Why Hayek was Wrong about American and European Conservatism IV

Continuing a discussion from here inspired by F.A. Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’.

One central claim of Hayek’s essay is that American conservatism is not the same as European conservatism, as it is rooted in the classical liberalism of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. He notes that ‘European’ style conservatism exists in the US but claims it is an artificial import that looks odd. A really big problem here is Hayek’s assumption that there are native national forms of political culture which are authentic compared with alien intrusions. Of course national context and tradition are important, but that should not conceal understanding of pluralism, emergence from the margins of positions that have always been there, change, and influences across national frontiers.

Hayek’s talk of odd looking imports into American conservatism may cover Russell Kirk and William Buckley, both major influences on American conservatism in second half of the twentieth century and their influence lingers in central parts of US conservatism. Buckley’s conservatism was connected with his traditionalist Catholics. The founders of the American Republic were Protestants and anti-Catholicism has been a significant force in the United States until well into the 20th century.

Hayek himself was a person without religious belief from a Catholic culture who attributed great importance to the Catholicism of Alexis de Tocqueville and David Acton (see my comments in last post). He considered naming the Mont Pelerin Society the Acton-Tocqueville society, apparently because of the role Catholics played in the German groups resisting Hitler. This is all very strange, as it was certainly not only Catholics who resisted Hitler and there is no need to name a free market institution after a British and a French Catholic to get support from German liberals. Even leaving that aside there is an extraordinary tangle here with regard to how American conservatism relates to American and European religious traditions, along with the question of where Hayek fits.

Kirk brought Burkean conservatism into the US, where Burke’s most famous critic, Thomas Paine (what we might now call a left libertarian), is more associated with the early republican heritage. Of course, as I have pointed out, Hayek was a big Burke fan. So we see another tangle about how to connect American conservatism with Europe. In general the imports into American conservatism come from sources Hayek liked, Catholicism (though he was an atheist as well as divorced and twice married), and Burke. What was Hayek’s presence at the University of Chicago or his impact on US conservatives and libertarians then? Hayek was very much a late Habsburg in character, not at all American.

I also question how far US conservatism can be seen as an outgrowth of classical liberalism – distinct from a supposed European conservatism tied to non-liberal tradition and slowing down change. An account of American conservatism must acknowledge paleoconservatism along with paleolibertarianism, which are both outgrowths of neo-Confederate thought idealising the slave-holding and then white supremacist societies of the southern states, turning Abraham Lincoln into a villain. There is also southern Agrarianism, an idealisation of southern rural society. Most significantly for party politics, there is the tradition which goes back to the Bourbon Democrats (that is southern pro-slavery and segregationist Democrats) which became the Old Right of the Republican Party from which Ron Paul emerged.

We cannot go very far in discussing American conservatism without running into nostalgia for pre-liberal societies and organicist rural tradition, which looks remarkably like traditionalist conservatism in Europe. The early foundational documents of the American Republic are great things, but do not in themselves stand in the way of local illiberal communities undisturbed by the federal state. This is how slavery and then Jim Crow (segregationism and white supremacism) survived.

The story of an American system with a truly individualist, equal rights way-of-thinking enforced by the federal state for all only really starts with Abraham Lincoln (main text here is the Gettysburg Address of course, which in essence advocates ‘a new birth of freedom’ as the transformation of the union of states into a democratic nation), followed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which abolished slavery, gave the Federal state a bigger role in enforcing constitutional protections, and created a federal guarantee for voting rights.

Sadly the triumph of southern ‘Redemption’ over Congressional Reconstruction after the Civil war prevented proper protection of basic rights for African-Americans until the 1960s. Of course most American conservatives now see the slavery and Jim Crow periods as the wrong kind of conservatism, based on a failure to apply the best parts of constitutional and natural law thinking.

There are many other aspects to American conservatism, the important point is to emphasise that significant parts of it have been based on traditionalist admiration for pre-liberal communities and the violent state imposition of social hierarchies (often accompanied by illegal violence tolerated, or even encouraged by the state) denying basic rights to humans of the wrong ‘race’. This has also influenced the more ‘paleo’ forms of libertarianism.

