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The Invention of the Modern World 10.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.


By Alan Macfarlane.

IT IS GENERALLY agreed that although full democracy, in the sense of a system where all qualifying adults have a vote to elect their rulers, is less than a hundred years old, the modern idea of democratic government was developed over the centuries first in England. It was associated with the idea of a balance of power between the State and the citizen and a feeling of liberty of thought, word and association which we call modern freedom.

I shall be using  ‘Democracy’ here not so much in relation to a form of voting, but as suggesting a general freedom to discuss, act and participate in running one’s own life. In the thirteenth century Encyclopedia On the Properties of Things, it had been suggested that freedom was widespread. England in mid-thirteenth century was seen as uniquely free, ‘men oft times able to mirth and game, free men of heart and with tongue, but the hand is more better and more free than the tongue…’1

In the middle of the nineteenth century Taine noted ‘British citizens enjoying full freedom of speech and association’. Yet he realized how difficult this was. He wrote that ‘almost the whole of Europe has tried or actually adopted the English system … and look at the outcome – in Greece, grotesque; in Spain, lamentable; in France, fragile; in Austria and Italy, uncertain; inadequate in Prussia and Germany; successful only in Holland, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries.’ The reason for this was that ‘the Constitution of a nation is an organic phenomenon, like that of a living body. Consequently that Constitution is peculiar to the state in question, no other state can assimilate it, and all it can do is to copy its appearance. For beneath these, beneath the institutions, the bills of right s and the official almanacs, there are the ideas, the habits and customs and character of the people and classes; there are the respective positions of the classes, their reciprocal feelings – in short, a complex of deep and branching invisible roots beneath the visible trunk and foliage. It is these roots that sustain and nourish the tree, and if you plant the tree without the roots it will wilt and fall to the first storm of wind. We admire the stability of British government; but this stability is the final product, the fine flower at the extremity of an infinite number of living fibres firmly planted in the soil of the entire country’.2

Clicking an image will launch a slideshow.

Here I shall try to describe a few more of the living fibres or deeper roots of democracy, the contested story of power threads its way through English history. Let me just note a few instances. In The Discourse of the Common Weal of 1585 the terms used were ‘common wealth’ or ‘common weal’, not of an absolute monarchy. The book suggested that ‘the English had always been, and at present were, a free people, such as in few or no other realms were to be found the like.’3

WHEN FRENCHMEN CAME to the country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they noticed this unusual feature: ‘The English can boast of having a great advantage over other nations: in England everyone is master of his own property and can spend his life without suffering at the hands of the great and, if he so desires, without knowing them.’4 As Voltaire wrote:

‘The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last establish’d that wise Government, where the Prince is all powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrain’d from committing evil; where the Nobles are great without insolence, tho’ there are no Vassals; and where the People share in the government without confusion.’5

Montesquieu was well aware of the power of French absolutism and saw the laws and customs of England as very different from the rest of Europe. In England, ‘Their laws not being made for one individual more than another, each considers himself a monarch; and indeed, the men of this nation are rather confederates than fellow-subjects’. He continued that in England, ‘as no subject fears another, the whole nation is proud, for the pride of Kings is founded only in their independence.’6

Karl Jaspers, who had been imprisoned as a Jew during the Second World War, summarized the long struggle. ‘In the West, certain fundamental determinants of the idea of political freedom have been evolved (originally, above all, in England and America, from whence they were taken over by France and other States after the French Revolution; they were elaborated philosophically during the period of the Enlightenment, for instance by Kant).’  Later, he adds:

If we look at the course of world history, we see that the political liberty of men is rare, indeed an exception. The majority of men and the greater part of history are destitute of political liberty. Athens, republican Rome, and Iceland were exceptions of this kind. And the greatest, most effectual and most powerful exception of all is England together with America. This was the birthplace of the influence that set free the States of the continent, but only in part and without the vigours of the daily, deliberate assertion of liberty.

