarchy, a system by which the electorate is permitted to select between competing parts of the political elite every few years, but which has little other direct say in how they are governed.  It is also true that England developed her political system not on the basis of democracy but on notions of who needed to be represented and by criteria such as property qualifications.

If democracy today is a debatable concept, the very widespread modern institution of elected representative government is an objective fact. Elected representative government is an institution of the first importance, for it is a truism that the more power is shared the less abusive the holders of the power will be. Imperfect as it may often be as a reflector of the will and interests of the masses, representative government is still by far the most efficient means of controlling the naturally abusive tendencies of elites and of advancing the interests of the ordinary man or woman, by imposing limits on what those with power may do, either through legal restraints in the form of constitutional law which is superior to that of the legislature, or through fear of losing office in an election. Indeed, no system of government other  than elected representative government manages that even in principle as they all fail to place meaningful restraints on an elite.

Whether democratic or not in the Greek sense, representative government is undoubtedly the only reliable and non-violent means by which the democratic will may gain at least some purchase on the behaviour of an elite. Yet however much utility it has an organising political idea, the fact that we have representative government today is something of a fluke for if  it had  not developed in England we should probably not have it all. In the non-European world nothing of its nature ever developed before the Western model was imported and in Europe the many nascent parliaments of the later Middle Ages either never went beyond the  embryonic form of assemblies which offered advice to and petitioned monarchs or were crushed or simply ignored by autocratic rulers,  for example the Estates-General of France were not called between 1614 and 1789.  By contrast, England has  had continuous parliamentary development for the better part of eight centuries.

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 uniqueness lies in the fact that from the first it served roughly the area covered by England today  – no other mediaeval parliament corresponded to the territory of any national state existing today –  its longevity  and the nature of its development. No  other  parliament in a country of any size was meaningfully maintained by  regular  meeting through seven  or  eight  centuries, its only competitors for endurance  being the tiny Icelandic  assembly and the federal arrangements of the Swiss.  Most importantly, before  England  created  such an  institution to  act  as  a model,  no  other parliament in the world developed  into  an fully fledged executive – practising what we know today as cabinet government – as well as a legislature.

The  English  parliament  made a very gradual  progression to the  place  we know today. It  began  as an  advising and  petitioning  body in the 13th century  and  before the end of the  14th  century had come  to exercise  considerable  power  over  any taxation which was considered over and  above the king’s  normal  and  rightful  dues, such  as  the  excise. 

Gradually, this power  transmuted into what was effectively  veto  over  most taxation.  Parliament  also added the  power to propose  and pass  laws subject to their acceptance by the  monarch.  These  developments  meant  that executive  power  gradually  drained  from the King. From  this came cabinet government as the monarch was more and more forced to take  the advice of his ministers and by the end of the  18th century  the  struggle  between  Crown  and  Parliament for  supremacy had been emphatically decided.

As the  Parliament  gained  power, the  Lords gradually diminished in importance and  the Commons became by the  latter half of the 18th century, if not before, the  dominant House, although its power of obstructing Commons Bills other than money Bills lasted till 1911.   The  final  act in the play  was  a  century long extension of the  franchise culminating  in  a government dominated  by  an  assembly elected under full adult  suffrage from 1928 onwards.

By  1600 Parliament  had become important  enough  to  the governing  of  the country  for  Guy Fawkes and  his fellow plotters to think it necessary  to  blow up Parliament rather  than  simply killing the king and his  ministers. In  any  other  major  European  country of the time, the  idea of  destroying  Parliamentary  representatives  rather than  just  the  monarch and his more powerful friends would have  seemed rather odd,  either because a parliament did not exist or was  considered of little account because  European monarchs had by then  been  generally very successful in abolishing  or  curtailing  the  powers  of  mediaeval assemblies  and  preventing  their  political development.

A corrupted Parliament

Parliament,  although growing in power and ambition,  was suffering the ills of any ancient institution.  There  were accretions  of privilege and it had failed to keep pace  with the  changing  times. In 1600 it  neither  represented  the country  as  it was not  satisfied the  growing wish  of  its members,  especially the elected ones, to have a greater  say in the  management  of  England, or at least to restrict the power of the monarch considerably.   This dissatisfaction eventually escalated into the  English Civil War, an event which forced the Parliamentary side to assume  sole executive power  whilst continuing to govern through Parliament. This created the blueprint for Parliament to move from being a legislature to a legislature with an executive within it which was responsible to Parliament.  (The Civil War also gave birth to a short-lived but  powerful  proto-democratic movement  given the derogatory name of Levellers by their enemies.  Had the Levellers  succeeded – and for a couple of years they loomed large in  Parliamentary thoughts because of their wide support amongst the Roundhead Army – England might have had a Parliament far more representative than that  elected after the Great Reform Act of 1832.  But they failed and after   Cromwell’s  establishment  of  the  Protectorate,  democratic ideas  did not gain  serious political currency in  England for  more  than  a  century. )

The Restoration in 1660 did not result in serious legal  abridgements of  the  power  of the monarch, but  Charles  II  was  in practice  much  restricted  by  a  Parliament  unwilling to adequately open  the purse strings for a monarch  who,   ironically,  was expected to do more and more as the formal power of the state grew.  It was in this period that political parties in the modern sense have their beginnings, with the names of Tory and Whig emerging from their origins as derogatory epithets to become the names of the two parties who were to dominate English and from 1707 politics until the latter half of the 19th century.     

