The political success of the English
An edited polemic by Robert Henderson
The first genius of the Anglo-Saxons (aka the English) may be reasonably said to be political. Above all other 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).
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 (plus 7 monarchies) 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.
So why was 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 an 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 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 monarchical ambition.
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.
Consider the English treatment of foreigners:- Compared with other peoples, the English have been noticeably restrained in their treatment of other peoples residing within England.
There were a few mob massacres of Jews prior to their expulsion from England in 1290, but from that time forward there has not been a great slaughter of any minority living within England.
Since 1290 there have been occasional outbreaks of anti-foreigner violence. During the Peasants' Revolt some London-based Flemings were murdered.
In later times an anti-Spanish "No Popery" mob was frequently got up in London. The influx of Jews and Huguenots in the 17th and 18th centuries caused riots, one so serious in 1753 that it caused the repeal of a law naturalising Jews and Huguenots. But these riots did not result in great numbers of dead, let alone in systematic genocidal persecutions of any particular group.
Most notably, the English fonts of authority, whether the crown, church or parliament, have not incited, let alone ordered, the persecution of a particular racial or ethnic group since the expulsion of the Jews. They have persecuted Christian groups, but that was a matter of religion not ethnicity, the Christians persecuted being English in the main.
The only discrimination the English elite have formally sanctioned against an ethnic group for more than half a millennium was the inclusion of Jews within the general prohibitions passed in the half century or so after the Restoration in 1660 which banned those who were not members of the Church of England from holding a crown appointment such as an MP or election to public offices such as that of MP.
What about English peaceableness and constitutional development:- Is this comparative lack of violence a consequence of England's political arrangements, or are the political arrangements the consequence of the comparative lack of violence in the English character?
Probably the answer is that one fed the other. But there must have been an initial exceptional tendency towards reasonableness which started the long climb towards settling disputes without violence.
Perhaps the fundamental answer to English peaceableness lies in the fact that the English enjoyed an almost unique level of racial and cultural homogeneity from very early on.
Long before the English kingdom existed Bede wrote of the English as a single people. The English have never killed one another in any great quantity simply because one part of the population thought another part was in some way not English. That is the best possible starting point for the establishment of a coherent community.
The favoured liberal view of England is that it is the mongrel nation par excellence. In fact, this is the exact opposite of the truth. The general facts of immigration into England are these. The English and England were of course created by the immigration of Germanic peoples. The British monk, Gildas, writing in the sixth century, attributed the bulk of the Saxon settlement to the practice of British leaders employing Saxons to protect the Britons from Barbarian attacks after Rome withdrew around 410 A.D. The English monk Bede (who was born in A.D. 673) attributed the origins of the English to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came to England in the century following the withdrawal of the Romans at the request of British war leaders.
Archaeological evidence suggests that substantial Germanic settlement in England had a longer history and dated from the Roman centuries, perhaps from as early as the third century. What is certain is that in her formative centuries following the exit of Rome, the various invaders and settlers were drawn from peoples with much in common. They were the same physical type, there was a considerable similarity of general culture, their languages flowed from a common linguistic well.
When the Norsemen came they too brought a Teutonic mentality and origin. Even the Normans were Vikings at one remove who, if frenchified, were not physically different from the English nor one imagines utterly without vestiges of the Norse mentality. Moreover, the number of Normans who settled in England immediately after the Conquest was small, perhaps as few as 5000.
After the Conquest, the only significant immigration into England for many centuries were the Jews. They were expelled from England in 1290. There was then no large scale and sudden immigration from outside the British Isles until the flight of the Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which granted limited toleration to the Huguenots within France) in 1684 by Louis X1V. The total numbers of Huguenots was however less than 50,000.
There was other immigration in the period 1066-1650, but it was small and highly selective. Craftsmen of talent were encouraged particularly in the Tudor period. Italian families with trading and banking expertise (such as it was in those days) appeared after the expulsion of the Jews. Foreign merchants were permitted, but for much of the period on sufferance and subject to restrictions such as forced residence within specially designated foreign quarters.
The upshot of all this is that for six centuries after the Conquest England was an unusually homogeneous country, both racially and culturally. This is reflected in the absence since the Norman Conquest of any serious regional separatist movement within the heart of English territory.
