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|From: Irish Political Review: Editorials|
|Date: July, 2019|
England As It Is
British political life is in superficial confusion at the moment. The Parliament three years ago conferred on the electorate, by referendum, the decision about whether the state should remain a member of the European Union and be carried along by its development, or should withdraw from the European system, reassert its comprehensive independence and revert to the traditional British strategy of fostering divisions within Europe and nurturing those divisions towards conflict.
It might be that the issue put to referendum vote was not formally presented in those terms, but the history of British/European relations, which saturates British national culture, determined that that is how the matter was understood.
The electorate decided that the state should leave the EU.
The Government that put the issue to the electorate had been expecting a different result. It hoped for a strong showing of support for leaving the EU in order to strengthen its bargaining position against the EU and compel it to concede further reforms in the British interest, but was confident that there would not be a majority vote for leaving the EU.
The Government resigned when the result was announced. That is to say the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned. The Tory Party selected a new leader, Theresa May, who became Prime Minister. She was a Remainer. She called a General Election, presumably for the purpose of strengthening her Parliamentary base and carrying through a Brexit on terms which involved the least possible distancing of Britain from the EU. She lost the majority she inherited from Cameron and succeeded in forming a Government only with the support of the Ulster Unionists.
In the days of Parnell and Redmond, the Irish Home Rule Party, with its block of 80 Westminster seats, occasionally held the balance-of-power when neither of the British Parties won an outright majority. That a tiny Unionist Party in Northern Ireland—Paisley’s Party—should hold that position was the least probable of all the strange things that have happened in the past three years.
The balance-of-power in the British state was held by a miniscule Party from Ireland that was a British Party but was extraneous to the British political system.
Ulster Unionism is a political absurdity. “Ulster”—the Six County bit of it—has a Party which wants to be in the United Kingdom. It is organised separately for the purpose of being in the United Kingdom even though it has never, since the United Kingdom was formed, been anywhere but in the United Kingdom. Its “Ulster”, we are told authoritatively, is as securely British as Finchley. But there is no Finchley Party whose purpose is to be British, and which in the pursuit of this purpose organizes separately from the other British Parties.
This absurdity was imposed on Ulster in 1921 by the British Unionist Party which, in 1922, became the Tory Party.
If “Ulster” had not been excluded from the British political system in the early 1920s by the joint action of the Tory and Labour Parties, there would not now be an “Ulster” Party making life difficult for its creators at Westminster. Ulsterishness would have been heavily modified and woven into British political life by the action of the Tory and Labour Parties.
But it is pleasant to see chickens coming home to roost.
Teresa May’s Government has been crippled by its dependence on the DUP. It could not act decisively. Its indecision gave the opportunity to all sources of discontent with the outcome of the referendum to express themselves and to feel their way through casuistic reasoning to the conviction that the right thing to do was prevent its implementation.
Parliament had referred the issue to direct decision by the electorate. This was done by general agreement. Then, at the Election, all parties committed themselves to implement the decision of the electorate. And all agreed to inform the EU that the two-year process of withdrawal had been triggered.
And so it fell to Parliament to do what the electorate decided should be done—and Parliament decided not to do it.
There had been agreement to put the matter to referendum. Now there was conspiracy, or collaboration, to restore to Parliament the sovereign authority which had been delegated to the populace, but to do so by means of verbal juggling which did not openly say that the populace was politically ignorant and had not measured up to the responsibility required of it.
Parliamentary authority was restored over the matter that Parliament had delegated to the populace. This was done by Judicial decision, which actually overruled the sovereignty of Parliament by making it subject to law.
Judge Jonathan Sumption, in his Reith Lectures, made a feeble defence of the Judicial action which gave Parliament the final say on any Brexit arrangements by saying the Judges only did for Parliament what it was proving incapable of doing for itself. But the point was not whether Parliament agreed with the decision made about it by the Judges, but that the Judges decided they had competence in the matter, and gave judgment, and Parliament accepted the judgment.
Simultaneously with this, Parliament asserted its independence of Government, and a number of MPs who should have known better, announced excitedly that the era of Parliamentary democracy had begun.
There is no necessary connection between Parliament and democracy. For most of its existence Parliament was not a democratically-composed body. It was the King’s Council. It was a kind of representative body of nobles by means of which the Monarch governed.
In the previous Brexit, known as the English Reformation, the King, Henry VIII, consulted Parliament, but essentially he gave it instructions. He was making up a new religion and destroying the old. He expanded the nobility out of the plunder of the old religion, and it did his bidding.
A hundred years later Parliament rebelled against the King, Charles the First, grandson of the martyred Mary Queen of Scots, who tried to establish a religious structure balanced between the old and the new. It made war on the Monarchy for eight years, executed the King in 1649, and established a Parliamentary system without a Monarch—a Republic, called a Commonwealth.
The English Parliamentary Republic—which was not a democracy, and never knew quite what it was—let loose its Puritan forces on the Irish to crush the Catholic Church, but in England it failed to establish a viable system of government. It failed, quickly, within a few years, but its appearance of life was eked out by Cromwell’s dictatorship until 1659.