He dates this liberty from at least the twelfth century: ‘The classical development of political freedom, which gives at least an orientation to all and is for many exemplary, occurred not more than seven hundred years ago in England.  On this spiritual-political fundament, liberty was created afresh in America.’7

ONE OF THE central themes of Tocqueville is the paradox or conflict between centralization and de-centralization. He noted the combination of both in England and America: ‘There are two great drawbacks to avoid in organising a country. Either the whole strength of social organisation is centred on one point, or it is spread over the country. Either alternative has its advantages and its drawbacks. If all is tied into one bundle, and the bundle gets undone, everything falls apart and there is no nation left. Where power is dispersed, action is clearly hindered, but there is strength everywhere’.8

He realized that centralization of power and justice is essential in a modern country. ‘In England, the centralization of the government is carried to great perfection; the state has the compact vigour of one man, and its will puts immense masses in motion, and turns its whole power where it pleases. But England, which has done so great things for the last fifty years, has never centralized its administration’.9 The legal system has to be centralized. ‘The English are the first people who ever thought of centralising the administration of justice. This innovation, which dates from the Norman period, should be reckoned one of the reasons for the quicker progress which this nation has made in civilisation and liberty’. On the other hand, administration should be local: ‘’England is the country of decentralisation. We have got a government, but we have not got a central administration. Each county, each town, each parish looks after its own interests’.10

The decentralization avoids the danger of the inflation of the bureaucracy which had undermined France; ‘…a taste for holding office and a desire to live on the public money is not with us a disease restricted to either party, but the great, chronic ailment of the whole nation; the result of the democratic constitution of our society and of the excessive centralisation of our Government; the secret malady which has undermined all former governments, and which will undermine all governments to come’.11 On the other hand in England the balance of centralization and de-centralization led to the remarkable strength, liberty and wealth which emerged there.

The English were prepared to take their conflicts to central courts, but they liked to rule themselves. ‘Finally, the Englishman’s great objection to allowing the government to do his business even well, is simply his wish to do it himself. This passion for being master at home, even to act foolishly, essentially characterises the British race. “I had rather plough badly for myself than give up the stilts into the hands of the government”.’ We ourselves have some of this feeling in private life. The English carry it to the greatest extent in municipal life’.12

Tocqueville saw that a unique political system had emerged on this island and spread to America. The elections to parliament were only one aspect. The system of local government made each parish an almost self-governing community. Tocqueville’s companion Beaumont had urged Tocqueville to go to a meeting of the church vestry. ‘One must go to the meetings of a Vestry to judge what extraordinary liberty can be joined to inequality. One can see with what independence of language the most obscure English citizen expresses himself against the lord before whom he will bow presently. He is not his equal, of course, but within the limits of his rights he is as free, and he is fully aware of it. His right is that of discussing the interests of the parish and this right he exercises not only freely but with a propriety and, sometimes, an ability which is surprising in an orator whose blackened hands and coarse clothes declare him to be an artisan or a man of the lowest class. The ensemble of English institutions is doubtless an aristocratic government, but there is not a parish in England which does not constitute a free republic.’13

As Drescher puts it, ‘The parish, then, was the fundamental unit of public participation, the center of a multitude of interests vital to everyone in the community. For Tocqueville it was a complete democracy at the base of the social edifice.’14 We are told that in his notes, Tocqueville wrote that if he were a friend to despotism, he would allow ‘the deputies of the country [to deliberate] freely about peace and war, about the nation’s finances, about its prosperity, its industries, its life. But I would avoid agreeing, at any price, that the representatives of a village had the right to assemble peacefully to discuss among themselves repairs for their church and the plan for their parsonage.’15

This was not a new outcome. It was not the result of the English revolution of 1688, for example. Tocqueville noted the great difference between the Continent and the Anglo-American system in 1650.16 And indeed he believed, like Montesquieu, that the contrast went back to a difference which had been growing since medieval times.

IN ORDER TO pursue the theme back into the earlier centuries, let us look through the eyes of someone who has examined the legal and constitutional history of England through primary sources, namely Maitland. Maitland noticed that from the Anglo-Saxon period, but particularly from the legal reforms of the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, England, was both the most centralized, yet also de-centralized, polity in Europe. All justice flows from the Crown and is centralized – though it can be sub-delegated to lower courts, such as the quarter sessions and manorial courts. In military matters, unlike the Continent, all subjects owe prime allegiance to the Crown and not to their lords. ‘Military service is due to none but the King; this it is which makes English feudalism a very different thing from French feudalism’.17

In terms of property law, the military and taxation, England, a small, sea-surrounded country, was the most centralized and feudalized in Europe – yet in other respects it was the least feudalized. There was the curiosity of English land law – ‘insofar as feudalism is mere property law, England is of all countries the most perfectly feudalized… ’ but it was also the least feudalised in the sense that all subjects owed their primary allegiance to the Crown and not to their overlords.18 So England had a ‘highly centralized feudalism’– it was very different from French feudalism.19 ‘If now we speak of the feudal system, it should be with a full understanding that the feudalism of France differs radically from the feudalism of England… The phrase has thus become for us so large and vague that it is quite possible to maintain that of all countries England was the most, or for the matter of that the least, feudalized; that William the Conqueror introduced, or for the matter of that suppressed, the feudal system.’20

