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.