In 1660 the Monarchy was restored by General Monk, a Puritan, without resistance from the headless Parliament, and a number of leading rebels were executed as regicides.
The restored Monarchy, which was definitely a monarchy, continued until 1688, the year of The Glorious Revolution, the Year of Liberty.
The occasion of the Revolution was the establishment of freedom of religion by King James the Second. England was destined to be a Protestant state and its Protestant exclusiveness was asserted forcibly. But the Revolution was kept very severely in check by the nobility which organised it, who ensured that there was no repeat of 1641. The populace could sing Lillibulero and abuse Papism to its heart’s content, but the State structure was to be authoritatively Anglican, rather than Puritan.
The political substance of the Revolution was the complete freedom of the nobility from monarchical restraints. The State structure maintained by the monarchy dissolved and its place was taken by networks of aristocratic families, each of which was sovereign in its own locality.
The figment of monarchy to which all were subject was maintained, but aristocrats were subject to no authority, and there was no overall State authority under which the populace might have rights.
That was the freedom established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the Irish Parliament of the Penal Laws was its offshoot.
The main economic reform enacted by the Glorious Revolution was the throwing open of the Slave Trade to private enterprise by anybody capable of engaging in it. This led to the Triangular Trade (England, West Africa, the Caribbean), the first form of the British world market within which Capitalism was hatched.
18th century England, after 1714, might be described as an aristocratic Republic disguised as a monarchy. But the disguise was not external to it—aside from the fact that the minor German Royalty, put on its throne in 1714, did not speak English. The monarchy was not only maintained as a kind of Holy Family for the populace to look up to, but also served a purpose in the psychology of the aristocracy which stage-managed it, as that aristocracy became a ruling class with ramifications downwards. This is a uniquely English institution amongst the major states.
Ireland was given a Parliament by the Glorious Revolution in 1691, and a British aristocracy to go along with it, but the aristocracy in Ireland did not function as a ruling class connected with the people, and therefore it became a nuisance which had to be put away.
The English aristocracy/ruling class existed for Parliamentary purposes in the form of a party system which reflected its complicated origins in 17th century revolution and counter-revolution. This is perhaps the thing that sets it most apart from the major European countries, whose parties were not inherited by the democracy from the aristocratic era, but were formed in the struggle against aristocracy.
The first English political party was the Puritan party formed for the second election of 1641. It wrenched power from the monarchy, established Parliamentary government, and failed to govern. The memory of it hung about in the undergrowth of the Restoration system of 1660, giving rise in the long run to the Whig/Tory division that was part of the autonomous aristocratic system masquerading as a monarchy in the 18th century.
And it was through the gradual drawing of widening circles of the population into this party system of the ruling class that the British Parliamentary franchise was democratised, with the outcome that British democracy was both monarchical in ways and aristocratic in ways.
The French Revolution abolished the aristocracy and declared democracy to be the only legitimate form of government, but it was able to maintain actual democratic government only for a few years because it did not have a party system and did not want one. (A party system, when you think about it, is an affront to democratic principle, as some British MPs came to see when they thought about it for the first time this year.)
The British ruling class rejected democracy as chaos, when France introduced it. Forty years later, in 1832, it reckoned that the party system would allow a stratum of the middle class to be safely introduced into the Parliamentary franchise. And, about fifty years after that, it began to think that general democracy would be practicable as the people at large were beginning to understand that their welfare, such as it was, depended on competent government of the Empire.
Actual democratisation was delayed, however, until it was made inevitable by the imposition of conscription in the war on Germany. Its rushed introduction was then a cause of disastrous British action on Europe in the Peace Settlement.
Democracy, once it was adopted in party-political form as a practicable arrangement when the populace came to see that it had a vested interest in Empire and turned away from Utopian schemes, was projected backward. The 1688 Revolution, which established representative government of the aristocracy, in the form of religious sectarianism, was conjured into a democratic event, as was the revolt of the Barons at Runnymede in the 14th century.
The story began to be that England, by and large, had always been a democracy of one sort or the other, except for a few years in the 1680s when James the Second subjected it to the tyranny of religious freedom.
Actual British democracy, which has shown itself to be the most durable democracy in Europe, is a construct of the late 19th century and early 20th. It has always been Imperialist, having been born in the greatest Empire the world has ever seen, at the moment when its power was greatest. And its form has always been the two-party system founded by the aristocracy, broadened gradually from 1832 to 1918 to include the adult population in the Parliamentary franchise.
In this system the Prime Minister (the King’s first Minister) is the leader of the majority party in Parliament. He acts in the name of the monarch and with the authority of the monarch. That was the meaning in practice of what was called Parliamentary sovereignty for short, but was the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament.
Parliamentary sovereignty in the literal sense was generally understood not to be practicable. It had been tried in the 1650s and failed, and this was widely understood until recently.
