The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is now in the run up to a referendum on ‘renegotiated’ membership of the European Union which will supposedly return some sovereignty to UK political institutions. The date of the referendum and the details of the ‘renegotiation’, which in all likelihood will consist of changes of a secondary kind particularly since changes to the relevant treaties would trigger referendums in other EU member states with unpredictable consequence, are still cloudy. The Conservative government is also making gestures towards repealing the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, and replacing it with a ‘British Bill of Rights’, and at the extreme may withdraw from the European Convention, leaving the UK as the only European nation apart from Belarus in that situation.
It looks like the Prime Minister David Cameron is happy to stay in the EU after minor changes and to keep the Human Rights Act and that he is not at all aiming to withdraw from the ECHR. I say this because he is an extreme pragmatist who does not aim for big shifts in Britain’s constitutional arrangements and relations with Europe, though as an extreme pragmatist he appears to send different signals to different people, so there may be some with a different impression.
I introduce these issues in current British politics in order to discuss the ideas of national sovereignty, laws, and institutions at stake along with the understanding of Britain’s historical relation with Europe. These are not necessarily at the centre of all political debate on the matters introduced above, but they are part of the debate and the ‘Eurosceptics’ – who both want to reduce Britain’s connection with European institutions and promote an idea of absolute national sovereignty – are already on the offensive with their vision of history. Two historical anniversaries have been used for this agenda: the two hundred year anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and the eight hundred year anniversary of Magna Carta. (More on Magna Carta when I get onto issues of law and institutions.) First a few words about the general history.
What is partly as stake here is a debate between two wings of the liberty movement. The Eurosceptics in Britain have a strong element of conservative-libertarian fusionism while the Europhiles have an element of more cosmopolitan culturally pluralist libertarianism. The most obvious issue after European institutions dividing these two groups is immigration, with cosmo-Europhile libertarians much more inclined to open immigration than the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic libertarians. There are of course grey areas, overlaps and exceptions, but the overall pattern is very clear. Strictly speaking Eurosceptic and Europhile here refer to attitudes towards cross-European institutions, not other Europeans, but it cannot be denied that behind the more tolerant sounding version of Euroscepticism there are a lot of resentful people who don’t like foreigners, Europeans and people who are not like us, and think of democracy as preserving majority cultures and communities as dominant and unchanging. The sovereigntist-Eurosceptics tend to be very influenced by conservative-libertarian circles in the USA and to promote an ‘Anglosphere’ idea in which Britain is essentially part of a community with the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (i.e. white majority countries which used to be part of the British Empire), and is essentially not European.
What I present in today’s post is a critical response to the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic version of British history. The Waterloo anniversary for Eurosceptics is commemorated for being a moment when Britain played a decisive role in undermining the claims of autocratic rulers to dominate Europe. In the late sixteenth century it was Philip II of Spain, in the early eighteenth century it was Louis XIV of France, in the early twentieth century it was William II, Emperor of Germany, King of Prussia, and in the mid-twentieth century it was Adolf Hitler, Führer of National Socialist Germany. There is some truth in this. Britain’s place as a powerful offshore part of Europe has suited it to hold out against a continental hegemon and provide a focus for turning back the hegemon’s power; nevertheless the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic version of this is bombastic and evasive.
Focusing on Waterloo, since that is the key anniversary of the moment, it was not a single-handed victory by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (who was born and brought up in what is now the Republic of Ireland) and a British army. The battle was only won because of the arrival of a Prussian-German army led by Marshall Blücher, who has a claim to be a commander of greater vision and imagination than Wellesley (though it should be said that he was superlative in all other aspects of command). The majority of Wellesley’s army was Dutch, Belgian or German (even excluding soldiers from Hanover which at that time shared its royal family with Britain) and many of the ‘British’ were, like Wellesley, from what is now the Republic of Ireland. While Wellesley and the British soldiers at Waterloo undoubtedly showed the greatest courage and determination in the battle, the image of Britain defeating the returning European hegemon, Napoleon Bonaparte, is false, if a falsity that became a major part of the more mythical aspects of British history.
The sovereigntist mythology of British history is in any case caught in a rather awkward place in claiming both a unique British role in resisting pan-European tyranny and a separation between Britain and mainland Europe. It is hard to see how both claims can be completely true. The sovereigntist attempt to finesse this awkwardness is partly to claim that Britain played this unique role against Napoleon (well maybe Russia, Prussia, Austria and Spanish insurgents helped a little) is that Britain was in Europe to do the job and was then out again until destiny called on us to be in Europe again to beat back the Kaiser in 1914.
There is rather a lot wrong with this picture. As mentioned above, Britain shared royal dynasty with the German state of Hanover at the time of Waterloo. It had done so since 1714, when it acquired as king a Hanoverian prince who spoke almost no English. The Hanoverians continued to reign in Britain until 1837, when Princess Victoria was able to become British Queen but was not able to inherit in Hanover due to the exclusion of women from the succession. Anyway, she kept up the German link by marrying Albert of Saxe-Coburg with whom she spoke German at home. William II, the German Kaiser who was the national enemy/European hegemon of 1914, was one of her grandchildren and was apparently very attached to her.
Of course by this time, the royal family reigned in Britain rather than ruling, though Albert was rather keen on the ruling and things could have become very interesting on this issue if he had not died rather young. Anyway, even excluding the royal family, Britain was very involved with the rest of Europe after 1815. This involvement included:
- possession of Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain, going back to 1713, and still a British territory;
- the island of Malta became British during the Napoleonic Wars and continued to be so until the 1960s;
- the Ionian Islands were transferred to Britain from Napoleonic France, which had recently acquired them as part of a takeover of the Republic of Venice, and the islands remained British until transfer to Greece in the 1860s;
- Cyprus became de facto British in 1878 with continuing de jure but not very meaningful Ottoman sovereignty until 1914 when the island was annexed, becoming independent in 1960, but even so containing two small parts of Britain in the form of two sovereign military bases.
So Gibraltar and two bases on Cyprus were still British, along with the nineteenth century presence in all of Malta and part of what is now Greece. This is surely rather a lot of European involvement for a country that supposedly experienced a radical separation from Europe after winning the Battle of Waterloo, according to the sovereigntist Eurosceptic narrative.
But that’s not all for nineteenth century British involvement in the rest of Europe. Combined British and French pressure on the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (i.e southern Italy and Sicily) played a large role in weakening and isolating the state, so that it accepted absorption into the new state of Italy during the Risorgimento. The Crimean War took a British army via Ottoman Varna (now in Bulgaria) to fight against Russia, in alliance with the Ottoman Empire, France, and Piedmont-Sardinia from 1853 to 1856. Of course Britain was sometimes at war with the Ottoman Empire, so that in 1829 the British, French, and Russian navies defeated an Ottoman fleet at Navarino, a major event in Greek Independence. A remarkably brutal Independence War had been going on since 1821, and the Battle of Navarino marks the decision of the Great Powers, including Britain, to arrange a settlement according to their wishes and convenience, with a German king imposed on the new Greek state (which was initially a republic). Presumably the British government believed that if they had a German monarchy so should everyone else. Britain of course continued to be involved in the lengthy process in which the Ottoman state was bit by bit separated from its European possessions, though often tilting towards the Ottomans to pin back the Russians, as in the Crimean War. Anyway, this all amounts to a very busy time in Europe for a country that had supposedly separated itself from Europe, and I’ve only covered the highlights.
The other side of the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic narrative of Britain after Waterloo is that Britain somehow stood alone as a country of liberty, progress towards democracy, law, prosperity and the like, showing the backward Europeans the way. There is some truth in this, on the whole Britain was ahead, but there are so many qualifications to be made that this can only be treated as like being slightly ahead rather than putting Britain in a class of its own, but more on that in the next post.
Before getting on to the pre-Waterloo history of Britain, some remarks on Britain as an exceptional and model state from the Hanoverian period (rule of the German Hanoverian dynasty who continued to be sovereign princes in Germany, 1714-1837) onwards. Isolating any one period as the one in which modern Britain emerges is inevitably hazardous, but there are precedents for selecting this period such as Linda Colley’s influential book, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (Yale University Press, 1992).
The defeat of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 provides a good moment for the formation of modern British state, or perhaps better the moment at which a process of formation ends. The Jacobite Uprising was an attempt to restore the Catholic Stuart Dynasty, which had its starting point in the Scottish Highlands. It reached into the Lowlands and then England before being beaten back and then decisively defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 by forces loyal to the Hanoverian dynasty, which was Protestant and was reigning in Britain because it was the closest in line after Catholics were excluded from inheriting the throne.
Not only was it confirmed that Britain would continue to be an officially Protestant country, with a German royal family, harsh and violent measures were taken to crush the social base of Jacobitism in the Highlands. The autonomy of traditional clan chieftains (hereditary local landlord rulers), who were operating a kind of confederal state of often conflicting clans within Britain, was abolished. Soldiers were stationed in the Highlands to enforce an assimilationist state policy in which the Gaelic language was repressed, as was traditional dress and customary laws. The violence and forcible assimilation faded away once British sovereignty in the region was assured, but that does not detract from the way that the British state was stabilised through force and military occupation, not through consent and building on ‘traditional’ liberties. The idea of a British state uniquely founded on consent to institutions in a context of laws and liberties emerging from ‘tradition’ rather than state action is essential to the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic view of Britain and its history under examination here.