However many good things we can find in the US constitution, it was not applied so as to guarantee citizen and personal rights for all more than a century and a half after its adoption. Its initial design incorporated measures to allow the persistence of slavery. Whatever one might think about its proper meaning, the reality is that veneration for it was not a barrier to slavery or Jim Crow, along with many other abuses.

Hayek was no doubt sincere in wishing to distinguish his thought from conservatism and I certainly do not think his best insights can be applied within a conservative framework, but clearly he prefers conservatism to the more radical republican end of liberal thought (which did have an impact on some of the best moments in American politics) and it is not a surprise that conservatives have found it easy to digest a version of Hayek. Hayek’s thoughts about European conservatism are inadequate and he becomes stuck in an extraordinary tangle in his view of American conservatism.

Nightcap

  1. Is fasting good for you? S. Abbas Raza, Aeon
  2. French Catholicism: A Eulogy Rod Dreher, American Conservative
  3. Iran’s (literary) sexual revolution Pardis Mahdavi, Times Literary Supplement
  4. How Trump is reshaping American foreign policy Paul Pillar, National Interest

Porn is not bad; Or, what it’s like to be completely wrong but still write for an international newspaper

In a recent article by The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry claims that “Porn is bad!” and, in addition, we all know he’s right. Star Trek is leveraged to provide the analogy that we are all playing a game – the game of pornography and all its damaging consequences, a game from which we all need saving. It is worthwhile to note that in the featured Star Trek episode, the only one who rescues the helpless players from their entertainment is, in fact, a robot. This is excellent, because Gobry’s point might best be summarized as a plea for us to transition to unfeeling automata, which runs rather counter-intuitive to his pleasant speculations about sensuality above sexuality.

The “game” metaphor conjures feelings of triviality, and entrapment, and our human gullibility; it is an attempt at guiltiness by association. The idea of a mind trap goes at least as far back as Brave New World. The topic of pornography in our culture is better understood through a separate reference to Sword Art Online, a recent animation out of Japan in which characters engage with the world of virtual reality. (Shout-out Michelangelo Landgrave for the science-fiction expertise. ) In the beginning of the show, Gobry can find the parallel he so desperately seeks: helpless entrapment in a virtual system. Then, the system becomes therapeutic – healing for post traumatic stress, introduction to a foreign world, character development, and so on. Pornography use can provide a channel for instincts banned from the real world, educate young people that don’t know where the clitoris is, and all throughout its growth sexual violence trends fall. Gobry doesn’t care about any of this because for Gobry, sex itself is just too damn naughty to support.

It is an opinion article, without any in-depth research, and yet his sources are painfully bland or biased. One of the few articles he draws on makes a fundamental error in assuming that “Pornography and tobacco, everyone can agree … have [both] been on the receiving end of public moralizing ever since their appearance in human society.” This is patently false. Corporate defense of tobacco hardly equates to public moralizing, and in reality, religious institutions composed the parochial mantle of society since society’s birth, and have explicitly condemned tobacco use (often as “sinful”) except in rare instances. Pornography, too, has faced severe criticism since its expansion over the last hundred years, and only went without prohibition in classical antiquity as erotica (in which, I have pointed out, attitudes about sexuality seemed less sexist and less morally authoritarian than today).

The analogue between tobacco and porn is intended to be striking. Frankly, pornography is not the new tobacco. Young men don’t watch porn together. Porn isn’t “cool” or fashionable or a social activity. Pornography faces severe private forms of social control in most instances. And smoking enjoyed a relatively long period of relaxed legal policy until its multi-directional assault; online pornography has been under attack since its conception. Smoking was banned from most public spaces for the most excellent reasons: it causes second-hand harm to others that do not consent. Pornography, being a bedroom activity, does not have any such social consequences. Tobacco also lowers libido, essentially serving as pornography’s antithesis as an anaphrodisiac.

