Populism versus Constitutional Democracy

What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? A conservative knows when she has lost.

A conservative respects the status quo for the sake of stability. The reactionary rebels against it. Unfortunately, it is the reactionary impulse within Brexit that now threatens to hem in the liberties of British citizens, and threaten the rights of foreign residents, for a long time to come. A looser but productive relationship that Britain could have had with the European Union was lost, first at Maastricht in 1992, then again at Lisbon in 2007. A conservative recognizes this loss and adapts her politics to the new landscape. The reactionary tries to reconstruct those lost pasts in vain as the chaotic debates in Britain and the increasingly disappointing outcome illustrates.

Does this mean that referendums are bad? Do they only embolden radicals and reactionaries? It depends. If referendums are used to rubberstamp the decisions of a party in power, or as a way of deferring political judgement, then they are useless at best, dangerous at worst. By contrast, if they are part of the fabric of a democracy, and act as a real veto on constitutional change, rather than a populist rallying point, then they can be enormously valuable. They act as an additional check on the political establishment that might be irrationally fixated on some new governance structure. It ensures that every major change carries with it some level of majority support.

Ten years ago, I wrote a monograph Total Recall: How direct democracy can improve Britain. I advocated supplementing representative democracy with a norm or statutory requirement for referendums on constitutional issues and new local initiative powers. I focused on direct democracy in US states that mean that US state elections often involve both voting for representatives and on propositions. Referendums are required for state constitutional changes. In some states, citizens can initiate new legislation through propositions.

There are parallel constitutional requirements in force in parts of Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. It is hardly a coincidence that direct democratic mechanisms have slowed down European integration wherever they have had statutory rather than merely advisory force. Ireland had to go to the polls several times to get the ‘right’ answer but at least this meant that a majority of Irish eventually accepted the new EU arrangements. By contrast, Switzerland and Norway, against the wishes of their political establishments, took European integration only so far before settling with generous trade relations and much more limited political integration. The cost-benefit calculus of their arrangements are up for debate, but few would deny their legitimacy. Britain’s future position, by contrast, may turn out to look much worse and all because its people never had the chance to say ‘no’ until long after the facts on the ground changed.

It’s the ability to say ‘no’ that’s important, with the implication that the status quo must still be a viable option. A people cannot be legislators. Mass votes can’t add up to complex judgements to inform actionable law. Hence the Brexit referendum for leaving the EU for an unknown alternative was bound to lead to chaos which, in the long run, may undermine the legitimacy of representative government, let alone popular democracy, rather than strengthen it. There is no status quo ante to return to.

At the time I was writing Total Recall, the spirits of referendums never voted on haunted British politics. Referendums were promised on adopting the Euro and the European Constitution. Both were abandoned when the Government realized they would almost certainly lose. So we stayed out of the Euro but signed what became the Lisbon Treaty. This turned out to be a deadly combination that eventually led to Brexit. The Euro is quite badly managed as an economic scheme. As a political mechanism, however, it binds members of the Euro much closer together. Leaving the European Union, as Britain is doing, is perilous and costly. Leaving the Eurozone would be even more difficult as it would involve establishing a new currency from scratch. If New Labour had been serious about putting Britain in a federal united states of Europe, it should have gone all in with the Euro from the beginning.

So Brexit could have been avoided but not by ignoring majority sentiments. If British referendums were constitutionally mandated rather than the random outcome of internal (in this case, Conservative) party politics; if referendums were required to change the status quo rather than a mechanism for a belligerent minority to relitigate past losses, then, like Switzerland and Norway, we would be in a much better position now.

Will our political leaders learn this lesson for the future? That I doubt.

Assessing Elections in Poland and Argentina in the Context of Populism and Liberalism in Europe and South America I (liberalism in the classical sense of course).

Election results I’ve seen today from weekend elections in Argentina and Poland and the more general thoughts they have inspired. Rather longer than I anticipated so posted in two parts, though not separated in time given that I am articulating immediate reactions.

The Polish parliamentary election has been bad news for those who share the perspective of Notes on Liberty in that Law and Justice, a social-national-religious sort of conservative party with strongly statist and populist inclinations, has taken over from the more open market/open society inclined Civic Platform. However, a new party, Modern (strictly speaking ‘.Modern’, but I’ll ignore that in the future as too likely to be mistaken for a typo, it is at least worth noting as suggesting a technocratic commitment to a digital age, reminiscent of the development of the e-state in post-Communist Estonia) which leans towards liberty in economic and social spheres, in comparison with most of Civic Platform and even more in comparison with Law and Justice, has entered the National Assembly, compensating for some of the votes lost by Civic Platform to the populist right.

We might at least hope that the next election in Poland produces a coalition government between Modern and Civic Platform, and hope that Law and Justice does not do too much harm during the coming years in which it will control the government and the (non-executive) presidency on its own.

The Polish political party structure has been confusingly variable since the end of Communism, with names of politicians reappearing from now extinct parties in new parties gathering a different if overlapping spectrum, and with different international partners. Modern’s leader, Ryszard Petru, is at least connected with the early phase of post-Communist politics as a disciple of Leszek Balcerowicz, who played a leading role in the transition to market capitalism and the earlier phase of liberal-centrist politics. Both Petru and Balcerowicz are ‘Europeanist’ in the sense of taking a positive attitude to the European Union, which is also the outlook of Civic Platform. Balcerowicz is even director of the College of Europe, a postgraduate institution in Bruges, Belgium, which educates many of those working in European institutions and in their general atmosphere.