The forcible full incorporation of the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles into the British state system comes out of the attempts of the British monarchy to create an integrated Britain out of of the union of English and Scottish dynasties, which goes back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England as James I. James wanted a unified, integrated Britain from the beginning, and his wish was granted, if more than one hundred years after his death and the overthrow of his dynasty. The attempts of his son Charles I to impose religious uniformity on Scotland led to a war which was the prelude to the English Civil War. The two wars, and others, are sometimes grouped as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The powerful man of state to emerge from these wars was Oliver Cromwell, who incorporated the third kingdom, Ireland, into the British state, in a culmination of a history of war and colonisation going back to the Twelfth Century. This was also a process of forcible land transfer creating a Protestant English landowning class dominating a Gaelic Catholic peasantry. As in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, assimilation into the British state led to the decline of the Gaelic-Celtic languages into very small minority status, so to large degree an old culture was lost.
The forcible incorporation of Ireland into the British state system culminated in 1800 with the Act of Union, which created the United Kingdom, in abolishing the Irish parliament (not much of a loss, it only represented Protestant landlords) so that the Westminster Parliament (or crown in Parliament) had unlimited sovereignty through the islands of Britain and Ireland. The process did not bring clear benefits to the Irish before of after the Act of Union. The Great Famine of 1845 to 1852, when the British imposed a landholding system in Ireland and the whole British state system failed to prevent hunger and starvation for a large part of the Irish population and could be held to be at least in some measure responsible for the famine, is well known. Less well known is the Irish Famine of 1740 to 1741, which led to the deaths of an even higher proportion of the population than the Great Famine. I do not think that the Irish peasants of the eighteenth and nineteenth century felt lucky to be part of the British state system, or would have recognised it as some unique force for good in the Europe and the world.
The troubles of the Gaelic peasants of the Scottish Highlands did not end with the state reaction to the Jacobite Uprising. The disruption of traditional customs and restraints enabled the clan chieftains to forcibly remove peasants from land that had been theirs for centuries, starting a process of emigration to other parts of the British Empire. A situation in which the British state had abolished the power of chieftains to resist it while taking away traditional restraints on their power over the peasantry, led to an intensified period (“Highland Clearances”) in which peasants were sometimes taken straight from their customary homes to boats leaving Scotland for the Empire. In the later Nineteenth century, legal reforms were undertaken to improve the rights of Scottish and Irish peasants, but any discussion of the merits and otherwise of the British state system in relation to the rest of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, must take into account horrors of calculated state violence combined with laws and property rights biased towards a landowning class close to the state, that led to sufferings as great as any encountered in any European state of that era.
Britain the Enlightenment model for a liberal Europe?
The focus so far has been on the violent formation of the nineteenth century British state, and a largely political theory post on how far Britain had a special status as a model of liberalism and then democracy in Europe. Despite all the negative aspects discussed in the last post, there was of course some overall progress in Britain in creating a society and political system based on law, tolerance, individual rights, and a commercial society with prosperity spreading to all, sooner or later, though clearly much later for the afflicted groups discussed in the last post. Now it is certainly true that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more recently, Britain has been taken as a positive example for those wishing to promote those good things in their own political community.
The trouble with the Eurosceptic-sovereignty view is that these realities are transformed into a belief in a British legal and state community uniquely, and its very essence, prone to liberty under law and all the associated benefits, and recognised such by all Europeans gracious enough to acknowledge British superiority. Let us look at the eighteenth century discussion which is when comparisons of Britain and European states around law, liberty, civil society and so really got started. Strange as it might seem to some, earlier thinkers about liberty like Machiavelli, Grotius, and Pufendorf did not promote the idea of Britain as exemplary. The eighteenth century French Enlightenment certainly did lead to some admiring interest in Britain from that point of view. Maybe the main populariser of Enlightenment, Voltaire, was a great Anglophile. However, the really intellectually important observer in France at that time was Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, author of The Spirit of the Laws, who did visit England (but not the rest of Britain).
Montesquieu could be said to be something of an Anglophile and he has sometimes been taken as the bearer of a British model of liberty throughout Europe, as if he recognised Britain, as superior, of course to France. Though this is a familiar story in terms of the urban myths of history of political thought, it is not really plausible for the more sophisticated reader. Questions of interpretation of Montesquieu of course arise here, but there is proper interpretation of Montesquieu based on a thorough reading which could justify the view of him as possessing a political theory based on Anglophilia.
Montesquieu recognised two kinds of state compatible with liberty and ‘moderate government’, meaning government restrained by law along with a general respect for customs and moral standards. Those two types of government are monarchy and republic. Montesquieu also regarded a republic as less compatible with commercial spirit – which he strong endorsed – than monarchy, though he recognised exceptions and transitional cases. For Montesquieu, republicanism, at least in any pure form, meant some very small homogenous community with laws adopted by the people as a whole or an aristocracy. In both cases, Montesquieu thought that wealth tended to undermine the possibility of a republic, as such a state rests on putting ‘virtue’ (largely meaning patriotism and respect for law) above wealth in a very strong way. A monarchy, he thought, rested on ‘honour’ (largely meaning the search for status through wealth or through high position in the monarchical state). So a commercial society was more likely under monarchy than a republic. Montesquieu had in mind a large modern European state, which showed that to be case, France.
For Montesquieu, Britain was a disguised republic, a quite realistic assessment since political power rested with an aristocratic-oligarchic elite under a crown, which could not raise taxes or go to war without parliamentary approval. Montesquieu recognised that Britain was a great trading and commercial country, but at that time the same could be said for France which had a much larger population and therefore was a more important example of commercial society. Anyway, though Montesquieu had some complimentary things to say about Britain, he regarded it as culturally inferior to France, a view he expressed in his own way partly through complaining that there was less enjoyable social relations between men and women, a sign of backwardness.
Montesquieu was sceptical about the relevance of republics to the modern world except as city states, like Venice, or those German cities which were self-governing, or better for reasons of strength and survival, as federations of city states (or maybe rural communities of similar population), like the Netherlands of the time (known as the United Provinces) and Switzerland. Montesquieu looks at so many perspectives and considers so many examples that there is some difficulty in saying what his model was, but the evidence is for a choice of the French monarchy, emphasising how much power in reality rested in institutions other than the monarchy, such as law courts, town governments, universities, and the church. If he was not arguing for the primacy of the French model, he must have favoured the federated republics of his time. He has more to say in detail about Britain and it had good things about it, but there is no way in which Montesquieu had an Anglophile political theory which legitimates sovereigntist-Eurosceptic assumptions of special, separate, and superior status for Britain in relation to Europe.
Britain and European Models
So 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 Roberts’ 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.
From the 1832 Reform Act to World War One
Now, a look at comparative growth of democracy in Europe along with Britain’s role in World War One and subsequent European diplomacy.
Britain made some progress towards extending voting rights beyond a very tiny minority in the Reform Act of 1832, which was also a law to make constituency distribution relate to the population of the time, particularly the expansion of the urban population, abolish constituencies of a few voters where the MP was in practice appointed by the local dominant landlord and even out a very inconsistent voting system, reducing the number of people who could vote in at least one case. The overall right to vote was extended from about 5 per cent to about 20 per cent of the population, which did mark a genuine shift of power from the aristocracy and put Britain in a good place in terms of comparative voting rights by the standards of the time. Nevertheless, there was working class disappointment expressed in the Chartist movement which mobilised mass support, but was ignored.
The next major change came in the 1867 Reform Act, which did not introduce universal male suffrage, but did extend voting rights to a significant part of the urban working class. Universal male suffrage at the age of twenty-one did not come until after World War One, alongside suffrage at thirty for women, followed a few years later by voting rights at twenty-one for all women as well as all men. Denmark and Switzerland introduced universal male suffrage with meaningful pluralistic elections in 1848. France reverted to the lost revolutionary republican idea of universal male suffrage, though the meaning of elections was highly constrained by the rise of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to the presidency, which he transformed into the role of Emperor. Prussia, while reserving a powers to the monarchy and preserving the power of the aristocracy through a weighting of the electoral system to the highest tax payers, did introduce universal male suffrage in 1849.
The 1867 Reform Act in Britain still left it behind these countries, particularly as France became a pluralist democracy after 1870 and a unified Germany appeared in the same year (the events are linked by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870) with universal suffrage, but the same weighting towards the upper class within the Kingdom of Prussia, the largest and most powerful part of the new German Empire, which had a distinct and dominant status within the Empire. As we can see, discussion of the comparative growth of the suffrage and political pluralism soon gets into very complicated details, which also include questions of how much power elected bodies had in relation to hereditary monarchs, so that is the end of the examples.
Anyway, the general pattern is that though Britain was ahead of just about all of Europe outside Switzerland in giving power to elected institutions, there is nothing special or exemplary about the spread of voting rights in Britain. In the nineteenth century it was certainly republics, just Switzerland then France, which established the best situations, which certainly challenges any idea of a special virtue in the British combination of monarchy and parliament. The exemplary monarchical state was Denmark rather than Britain.
Moving onto the First World War, as has already been shown, British entry was not a re-entry into European politics after a complete absence after the Battle of Waterloo. Britain was constantly engaged in European affairs and would not have entered the Great War, if it had not been concerned enough with European politics to establish alliances and have a strong view about German armies invading France and neutral Belgium.
Who to blame for World War One and the question of whether Britain should have taken part are rather divisive questions across political distinctions, so it is difficult to talk about a unified sovereigntist Eurosceptic narrative here, or indeed any political tendency, however defined, having a unified narrative. So it can at least be said that World War One does not add to any claim to the innate superiority of Britain and if Britain was right to intervene, that cannot make it more morally admirable than France and Belgium. The intervention right or wrong certainly reflected British views of its own interests in keeping northwestern Europe, the land mass facing it across the seas, out of the control of a hegemonic European power.
It can at least be said that even for those who think on balance Britain was right to come to the full aid of France and Belgium, the continuation of the naval blockade of Germany, part the armistice which ended the war into 1919 was a horrifying policy of suffering imposed on an already defeated and impoverished German population, depriving Britain of any claim to rise morally above the other European powers. In any case there is no denying that Britain was involved in European politics during the War and after in the Paris peace treaties, the revision of the Treaty of Sèvres, signed with the Ottoman Empire, in the Treaty of Lausanne signed with the Republic of Turkey in 1926.