The current situation is that a Parliament which had lost its bearings undermined the practical form of its sovereignty by delegating decision on a major issue of State to the general electorate and then refused to implement the decision made by the electorate.
Its decision to refuse to implement the decision of the electorate was then spun into an assertion that the electorate, being ignorant, had voted for something that was not implementable.
An interesting thing about democracy in large, complicated states is that it works best when there is a low level of mass engagement with it, and it is not government of the people for the people by the people, but government with the consent of the governed.
A very substantial portion of the English electorate never votes. It leaves politics to political addicts. That is the important contribution which it makes. By its inaction it gives stabilising consent to the process.
The intensive voting propaganda of the Referendum campaign brought people out to vote who would not bother to vote in routine elections. It was a once in a lifetime event. And what it was about was not cost-benefit analysis of the economics of leaving or remaining, but the destiny of England.
Was it to be sucked into the world of the Treaty of Rome, from which Henry the Eighth had freed it, to be the mere equal of all those peoples whom it had so often saved from themselves by knocking their heads together—or were they to be England still?
They decided to be England still. But their representatives in Parliament refused to implement that decision on the terms of disengagement which the EU agreed with the May Government.
Three years after the Referendum, Britain is still as much within the EU as ever it was, but the major British party in the European Parliament displays its contempt for the Union and encourages dissent among the members of that Union, whilst British politics at home appears to be descending into anarchy, and there is speculation that the party system has been fatally damaged and that something else is taking its place.
Our guess is that the party system will spring back into life, as if by magic, once a Deal is done, and the purpose of the present carry-on—which is not unprecedented in British politics—is to exert maximum pressure on the European system, formally over the terms of disengagement, in order to initiate a process of fracturing within the EU.
In the British view political unity in Europe is against nature. And, if Europe is united, England cannot know what it is itself. That is the world view ingrained in English culture by five hundred years of history.
There is no pro-Europe party in Britain, least of all the Remain parties, which are Remain and Reform parties. Reform means diverting Europe from the course it set itself sixty years ago by remoulding it to accord with British interests. Remain means continuing the work so ably begun by Thatcher.
And in Europe the process of uniting was launched on anti-British grounds by statesmen who had come to understand the meaning of British balance-of-power strategy by being there while Britain made a mess of Europe after the 1914 War and guided it towards the 1939 War.
(The most pro-Europe statement made by a British politician during the past few years was made by a Tory, Chris Grayling, who said in effect that Europe had escaped from the British influence by establishing the Euro, and that it would be held together and increasingly given a structure by the requirements of maintaining the Euro, and that Britain should disengage from it in its own interest, let it be, and give itself a new orientation in the world.)
A thoroughgoing democracy would always seem to exist on the verge of bankruptcy, as the British does now. Where this is not the case, and the State is soundly and routinely based on stable bodies of opinion, that indicates the effective action of institutions of the State on the flux of public opinion. The institutions of State which have done this in Britain are its hierarchically organised political parties—two of them with a third nipping at their heels—and its electoral system which is biased towards authority rather than representation.
British democracy is a product of a long history, conducted behind a powerful Navy, and guided by the principle that the best form of defence is attack. It actively interferes with others—for their own good—but never allows itself to be interfered with by others. Whatever it happened to be at any particular moment was the right thing to be and justified its interference with others who were different.
The question of democracy was raised in the 1640s and democracy was established in 1918. This long, slow development—which was historical in the sense of not being a process of implementation of a principle—was made possible by a great ballast of deference on the part of the populace. And that deference was continued into the democratic system.
Deference was sustained by a right of vulgar abuse. Grossly obscene libels on the Great and the Good were published for mass consumption by the English populace two and a half centuries ago, just as they are today. And they have now made their way into the middle class: a feminist commentator on BBC’s Newsnight suggested that much of Boris Johnson’s performance was just “Willy-wagging”.
English democracy was a domestic historical development within the Empire. It was not extended to the Empire. But, once established, it was presented as a universal for propaganda purposes.
A kind of practical democracy evolved in England over a long period. England then presented it as a scientific formula. Like a chemical formula it could be put into effect on pieces of matter anywhere. And, if it was put in place and did not work, that could only be because Evil and Corrupt forces were sabotaging it. And, of course, that called for intervention to put it right.
Democratism has become a very useful instrument of subversion of states which are not toeing the Ameranglian line.
Europe is in a very early stage of its development. It does not quite know what it is to be. Its origins are lost in obscurity. They are very recent and very accessible but it dare not think about them because they are thick with ethnic cleansing and genocide—and we don’t refer to the Fascist era!
It is living in a false ideology of itself. It has lost the coherence of its founders. It is apparently fragile. Britain is putting it to the test, pitting its substantial democracy against what it can only see as the toy-town democracy of Europe.
The Irish state, which detached itself from British foreign policy in 1932, ought to be a source of memory in Europe, stiffening its resolve by keeping alive the spirit of Adenauer and De Gaulle. But, alas!, the Irish state has been in flight from the memory of itself for two generations.