THE MIXTURE OF centralization and devolved power which was worked out in England in the five hundred years up to the sixteenth century was then expanded. This is the system of indirect rule, using local forces to rule rather than intervening directly, delegating power to trusted ‘leaders’. Such a system is the one which held together the vast British Empire for a couple of centuries with a very thin veneer of bureaucrats and relatively few troops. They were given delegated powers – to tax, punish and settle disputes. They were supported by the centre in London and reported to it.

Much of the system was based on an ‘imagination’ that there was somehow democracy. Of course, for ninety percent of its history, the system excluded most of the population – all women, all those who were not forty-shilling freeholders or whatever the financial bar was. The politics was often corrupt and the voters soon found that they often lived in what Tocqueville called ‘elective dictatorship’, where they were presented with a wide set of policies, some of which they might disagree with yet have to cast a vote in favour in general, and then were at the mercy of those they had voted for who could change their minds or go to war without consulting them.

Yet the British system, whether practiced in imperial India or at home in Britain, tended to encourage participation in local issues, some sort of ‘ownership’, as the current phrase has it, of the issues which affect a person on a daily basis. To a considerable degree for some centuries this worked and still works in Britain today.

ONE CENTRAL ODDNESS which increasingly differentiated England from continental countries was the nature of royal power. In the contest between the King, lords, towns and Church during the eighth to thirteenth centuries on the continent, the Crown finally emerged triumphant. Supported by an absolutist Roman Law, the ruler became the source and fount of power – Divine and absolute. Though some English rulers would have liked to follow suit, and some, such as King John, Charles I and James II made some attempts to do so, they did not succeed.

The constitutional position, re-enforced by Magna Carta in 1215, is stated firmly by Maitland. ‘The King can do wrong; he can break the law; he is below the law, though he is below no man and below no court of law. It is quite conceivable that he should be below a court of law.’ In the same way as there is no legal distinction between social classes; ‘The rights of the King are conceived as differing from the rights of other men rather in degree than in kind.’ Magna Carta was not inventing this, but re-affirming it, as were the lawyers who supported the overthrow of Charles I and James II. For Magna Carta,  ‘in brief it means this, that the King is and shall be below the law’.21

The heart of the English system was the idea of a political contract between the people and their rulers. Feudalism is a contractual system, the lord does certain things, his followers do certain things. If either side breaks the terms of the implicit agreement, the contract is over. In the middle of the fifteenth century, the Lord Chief Justice Sir John Fortescue instructed the young King Henry VI in the central political difference between France, where they were both temporarily exiled, and England. France was an absolute monarchy, where all law emanated from the King and the people were subjects. England was a limited monarchy, based on the voluntary acquiescence of the people, and where the King himself was bound by the same laws as his countrymen. England was an association of free men held together by mutual contracts. Fortescue explained that ‘I do most evidently see that no nation did ever of their own voluntary mind incorporate themselves into a kingdom for any other intent, but only to the end that thereby they might with more safety than before maintain themselves and enjoy their goods from such misfortunes and losses as they stood in fear of …’22 This is the essence of democracy and the system which John Locke set out, which was elaborated by Montesquieu and became the foundation for democracy in America.

The final result of all this impressed Voltaire and other visitors to England in the eighteenth century. One of the most enthusiastic was De Saussure and he caught a number of the features. He noted the general satisfaction with the liberty which many enjoyed. ‘England undoubtedly is, in my opinion, the most happily governed country in the world’. He believed that the lively literary scene ‘is cultivated by the liberty which the government afford, and in which Englishmen take great pride, for they value this gift more than all the joys of life, and would sacrifice everything to retain it’.23

Saussure noted the limited and circumscribed nature of power. ‘She is governed by a King whose power is limited by wise and prudent laws, and by Parliament, this being composed of lords spiritual and temporal in one house and of the people’s deputies in the other. The King cannot levy any new taxes, neither can he abolish privileges or make new laws without the consent of Parliament’.24 And he caught the essence of power which was that, like a game of football,bough  it did not work unless there was a contest. There had to be sides, arguments, and divisions.