World War Two
The assessment of early twentieth century British military and foreign policy in Europe must necessarily be rather long because bad decisions of the 1930s had consequences in World War Two, making it difficult to split the periods into separate sections.
After the Treaty of Lausanne of 1926, the most notable aspect of British foreign policy was appeasement of Nazi Germany from Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia beyond the Sudetenland which Czechoslovakia had been forced to give Germany in autumn of 1938. Spring 1939 represents the point at which Britain (and France) abandoned the policy of Appeasement, which had left Germany rearmed, stronger, and larger, and mobilised for war.
There had been an associated appeasement of Fascist Italy, particularly with regard to its invasion of Ethiopia, the one African state which was fully recognised and fully independent at that time. Britain also acted to prevent aid to the Spanish Republic during the Civil War of 1936 to 1939 against the alliance of traditionalist conservatives and fascist Falangists led by Francisco Franco, though Franco received a high level of aid and military assistance from Germany and Italy. It would add too much to this long series of posts to get into the issues round the Spanish Civil War, but being as brief as possible it has to be said that the Civil War came about through extreme polarisation, sometimes violent, between left and right, and was not a simple case of a bunch of fascists overthrowing a model democracy. Nevertheless, the left was in power in 1936 due to elections, and was not in the process of abolishing democracy in Spain, which was abolished by Franco, including the destruction of autonomy of the most distinct regions of Spain, and associated cultural repression. This followed not only the use of military force, but many massacres of prisoners of wars and civilians. This is hardly a glorious moment for British influence in Europe, unless support for far-right dictatorship in preference for a highly stressed but real democracy is glorious, and does not really support any picture of a uniquely moral and beneficial Britain.
The policy in any case backfired in World War Two. Hitler was not willing to offer enough to Franco to tempt him to enter the war on Germany’s side, but in the earlier part of the war, Spain’s embassies and intelligence networks were used to subvert and undermine the British war effort, in addition to which, Franco sent a division of volunteers to fight under German command on the Soviet front. There were more than 150 divisions in the German invasion of the USSR, so this was a small contribution, but nevertheless a contribution to fighting a country then allied with Britain. There was just nothing glorious or admirable about British policy in Spain in the late thirties.
The less than admirable British (in partnership with France) policy towards Germany continued after the declaration of war on Germany, after the latter’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. No help was given to Poland and the only attack on Germany was a brief French assault on the Saarland which was not executed with any real energy, certainly not enough to detract from German aggression in Poland, and troops were withdrawn soon after the Fall of Poland. This was a shared failure of British and French policy, since it came under the Anglo-French Supreme War Council.
Germany was essentially unimpeded in invading Poland, with the USSR joining in after a few weeks. This was followed by the Phoney War, in which Britain and France failed to attack Germany at all though a state of war existed and Poland had been occupied. There was a passive policy of waiting for a German attack on France and other west European countries. The handing over to Germany of all initiative in the war of course had disastrous consequences. I will just mention one significant detail of the Fall of France, illustrating the failure of previous British (and French) policy: many of the better German tanks were in fact Czechoslovak tanks produced in what had become Germany after Britain (and France) abandoned Czechoslovakia in September 1938.
Winston Churchill’s refusal to negotiate with Hitler after the Fall of France was highly admirable and correct, but should not distract us from the reality of joint British and French failure and no sense of superiority over France is appropriate given that the German forces were faced by the natural barrier of the English Channel, and no one doubts that if the German forces could have got directly into southern England then the result would have been a military collapse at least as quick as that of France.
The British government’s refusal to negotiate did lead to the danger of invasion, which was averted by success in the Battle of Britain between the German and British airforces, on the basis of great bravery and determination from the aircrews and moral courage at the political level. The overwhelming majority of British people of all political inclinations take pride in that history and there is not criticism offered here of that attitude.
However, it is possible to take that attitude too far and inevitably the sovereigntist Eurosceptics do. Some individuals on that side might be a bit more careful and cautious about this, but certainly as a whole that attitude draws on the idea that British resistance to Hitler marks it as uniquely heroic and as somehow morally superior to those countries which were so morally weak as to become occupied, and which then collaborated with the Nazis in the sense that one way or another governments acceptable to the Nazis and willing to work with them appeared, and of course no other government could have survived in occupied territory.
The successful resistance of the British owes rather a lot to the seas separating Britain from the European mainland, the North Sea, English Channel, and the Atlantic Ocean. 1940 was probably too soon for Germany to organise a sea born invasion anyway, except though a total destruction of British naval and air forces which was not very likely. There was actually some demobilisation of German forces after the fall of France, and Britain was outproducing Germany in fighter planes, so Hitler was never really focused and committed with regard to an invasion of Britain. Had Hitler continued to concentrate on Britain after aborting a planned invasion in the autumn of 1941, when Herman Göring failed to deliver the promised quick and complete destruction of the Royal Air Force by the Luftwaffe, the situation could have been very different. The decision to invade the Soviet Union in summer 1941 meant that the vast overwhelming majority of armed forces were transferred to the east saved Britain.
Against the chauvinism of the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic approach, it should be noted that a part of Britain, or at least territory closely associated with Britain did fall to the Nazis without fighting and collaborated with German occupation until the general German surrender of May 1945. That is the Channel Islands, which are closer to Normandy in northwestern France than Britain and are not part of the UK, but which nevertheless are under the sovereign power of Britain and have no independence in defence and foreign relations. German forces landed in these islands and occupied them in 1940, because the British government decided they could not be defended and the King took on the duty of telling the islanders to offer no resistance. Local administration collaborated with the Nazis who used slave labour from eastern Europe in the islands. There was no provision land in the islands when the western Allies landed in Normandy in the summer of 1944 and the local collaboration with Nazi occupation went on until the final surrender of Germany.
We should not make light of the difficulties Britain had in defending or liberating small thinly populated islands of little strategic importance outside its coastal waters, but it has to be said that this little story does take some of the plausibility away from chauvinistic sovereigntist-Eurosceptic tendencies to turn World War Two into a story of British superiority over cowardly collaborationist Continentals. The very real suffering of Britain was small compared with the suffering of occupied countries, particularly in eastern Europe, and the courage of those who joined partisan and resistance movements in occupied Europe must command the highest respect, and surely even higher respect than that justly given to British leaders, ordinary people, and soldiers determined to carry on fighting the Nazis after the Fall of France.
Germany’s post WWII contribution to market liberalism
World War Two was largely won by the United States and the British Empire in alliance with the USSR. The idea of Britain’s place in the world being defined by its relationship with the US, a relationship in which the US is inevitably the leading partner, and is a very popular – even defining – idea for the predominant brand of sovereigntist-Eurosceptism in the UK. There is surely some paradox in holding onto a sovereigntist view, in which national sovereignty is understood in an absolute manner and national life is understood to be highly distinct, and even unique, while giving the dominant role to another country in matters of international relations, diplomacy, foreign policy, defence, intelligence and the unlimited number of areas which these are likely to spill over into, including trade and commerce.
The sovereigntist-Eurosceptic position in Britain tends to portray not only the EU as threatening sovereignty, but Germany as a threat to sovereignty as the strongest country in the EU. However it is clear enough that Germany is less strong than the United States, so what is the problem? The problem might be defined by the Eurosceptics as that the UK has transferred some sovereignty to the EU reducing the role of the British parliament, but if defence and diplomacy policy is dominated by the United States, along with other areas, there is an inevitable loss of effective parliamentary sovereignty. That the loss of sovereignty is not legally defined should not be the issue, and leaves open the possibility of greater loss of sovereignty because it is not defined by laws or treaties.
Returning to the issue of Germany, the standard sovereigntist position in Britain is dominated by those claiming to be small state free market advocates, and claim that an EU which includes Germany is allegedly a mere instrument of German interests, thus posing a threat to the possibility of a less statist Britain in economics and other matters. As the sovereigntist-Eurosceptics are normally for limiting immigration, their claim to superior purity in matters of individual rights and state power is itself lacking in credibility.
Moving back to more strictly economic issues (though of course free market economics requires a free labour market which means open immigration), Germany has not always been seen as more statist than Britain. There was a period in which Britain administered part of Germany, that is during the occupation of Germany by the Allies after World War Two, shared between the UK, USA, France, and the USSR. The occupation zones evolved into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the west and the socialist-communist Soviet satellite state, the German Democratic Republic in the east.
The FRG famously experienced an economic miracle in the post-war period. The main architect was Ludwig Erhard, who was strongly influenced by the Freiburg School of free market economists, itself heavily influenced by the Austrian School of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Erhard had a particularly strong connection with the economist Wilhelm Röpke, who was not a member of faculty at Freiburg University, but was close to that school and was linked with it through the journal Ordo.
The economic liberalism of that period is sometimes known as Ordo liberalism, which is one of great moments in the history of market liberalism. It was a moment which came out of struggle with the British and American occupation authorities who enforced price controls, and other statist measures, and were not supportive of Erhard’s moves to liberalise the price mechanism and other aspects of the market. Erdhard had to defy the occupation authorities in announcing the end of price controls in the period in which German self-government was emerging in the period before the FRG was formed.
Erhard and Röpke developed a program in which federal Germany had a ‘social market economy’, meaning a free market economy, accompanied by a social welfare program to establish minimum living standards and the establishment of those institutions and polices thought most likely to promote a functional market economy and social consensus behind the market economy, as an antidote to the economics and politics of totalitarian statism in what had been Nazi Germany and the existing soviet model Germany in the east.
