Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XIV, Revolution and the Dutch Model in the Late 17th Century

The last post in this series looked at the impact of Dutch republicanism on constitutional innovation and revolution in mid-seventeenth century Britain. Now on to Dutch influence on the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Britain, or what was still three kingdoms (England, Scotland and Ireland) only unified in the person of the monarch did not have just one revolution connected with the Dutch model in the seventeenth century, but two. Furthermore the second of those revolutions required invasion by a Dutch prince to happen. The Glorious Revolution, as that second revolution is known, established something like the modern British political system in 1688 in establishing that the monarch could not legislate or even nullify legislation without parliament, could not govern without parliamentary consent and that parliament had the right to decide who could inherit the monarchy.

That this fundamental reorientation of the state system took place through violence and foreign intervention is not the sort of thing that sovereigntist believers in a British special path separate from mainland Europe, since Edmund Burke like to emphasise. Edmund Burke, a remarkable parliamentarian and writer on various topics including philosophical aesthetics, of the latter half of the eighteenth century, is introduced here, because his way of presenting British history is very connected with his assertions of British superiority in Reflections on the French Revolution, his most widely read book.

Of course there were things to condemn in the French Revolution, and Burke was a very acute observer of the violent polarising tendencies within it before they reached their extreme points, but his assumptions about British history are absurd. Given the importance of the Glorious Revolution for the British polity within which he played a distinguished role (though never in government), and his wish to condemn revolution, he reacts by denying a real revolution in 1688, presenting it as essentially restorative rather than innovative and as an essentially peaceful consensual event. It was of course presented in that way at the time, but then the French Revolution was influenced by ideas of restoration.

Evaluating Burke’s attitude will require going back to those events. Inevitably there are debates about the real causes of the Glorious Revolution, but it is anyway undeniable that it was a reaction against the rule of James II, who had only come to the throne three years previously suggesting remarkably poor powers of persuasion and conciliation.

The collapse of his reign was in some important part the result of religious issues going back to the simple fact that he was a Catholic monarch in a Protestant country. This would have been tolerable for Parliament and everyone else participating in political life if James had left the state religious settlement alone and if he was to die without a Catholic heir.

James was, however, very busy with changing the state religious settlement letting Catholics into powerful positions, and more seriously institutionalising the Catholic church in ways that suggested that at the very least he intended to give it equal status with the Protestant Church of England. This could be defended on grounds of religious tolerance at the time and still is.

Unfortunately for him James was not successful at persuading many Protestants, even those subject to discrimination themselves, that he had good intentions, and his methods of enforcing changes in the state religious settlement did not suggest someone willing to limit his general powers as Parliament expected. These methods included the assertion of a Dispensing Power, in which laws were suspended at will, and measures to manipulate parliamentary elections.

At the beginning of the reign he benefited from an extravagantly royalist Tory Parliament, but in a short period became mistrusted and feared. The birth of a son in June 1688 brought opposition to a new peak as it suggested that what James II had done would last beyond his own lifetime and it was not enough for those who disliked his policies to simply wait for his death, which would bring his Protestant daughter Mary to the throne, if he had no male heirs and she lived long enough. The outcome was that the Immortal Seven, seven prominent parliamentarians invited Princess Mary’s husband, Prince William of Orange to invade England.

The title ‘Orange’ refers to territory in France, but the Orange family was Dutch. They had a rather complicated and changing status as the first family of a country with no monarchy, tending to lead the army and to some degree provide a focus for central executive power in a  very decentralised system. The invitation to William enabled him to become King by will of parliament, but as he was the husband of the next in line to James, apart from his son, the hand over to William could be concealed as Mary taking her inheritance.

The next post will look at the steps from Dutch model to German kings linking Britain with Hanover.

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