Such appeared to be the call from the people of England (as opposed to “Britain”) a few weeks ago. Now that the dust is at least partly settling it is a good time to look at things in a historical context.
First of all, did the English people really make that decision? Britain is, they say, a parliamentary democracy. But here we are reminded of the words of the French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in the mid 1700’s -” democracy is dictatorship by the majority”. OK if, as some would have us believe, the majority is always right. But is it?
What do we mean by the majority? That is a very valid question in this case. The “majority” was small. We are told that the younger generation who would have supported maintaining the European connection didn’t for the most part turn out to vote! So where does that leave us? Again, something that surprises me is that it went on a 50/50 system. I would have thought that such plebiscites usually went on a two-thirds majority to prevent the sort of situation mentioned above.
Historically how does the vote measure up? Britain is an island, and islands historically claim the right to go it alone, manage their own affairs, pull up the drawbridge on foreign interference. Perhaps the larger half of Britain represented by England has a long and deep-rooted desire for independence and a suspicion of foreigners. I am minded of a poem by the Roman poet Horace almost 2000 years ago where he prays that heaven will protect the Emperor Augustus on his visit to the “Stranger-hating Britons”. Such long-standing traditions must be hard to break – and let us stop blaming the Anglo-Saxons who didn’t appear until much later!
Scotland, a virtual “peninsula” of England, has historically much stronger ties with the Continent, going back over centuries. Ireland also, an isolated island, likewise has long-standing European connections. It is possible that both Scotland and Ireland have regarded certain European countries as potential allies against their larger neighbor. England on the other hand has over the centuries cause to regard European countries, particularly from the south and east, as enemies (EG Scandinavia, Holland, France, Spain).
To look at a specific example of this we have only to consider the case of Henry VIII. Henry, in common with other European monarchs, had cause to resent an international system where hostile alliances could be made against them through link between the Pope of the day and other states. Far too much has been made of “religion” in looking at
Henry’s break with Rome. What we see here is an international situation where England’s independence and right to manage its own affairs was under threat.
An island nation has the advantage, given a strong navy, of being able to follow its own destiny without the constant apprehension of attack from a land-neighbor. Ithas the disadvantage of losing cultural and other contact with the rest of the world. When exposed to outside influences suspicion can set in and a phobia may even develop.
The Romans went through this phase as their Empire developed. Juvenal and other writers condemned the decline in traditional Roman standards brought in by Greeks and other races from the east. Sounds familiar?
A factor which may have played some part in the vote would be the growing “Middle Eastern” presence. Probably the last time this happened was around 5000 BC when the first farmers arrived among the hunter-gatherer inhabitants of Britain , coming also from “Middle Eastern” countries. Emigration and resulting tensions never stop, do they? Did they have a brexit vote then? Can’t take the word brexit seriously – still sounds like a new breakfast cereal!
THOUGHTS INSPIRED BY A BANK FAÇADE
Looking at that photograph of a bank in New Zealand with its Corinthian columns made me think of what Rome was all about.
The fact that the Romans derived that architectural style from Greece and modified it to suit their own concepts is an indication of how ideas flow from one area and period to another. The fact that a couple of thousand years later on another Empire carried the concept some 12,000 miles to its most distant colony gives pause for thought.
It is significant that the building is a bank. In Victorian and Edwardian times banking and finance had a higher and more respected profile than, sadly, they do today. Whether it is the Bank of England in London’s Threadneedle Street or the Bank of New Zealand in Dannevirke, Rome became the obvious model for architectural design. It represented stability, power, achievement, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Business and commerce produced great architectural monuments in those periods. We only have to look at the commercial centres (those parts which still survive from that era) in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Melbourne, and Shanghai, to name but a few.
Is this analogy fair to Rome? Perhaps those elements of classical style in commercial architecture have been hijacked from Rome. Rome had vast sources of wealth, not just in land, but in trade, commerce, and manufacture. And yet the greatest examples of Roman architectural achievement are to be seen today not in commercial establishments but in temples, public baths, buildings where political and legal business were transected, and structures to house mass entertainment. In the Roman system business and commerce were consistently kept “under the carpet”. Land gave status in society and political influence. Business created wealth, but the Equites, the class to which the commercial element belonged, no matter how wealthy they became, could rarely rise to the senatorial class in society and government.
How does this compare with the Victorian attitudes to wealth not derived from land? There are signs that the old barriers were breaking down. The nouveaux-riches might be ridiculed over the upper-class dinner table — but by virtue of their marriage to daughters of the less well-to-do leaders in society, and their capacity to make loans and donations to individuals and political groups, many succeeded in entering “high society”. Dickens makes much of this aspect of life in his works.
How strong is the influence of the traditional “landed gentry” in today’s world, would be hard to answer. Public schools in Britain still influence the ranks of Parliament and the civil service, but such traditional power is much diminished. Even in the “democratic” USA, surprisingly, we still see the influence of both wealth and of the traditional universities in politics. Could any citizen who was not very wealthy ever be elected President of the United States nowadays?
One should not forget to examine the influence of the “learned professions”. Of these the law and the Church emerge as the most obvious seats of influence. In the mediaeval period inEurope the Church, containing the educated members of society, had naturally great influence on lay leaders such as monarchs. Thomas a Becket, Cardinals Wolsey, Richelieu, Mazarin, are but a few examples. Echoes of the same temple/church system are to be found in Sumaria and Egypt with clashes between the religious and civil powers.
This tended to change — perhaps as education became more widespread and less ecclesiastically influenced. Greece and Rome seem to have established lay supremacy in government. InRome it would appear that prominent political figures often became priests, rather than the other way round.
In Britain also education, probably by becoming more widespread, reduced ecclesiastical influence on government. Henry VIII provides an interesting example in his making the monarch head of the ecclesiastical establishment, a solution which many Egyptian Pharaohs and later European monarchs would have been glad to find. (With the notable example of Pharaoh Akenaten, who closed down existing centres of worship, taking over control of religion, and creating a new version of God — Aten — something even Henry Tudor did not get round to!)
The role of the legal profession in government has always been important. An understanding of law and of the Constitution is obviously important in political administration. Knowledge of society and of business has often taken second place. Rome does not seem to have had a distinct “legal class”. Young men aspiring to politics often spent some time in the legal field, as well as in the Army, more as a matter of acquiring experience before entering politics. Perhaps the nearest one can get to a specific legal class in more modern times is the Noblesse de Robe in pre-revolutionary France. Perhaps one reason the Revolution of 1789 lost its momentum was because of the endless constitutional debates in the National Assembly carried out by its large quota of lawyers. Lawyers often played a distinguished part in the British Empire but on an individual basis.
Another pressure group which has played a dominant role in politics throughout history is the Army. But this is a whole topic in itself which we will look at again.