There has been meaningful resistance at the periphery - Cornwall, the Welsh marches and the far north, but even that has been effectively dead since the sixteenth century. Englishmen have fought but not to create separate nations.
The Free-Born Englishman :- It may have taken until 1928 for full adult suffrage of English men and women to arrive, but the essential sentiments which feed the idea of democracy - that human beings are morally equal and enjoy autonomy as individuals and a natural resentment of privilege and inequality - are ancient in England.
If there is one outstanding trait in English political history it is probably the desire for personal freedom. This might seem odd to the modern Englishman who sees the large majority of his country men and women consistently welcoming the idea of the most intrusive forms of ID cards and who stand by dumbly as many of the age-old and ineffably hard-won rights which protect the individual, such as the abridgement of jury trial and the right to silence, being swept away by modern governments. But it was not always so and that "always so" was not so long ago. The great Austrian political and economic thinker Friedrich Hayek put it forcefully during the Second World War:-
"It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that only in English society, and those societies deriving from it, is the notion of individual liberty built into the social fabric. The English have been free not primarily because of legal rights, but because it is their evolved social nature. They accept liberty because it seems natural to them." (The road to Serfdom - chapter Material conditions and ideal ends)
An English politician once put it:-
"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail - its roof may shake - the wind may blow though it - the storm may enter - the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter! - All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!" (Quoted in Lord Brougham's Statesmen in the time of George III)
The mediaeval chronicler Jean Froissart has Ball preaching: “Are we not descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? And what can they sow or what reason can they give why they should be more masters than ourselves? They are clothed in velvet and rich stuffs ornamented in ermine and other furs while we are forced to wear poor clothing. They have wines and fine bread while we have only rye and refuse of straw and when we drink it must be water. They have handsome manors...while we must have the wind and rain in our labours in the field and it is by our labours that they...support their pomp. We are called slaves and if we do perform our services we are beaten and we have no sovereign to whom we can complain...let us go to the King and remonstrate with him; he is young and from him we may obtain a favourable answer, and if not we must seek to amend our conditions ourselves.” (Simon Schama A History of Britain p 248)
In the Magna Carta it is put:-
Clause 39 No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled or deprived of his standing in any other way , nor will we proceed with force against him or send others to do so, except by judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
Clause 40 To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
John Milton writing in the Areogapitica in the 1640s put the English attitude to dispute as:-
“And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose upon the earth, so truth be in the field [and] we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter...”
This thought was also expressed in the new model Army Colonel Thomas Rainsborough's famous words:-
“ ... I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to lead, as the richest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do not think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under...” (Col Thomas Rainsborough Puritanism and Liberty The Putney debates p 53).
The astonishing point is that the English example is at the root of the American and French Revolutions. This example was also spread by the British Empire, so the political structures of most modern states are broadly based on the English constitution of King, Lords and Commons. The overwhelming majority having a head of state plus two assemblies.
In addition, the widespread practice of a written constitution derives from the example of the United States, which of course drew its form and inspiration from English settlements in North America, English history and political practices.
Of course, the balance of power between the head of state and the assemblies varies widely and there is much difference between Parliamentary and Presidential government, but they all have their ultimate origin in the example of the English system of representative government.
One last thing. Look around the world. How many countries can be said even today to have accepted elected representative government and the rule of law as a banal fact of life, the norm of their society?
Britain, the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand certainly, Switzerland and Scandinavia possibly. But where else? Not France which as recently as 1958 overthrew the Fourth Republic; Not Germany which embraced Hitler nor Italy the land of Mussollini; Not Spain so recently under Franco.
As for the rest of the world, there is unusually a sorry tale of elites who generally have such a lack of respect for the individual and such a contempt for the masses that the idea of shared power with and for the People is quite simply alien to them.
The fact is that the only really stable examples of elected representative government in countries of any size are in those countries which have their ultimate origins in English colonisation strongly suggests that it was no accident that it was in England that the institution evolved.
There must be something highly unusual about English society for it both to develop in a manner so different from any other country and to export this rare and valuable difference to colonies.
This article is an edited version of Robert Henderson’s article (click here for the original >>> https://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/england-the-mother-of-modern-politics-2/ ).