As I remember from school, if our team became too weak and was being overwhelmed, a good player would cross over to give us strength. ‘Numbers of prudent politicians, who are not blinded by foolish prejudices or by their own particular interests, are convinced that this form of government is the happiest in the world, and they sometimes side purposely with the weakest party, so as to preserve to the country a wholesome equilibrium’. So it was the very divisions and separations, not just as been discussed between politics and other spheres, but within the political field, that provided space and liberty. ‘Though many people look on these different parties which divide England as a misfortune, others, on the contrary, think that they contribute to the maintenance of the liberties and privileges of the people’.25

It was a contest and people had the right to disagree and fight for what they believed was fair. No single group should prevail – there should be a constant struggle. Old elements were allowed to survive, new elements co-existed with them. The conqueror has to tolerate the conquered, the state has to accept rivals. James Stephen, a political theorist in the later nineteenth century, captures the spirit of this never-ending contest. ‘Every event of our lives, from schoolboy games up to the most important struggles of public life, even, as was shown in the seventeenth century, if they go the length of civil war, is a struggle in which it is considered a duty to do your best to win, to treat your opponents fairly, and to abide by the result in good faith when you lose, without resigning the hope of better luck next time. War there must be, life would be insupportable without it, but we can fight according to our national practice like men of honour and people who are friends at bottom, and without attaching an exaggerated value to the subject matter of our contention.’26

IN ALMOST ALL peasant civilizations taxation is arbitrary and ruthless. The rulers will extract anything that they feel the people can just about bear. Any wealth they detect is threatened. Taxes and forced gifts are ubiquitous. Brutal, arbitrary, exaction regimes are widely documented in almost all agrarian civilizations.

In 1559, for example, John Aylmer, later Bishop of London, described what he had seen during his ten-year stay in France. ‘The husbandman in France, all that he hath gotten in his whole life, loseth it upon one day. For when so ever they have war (as they are never without it) the kings soldiers enter into the poor mans house, eateth and drinketh up all that ever he hath … the poor man never goeth to the market, to sell anything: but he payeth a toll, almost the half of that he selleth: he eateth neither pig, goose, capon, nor hen: but he must pay as much for the tribute of it there, as it might be bought for here: O unhappy and miserable men that live under this yoke…’ The English audience, whom he was addressing were more fortunate. ‘Thou are twice or thrice in the lifetime called upon to help thy country, with a subsidy or contribution: and they daily pay and never cease.’27

Sir John Fortescue who had also been in France for some years a century earlier, noted the same oppression of the rural population by government troops; ‘so that there is not the least village there free from this miserable calamity, but that it is once or twice every year beggared by this kind of pilling (pillage).’  This and other exactions, such as the salt tax, led to the great poverty of the rural inhabitants which Fortescue observed around him. In England, on the other hand, the position of rural inhabitants was different. The absence of heavy taxation, of billeted soldiers, and of internal taxes, meant that ‘every inhabiter of that realm useth and enjoyeth at his pleasure all the fruits that his land or cattle beareth, with all the profits and commodities which by his own travail, or by the labour of others he gaineth by land or by water.’28

Adam Smith believed that one of the three necessities for the growth of wealth is ‘easy taxes’.29 Some have interpreted this as meaning light taxation, but that is not what Smith meant. He would have been well aware that the English were the most heavily taxed country in the West and that the affluent English usually produced much higher taxation than almost all other countries. Recently, Mokyr writes,  ‘Despite the uniqueness of their political system or perhaps because of it, the British did not enjoy low taxes but rather the reverse: during the eighteenth century they were taxed at rates far higher than anyone else in the world save the Dutch. Yet the tax burden never led to really major political crises.’  By 1715 the government collected about 10 per cent of national income in taxes, by 1810 it was over 18 per cent.30

What Smith meant by ‘easy’ is something different and foreshadows the principles of modern systems. The first principle of taxation was equality. ‘The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.’ This was achieved to an unusual extent in England, for though the rich benefited from an annual land and income tax (though there was the equivalent of death duties), they did not escape taxes altogether, and the very poor were protected to a certain extent.

