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!
In a recent post (Jan. 3rd.) we looked at the role ideals have played in historical events. Ideals evolve – they can be the culmination of the efforts of thinkers over thousands of years. We mentioned the concepts behind the English Civil War as being particularly significant in modern history, and not just in Europe. It was during this period (mid 1600’s) that the North American colonies were growing apace, and fretting under the heavy hand (relatively) of the mother country. So it is not surprising that in America by the mid 1700’s concepts of greater political freedom, less arbitrary rule, independence, were emerging. Philosophers abounded in the 18th. century – the “Century of Enlightenment”. Voltaire and Rousseau in France, Tom Paine in England were but a few examples. Concepts such as the Rights of Man, civil liberties, etc. were being thrashed out. By the 1770’s in America the die was cast and political discussion of ideals culminated in the use of force. Sad this – it is such fun to argue round the table over ideals – but there is another serious side of the coin when the ideals are taken seriously, and meet determined opposition. The resultant independent United States of America still broadcasts its ideals of that age to the world.
At the period in question France had a long-standing feud with England over trade, colonies and related matters, and somewhat perversely decided to throw in its weight with the American colonists, sending over armies to support the colonists, under such leaders as Lafayette. There was already in France a strong idealistic movement triggered by the writings of such thinkers as Rousseau and Tom Paine. Seemingly arbitrary royal rule, ill-treatment of the “lower orders” by nobility and Church, a desire for change, were opposed by a large element of “the powers that be”. Both officers and men who had sailed from France to support the American colonists often returned to France wondering what all the fuss was about in America – the situation was so much worse in France!
There is a romantic idea that the French Revolution occurred on July 14th. 1789 with the assault on the Bastille. In fact that event gained a lot of publicity in the media of the day. (You couldn’t trust the media then either!) The English poet Wordsworth reacted along the lines of – “WHAT BLISS IT WAS THAT DAY TO BE ALIVE – WHEN TO BE YOUNG WAS VERY HEAVEN”. But revolutions are not made nor are ideals achieved in a single day. As in England in the 1640’s it took several years before it had to be finally decided that the King was not going to reign as a constitutional monarch, and trial and execution proved the only alternative. As in England 150-odd years earlier internal dissent made strong government on military lines necessary to hold the country together, but in France the situation was exacerbated by the development of a concerted attack on the country by its neighbours, determined to reverse the spread of revolutionary ideals. Hence the rise of Napoleon, like Cromwell, the strong military man.
So “bye-bye” to high-flown ideals? Perhaps not – There is still hope. In both France (1815) and in England (1660) “Kings” were restored. But things were never the same again – England first and later France progressed to Parliamentary democracies, the latter emulating the former. The system spread and for all its defects is accepted by mature political societies world-wide.
Other countries have passed through parallel circumstances. Sometimes ideals flare up and fizzle out under outside force. In 1798 Ireland looked to be raising the French revolutionary banner of “Liberty, Equality. Fraternity” under French inspiration and support, but the movement died. Was America luckier than England and France in maintaining the momentum of its revolution? I think not – there was a form of delayed action until the American Civil War erupted in the 19th. century when issues connected with working out a “federal” system came ta head.
Hopefully mankind will never cease to have ideals. Achieving them can be a painful process. Perhaps it can be made less painful if we learn from the lessons of History – BUT WHO EVER “LEARNED FROM HISTORY?” (Now that could be a theme of its own).
In the course of history we are overwhelmed by chains of events. These events are generated by a wide variety of sources. Not a few have their origin in the emergence of ideals, springing from new conceptions of life – what it is – whether it could be changed – how it should be changed. A feeling of malcontent can produce a negative and destructive reaction. Such a reaction can be short-lived and easily put down. It can be a different story however when thinkers come forward and start working out exactly how and under what guiding principles changes can be made. It is here where ideas evolve into ideals, which need to be well ahead of action in order for an agreed unified thinking to precede action.
Half- formed ideals can be non-productive. Actions resulting from them can be inconsistent, and affairs can be in a state of flux and confusing change. This has been the case in many political upheavals over the centuries. Often issues are not simple, but embrace political, social, religious, economic and other aspects of life. Several sets of ideals juggling for space together can be, to say the least, confusing.
One such event was the English Civil War of the 1640’s. On the political front ideas were emerging that arbitrary rule by a non-representative few was not an perfect situation when actions were being taken which could be detrimental to many. Again, it was felt that an already-existing body, Parliament, was better equipped to manage affairs. It could be said that this concept had become an ideal. It was felt, by the way, that there was nothing inconsistent with this ideal working alongside a cooperative monarch.
However, when we create one ideal which affects an important area of life, parallel ideals will emerge to accompany it. Thus in England the ideal of political reform was accompanied in many peoples’ minds by long-standing thoughts of religious reform. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had evolved a centrally/nationally organised English Church still carrying features of the preceding externally controlled “Roman” Church. There was now a growing feeling among Protestants/Puritans that a more ideal religious system should be more democratic, non-hierarchical, not centrally organised, and not under control of the King. It is interesting we see a merging if both political and religious ideals. It is also worth keeping in mind that many people would favour retaining the religious system and changing the political one. Others would have thought the other way.
The next few years, with evolving ideals and concepts, were a nightmare in retrospect. The King failed to mould his ideals to the prevailing climate, suffering dethronement and execution. The existing Republic failed to become our modern concept of a “Parliamentary Democracy”. The Puritan system of thinking favoured “disintegration” of political authority rather than integration and central control – Democracy if you like but Democracy run riot. Cromwell, proponent of the ideal of Parliamentary Democracy, found it impossible to run the country consistently with a Parliament where every man had a voice – and used it. Cromwell eventually, finding things unworkable, had to sink his ideals and run the country without Parliament. Virtual military dictatorship followed – this is a very important point. In such situations where a chaotic system of ideas/ideals clash firm rule has to be imposed for the general welfare. A break-down in self-discipline leads to the imposition of external discipline. This is not an opinion so much as a statement of historical fact.
One fact I should mention here since it will emerge here in different form is that England was allowed to struggle through its mess without foreign invasion. The nations of Europe were dedicated to the Divine Right of Kings. Parliamentary control was unthinkable. Louis XIV of France was a major follower of the doctrine of Royal Prerogative. Yet he left England alone and seems to have accepted his “brother” Cromwell as England’s Head of State. There was no invasion of England by the massed armies of France, Austria, Spain, Italy etc. to restore the political and religious system. Contrast that with France after its Revolution some 150 years later. One may presume Louis had “other fish to fry” – and the English navy was never far away.
I don’t think it is fully realised how significant the English Civil War was in the history of Europe and indeed of the world. Ideals were evolved, which led to modern systems of Parliamentary Democracy. It certainly led to more examples of “History Repeats Itself”.
Subsequent examples we will look at briefly will include America, Ireland, Russia, with main emphasis on France and Napoleon The theme will be “ideals” – Are they good? Do they work? Can they be made effective? Ideals exist in the mind of man – how successfully can they be translated into reality – and action? A policy is described as “too unrealistic” – How do we correct that?