Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, V: Britain and European Models

The last post looked at how Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, the biggest classic of Enlightenment political thought, certainly in size and probably in importance, does not offer Britain as the model of liberty for Europe. Rounding off that argument, Germany produced its own important liberty oriented thought at the end of the eighteenth century in the work of Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt, in which they do not offer Britain as a model. Of course at this time Britain stood as an example of liberty, particularly in the exact period from 1792 when the French Revolution had turned highly violent and dictatorial, and European monarchies were tending to become more conservative-authoritarian in reaction.

Nevertheless, the opening phase of the French Revolution developed a much more complete vision of a equal citizens under laws they had made themselves through representative citizens than Britain itself. France was the home of great liberal thinkers such as Benjamin Constant (like Rousseau and Voltaire, Swiss in origin) and Germaine de Stael, who were  horrified by the descent of the French Revolution into state terror and then Bonapartist dictatorship. Switzerland and the variety of German states within the loose structure of an empire (the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) gave them ideas for liberty.

Going back to Germany itself, there was a strong element of aesthetic liberalism, focused on the cultivation of individuality and individuality sensibility, which drew on the growth of German culture at that time and the history of many different states and state forms, that includes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Friedrich Schlegel that had a European wide influence, including in Britain.

On the level of what was going in European nations during the eighteenth century is should be noted that the death penalty was abolished in the state of Tuscany in northern Italy in the late eighteenth century at a time when Britain was famous for widespread use of the death penalty, not just for murder and treason but for small crimes in property. The French Revolution inspired severe attacks on civil liberties in Britain and one of many rounds of state force to keep the Irish down, when the United Irishmen revolted in 1798 for Irish self-government.

Britain was largely ahead of the rest of Europe at the end of the wars with Revolutionary and Bonapartist France, but that was in large part because Britain had worked very hard to finance and encourage autocratic monarchies to take back control of Europe. Napoleon was no friend of liberty, though some British sovereigntist-Eurosceptics nevertheless celebrate him, as in Andrew Robert’s recent biography Napoleon the Great. Not for the first time a British sovereigntist shows signs of wishing to imitate European nations at times when they seem most aggressively sovereign, while holding to British separateness and superiority.

As the nineteenth century unfolded, Britain started as a nation where the existence of an elected parliament, a limited form of monarchy in the process of becoming a purely symbolic monarchy, and strong legal institutions allows a case for saying that Britain was leading the way in liberty, at least for those belonging to the most marginal and dominated parts of the state territory. However, that picture applies less and less after 1830, when the July Revolution put in place a system in France, under the Orléanist monarchy, comparable to that in Britain for promoting law, liberty, and commerce. It must be said that the preceding system introduced after the defeat of Napoleon under the restored Bourbon monarchy was directly modeled on Britain’s, but could not work like the British system, given the different national context. A lesson in the dangers of thinking that liberty can be exported and designed from abroad.

The 1848 cross-European ‘Springtime of the Peoples’ undermined the relative advantages of the British system further as republics and monarchies limited by constitutions were proclaimed in various parts of Europe. There was a big autocratic reaction reversing most but not all of this. Denmark made the most progress, with peaceful demonstrations leading to a constitutional monarchy and an elected national assembly. France reverted to autocracy under the Second Empire of Napoleon III (nephew of the famous Napoleon). However, the Second Empire did have elected bodies and however objectionable Louis-Napoleon’s seizure of sovereign power was, he was a moderate autocrat presiding over a continuing growth of civil and commercial society. If we look at models for liberty in Europe, Britain was certainly important, but so was France. Even under Napoleon III, France was a long way ahead of most of Europe in the liberties of its people and the vibrancy of the economy.

If we look at one of the most important events in nineteenth century Europe, the Risorgimento which turned Italy from multiplicity of more or less autocratic states, including the Austrian armies more of less resting on church domination of society and Austrian armies, into a unified nation; France was important in providing a model of a relatively secular liberal catholic society and in pushing for a more modernist liberal form of government in Italy. Napoleon III’s behaviour was opportunistic and designed to revive French power in Europe, but nevertheless he seems to have had a genuine sentimental attraction  to the idea of a free and unified Italy. Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, as chief minister of Sardinia-Piedmont was the major political architect of a unified Italy was impressed by both the French and British models. The ideological architect of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Mazzini, largely lived in London and was impressed by the British type of constitutionalism and political culture, but nevertheless was also a republican and European federalist more influenced at the level of political thought by the French revolutionary and republican heritage. The military architect of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi, was popular in Britain, but belonged to the French republican revolutionary heritage, which he worked to spread in South America before returning to Italy.

Next post, Britain and Europe after the Springtime of the Peoples

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