Mokyr shows how taxes tended to fall most heavily on the large English ‘middling sort’, rather than on the very rich or the very poor. ‘For most of the eighteenth century, customs revenues and excise taxes accounted for about two-thirds of the state’s revenues. Such taxes are highly regressive, so that the rich and powerful represented in Parliament paid a proportionally low amount whereas many of them were clearly beneficiaries of the expenditures. Yet, unlike the nobility in France and Spain, they were not exempt from these taxes; they just paid less than what seems to us their fair share.’31

The burden on the middle classes grew over time and found a new form in the growth of the ‘national debt’, where many citizens trusted their government and lent it money – a pretty unusual state of affairs. ‘By the middle of the eighteenth century, the national debt was owned by perhaps 50,000 individuals, many of them located in London, a powerful group that guarded its interests well. Taxes in Britain were paid disproportionately by the middle class – neither gentry nor paupers, which was already large in 1700, and kept growing throughout the eighteenth century. This class was large enough to pay for the extravagantly expensive wars that others decided to fight. It did so, not so much by being taxed to pay for the war as much as by being taxed to service the debt that paid for the war.’32

Secondly, Smith argued, that taxation must be certain ‑ that is to say predict­able and not arbitrary. ‘The time of payment, the manner of payment, the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor, and to every other person.’ This seems to have been achieved in England.

Thirdly, Smith wrote that ‘Every tax ought to be levied at the time, or in the manner, in which it is most likely to be convenient for the contributor to pay it.’  Smith might have expanded this to state that it should be paid on items which were not of such vital necessity that the very poor were crippled by taxation in hard times. Mokyr points out that ‘There are good explanations of the British state’s ability to tax its citizens so heavily without leading to a tax revolt or even to massive non-compliance… Parliament avoided taxing the basic necessity of life, namely bread.’33

The situation is explained by Laing.  ‘We have no direct taxes in England affecting the labouring class, or reaching so low as the class-tax or poll-tax, or the trade-tax of the Continental states. House-tax, window-tax, income-tax, property-tax, or assessed tax of any description, never come down to the labouring man with us, not even to the tradesman, artisan, or master or journeyman workman in good circumstances, and belonging rather to the lower ranks of the middle than to the lower class. His contributions to the public revenue, are taken from him altogether in heavy indirect taxes on what he consumes. His tea, tobacco, ale, spirits, and every article of luxury he uses, is taxed more or less exorbitantly … a man escapes them just in proportion to his frugal, economical, sober habits.’34

Finally, it should be economically collected, as little as possible being siphoned off in the collection. This was achieved by the development of perhaps the first modern and efficient taxation system in Europe. ‘What is equally interesting is that the British tax collection system was efficient by the standards of the time, as taxes were collected by a professional administration and no longer farmed out to private entrepreneurs, a source of endless chagrin elsewhere in Europe.’35

Furthermore, a large part of what was levied was returned in the form of services to the individual – in communications, education, naval defence and imperial protection. So a largely ‘modern’ and capitalistic taxation regime was in place in this civilization many centuries ago. Furthermore the taxes were to be agreed on by those who paid the bulk of them, that is the upper and middling ranks represented in parliament. The cry of ‘no taxation without representation’ of the American settlers was based on comparing their condition to that in the homeland.

Finally, it is worth noting that a good deal of the taxation – for local services such as helping the poor, local highways and bridges, was administered at a local level by the middle classes, the gentry, yeomanry and ordinary citizens who lived in the localities and who collected and disbursed what was needed in a way analogous to modern council taxation.

So what Smith was holding up as an ideal was realized to a considerable extent. Without much objection or blatant tax evasion or avoidance, the system raised enormous sums for the British state and for local community amenities, and hence played a crucial part in the development of a modern social and economic world. It had its roots in medieval England, but was unlike anything anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Holland. Taxation is a good index of many other aspects of a society – the prevalence of trust or its obverse, corruption, the nature of power relations, the size and wealth of the various classes. The unusual tax system is both a sign of, and a vital part of the form of civil society and democracy that emerged in England.

THERE IS A widespread tendency for the family to become the ultimate unit of political power. This operates at all levels. Within the family the head often has patriarchal, that is almost total, power over other members of the family ‑ over women, children, younger brothers and so on. Family members are not citizens of a commonwealth, but subjects of a king (the father). Parallels tend to be drawn between the absolute monarchy and the family.

Each family becomes a political unit in opposition to other families, a tendency described, for instance, for Mediter­ranean countries as ‘amoral fami­lism’. Loyalties are enormously strong within the family, but weak outside. The loyalty to kin far exceeds that to non‑kin, including the political authorities. This is a world of feuds, factions and familistic and dynas­tic quarrels, famously displayed in Romeo and Juliet, the novels of Walter Scott and much literature.