With the pleasures of smoking under varying lock and key, the new freedom, porn, must face the wrath of the pleasure-fascists. No, porn doesn’t cause cancer (Gobry likely finds this a drag); but surely it must do some harm to the family – or maybe society.

However, the allusion to “good evidence that [porn destroys] lives and families” goes unfortunately uncited, leaving us wondering which religious or conservative think tank is providing these supporting arguments. Perhaps the evidence is provided by the federal research projects that discover no negative effects of pornography consumption; or the plethora of marriage therapists that recommend watching porn to fix relationships. And yet, though porn addiction is alluded too, there is not even evidence of this – sex addiction itself is considered controversial in psychological circles. Gobry, a closeted equinophile, also beats up the dead horse, pulling out the “desensitization” argument (that I have discussed previously) which is based on lazy reasoning and not empirically supported as a psychological or neurological feature. Horror stories, that describe a hardcore acceleration in pornographic taste, are the exception, and not the rule.

His sources for individual discussion are sketchy as best. /NoFap, an internet support group to encourage extended periods of auto-abstinence, described by Gobry as “increasingly popular,” was began as a joke, and exists only on subreddits or 4chan. It’s like No Shave November but nobody even shaves their neckbeards. The name itself has a crudity no serious movement possesses, and the idea is not to quit masturbating, but, ordinarily, to take a tolerance break, so that better quality masturbating might follow. (The only other website pointed out by Gobry looks like a nightmare-generator created by fear-mongering soccer moms, and contains just speculation.) It is true, for scientific consensus, that abstinence from masturbating often leads to more energy, better mood, and more sociability. And yet, as per the aphorism of the ages – you can’t be loved, or give love, until you love yourself. Masturbation is still a taboo for certain groups in society that don’t feel comfortable exploring themselves. Vocal chastising by journalists is not helping.

Pornography is inherently an interaction with the hyper-real. It is an opportunity to engage with every possible emotion, some negative and some positive, and explore that mysterious side of ourselves so subjugated in social spheres. Recall Sword Art Online: unlike real life, videogames have the opportunity to be played multiple times. We can explore life before our incredibly consequential interactions with it. Pornography can help us recognize attractive and repulsive behaviors, and examine our sexuality. It is, surely, a cheap thrill; no cheaper than fast food or blockbuster movies (also criticized by Gobry elsewhere. He should spend more time instead on the subreddit /NoFun). Yet all of these have their place, and it is no one’s place to demand the removal of another person’s harmless pleasure.

Maybe Gobry should just have criticized masturbating instead of porn. The entire paragraph on NoFap is a conflation of what he wants to despise, porn, and what his own testimonials criticize, masturbating. He writes as if his distaste is for pornography, but this is revealed to be a distaste for masturbation, and this too just a distaste for pleasure outside of marriage.

Gobry is enchanted with Pamela Anderson’s calls for a “sensual revolution,” which would “replace pornography with eroticism — the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships.” This evolution is in fact probable, and might even be happening today, except that sexuality constantly needs reinforcement for freedom. Freedom has never been free. Sexuality in particular has been brutalized for eons, with rare figures like de Sade encouraging promiscuity and removing stigma. Over millennia, sexuality has faced an unholy arsenal of reprimand, mostly along arbitrary lines, and the day when genuine sexual freedom is fostered by a culture may never come – it’s difficult to even imagine. Anderson’s quote is not about freedom and sensuality; it’s about connecting sexuality to commitment again, which is the opposite of liberation. Gobry is either ignorant to the insinuations, or the puritan inside him found a way to expose its true intentions: make sex stale and non-promiscuous again.