So successful and influential was this, it was a model, at least rhetorically, for the Margaret Thatcher led government elected in Britain in 1979. Thatcher’s major intellectual influence in British politics was Keith Joseph, who promoted the idea of freeing Britain from statism and collectivism by following the German social market economy. This is not something the surviving Thatcherites, and their successors who are prominent in sovereigntist-Eurosceptic circles, like to emphasise at all. This maybe goes back to the time that German unification became a possibility in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union ended its dominance of large parts of central and eastern Europe.
Thatcher as an imperial nostalgia British nationalist was instinctively opposed to a stronger Germany. Ever since Germany has been damned as a malign influence the sovereigntist Europsceptics, eager to bury memories of the long post-war period in which Germany was more of a market liberal country than Britain. They like to portray Germany as such a statist monster in economic decline that many would be surprised to check the tables of national GDP per capita (including tables adjusted for dollar based purchasing power parity) and see that Germany is ahead of Britain by a significant margin. The comparison should also take into account the issue that despite Margaret Thatcher’s nationalist reservations, the German people exercised their right to unify peacefully and democratically, so that the current Federal Republic of Germany carries the weight of eastern regions, which used to be socialist-communist and have yet to overcome the negative consequences for prosperity and enterprise culture. There are certainly some measures by which Germany has a more statist economy now than Britain, including the levels of public spending and the role of banks linked to regional governments, which suggests an inherently robust market economy, stronger than Britain’s in some ways, able to survive the less market liberal aspects of German political economy.
The period in which Margaret Thatcher did introduce more market based economics and public policy in Britain, an admirable achievement despite her less admirable inclinations towards national, social, and cultural conservatism, began with a centre-left government in the FRG, which had been far more market oriented than the centre-left government which preceded Thatcher in Britain. The FRG under Helmut Schmidt, at least towards the end of his term made cuts to public spending and the public deficit, which mean that it made a contribution, if a very moderate one, to the general shift of industrial democracies towards market liberalisation associated with the 1970s in its beginnings and with the 1980s in its strongest phase.
British connections with Europe from the Stone Age to the Anglo-Saxon Invasion
We will now jump back to the deep history of Britain’s links with Europe, though there will be a return at some point to more recent history and current concerns. There has always been trade and movement between the island of Britain and the mainland of continental Europe going back to the Stone Age.
The dominant Bronze Age peoples are usually grouped together as Celts, as are related peoples, stretching across Europe from Ireland to Anatolia. These peoples had no consciousness of existing as a pan-European civilisation, but communities of Celts overlapped and communicated so that the Druid Celtic culture of Britain was certainly related to that of France, or what was known to the Romans as Gauls. The Druids were the priestly elite of whom we know very little except that they were essential to the structure of self-governing Celtic communities and that the Roman destruction of Druidic power was part of their almost total conquest of the Celtic world. They did not trouble to record the knowledge and culture of the Druids, and associated Celtic elites, and given the lack of literary in the Celtic world they would have had some difficulty in grasping and writing down much of it.
The loosely trans-European aspect of the Celtic world was given much more structure and substance through the Roman Empire, which created an integrated administration and Latin speaking local elites across its large territory. What is now southern England was invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BCE, at least partly in response to connections between the Celts of Gaul and the Celts of Britain, also known as Britons, who sent assistance to Gaul against the Romans.
There was no conquest and it is not clear whether or not any was intended, but alliances were formed between Rome and some tribes of Britons, which included taking some sons of the elite to Rome to foster relations and guarantee good behaviour of the families. What was known as Britannia to the Romans was completely incorporated into the Roman system from 43 CE when the Emperor Claudius sent an invasion force, apparently including elephants. The result was the incorporation of all of what is now England, though Cornwall in the extreme southwest was perhaps never fully under Roman control, along with Wales and very variable parts of what is now Scotland.
As with everywhere else in the Roman system, military camps and garrison towns were built on a standard cross-Empire plan, with a Romanised Latin speaking elite created from the Britons to aid in administration and ensure cultural dominance. This lasted until the early fifth century CE. 410 is the traditional date given for withdrawal of Roman legions and the end of Roman rule, but this may have been more of a moment in a process where Roman legions had already largely left Britannia for Gaul to deal with civil war on the mainland and a general weakening of Roman authority fostered by sea raids and incursions from the north.
Anyway that is more than three centuries in which what is now England and Wales was incorporated into Europe by virtue of Roman Imperial authority. Towards the end of that period the senior Emperor, or Augustus, was in Constantinople while the junior Emperor, or Caesar, was in Rome or some city in Italy, so that in principle Britannia was ruled from what is now Istanbul, though that was more a matter of abstract sovereignty than administrative control.
The attacks on Britannia from the northern seas became what is now known as the Anglo-Saxon invasion, with tribes coming over from what is now northwestern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The resistance of the Britons became the source of the King Arthur stories, written in Welsh, English, French and Breton during the Middle Ages. Welsh and Breton are of course Celtic languages. There was a special link between what is now known as Brittany and the Britons, as what was then known as ‘Amorica’ was a place of refuge for Britons fleeing Anglo-Saxons.
The Arthurian stories also mix in elements from Welsh mythology and legends of Roman soldiers, providing a very mixed, multilingual and transnational history for one of the most famous of British stories, retold in many very different ways, across centuries, but still taken as a major source of British identity at various times, particularly when English kings wanted a source of legitimacy distinct from the Normans, were Welsh like the Tudors, or when the national culture became very taken up romanticised Medieval origins as in the nineteenth century. Boudicca, the Briton tribal queen who rebelled against the Romans has also like Arthur, been taken up as a national hero in a nation dominated by Anglo-Saxons.
Anglo-Saxon England, the Scandinavian, Frankish, and Norman connections
The Anglo-Saxon Conquest, then, seems to have been more of an elite take over by chieftains and their retinues than a major displacement of population. Nevertheless the Anglo-Saxon conquest was a real cultural transformation in which the evolution of the English language retained almost no trace of the Celtic languages and dialects or even speech rhythms, leaving aside areas where the Celtic languages lingered longer and survived on a minority basis, so influencing English. The Saxon language was not just dominant in England, as it spread in Scotland outside the Gaelic ‘Irish’ speaking areas, displacing non-Celtic languages. So English became the dominant language in what is now the UK and also in what now the Republic or Ireland.
Having emphasised this linguistic transformation, I should emphasise that Irish has some distinctive speech patterns from Gaelic, that there is some modern Irish literature in Gaelic and that some Irish literature in English emphasises Gaelic Irish culture, most significantly the novels of James Joyce. Anglo-Saxon comes from the forms of Old German spoken in the areas the invaders came from in what is now the Netherlands, Denmark and intervening parts of Germany. One consequence is that the first great work of English literature Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, epic poem set in what is now Denmark and southern Sweden. So the literary culture of the English speaking British is rooted in a tale from Scandinavia, though written down in England centuries after the events related, which can be given a rough historical location.
Anglo-Saxon England never established complete predominance in Britain. Viking invasions in the eighth century preceded the formation of an English state at a time when there was still an independent Celtic kingdom in Cornwall, turned into conquests and the establishment of Viking kingdoms. Though the Anglo-Saxons become predominant as far back as the sixth century, the generally accepted narrative of the English state goes back only to the ninth century. In the last decades of that century, King Alfred of Wessex (the west Saxons) in his struggles against the Vikings. Alfred, given the label ‘Great’ in the nineteenth century, a very remarkable figure in various ways, was pushed back into the hinterland of Wessex, but was able to defeat the Vikings in battle and negotiate terms that established a strong kingdom of Wessex, which came to incorporate London.
Wessex was the nucleus of the Medieval English state and Alfred’s grandson Athelston was the first all-England king, also receiving tribute and symbolic recognition of overlordship from Welsh and Scottish rulers, who nevertheless remained completely independent in practice. Athelston was certainly not isolated from Europe, marrying his family into continental dynasties. The sense of English culture goes back further than Alfred, but not much further.
The northeastern English historian and cleric Bede, is probably the first ‘great’ English figure in Britain, dying in the early eighth century after composing a history in Latin rather than Anglo-Saxon. At roughly the same time Alcuin of York, the cleric and scholar, became an adviser to the Frankish (Franco-German) Emperor Charlemagne who dominated western and central Europe, reviving the title of Roman Emperor, or had it pushed onto him by the Pope. He was referred to as ‘father of Europe’ in his court and was the model of English monarchs including Alfred.
The only Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred who could be said to have lingered in national memory was Offa of Mercia (the centre of England) in the late eighth century, who seems to have made some symbolic claim to kingship of England, but whose kingdom was lost to the Vikings. The rise of the Kingdom of England was not completely straightforward as Vikings remained in England with their own towns, laws, and customs, and with Scandinavian princes still making claims in England. The consequence was a Danish King of England, Cnut (also known as Canute) reigning in England in the early eleventh century, along with varying parts of Scandinavia.
A rather confused period followed his death of English and Danish claims to the English crown, with other Scandinavian dynasties expressing an interest. This ended when the Saxon Edward the Confessor became king in 1042. However, this was not the triumph of isolated English sovereignty. Edward was heavily under the influence, even tutelage of the Duchy of Normandy, territory given to Viking invaders by the French king, which led to the invading Danes becoming completely French in language and other respects.
Edward was the son of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normany. Æthelred who was responsible both for gratuitous massacres of English Danes and losing the kingdom to the Danes, had fled to Normandy beginning an important connection. Edward died in 1066 childless, with the Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway both believing they had claims to the English throne that they fully intended to enforce through military might. The throne went in the first place to Edward’s most powerful subject, Harold Godwinson, because of the support of the Witan, the council of the king’s leading subjects, rather than inheritance or the wishes of Edward the Confessor. If there was ever a moment of isolated English sovereignty that might be it, but it was not to last more than a few months.