At a higher level, the nobility or chiefs (for example in a Scottish clan system) have enormous power ‑ the world of the over mighty subject. Political power is decentralized and flows through blood ties. This is a world of over‑mighty subjects, of mafia, of outlaws and bandits of nepotism, of patronage and fictive kinship ties being used to give and receive favours.

If we turn to the documents for England during the period from the thirteenth century onwards, how far does it seem that political power is coincidental with family ties? Within the family, power is not patriarchal; women and children and servants are, as Locke pointed out, in a contractual relationship towards the head of the household. He is a limited monarch, subject to the law. He has never had the power of sale, of life and death, unlimited chastisement, rights over personal possessions, which is to be found in the patria potestas of Roman Law.

At the next level up, we find that village politics is not based on family ties. There are no family feuding groups, no mafia, no strong divisions along family lines. Patronage of kin is weakly developed ‑ even between father and son, let alone more distant kin. Political obligations are to the State direct­ly, not to one’s close kin. Military recruitment and recruitment to national politics, elections and political posts are usually on the basis of non‑kinship ties. Succession to local offices of power, Justices of the Peace, constable­ships and so on, are not on the basis of kinship.

Godparenthood, which is often used as a quasi‑kinship mechanism of recruiting a following or obtaining favours, is undeveloped. On the other hand, there is a developed concept of the political individual, who has rights in and of himself, independent of his family. In fact, the source of political power is in the end, economic. Any male with enough property has a right to vote. But law hedges about all political power.

In conclusion, one might say that power flowed chiefly from wealth and that political power was independent of kinship. One’s allies were not mainly kin, but those with whom one exchanged and collaborated. One found one’s way through the patronage of non‑kinsmen, through a master of some kind, whether in apprenticeship or education. This represents one of the very few known cases of a large society where the basis of politics is not the family. The curiously institutionalized and separated political sphere, with its absence of familism, is a crucial feature at the root of modern democracy, which treats each individual as having equal political rights, whatever his family connections.

ANOTHER SIDE EFFECTof the political system of devolution of power, combined with affluence and a particular capitalistic and individualistic system, was the development of the first national poor relief system. In a number of European and other nations, religious charities or individual philanthropists helped the poor. The English poor laws however were unique; no-where else in the world did one have a well-organized and compulsory system of poor relief like the English one. ‘If there was any striking and unique feature in the British eighteenth-century polity, it was the Poor Law. …. Britain’s Poor Law was far more inclusive and generous than that of any other country. Until 1834, there was considerable redistribution from the well-to-do and the powerful to the poorest citizens.  It differed from other eighteenth-century European relief systems in that it was not financed by voluntary donations but by a local tax, the poor rate. The Poor Law was in part motivated by a genuine concern for the poor, especially those whose destitution was patently not their fault, such as orphans, invalids, and the aged.’ In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century it covered between ten and fourteen per cent of the population.36

The effects amazed visitors. In the early eighteenth century the Abbé Prévost wrote: ‘In all the towns and villages of England you find hospitals for the sick, almshouses and asylums for the poor and aged of either sex, schools for the education of children, in short a thousand monuments of piety and zeal for religion and their country.’37 The system required the presence of thousands of volunteers who would give time and money in their villages and towns to organize this early welfare state. Simond wrote that ‘One of the marvels of English liberty is the multitude of men who give their time to public works in every town and country and whose mind and character are formed by the occupations and duties of a citizen.’38

Rochefoucauld noted that once a person had a right of settlement in a parish – in other words, had been living there for a year – then ‘This right entitles him to be treated if he falls sick for any length of time and is unable to pay; to be taken care of if he falls into poverty; and to receive assistance in his old age – assistance which in England is so excessive that, once given, the recipients have no further need to work and from poverty they pass to ease and idleness.’39 The provision for the poor led to a paradox, as Kames noted at the same time. ‘England in particular overflows with beggars, though in no other country are the indigent so amply provided for’.40  There was a system already operating at the parish level in the medieval period, but this was unified and institutionalized, with systematic taxation and buildings, under Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century.

It is not difficult to see how this system fitted with the family structure. As many are discovering today, with high social and geographical mobility, where the family is no longer a fundamental unit of production and consumption, there is a large question as to who will look after the old, the sick or the out-of-work. A state provision of welfare and a solid pension system has to be built up. It is one of the fundamental institutions of modernity. Such a system was in embryo present in England many hundreds of years ago – well before any other country.