Gobry’s dislike of individual fulfillment is revealed in a few of his other articles, as he notes that the only way to experience God is for Him to “strip away” all the “feel-goody aspects of the spiritual life,” noting that enlightenment is thought to occur by a process of “purification”- and should be expected to be “very painful.” This metaphor for God’s purification is noticeably more akin to deflowering a virgin than offering nirvana. A thread of sadomasochism could be derived from much of his meandering arguments. Gobry is a conservative Catholic, but somehow The Week still thought it credible that he should write on millennials’ lack of sex, a piece in which he effectively blames society’s problems on men, Xbox, and Tinder. In fact, for Gobry, society is collapsing because of porn. The world is falling apart because a sixteen year old is beating his meat every night. He is a classic puritan, and a Luddite by merit of his technophobia, claiming there is no magic to casual sex. He is conflicted though, in suggesting less sex among unmarried couples is a good thing, while attempting to claim heritage to a great French tradition of expressive sexuality. France should immediately revoke his citizenship and ancestry as punishment for such unromantic viewpoints.

The article contains, alongside his claim to Frenchhood, an air of self-absorption. It is interesting that an anti-pornography (and really, anti-pleasure) essay sounds so masturbatory. More than a few great minds have posited intellectual activity, e.g., journalism, as a method for sexual satisfaction; it appears there is perhaps a sort of sadistic pleasure for Gobry in condemning others’ pleasure-avenues and simultaneously stroking his own ego. Kant’s first name is even spelled incorrectly to match with Gobry’s hyphenated name, as if to juxtapose his own intellectual endeavor with “one of the greatest ethicists of the 18th centruy” [sic]. Presumably, a great insecurity is at the bottom of his condemnation.

His essay could, and hopefully should, be read as satirical. The author doesn’t seem particularly passionate about his viewpoints (as might be surmised from the low quality research), but regardless, throwing crap opinions like this into the world does real damage if they go without criticism. Pornography isn’t “bad” in any special way; it’s bad in a way the author disagrees with. The opposition force to general pornography might attempt to award themselves the moral high ground, and assign virtue to their dissent, but they are ultimately products of oft-religious, anti-scientific reaction. Gobry also seems to have a distaste for equal protection under the law and critical thinking as another writer has illustrated. The only topic he seems to possess an adequate grasp of is Christianity’s fundamental opposition to those damn gays – an opposition it must never budge on, no matter how much open society tries to bully it by bringing up equality (this even as he awkwardly attempts to posit that China should become a Christian nation).

The only thing we really need to fight about porn is behind the scenes, and these are the legal battles and stigmatization of sex work. There are porn stars that knowingly spread venereal diseases and never receive legal accountability; these are the horrors of pornography, and they are the horrors of most industries. What is on screen and consensual is not the enemy. The expectations impressed upon people by pornographic standards – waxed mons pubis, athletic or curvy body types, well-hung penises, hours of sex – are not a battle for courts or culture. As much liberation is to be found in porn as is oppression. Columnists that still condemn pornography as sexist or oppressive are behind the times; female-centered erotica is on the rise, and the “bizarre and elaborate fetishes” are lost in the abyss of mild amateur sex tapes and high-definition, romantic cinema (PassionHD, Nubiles, etc.). The videos Gobry finds distasteful must usually be sought out, and speculatively, it is his own seeking-out that confronts him with what he so loathes.

Toward the end, we are told that the most powerful argument against porn is that his opponents denounce the arguments against porn. This is an essential part of internet argumentation: A is necessary because my opponents reject A. Here, A is anti-pornography reaction; in other places, it is other forms of authoritarianism. Ultimately, the headline of the article indicates the effort and intellectual integrity of its authorship. Porn is bad! sums up the chicken-clucking omnipresent in the work, but even better is the website address: porn-bad. Here, the true nature of the article is finally revealed, as 21st century duckspeak.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XV, From Dutch Model to German Kings

Continuing from the last post, 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.

Next post: Britain in relation to some European nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XIII, Revolution and the Dutch Model in the mid 17th Century

The last post 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 stablished 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.

Next Revolution and the Dutch Model in the late 17th Century

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XII, 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 post, 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 agains 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 inlined 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.

More on Jacobean (from Jacobus, the Latin form of James) and seventeenth century England in the next post.