Norman, Angevin and Plantagenet England
Anglo-Saxon England came to an end in 1066, soon after the death of Edward the Confessor. Harold Godwinson, King of England, was faced with two major enemies on his accession in 1066: Harold Sigurdsson, usually known as Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy (de facto Norman king under the symbolic sovereignty of the French monarchy).
Both began invasions of England. Sigurdsson landed in the northeast of England with a Viking army and his ally, Tostig, brother of Harold Godwinson (married to a Danish princess), giving a good idea of how political power in England was entangled with European power politics and centres of sovereignty. Harold marched north and defeated the Viking army, marching south again to meet the threat from Normandy which came very soon.
Harold and the Saxon army did not survives this second blow, and England was changed for ever. William earned the name he is now generally known under, Conqueror, and imposed his will in a manner which destroyed the existing Anglo-Saxon elites in one of the great massacres of English history, the Harrowing of the North. It also led to the construction of new kinds of stone castles to create military state dominance and new grandiose church architecture to create religious state domination.
The Norman dominance later became known as the Norman Yoke, a rather emotive phrase but it is true that the Saxons had less rights than the Normans, that Norman French became the language of state and the ruling class, and that institutions were recast to suit the Normans, who continued to give priority to their homeland in northwestern France. There was an evolution from expanded Norman state to Angevin Anglo-French empire, when Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine (southwestern France). Before that the throne was in dispute between Stephen and Matilda, known as the Empress because she had been married to the German ‘Holy Roman’ Emperor.
The Aquitaine alliance gave the King of England more land in France under his control than the French king had under effective control. The combined control of all England and most of France is often known as the Angevin Empire. The outcome of the Norman Conquest and the Angevin Empire is a very tangled period of centuries of a variable Anglo-Norman, then English Plantagenet presence in France.
The crusader king Richard I ‘Coeur de Lion’, son of Henry and Eleanor, died in France protecting his lands there. The next king, also a son of Henry and Eleanor, John, lost nearly all the French lands. The end of of John’s reign and the beginning of Henry III’s reign included a period when Louis XIII of France claimed the English crown in alliance with part of the aristocracy, and had effective control of a large part of England.
The endless back and forth of English involvement in France will be ended here except for these brief remarks. The two most famous English battles in medieval history were the loss to Normandy at Hastings in 1066 and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 near Calais. The latter battle was part of Henry V establishing a claim to the French monarchy, though this collapsed on his death. Calais remained English until 1588. The English monarchy kept up a symbolic claim to be monarchs of France until 1800.
There is no genuine history of medieval England which is not also a history of medieval France. The overall effect of the English monarchy failing to keep continuous control of France, leaving England as the undoubted core territory, was that over time the monarchy, state and aristocracy became more English. The language had changed considerably, partly under Norman influence, so that what the heirs of William the Conqueror and his Norman barons spoke was Middle English rather than Anglo-Saxon and unlike Anglo-Saxon is at least partly comprehensible to an educated native level speaker of modern English. There was a growth of English literature of a kind that is still read, linked with the growing tendency of the upper class to be primarily English.
The process by which the Anglo-Norman state became England with an English speaking ruling class was gradual and roughly speaking came to an end by the fifteenth century. The re-emergence of an ‘English’ England might suit the advocates of a vision of English history as an island pageant of unique independence, separation and strength, and it is not very long since popular books of history used to be written on those lines. However, the Norman, Angevin and subsequent Plantagenet period just do not fit this unless a supposed endpoint of a pure English England is given priority over what seemed most important to historical actors earlier in their own time. Centuries of English history are Norman French or Anglo-French history.
Advocates of a Sovereigntist-Eurosceptic view of British history, if they acknowledge this (and it is difficult for them to do so as the period includes Magna Carta, a topic to which we will return) are inclined to at least see English history after 1400, and particularly after the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485, as the glorious path of an England, or Britain, separate from Europe. Let us further test that proposition.
16th Century England in relation to the Dutch Revolt, Germany & Spain
The idea of a very sovereign and separate England, which does not really fit with the highly French oriented Middle Ages as discussed in the last section, may look a bit more plausible after 1485 when the Tudor dynasty came to power, ending the Wars of the Roses between different Plantagenet claimants to the throne. Under the Tudors, the English (including Welsh) state system is consolidated, the English church passes from authority of the Pope in Rome to the monarchy, and the dynasty ends in the unification of England and Scotland. That is when Elizabeth I died in 1603, the throne passed to the Stuart King of Scotland, James VI, who became James I of England.
The break with the church in Rome was an accident which had nothing to do with the religious inclinations of Henry VIII, who took the national church under his control for marital reasons. In the mid-1520s, he wanted an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, in which the Pope would declare the marriage to have been invalid according to Canon law (in this case because she had been married to Henry VIII’s late brother) . The Pope would have been willing to co-operate, but was under the control of Catherine’s uncle Charles V (German ‘Holy Roman’ Emperor and King of Spain), who regarded the proposed annulment as an insupportable insult to the imperial-royal family honour.
Conveniently for Henry, it was a good time for finding a religious base for a national church independent of Rome. The Reformation, that is revolution of new Protestant churches against the Catholic church was underway, in a process normally dated back to Martin Luther posting 95 theses critical of the hierarchy on a church door in Wittenburg in 1517. Henry VIII did not break with Rome because of Protestant inclination and though there was a dissident religious tradition, the Lollards going back to the fourteenth century, which anticipated Protestant thinking, it was a movement of strictly minority interest. Henry seized church lands and allied himself with Protestants. This accidental partial adoption of Protestantism was followed by swing towards more pure Protestantism under Edward VI then a swing back towards Catholicism under Mary Tudor followed by a final victory of Protestantism under Elizabeth I, though not a victory of the most radical Protestants, and not a result of majority sentiment in the nation, which would have favoured Catholicism before decades of state pressure and persecution made Protestantism the majority religion.
The struggle of the Protestant cause in England was associated with an intensified presence in Ireland through very bloody means, and an international struggle against Catholic Spain, associated with support for the Dutch Revolt against Spanish and Catholic control. Overall this might give the picture of England, as a proto-United Kingdom fully incorporating Wales and partly incorporating Ireland, rising up as a free Protestant nation outside the control of the major trans-European institution of the time, the Catholic church. However, Protestantism was an import from Germany (Martin Luther) and Switzerland (John Calvin’s Geneva and Huldrych Zwingli), even if some tried to see it as the product of Lollardy.
The time of Elizabeth and the first Stuart James I was the time of colonialism in the Americas, which sovereigntist-Eurosceptic enthusiasts are inclined to see as part of Britain’s unique global role. This claim seems strange given the major colonial ventures of Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands at this time. Britain was not uniquely Protestant or uniquely colonial and trading. The consolidation of a national state at that time has equivalents in Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Russia. The ‘growth’ of Parliament under the Tudors absolute monarchs who conceded that taxes had to be raised by Act of Parliament, and that laws properly speaking were also from Acts of Parliament, but held onto complete control of government and saw no need to.call Parliament except when new taxes or laws were needed, is paralleled by representative institutions in the new Dutch Republic, the continuation of German and Italian city republics along with self-governing Swiss cantons, the continuing role of regional assemblies in Spain and local courts ‘parlements’ in France which had the power to comment on new legislation, and the elective-representative structure of the Holy Roman Empire all provide parallels.
English state and national life was caught up in Europe most obviously through support for the Dutch, but also in the trade and diplomatic activities of the time. Mary Tudor, who attempted Catholic restoration, was married to Philip II of Spain while she was Queen, so placing England under heavy Spanish influence. Defeat of the Armada (Spanish invasion fleet) under Elizabeth became a symbol of English independence, but was itself strongly linked with English involvement in the Netherlands. So it was not a period of continuous English independence from European powers and was certainly not a period of isolated separation. The connections with the continent were reinforced during the reign of James I who had dynastic connections in Denmark and Germany.
Revolution and the Dutch Model in the mid 17th Century
The last section went up to the reign of James I in the early seventeenth century known as Jacobean England/Britain, because Jacobus is the Latin form of James. James I was also James VI of Scotland, unifying the two crowns in his person. He wished to created a unified British state, but this was not achieved until the early eighteenth century and Scotland always remained a distinct nation within Britain, de jure through different laws and state institutions, de facto through a distinct culture, or cultures, and a partly separate economy.
Sovereigntists and Eurosceptics might find the reign of James I to be an amenable part of history, with some qualifications. James I was married to a Danish princess and his son-in-law was a German prince at the centre of the opening phase of the Thirty Years War, a German and central European conflict which drew in the major European powers. James nevertheless kept British involvement very limited, though that would undermine any idea of Britain as distinct and exceptional as a champion of Protestantism in Europe. James could have played that role but preferred not too and was happy to try to ally with the major Catholic power, at least at the beginning of the Thirty Years War, Spain, though was also willing to give some support to French Protestants who had communities to some degree autonomous from the French state, which was a more generous attitude to religious ‘heresy’ than was shown in Britain.
Enthusiasts for the supposedly special and exceptional history of the English then British parliament will not find comfort in his notorious and eloquent belief in absolutism and divine right of kings, though James was sufficiently pragmatic and politically talented to realise that he could not avoid working with parliament in practice, at least in matters of new legislation and raising taxes. It can be said that his era is one in which Britain was not extremely involved in European affairs, colonisation of north America progressed, and parliament survived as a major state institution if not with the enthusiastic approval of James. That is the case for the twenty two year period from 1603 to 1625.
His son Charles, decent and cultured as an individual, was less talented at preserving the state and engaged in various forms of disruption. He tried to rule without parliament by stretching his tax powers to a creative extreme and pushed through changes in the doctrine and ritual of the Church of England with some brutality. This all started becoming counter-productive when the Scots rose up against a clumsy attempt to enforce conformity to the changed Church of England, though differences in the Scottish church had been recognised under James. The very brief summary of subsequent events is that Charles lost the subsequent Civil War/War of the Three Kingdoms, and lost his head after failing to acquiesce in a more limited form of monarchy.