It might be thought that such a national safety net would dry up private charity, yet it was not so. In America and in England private charity flourished. Saussure wrote. ‘Here are some traits of charity. No rich person dies without leaving large legacies. Most parishes in London and in the country have hospitals for the sick, the poor, and the aged; also charity schools were poor children are fed, taught, and clothed’.41 Furthermore, those who tried to unite to better the position of the workers were not regarded as enemies to be destroyed, as often was the case in absolutist countries, but as people to be engaged with. ‘For the British employer, a union may have been an adversary, a strike vexing and costly, the effort of labour to raise wages chimerical. He did not like these things, but he was prepared to face up to them. For the continental employer, however, a union was a conspiracy against public order and morals; a strike, an act of ingratitude; the effort of labour to raise wages, the indiscipline of an impatient son. All of this was evil. And there is no negotiating with evil.’42

As Maitland shows, the English political system is continuous and early established. Maitland could end his two-volume history of English law in 1307 because by then the English legal, administrative and political framework was established. It would remain intrinsically the same from then on.

The absence of a radical break can be seen in the absence of political revolutions in English history. The one supposed ‘Revolution’, according to certain historians, was the English Civil War. Yet at the time it was not regarded as a revolution, but more, as Clarendon called it, a Great Rebellion. In other words it changed the players (for a time) but not the rules.

Tocqueville, looking from post-revolutionary France, stressed that the English ‘revolution’ was entirely different. The ruling class was not swept away. ‘Your biographies show the truth of your remark, that no two things can be more unlike than your Revolution of 1640 and ours of 1789. No two things, in fact, can be more unlike than the state of your society and of ours at those two periods’. The ruling groups were ‘divided; they were opposed to one another, and they fought; but never, for a single day, did they abdicate’. It was relatively mild – not a class war. ‘The consequences were, less boldness of intention, less violence of action, and a regularity, a mildness, even a courtesy, admirably described by you, which showed itself even in the employment of physical force’.43 Writing about his own time, Tocqueville wrote ‘if one understands by a revolution a violent and sudden change, then England does not seem ripe for such an event, and I see many reasons for thinking that it will never be so’.44

Burckhardt, from Germany, says the same. ‘In the Civil War in England, quite particularly, we find nothing of the kind. It has no place in the present discussion because it did not for one moment attack the principles of civic life, never stirred up the supreme powers of the nation’.45  And the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 was no revolution, but a restoration of an earlier tradition, resisting the revolution of the kind James II intended. So the development is of a gradual, continuous, evolutionary development –  the ‘changing same’. It was nothing like the French, Russian or Chinese revolutions which at their start swept everything away.

THE SCOTTISH PHILOSOPHER and historian John Millar outlined the advantages of being an island. He noted that ‘the fate of the English government was different from that of most of the other feudal governments upon the continent.’ Furthermore, ‘The fortunate situation of Great Britain, after the accession of James I, gave her little to fear from any foreign invasion, and superseded the necessity of maintaining a standing army, when the service of the feudal militia had gone into disuse’. Or, as he also comments, ‘During the highest exaltation of the feudal monarchy in modern Europe, the safety which England derived from its insular situation, and its remote connection with the disputes and quarrels upon the continent, gave the sovereign … few opportunities of acting as the general of the national forces’.46

The safety and strength was increased in 1603 ‘When King James of Scotland became King James of England, the country obtained the benefit of being an island, protected by the sea. There was no longer a hostile and warlike neighbour, compelling military preparation and the concentration of power, which made foreign governments absolute. An English officer once congratulated Moltke on the splendid army which he had created and led. The marshal shook his head, and replied that the German army was a terrible burden on the country, but that the long Russian frontier made it a necessity.’47

Continuing liberty depends on the wealth and strength of a country. Millar was well aware that many attempts to create liberal societies had been crushed by their neighbours – the Italian republics were an obvious example. Yet England was large enough and wealthy enough to protect itself – just – against Spaniards and later French attempts to conquer it.