The “Glorious  Revolution” of  1689 produced a true constitutional sea-change.  From then on the English  monarch ascended  the throne only with the acceptance  of  Parliament and  the  Bill of Rights (1690) placed  restrictions  on  the monarch.  Amongst  the  long list of things  the  king  was forbidden to do were:

Dispense with and suspend of laws,  and the execution  of  laws, without consent of  parliament.

Levy money for and to the use of the crown,  by  pretence of prerogative,  for another time,  and in other  manner, than the  same was granted by parliament.

To raise and keep a standing army within England  in time of peace,  without consent of parliament,  and quartering soldiers contrary to 4.

To  violate the freedom  of election of members to  serve in parliament.

To  demand excessive  bail of  persons  committed  in criminal  cases,  “to elude the benefit of the laws  made for the  liberty of the subjects.”

To impose  excessive  fines and  illegal  and cruel  punishments.

The abuses of power by the crown listed in the Bill of Rights  are  described  as being ” utterly and directly  contrary  to  the  known  laws and statutes, and freedom  of  this  realm.”   That old reliance on the law and the traditional freedoms  of  the Englishman.

From 1689  began the century long decline of the monarchy  as an executive power.  Cabinet government  gradually emerged in the course of  the 18th century and although George III attempted to revive the executive power of the monarch, the American War of Independence  and the loss of the American colonies sealed the subordination  of  the monarchy to Parliament.

Americans  forged  a  new version  of  the  English  political  model,  with  a  formal separation  of powers and a written constitution to  restrict what governments and legislatures might do. For King, Lords and Commons, read President, Senate and   House of Representatives; for the English Bill of Rights of 1690 read the US constitution.   The novelties, compared to England, was the removal of the executive from the legislature,  the creation of constitutional law which was superior to ordinary law and a Supreme Court whose purpose was to ensure that the actions of President and Congress were compatible with the constitution.  

The received academic opinion on the  American constitutional settlement is that it was primarily the offspring of John Locke’s political philosophy. In fact, it had at least as much  affinity  with the  ideas  of the Levellers. There is no direct intellectual link,  but the most important popular propagandist on the American side, the Englishman  Tom Paine,  shared much of his ideology with  the  Levellers. The  Constitution is a balancing act between Locke  and Paine, granting  a large degree of popular  involvement  in politics,  whilst  tempering  it with  restrictions  such  as  electoral  colleges and granting through the Bill  of  Rights  (which was inspired by the English Bill of Rights of  1690) constitutional  protections  for the individual  against  the  state.

If the American  Revolution  owed its  shape  and inspiration  to England, the French Revolution was inspired by both English constitutional development and the  America revolutionary example. Most political  revolutions  resulting in  an  attempt at representative  government,  have been  touched,  consciously or not, by the legacy of the American and French revolutions. 

England through control of the British Empire, ensured that the Westminster  model of government was  transplanted  with widely differing success,  to approximately  a quarter of the   world’s population,  when the empire dissolved in the  twenty years after 1945. 

The astonishing  upshot of the English example,  the American and French Revolutions and the British Empire, is that  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.  In addition,  the widespread practice of a  written  constitution derives from the example of the  United  States,  which of course drew its form and inspiration from   English  settlements in North America, English history  and  political practices. These political structures  apply as  readily to  dictatorships as they do 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 representative government.

One last thing.  Look around the world.  How many countries can be  said  even  today to have  accepted elected representative  government  and  the rule of law as  a  banal fact of life, the norm of their society?  Britain,  the  USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand  certainly,  Switzerland and Scandinavia  possibly.  But where else?  Not France which  as  recently  as  1958 overthrew the  Fourth  Republic. Not Germany which embraced Hitler  nor Italy  the  land  of Mussollini.  Not  Spain  so  recently loosed from Franco.  As for the rest of the world, that tells a sorry tale of  elites who  generally have  such  a  lack  of respect  for the individual and a  contempt  for the masses that the  idea  of shared power  with and for the people  is simply  alien  to them.

The  fact  that the only really  stable examples  of  elected representative  government  in countries of any size  are  in  those countries  which  have their  origins  in English colonisation  strongly suggests that  it was no accident that it was in England that the institution evolved. There  must be something highly unusual about English society for it both to  develop in a manner so different from any other  country and to export this rare and valuable  difference to those  colonies which were firmly rooted in English manners and customs.

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