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.

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

James Harrington (1611-1677) was synonymous with the idea of democracy in Britain for centuries, but is not much read now beyond the ranks of those with strong interest in seventeenth century British history or the history of republican thought. Republicanism was the word used for thought about a political system under law and in which power is shared, with some protection of individual liberty, until the word liberal started being used in the eighteen century, with more emphasis though on the idea of liberty of trade and commerce. The republican tradition certainly stretches back to Aristotle in ancient Greece and can be taken back to his teacher Plato, though that often troubles modern readers for whom Plato seems disturbingly indifferent to individual rights and hostile to change. That will be a topic for another post, but for now it is enough to say that Aristotle is likely to seem relevant to ideas of individual liberty for the contemporary reader in ways that Plato may not and Aristotle’s own criticisms of his teacher are likely to seem appropriate to such a reader.

Harrington’s texts are not an easy read in that their structure is not clear and he does not have much in the way of literary style. This explains to a large degree why he is not a familiar name now along perhaps with the appearance of more recent writers in English concerned with liberty and democracy who are both more readable and more concerned with liberal democracy as it has developed since the late eighteenth century, particularly John Stuart Mill. In comparison Harrington seems stuck in early modern idea of democracy and republicanism which are expressed through a knowledge of texts which though not forgotten now are less obviously known to the educated reader. That is the texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Bible. The educated in Harrington’s time were likely to read Latin and often read Greek as well, with major classical texts forming a common frame of reference. The Bible was widely known in the seventeenth century because Christianity was a very dominant force, and Harrington was writing at a time when the Protestant Reformation which led to the translation of the Bible into modern languages and encouragement to the faithful to read the Bible carefully and frequent was still a very living force. Catholics of course read the Bible, but the Catholic authorities resisted translating the Bible into modern languages before the Reformation and gave comparatively less importance to the individual study of it than the Protestant churches. So in short, Harrington’s writing comes from a  time of intimate and shared knowledge of ancient and religious texts, and his way of writing is not too suited to expressing itself to those not acquainted with that culture.

In addition Harrington, assumes some familiarity with the British and European politics of his time, though much of it is of lasting interest with regard to understanding of the formation of modern European states and ideas about the most just form of politics for those states. Venice is a very important example of a republic for Harrington, reflecting its status as the longest lived and most powerful republic known to Europeans at that time. The formation of the Dutch Republic in the late sixteenth century promoted a possibly stronger republic, but Harrington regards it as a loose assembly of city and regional republics, so still leaving Venice as the most powerful republic with a  unified sovereignty. Italy was not united politically at that time and Venice had existed since the eight century as an aristocratic republic in which aristocratic government combined with merchant wealth to an extent that made Venice a leading trading and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire appears fleetingly as the model of monarchy, an image which dissipated in the eighteenth century when the Ottomans began to seem backward and despotic, and to be at the head of a declining power. The power and the sophistication of the Ottoman state applying a system of laws and justice across a large and diverse territory made a rather different impression in a seventeenth century Europe suffering from religious wars and internal conflict even within powerful states.

Harrington himself lived through the English Civil War (1642-1651), also known as the The English Civil Wars (because it was a series of wars), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (because it comprised separate conflicts in England, Scotland, and Ireland), and the English Revolution (because it resulted in the execution of King Charles I along with a period of constitutional innovation in the commonwealth and lord protector systems), which included religious conflict between different forms of Protestantism and political conflict between crown and parliament. Harrington was himself part of the section of the gentry supporting parliament against the king, though he also appears to have had friendly relations with Charles I while he was detained by parliamentary forces.

Oceana was originally banned while being printed during the Lord Protector phase in which the head of the parliamentary armies, Oliver Cromwell had become something close to a king. The book was legally published after negotiations between the Lord Protector’s government and Harrington’s family, with a dedication to Cromwell. Harrington was however accused of treason after the restoration of the monarch and though he was released after a short period of punishment never recovered in mind or body. So Harrington’s life and publication history is itself marked with the historical traumas of the time and the failure to establish enduring republican institutions.

More regions contemplating independence?

The historically great city-state of Venice is contemplating independence from Italy. “Over two million residents,” nearly half of the total population, “of the Veneto region took part in the week-long survey, with 89 percent voting in favour of independence from Italy.” The  Indipendenza Veneta party believes that the centralized Italian government is unable “to stamp out corruption, protect its citizens from a damaging recession and plug waste in the poorer south.” Venice joins Catalonia and, for better or worse, Crimea this year in considering breaking away from it’s central government. Catalonia’s request for an independence referendum denied by the Spanish prime minister while we all know how long Crimean independence lasted.  All is not lost however.

These types of referendum must be celebrated by libertarians throughout the world. The further decentralization of governments is a goal that can directly lead to a freer, more libertarian society and will serve as a siphon weakening governments worldwide. To quote, as I do so often, the great Murray Rothbard:

“Once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as in a state of impermissible ‘anarchy’, why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighbourhood? Each block? Each house? Each person?”

Why not indeed.