This illustrates a major claim I put forward here about European politics, that is of a drift of market liberals, classical liberals and libertarians towards advocacy of the European Union, and an increasing tendency of the ‘Eurosceptic‘ right, even those with some libertarian-conservative history, to be caught up with hardcore populists even if some of the Eurosceptic right has pro-liberty inclinations. That part of the European right has always been more libertarian-conservative than libertarian-cosmopolitan.

The leading ideologue of libertarian-conservative Eurosceptics in Britain, Conservative Party Member of the European Parliament, Dan Hannan is very touchy about suggestions of backward looking nationalism and chauvinism, emphasising a cosmopolitan family background. However, despite these protestations, Hannan is a great believer in the superiority of British (and Anglosphere) ways, and in addition has always been for ‘democratic controls on immigration’, i.e. populist limitations on the market in labour and individual rights to mobility. The second leading British ideologue in that spectrum, and previously a close associate of Hannan, Douglas Carswell has joined the the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has unmistakably populist inclinations in economic and social policy beyond restrictions on immigration. Hannan prefers to praise UKIP as ‘patriots’ rather than confront this.

Hannan engineered the formation of a eurosceptic right group in the European Parliament after David Cameron was persuaded that leaving the main centre-right group (European People’s Party) was a necessary price for keeping Tory Eurosceptics acquiescent with his leadership. Hannan’s European Conservative and Reformists Group does not include Modern or Civic Platform, but it does include Law and Justice, which gives a good idea of what part of the European political spectrum it appeals to, i.e. not those inclined to social and cosmopolitan liberty. Most disturbingly associate members include the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, i.e. the AKP of Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan associated with corruption, police brutality, politicisation of the judiciary, social media blocks, attacks on the media and all free speech, along with the demonisation of anyone not part of the more conservative parts of majority Turkish culture.

The idea that liberty can be combined with Eurosceptic discourse is declining, though it has been influential in some libertarian circles, particularly in the UK and Slovakia to be the best of my knowledge. There has been a recovery of pro-EU views (if highly qualified by the wish for reform) amongst the Greek liberty community, even after the recent Euro currency disasters. The Slovak eurosceptic libertarians seem to have collapsed. The Czech hero of European right wingers of that tendency, Vacláv Klaus, has turned out to be a harsh social conservative and Putin fellow traveler of a type obnoxious to the anyone of genuinely pro-liberty tendencies, leading to his exclusion from polite libertarian circles as seen in the loss of his Cato fellowship. A warning there surely about the perils of regarding the sovereigntist eurosceptic right as natural allies of liberty. Personally I believe the same applies to the Republican right in the US. That is of course another story, but just look at Donald Trump’s ascendancy and think about that. The German Free Democrats are making a come back after a period it seemed they might lose the most economically free market part of the electorate to AfD.

Small indications in some cases, but it all adds up to an overall and increasingly dominant picture (though course with exceptions) in which consistently pro-liberty forces support the European Union, which is very much the case in Turkey, even if desiring considerable reform. The strengthening of the populist right (Northern League in Italy, National Front in France, Swedish Democrats, Golden Dawn in Greece, Freedom Party in the Netherlands etc as well as those already mentioned) together with a populist-socialist surge has pushed those engaged with a consistent politics of individual rights and cosmopolitan openness towards a pro-EU centre.

The left populist surge has already receded in Greece where Syriza is in transition to standard social democracy while still using a more radical rhetoric, but has some energy elsewhere in Europe: Podemos in Spain, two left of social democracy parties in Portugal, Sinn Fein in Ireland, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in Britain. The left populist surge is less strong than its right wing equivalent and despite what the socialist intelligentsia in the UK believe the socialist surge within the Labour Party does not reflect a broader shift in British public opinion. Anyway, we are in a period where pro-liberty forces are coalescing with centrist forces in defence of a continuing EU of some kind, with some limitations on national sovereignty, not completely closed to refugees, not in thrall to an enclosed defensive traditionalist, legacy Christian identity politics.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, 20. Concluding Remarks

This series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16i, 16.ii17, 18, 19) 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.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XIX, Charters and Constitutions

The last post discussed the historical role of law. This post 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.

Next week, the end, a final summary.

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.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XI, Norman, Angevin and Plantagenet England

The last post was on Anglo-Saxon England, which 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. The next post will test that proposition.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, IX. British connections with Europe from the Stone Age to the Anglo-Saxon Invasion

Following on from the last post on post-war Germany and British attitudes to Germany, this post will 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.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, VII.

This post continues from the last post‘s assessment of early twentieth century British military and foreign policy in Europe, in a series of criticisms of sovereigntist-Eurosceptic assumptions of Britain’s separateness and superiority in relation to mainland continental Europe, and is rather long because bad decisions of the 1930s had consequences in World War Two, making it difficult to split the periods into separate posts. 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.

Next post, Britain and Europe after Word War Two

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, IV: Britain the Enlightenment model for a liberal Europe?

Following on from last post in this series, focused on the violent formation of the nineteenth century British state, 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 soveriegntist-Eurosceptic assumptions of special, separate, and superior status for Britain in relation to Europe.

Next post some more political theory, but also another broad historical discussion.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, III: British Superiority?

Continuing from my last 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.

Next post, Britain as a supposed model European state after Waterloo, comparisons

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, II: After Waterloo

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.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, I: Waterloo

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. 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 nine eight hundred year anniversary of Magna Carta. More on Magna Carta when I get onto issues of law and institutions in this series of posts. First a few post posts 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.

Coming next: Britain before and after Waterloo