A strong strand of sovereigntist-Eurosceptic thought comes out of a Tory detestation of the execution of a king and the institution of a republic known as the Commonwealth. Such blunt dislike of a movement which at least started as an increase in parliamentary power looks a bit odd now after a long period of purely symbolic monarchy in Britain and Oliver Cromwell who betrayed or established the republic as Lord Protector after three years, has long been recognised as a constructive and personally honest figure in British state history, even by those with a strong dislike of his more autocratic and religiously enthusiastic inclinations.
Some republicans, such as the poet and political thinker John Milton, were themselves inclined towards a very Anglocentric understanding of liberty and Protestant religion (the Civil War was in significant part about the rights of those Protestants not conforming to the Church of England), so providing a kind of alternative sovereigntist narrative to the royalist story. In the past the republican narrative has been associated with the left, but the Eurosceptic right has to some degree recently been happy to be associated with it, as they attempt to associate the European Union with seventeenth century absolute monarchs supposedly following a state system foreign to the ancient Liberties and Constitution of England.
One problem with this is that republicans were initially eager to pursue a state union with the Dutch Republic which provide a model of republicanism in Protestant Europe. This failed because of a Dutch wish to protect a privileged trading and colonial system from British competition, and avoid being swallowed up by a bigger state. The Dutch Republic of the United Provinces was not even the only European model of republicanism. The most important British republican of that time, James Harrington, was inspired by Machiavelli and therefore the Florentine republican tradition, though he did not follow Machiavelli in every respect.
It should also be noted that European assemblies sometimes had more power than the English parliament. Though Spain of that era is generally associated with absolute monarchy of a cruel and even obscurantist type, the reality is that provincial assemblies and laws strongly hemmed in the power and tax raising capacities of the Habsburg monarchs, to the extent that these autocrats were less able to raise taxes than English monarchs and finance an effective state system.
Revolution and the Dutch Model in the Late 17th Century
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 section will look at the steps from Dutch model to German kings linking Britain with Hanover.
From Dutch Model to German Kings
The story of the temporary Anglo-Dutch fusion and then moving onto the German kings of Britain. The invasion of late October was not strongly resisted, James fled London and then England, giving Parliament the pretext to declare that James had abdicated. His son was ignored with the falsehood pretext that he was not the son of James and his wife, but a baby smuggled into the royal chambers. All this evasion and pretence should not be allowed, in Burkean fashion, to conceal the reality that Parliament had asserted itself as the sovereign power in the country, and accordingly that the monarch reigned at its pleasure, which could be withdrawn. This was not a restoration but a very radical innovation.
On the conservative side, it was designed to maintain a religious settlement in which only members of the state church were full citizens, removing rights James had given to Catholics and also Protestant Dissenters. The immediate impact then was a major loss of religious freedom, though partly based on fear that ‘tolerance’ was a tactic only for James on the road to state enforcement of Catholicism. We will never know the truth of that.
William’s Dutch invasion did not inspire much of a war as James II’ authority collapsed quickly, but further violence was to come in Ireland until 1691 featuring sieges and major battles, with the French helping the Catholic Irish against the Dutch prince turned English monarch. There was war in Scotland until 1692, featuring one of the infamous events of Scottish history, the Glencoe Massacres of Scottish Jacobites (supporters of James). The massacre was partly the result of clan rivalry, but was certainly also the consequence of state policies.
The Dutch connection disappeared with William’s death, as he had no children and the throne passed to Mary’s sister Anne, ignoring of course the claims of ‘James III’, the exiled son of James II. However, the impact of the Dutch connection was not just in the person of William. His reign as William III (1688 to 1702) coincides with the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694, which took place in the context of Dutch investments in London and a strong Dutch influence as a model of Protestantism, science, crafts, public finances, naval and merchant fleets, trade and colonialism which preceded 1688, including the exile of the liberal political philosopher John Locke in the Netherlands from 1683 to 1688, and was intensified by the Dutch invasion/Glorious Revolution.
The Dutch Republic had shown how to fight wars through a reliable, credible form of public debt which Britain was able to use in eighteenth century wars. Generally, the temporary relationship between the two states, which was somewhere between mere alliance and full fusion, was important in enabling Britain to become the leading eighteenth century power in Europe for all the things associated with the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.
The temporary semi-fusion of course had a drastic impact on British foreign and defence policy, which was now heavily oriented towards Dutch aims in northwestern Europe, and even the whole of Europe. Britain was heavily engaged in European politics, including wars, particularly the War of Spanish Succession (1701 to 1714), which led to Britain’s still current acquisition of Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain and included one of the most famous victories of British military history, Blenheim, under on the most famous British generals, John Churchill (ancestor of Winston Churchill), Duke of Marlborough on German territory. The main aim of British participation was to prevent French domination of Europe, which was threatened by a French claim to the Spanish throne, and the possibility of over generous compensation to France if it gave up Spain, with regard to Spanish colonies and the parts of Italy dominated by Spain.
Moving back briefly to the period before James II, his brother Charles II, had a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France which meant that state policy was covertly guided by the French who were subsiding Charles. So the temporary semi-fusion with the Dutch Republic was itself nothing new in terms of British state policy coming under the influence of a European power, it was simply a more open form of it. Looking forward, William was succeed by Mary’s sister Anne.
Parliament then legislated for a Protestant only succession, which went to the Elector Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg, generally known as the Elector of Hanover. This family supplied British monarchs from 1714 to 1837. The legislation of Queen Anne’s time precluded military commitments to Hanover, but inevitably in practice the defence of Hanover and the protection of Hanover’s interests in Germany were a major consideration of state during that period. The first two Hanoverian monarchs were more German than English, though the third of the Hanoverian Georges, George III established himself as a largely popular archetype of supposed British character.
Britain’s Significant Others: France and Germany (1)
Moving on from the narrative of British history concluded in the last section, some thoughts about the way that Britain has existed as a European nation in comparison with other nations, mostly Germany and France. Britain has been defining itself in comparison with these two, in more or less friendly ways since Germany emerged as a modern unified state in 1871. The comparisons with France go back further, as has been partly explored in the narrative posts from Æthelred II’s (the Unready) marriage to a French princess to the Tudor loss of Calais.
The attitude to Germany has been coloured by the pre-1870 Prussian monarchy which became the imperial family of Germany, while retaining the Prussian royal title, in 1871. Even the Prussian monarchy, though, is new compared with the French state. The Prussian kingdom only goes back to 1701, as an elevated form of the Margravate of Brandenburg in which the Hohenzollern family had been the Margraves since 1415, and even that is rather recent compared with the beginning of the history of France. Anyway, we cannot think of Brandenburg-Prussia as a preformation of the German state until the early nineteenth century when it took lands on the Rhineland and emerged as the joint leading power in Germany, along, with Austria, after the European settlement at the end of the Napoleonic wars.
It is not entirely clear when we can date the beginning of the French state, since the earliest form, or preformation, of it was the Frankish kings who became rulers of some part of what is now France in the fifth century with the collapse of Roman rule in what had been Gaul. The Franks were German and the sense that the aristocracy of France had a different national origin from the common people lingered into the nineteenth century. It is only in the ninth century that Old French emerges as a written language of state business while the title of King of the Franks was separated from that of the dominant ruler of Germany, holding the title of Emperor of the Romans since the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in 800.
The official title King of France only stated to replace King of the Franks in the late twelfth century, but it is safe to say that something like a swell defined the French state with a very broadly defined sense of shared culture between king and French speaking subjects goes back to the ninth century, after a preformation going back to the fifth century. Of course it should be remembered in relation to that it was only in the nineteenth century that a shared mass competence in the French of Paris prevailed across France including communities which were historically Basque, Flemish, Breton, German, Italian, and Occitan (southern versions of French including Povençal), though a linguistic unity of the educated goes back much further.
One aspect of the sketches of French and German history above, is that the history of the dominant power in western Europe is often the history of France and Germany in various sometimes overlapping forms. This continues into the European Union which is at its heart a Franco-German union and that can be seen in the Euro which comes out of the French belief that it could import German economic success and discipline through a common currency, as well as the belief that it could mitigate German influence in Europe after post-Cold War unification though a shared monetary mechanism. One problem with British membership, maybe the most important, is a lack of interest in the French and German belief in a shared destiny best managed by some pooled sovereignty in a unified Europe, largely if not entirely consisting of countries strongly influenced in their history by contacts with France and Germany.
The most important issue in this post, though, is that France has a history as old and as grandiose as that of Britain, in fact preceding the unified British state history of England and Scotland only going back to 1603. The reason for emphasising this is the British sovereigntist-Eurosceptic tendency to regard France, like all European nations other than Britain in their view, as somehow less proud of their nationality, less patriotic, and less real as nations than Britain.
Really this is preposterous nonsense, and it should not be said that all British Eurosceptics hold to this view, but it is hard to imagine the Eurosceptic current existing in Britain without this aspect of its culture, and hard to imagine even many of the more fastidious Eurosceptics do not believe this in their guts. The apparent willingness of France to share sovereignty with Germany in the EU even when Germany has become clearly the dominant EU country may to some degree explain this, but does not justify it.
Britain’s Significant Others: France and Germany (2)
The French, or at least the dominant part of its elites, together with a more ambiguous but largely assenting public opinion, sees the chance to maintain a large European role and an accompanying global role through the EU, using the EU to maintain the importance of French as an administrative language and the influence of France on European affairs without war, and ideally without aggressive winner-takes-all attitudes to diplomacy. It is a matter of reasonable debate whether this has worked well, it is not reasonable to think that France has given up on being France.
