How England became the mother of modern politics

Part 1 of a 10-part series

English exceptionalism

I was tempted to entitle this essay “England – the mother of modern democracy”, for the political structures of any state that calls itself democratic today owe their general shape to the English example. In addition, many modern dictatorships have considered it expedient to maintain the form of representative democracy without the content.

But democracy is a slippery word and what we call by that name is very far removed from what the Greeks knew as democracy.

Pericles, circa 495 – 429 BC, held office longer than any other elected leader in Greece

Pericles, circa 495 – 429 BC, held office longer than any other elected leader of Greece of his time

The Greeks would probably have described our system as oligarchy – rule by the few. Many modern academics would agree, for they tend to describe representative government as elective oligarchy, a system by which the electorate is permitted to select between competing parts of the political elite every few years, but which has little other direct say in how they are governed.

If democracy today is a debatable concept, the very widespread modern institution of elected representative government is an objective fact. It is the foundations and evolution of this institution that I shall examine here to the point at which modern “democratic” politics emerged during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s.

Elected representative government is an institution of the first importance, for it is a truism that the more power is shared the less abusive the holders of the power will be. Imperfect as it may often be as a reflector of the will and interests of the masses, representative government is still by far the most efficient means of controlling the naturally abusive tendencies of elites and of advancing the interests of the ordinary man or woman, by imposing limits on what those with power may do, either through legal restraints in the form of constitutional law which is superior to that of the legislature, or through fear of losing office in an election. Indeed, no other system of government other than elected representative government manages that even in principle, for no other political arrangements place meaningful restraints on an elite. Whether democratic or not in the Greek sense, representative government is undoubtedly the only reliable and non-violent means by which the democratic will may gain at least some purchase on the behaviour of an elite.

Yet however much utility it has an organising political idea, the fact that we have representative government today is something of a fluke, certainly a very long shot, for had it not developed in England we should probably not have it all. In the non-European world nothing of its nature ever developed before the Western model was imported.

swiss direct democracy

Direct democracy in Switzerland occurred in the Middle Ages via meetings of the residents of a Landsgemeinde (district community); the earliest record of a Landsgemeinde is in Schwyz in 1294.

Elsewhere in Europe the many nascent parliaments of the later Middle Ages either never went beyond its embryonic form or were crushed by autocratic rulers. In England we have had continuous parliamentary development for the better part of eight centuries.

Why did the English alone developed such a political system? It was a mixture of such traits and circumstances as the democratic spirit, egalitarianism, individualism and royal weakness. But before examining the detail of those traits, consider first the utterly abnormal political success of the English.

The political success of the English

The first genius of the Anglo-Saxon may be reasonably said to be political. Above all peoples they have learned best to live without communal violence and tyranny. Set against any other country the political success of the English throughout history is simply astonishing. Compare England’s political history with that of any other country of any size and it is a miracle of restraint. No English government has been altered by unconstitutional means since 1688. No Englishman has killed an English politician for domestic English political reasons since the assassination of Spencer Percival in 1811, and that was an assassination born of a personal grudge, probably aggravated by mental illness, rather than political principle. (The assassin, John Bellingham, believed he had been unreasonably deserted by the British Government when imprisoned in Russia and ruined by the economic circumstances of the war with Napoleon. He killed Percival after unsuccessfully attempting for a long time to get financial redress from the British Government).

Banazir Bhutto, candidate for the Parliament of Pakistan, was assassinated on December 27, 2007 while campaigning.

Benazir Bhutto, candidate for the Parliament of Pakistan, was assassinated on December 27, 2007 while campaigning.

Compare that with the experience of the other major states of the world. In the twentieth century Germany fell prey to Nazism, Italy to Fascism, Russia to Communism. France, is on its fifth republic in a couple of centuries. The United States fought a dreadful civil war in the 1860s and assassinated a president as recently as 1963. China remains the cruel tyranny as it has always been and India, which advertises itself as the “largest democracy in the world”, is home to regular outbreaks of serious ethnic violence, not least during elections which are palpably fraudulent in many parts of the country, especially the rural areas.

Why was England so different?

Why is England so different? Perhaps the immediate answer lies in the fact that she has been wonderfully adept in dealing with the central problem of human life – how to live together peaceably. A Canadian academic, Elliott Leyton, has made a study of English murder through the centuries in his book Men of Blood. Leyton finds that the rate of English (as opposed to British murder) is phenomenally low for a country of her size and industrial development, both now and for centuries past. This strikes Elliott as so singular that he said in a recent interview “The English have an antipathy to murder which borders on eccentricity; it is one of the great cultural oddities of the modern age.” (Sunday Telegraph 4 12 1994).

This restraint extends to warfare and social disorder. That is not to say England has been without violence, but rather that at any point in her history the level of violence was substantially lower than in any other comparable society. For example, the English Civil War in the 17th Century was, apart from the odd inhumane blemish, startlingly free of the gross violence common on the continent of the time during the 30 Years War, where the sacking and pillage of towns and cities was the norm. A particularly notable thing, for civil wars are notorious for their brutality.

The St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois, a Huguenot painter born circa 1529

The way that England responded to the Reformation is instructive. She did not suffer the savage wars of religion which traumatised the continent and brought human calamities such as the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre in France in 1572, when thousands of French Protestants were massacred at the instigation of the French king. It was not that the English did not care deeply about their religion, rather that they have been, when left to their own devices, generally loth to fight their fellow countrymen over anything. English civil wars have always been essentially political affairs in which the ordinary person has little say, for the struggles were either dynastic or a clash between Parliamentary ambition and the monarch.

Even the persecution of the Lollards in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the persecution of Protestants under Mary I had a highly political aspect. The former was a vastly disturbing challenge to the established social order with men being told, in so many words, that they could find their own way to salvation and the latter an attempt to re-establish not merely the Catholic order in England, which had been overturned since the time of Henry VIII’s breach with Rome, but also what amounted to a new royal dynasty with Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain.

Even the prohibitions on Catholics and non-Conformists after the Reformation had a fundamental political basis to them, namely, they were predicated on the question of whether such people be trusted to give their first loyalty to the crown.

How England became the mother of modern politics – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email