Its growing wealth was also due to its geographical position. ‘When the people of Europe had become qualified for extensive naval undertakings, the distance of Britain from the continent, and her situation as an island, afforded her a superiority to most other countries in the number of such harbours as have a free communication with all parts of the globe’. Likewise, ‘Her insular situation was, at the same time, no less advantageous with respect to inland trade, from the numerous bays and rivers, which, by intersecting the country in different places, extended the benefit of water-carriage to the greater part of the inhabitants’.48

The fact that England was an island also fed into the unusual social structure – the odd aristocratic – gentry – yeomanry shape which I have discussed. This meant, as Taine noted, the ‘English government is stable because the English have a supply of natural representatives’.49  At the local level, where democracy flourished through the magistracy and the jury system, there was no need for a professional government bureaucracy. The upper middle classes ran the country and were tough and opposed to absolutism. They were wealthy, literate and ubiquitous. A powerful ruler could not just gain the support of the aristocracy, he had to win the towns and the gentry. As Charles and James found these could not easily be bullied or bribed. So England grew in its peculiar devolved yet centralized shape – and after half a millenium of such a system it was only natural that it applied the same system to the ruling of its Empire.

The advantages continued into the period of industrialization as Hobson pointed out. He noted that ‘In many branches of the textile arts, especially in silk spinning and in dyeing, in pottery, printing, and other manufactures, more inventive genius and more skill were shown on the Continent, and there seemed a priori no reason why England should outstrip so signally her competitors.’ He believed one of the explanations for why it did so was ‘The insular character of Great Britain, her natural facilities for procuring raw materials of manufacture and supplies of foreign food to enable her population to specialise in manufacture, the number and variety of easily accessible markets for her manufacturers, gave her an immense advantage.’ Above all England was free from the devastating warfare suffered by continental nations. Hobson argues that ‘the most important factor determining the priority of England was the political condition of continental Europe at the very period when the new machinery and motor-power were beginning to establish confidence in the new industrial order. When Crompton’s mule, Cartwright’s power-loom, Watt’s engines were transforming the industry of England, her continental rivals had all their energies absorbed in wars and political revolutions.’50

A video of the lecture on which this chapter is based:

2012 Serial Index: Introduction and Contents | Preface | Bibliography.

Chapter 10 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

© 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):

  1.  Property of Things, II, 734.
  2. Taine, Notes, 161-2.
  3. Barker, Character, 33.
  4. Muralt in Wilson, Strange, 54.
  5. Voltaire, Letters, 41-2.
  6. Montesquieu, Spirit, I, 307ff, 314, 315.
  7. Jaspers, Goal, 160, 170, 203.
  8. Tocqueville, Journeys, 4.
  9. Tocqueville, Democracy (abridged), 64.
  10. Tocqueville, Journeys, 75, 45.
  11. Tocqueville, Recollections, 33.
  12. Tocqueville, Memoir, 1 378.
  13. Quoted in Drescher, Tocqueville, 91.
  14. Drescher, Tocqueville, 92.
  15. Boesche, Tocqueville, 246.
  16. Tocqueville, Democracy (abridged), 47.
  17. Maitland, Constitutional, 32.
  18. Maitland, History, I, 235.
  19. Maitland, History, II, 265.
  20. Maitland, Constitutional, 143.
  21. Maitland, History, II, 515-6, 512, 173.
  22. Fortescue, Governance, fol.33v..
  23. Saussure, Foreign, 336, 179.
  24. Saussure, Foreign, 336.
  25. Saussure, Foreign, 351.
  26. Stephen, Liberty; I owe this reference to Michael Lotus..
  27. In Orwell, Pamphleteers, 29-33.
  28. Fortescue, Governance, fols 80, 84v-85.
  29. Smith, Wealth, II, 350-351 – where the following quotations from Smith are to be found..
  30. Mokyr, Enlightened, 427, 429.
  31. Mokyr, Enlightened, 427-8.
  32. Mokyr, Enlightened, 431.
  33. Mokyr, Enlightened, 431.
  34. Laing, Observations, 303.
  35. Mokyr, Enlightened, 432.
  36. Mokyr, Enlightened, 440.
  37. Quoted in Wilson, Strange, 87.
  38. Wilson, Strange, 162.
  39. Rochefoucauld, Frenchman, 27.
  40. Kames, Sketches,III, 49.
  41. Saussure, Foreign, 185-6.
  42. Landes, Prometheus, 192.
  43. Tocqueville, Memoir, 2 377-8.
  44. Tocqueville, Journeys, 51.
  45. Burckhardt, Reflections, 146.
  46. Millar, Historical, III, 123-4.
  47. Acton, Modern, 195.
  48. Millar, Historical, II, 387-8.
  49. Taine, Notes, 162.
  50. Hobson, Evolution, 94, 96.

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