There is a strong steak of grandiose French ambition and memories of the more universal moments of the French state, under Bourbon monarchs who tried to dominate Europe, the French Revolution, and the Bonapartist Empire. Despite what some sovereigntist-Euroseptics claim, France is not obviously less global than Britain in its history or current attitudes. France had the second biggest overseas empire after Britain, there are many French speakers outside France, even though some parts of what was the empire have lost the Francophone legacy. France is just as much of a country of immigration as Britain.
The residual overseas territories from the empire are more integrated into the French state then the British equivalents are integrated into the British state. Of course Britain had the bigger empire, English is the more global language, and a global financial role lacking for France, but none of this makes France less of a country to some degree tied to its non-European legacies, or that France is less integrated and less nationally-oriented than Britain. In fact France looks a lot less likely to break up between component parts than Britain. The devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland is not matched in even the most distinct French regions and there seems little chance of any part of France matching Scotland in the success of a separatist party and near success of a separatist referendum.
The same applies to Germany. Germany has a briefer history as an important country of self-image construction for Britain than France, but the sense that Britain is more liberal than the Prussian-German state tradition and more patriotic than current federal Germany is a major factor in Britain. The sense that Germany has a less strong sense of national identity combines for British Eurosceptics, or alternates, with the sense that it is trying to dominate Europe.
There is no doubt that Germany has a more traumatic relation with its recent history than Britain, and that it is the leading country in the EU. Nevertheless, there is no sign at all of bits of Germany seceding, while there is every sign that German state rebirth through democracy and European identity has been a great success. The relations of Germany with the rest of the EU is a rather large question, but it is worth remarking here that most of the supposed German dominance and domineering attitudes in the EU is a mask for the hopes of other EU countries, on the French model, to improve themselves through:
- institutional influence on Germany;
- importing German fiscal discipline and associated economic successes through a common currency;
- a willingness to put the burden of blame on Germany for tough policies resulting from the imbalances that emerged as a result of excessively low interest rates in the less robust Eurozone economies;
- a preference for related ‘externally imposed’ German influenced reforms over exit from the EU and a reassertion of strong national sovereignty.
At the heart of these choices is the belief that Germany is too big to ignore and that where states have had difficulty in economic reform, institutional constraints designed in the hope of importing German economic success, within a system of pooled sovereignty, offer more hope of economic success than supposedly pure national sovereignty. This may or may not work for the best in the long term, but it is not an example of German aggression; and given that no one state has genuinely pure and absolute sovereignty, no one state can exist unrestrained by the attitudes of other nations and the international consequences of its own policies, so pooling of sovereignty with Germany should not be seen as unpatriotic countries surrendering an unvalued national existence.
Anyway, the sovereigntist-Eurosceptics who put forward, or rely on, the dangerous German domination claim, are themselves generally oriented towards an Anglosphere conception of an alliance between the UK, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. This can draw on the enhanced levels of intelligence and security co-operation between these countries, along with the ‘Special Relationship’ between the UK and the USA that developed during the Second World War. The obvious issue here from a sovereigntist point of view is that the USA is very dominant in this relationship, whether that of the Anglosphere or of the ‘special relationship’. The language of the ‘special relationship’ has declined anyway in the UK, particularly since the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The reality has always been in any case that the USA has pursued close relationships with countries outside the Anglosphere with little if any common decision making in the ‘Anglosphere’. The Anglsophere idea also refers to ideas about law, which will be discussed in the next section.
Common and Civil Law
The last section referred to the need to investigate ideas about law and related ideas in discussing Britain’s relation both with the Anglosphere (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and with the rest of Europe. The big issue here is Anglosphere common law tradition versus Roman or civil law tradition in the European mainland and indeed most of the world outside the Anglosphere. Common law in this context refers to judge-made law based on precedent versus civil law referring to statute laws based on the will of the sovereign. Statute laws are laws instituted by the state, in writing, in public explicit acts of law making.
Judge-made laws based on precedent refers to the ways in which judges, using a general sense of justice, make judgements according to that sense of justice with the precedents of previous relevant judgements shaping the sense of justice along with the whole set of laws and their general principles. Civil law judges look at the text of statutes, as do common law judges, but apparently the latter category of judges are also concerned with the mixture of precedents and general spirit of the laws.
There are certainly some real differences between common law and civil law traditions, but how straight forward are these difference? The phrase ‘common law’ itself comes from the codification and national harmonisation of laws undertaken by French-speaking kings of England, after William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England. So the phrase ‘common law’ itself refers to the opposite of what common law has come to mean: the English legal tradition since the High Middle Ages has come out of conquest by an external power. We can argue about how far Anglo-Saxon laws and judicial formalities survived the Norman and Angevin re-codification, but there is no denying that the re-codification happened and that nothing now survives from the Anglo-Saxon era.
England started off in the earlier Middle Ages where all of post-Roman Europe stood, that is Roman law had collapsed and Germanic tribes introduced their own laws in conquered territories, where some elements of Roman law survived in the canon law of the church. The Roman law system itself reached a peak with the final codification undertaken under the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople during the sixth century. The transformation of the eastern part of the Roman Empire into a Greek empire included a decline in knowledge of Latin so understanding of the definitive law text was limited, but survived in the Empire including the last Roman-‘Byzantine’ holdings in Italy.
Knowledge of Roman law increased in the thirteenth century, in association with the growth of new universities where legal education played a very large role. England was not outside this process, but it is fair to say that it was less influenced by it than some continental powers, particularly France. The process of Revolution and Bonapartist rule, from 1789, produced a large scale deliberate construction of law as a unified system based on the will of the sovereign (whether elected assembly or absolute monarch) with regard to the laws, which was exported to other parts of Europe in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
The British commitment to common law was not entirely consistent since Scotland has always retained some differences from England in its legal system, which place it closer to the civil law tradition, at least compared with England. In the United States, there was a parallel to the French republican and Bonapartist experience of redesigned institutions in the process of adopting first the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution of the United States, which unified the thirteen British colonies in a common structure.
The difference between French and American constitution making is often held to be that the French constitutions claimed that laws are the will of the people and the product of nature, while the American constitution is designed to disperse any idea of a single political law-making will between the different branches of federal government and the ‘several states’. However, the preamble to the US Constitution refers to ‘we the people’ and therefore asserts that it is the product of a single political will of the people in the union.
While the US Constitution does not refer directly to good laws as the work of nature, there were shared underlying assumptions in France and the US concerning the ‘natural’ status of good laws, good political institutions, and justice. It is at least true that the US constitution federalises rather than centralises, while the French process of about the same time ended in a very centralised state. This cannot be the difference between common and civil law systems though, since there are federal civil law states like Germany and Switzerland and unitary common law states like the UK and New Zealand, though the UK has been evolving in a more federal direction, if in a rather ad hoc and limited way, since the turn of the century.
Laws, Juridification, and the Administrative State
The last section focused on the distinction between civil and common law, with regard to Britain’s position as a common law country in contrast with the civil law tradition of the rest of Europe. The promise at the end was to move onto laws, charters, and constitutions in this post. However, I have found it necessary to discuss the idealisation of common law further and look at how a large part of this looks back to a world which is lost, regardless of predominant legal system as societies have roughly speaking moved from customary law to ‘juridification’ (state-centred comprehensive law penetrating all social relations), and then the world we live in now of the administrative state.
The British sovereigntist and Eurosceptic position tends to emphasise a supposed unique British exception from the statist rationalism of civil law, in the ‘common sense’ of the accumulation of law arising from judicial precedent in the decisions of judges in previous cases. This supposedly British exception looks rather challenged when we consider the thoughts of the influential German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in his 1960 book Truth and Method. Gadamer refers to French rationalist Enlightenment in contrast with a German form of Enlightenment based on the original understanding of ‘prejudice’.
Prejudice, in Gadamer’s account, did not begin as a negative term for the constraints of false assumptions, but in a legal process in which the court forms a preliminary opinion in an early stage of proceedings. For Gadamer this represents the continuity of custom and the communal sense of justice in contrast to abstract rationalism. What he describes is not the same as the common law tradition, but represents another way in which the apparent underlying advantages of common law can appear in another system.
The idealisation of common law is really a claim to prolong the role of custom in law into the age of state statutes and deliberately constructed legal codes. Not that an age can be identified in which pure custom operated and no state created laws existed. It can be said that laws used to be less in number and articulated in terms of defending the wisdom of ancestors as part of a generally shared sense of justice.
However, the destruction of such a world, which depends on accepting fictions about the harmonious origin of laws outside the interests of power, was not from the triumph of civil law. The heroic moments of civil law in the process that leads from 1789 French Revolution through constitutional monarchy, republic, and Bonapartist autocracy, are the product of the decay of traditional societies in which localised and regionalised kinds of authority operated in ways which mixed statute and customary law, and where even in conditions of political autocracy the state ruled over either a very small community unified by common experience, or larger units which aggregated such communities rather than enforcing a very uniform and unitary form of sovereignty back by a hierarchical bureaucratic-military state machine.
There were of course elements of the latter, as in the eleventh century Norman Conquest of England, but even this established only a minute state machine by modern standards, which recognised the ‘privileges’ and ‘liberties’ of the City of London, the church, the barons, and so on. The idea of civil law is generally traced back to Rome, bracketed by the Twelve Tables of fifth century BCE Rome and the Corpus Juris of Civilis (often identified with the Institutes which form just one part of it) Justinian promulgated in the New Rome of Constantinople in the sixth century CE.
This civil law prevailed in Roman Britain for four centuries as it did from the Rhine to the Euphrates. The Roman world, including the Greek empire governed from Constantinople, that emerged in the sixth century, was nevertheless a world of localised traditional authority in which central state institutions were more like connecting threads rather than an all inclusive structure.
