Nightcap

  1. What holds China together? Ian Johnson, ChinaFiles
  2. Bernie Sanders was wrong about America Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic
  3. Assessing the problems caused by the creation of America Mark Spencer, TLS
  4. Should we ration coronavirus testing by price? Tyler Cowen, MR

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, 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

A Renegade History of the United States: a brief response

A while ago I finished reading (by audiobook) A Renegade History of the United States. The overarching theme of this entertaining and interesting book often seems to be: “look at these fucking squares!”

And that’s important, because the author points out their illiberal, short sighted, and irrational views, the reactionary nature of those views. But the author turns it into yet another A vs. B situation; a linear spectrum. There’s the “renegades” and the “squares.” I’m absolutely on board with the idea that there are establishment squares to be derided. But just because The Man is stupid, doesn’t mean he’s got a monopoly on it.

The positive message is that “renegades” are exemplars of freedom, and especially the freedom to be wrong. If you aren’t free to make mistakes, you aren’t free. And the point of freedom (besides the fact that freedom is excellent) is that it allows a dispersed approach to figuring out the good life. I’m increasingly doubtful that The Hitchhikers’ Guide was anything but correct when it posited that Earth is a computer set in motion to determine the question that matches the answer to “Life, The Universe, and Everything” (the answer is 42, the question is something besides “What is 6×7?”). This history shows a number of instances that show how breaking from the status quo, actively doing what everyone else is convinced is wrong, contributes to the overall flourishing and success of later generations.

All told, I’m happy giving it 4 stars.