The Middle Ages saw a process of juridification, as Roman law continued in the church and was revived for the state, in which the uniform administration of justice became strong enough for a system of dominating unifying state military-bureaucratic power to emerge underneath sovereignty that was beginning to become more distinct from the person of a king (or occasionally the persons of an aristocratic assembly).
All European states went through a process, which has been implemented elsewhere, leading to what is now known as an administered society, administrative state, biopower, and all the other terms referring to the inclusive, comprehensive and unifying power of state law and state bureaucracy in relation to society. This was simultaneous with the development of capitalism as a dominant economic system working through unified national markets and trade between states.
A lot of what is said about the difference between common law and civil law represents a wish to return as far as possible to go back to a time before administered societies and even before juridification. There is no time at which law was purely traditional and consensual and no current possibility of even approaching that ideal. Concerns about the administered-juridified society have to be addressed with that world.
The common law tradition might or might not on average be better than the civil law tradition from that point of view, but common law is not what its strongest defenders wish it was and it is not obvious that civil law states in northern Europe including Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark, and in a slightly more qualified but real way, Germany are doing worse for liberty and prosperity than the English speaking common law countries. France, the homeland of modern civil law, is itself not doing at all badly compared with most countries in the world as it is and certainly in terms of human history.
Charters and Constitutions
The last section discussed the historical role of law. This section finally delivers the promise to discuss constitutions and charters. The sovereigntist Eurosceptic position in Britain standardly includes an elevation of Magna Carta into the greatest document ever in human liberty or, in more moderate versions of this position, certainly the greatest since it was issued in 1215 and the fount of all worthwhile liberties ever since: blessing Britain and countries which might be considered off shoots, like the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (the ‘Anglosphere’), with a unique appreciation of liberty and parliamentary democracy.
While Magna Carta is of course a remarkable document and the moment it was issued was a remarkable historical moment, these claims are a distortion. It was a Latin document issued under duress during civil war conditions, the duress applied to the king by barons, at a time when the the English aristocracy and monarchy was distinguished from the great body of English by use of the French language and holdings in France.
Magna Carta has nothing to do with parliamentary democracy, it refers to a council of 25 which barons might form if they found the king to be misbehaving, and does not refer to a standing representative body but rather something more like a right of insurrection against a ‘tyrannical’ monarch. This has no more to do with parliamentary democracy than a variety of councils and assemblies existing across Europe at this time, and rather less than some.
Though Magna Carta is dressed up in the language of reasserting traditional rights, this does not make it the expression of a distinctly English or British love of rights based in tradition rather than innovation as the sovereigntists standardly claim. All demands for rights across Europe were expressed in that way at that time, and for centuries before and centuries after. The French Revolution itself started as a demand for ‘restoration’ of rights. The language of restoration is of course frequently a cover for innovation, an attempt to justify innovation by denying what it is. Magna Carta was the innovatory product of political struggle, not the writing down of the unchanging liberties of old England.
The same goes for the struggles for parliamentary power in the seventeenth century, which frequently took on the deceptive form of ‘restoration’ of a Magna Carta which was already supposedly a restoration. It is even more fantastical to see the US Constitution as the outcome of Magna Carta, which does not stop many Anglosphere sovereigntist Eurosceptics doing so.
The history, or histories of liberty, is the accumulation of many interacting events, charters and theories in many countries. The growth of British parliamentary power took place in that context as did the US constitution and the Declarations of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which took place during the French Revolution. Like the French Declarations, Magna Carta exists in different versions so there is no pure origin text of liberty in either place. Rival French and Anglosphere attempts to proclaim the priority of either are particularly absurd. These are documents separated by hundreds of years and many other factors.
We cannot imagine modern liberty without either source, though both sources are flawed and open to challenge. The last thing thought and politics based on liberty needs is some sacred unchallengeable text as foundation, inevitably distorting understanding of the varied contexts and sources of liberty, and inevitably distorting our understanding of how ‘sacred’ documents had a source in power politics and political economy. There is no immaculate liberty born outside of struggles over power and appropriation of wealth.
The writing down of liberties in a legal document itself, particularly one that has a special, difficult-to-overturn foundational status, places some constraint on liberty, on how some people now and even more in the future might have some different ideas about liberty and see the earlier document as constraining.
It is certainly the case that a strongly entrenched document like the US Constitution deprives later generations of the liberty to re-imagine liberty and it is certainly the case that such a Constitution conflicts with the common law tradition exalted by British sovereigntist-Eurosceptics, according to which law progresses through the way judges build gradually on earlier cases to interpret statutes and formulate principles of justice.
Clearly a strongly entrenched Constitution with a Bill of Rights added does not come from common law, though it may try to capture some of the principles supposed to be widespread in common law, and must heavily constrain common law judges. The idea of a Constitution standing above politics, constraining it according to pure justice, has at least in the United States made the membership of the Supreme Court and its decisions a matter of constant political contention.
No attempt at a system of liberty can avoid tensions between different sources and understanding of liberty. Unfortunately the Eurosceptic-sovereigntist position largely tends to overlook this, or like someone looking at the Sun, cannot have it directly in its gaze without serious damage. The elevation of common law tradition, Magna Carta, and parliamentary democracy is the elevation of different things which in some sense must always be part of liberty, thinking of the general principles of judicial independence, institutional harmony, and representative government. However, as they conflict there can be no perfect version and no reason to think English, British or Anglosphere solutions can be regarded as above all others and with nothing to learn from the law-governed democracies of mainland Europe.
This essay has explored a number of ways in which those who support a very sovereign United Kingdom completely separate from the European Union, and even other European institutions like the European Court for Human Rights, which is attached to the Council of Europe rather than the European Union, are attached to unsupportable ideas about the separateness and superiority of England, Britain or the UK.
What Britain’s past was does not prove anything about where it should be now with regard to European institutions, but it is at least possible to say that claims according to which Britain has always stood apart from Europe are false, and so is any connected claim that Britain is somehow fated by history, geography and national character to stand aside from arrangements made by European nations to share sovereignty.
Britain was connected to the rest of Europe through Celtic culture and language, then through the Roman Empire, then through the Saxon conquest, then partial Viking conquest, then Norman-French conquest, then ties with the Netherlands, then a union in the person of the joint monarch with the Netherlands, then a union in the person of a series of kings with Hanover in Germany, then through constant British intervention in European affairs, land holdings which go back to the Channel Islands (originally French), the remains of which still exist in Gibraltar and sovereign military bases in Cyprus, then through postwar European institutions like the Council of Europe (which loosely groups all democracies, broadly defined) and then the European Union.
The peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain are rather less firmly committed to maintaining the existing state than the peoples of France and Germany are, the two European nations usually taken by British Eurosceptics as the negative opposite of Britain in all its glory. There is a distinct possibility that Scotland will leave, with strong separatist tendencies in Northern Ireland and to a lesser but real extent in Wales. So Britain is not uniquely well formed and self-confident as a nation.
As with all other nations, Britain was built through war, state appropriation and the enforcement of a national state system. It is not a country of unique liberty, neither does the Anglosphere of UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand exist as a uniquely coherent transnational grouping based on medieval and early modern English institutions. The Anglosphere countries are diverse, with different historical experiences, with Britain as the odd one out in the sense that all the other Anglosphere countries are still dealing with the status of indigenous peoples who lived there before the relatively recent history of the Anglosphere states.
Other European states have links with ex-colonies, where the language of the colonial power is still widely spoken. More French people live in Britain than those from the Anglosphere (300 000 versus 191 000). Links with the Anglosphere are certainly quite real and exist quite happily alongside EU membership, so the whole idea of making the Anglosphere something that excludes a European path is misleading in any case.
The historical interpretations referred to in this and previous posts are not contentious. No educated and fastidious sovereigntist-Eurosceptic is going to deny them, the trouble is that a lot of less fastidious sovereigntist-Eurosceptic assumptions about history are not in happy accord with these historical realities, and even the more fastidious are trying to emphasise an unrealistic counter-narrative of British distinctness that goes beyond the normal level of distinctness between major nations. Britain has certainly made its contribution to the history of liberty, civil and commercial society, but is not obviously more blessed in these respects than the other most advanced European nations.
The case against the United Kingdom’s participation in the European Union can only be the case against the existence of a transnational political union for any large grouping of European nations. There are problems with the EU and I can agree with many sovereigntist-Eurosceptics on many of these problems, but if we reject the more myth making kinds of nationalism these are problems I suggest that can be addressed with better, more decentralised and flexible institutional arrangements. India, which has a greater population than the EU, and at least as much diversity of language and other aspects of human life survives.
It is of course difficult to know what Europe would look like without the EU and what good things in Europe are due to the EU, but I suggest that it is not a complete coincidence that the period of the EU has been a time of growing democracy and peace, with many countries taking EU membership as part of the path from dictatorship to democracy. The Euro crisis and the more recent Mediterranean refugee crisis are bringing strain to the EU, but that is what happens to political communities, they encounter problems and survive them if they have robust institutions. The economic problems of southern Europe precede the EU and tensions round migration exist in other parts of the world. Britain has anyway remained aside from the Euro, as have Sweden and Denmark, suggesting that the EU can accommodate flexibility and allow member states with doubts about the most ambitious schemes to stand aside from them. This is certainly the path to go down if the EU is to be a robust political community.
The basic point in this series has been that nothing makes British history separate from European history, so that questions about membership of a European political community which pools sovereignty are not answered by looking to a supposed distinct and superior history. Britain is part of Europe and always has been and has frequently shared sovereignty in some way with some mainland European state. Past history does not exclude Britain from Europe and trans-national European institutions, which may or may not be appropriate for Britain and other countries, for reasons in the here and now. As far as history determines Britain’s place, the appropriate place is Europe.
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