Thursday, September 6, 2012

When Britain Went Wrong

From time to time I have been asked about the powers of the monarchy in Great Britain (the most prominent monarchy for the English-speaking world at least) and, as this usually involves Americans rather than Britons, there is usually some degree of confusion as I try to explain that, theoretically, the Crown has extensive powers and is the foundation of the British government and all legal authority while at the same time the Queen, effectively, has no power at all. The powers that theoretically belong to her are entirely exercised by the Prime Minister. At that point, I am usually asked the follow-up question of when this started to be the case. When exactly did the monarch stop governing and become mostly symbolic and ceremonial? In some cases, this is simple. In places like France, Russia or China there are revolutions that provide a clean break between when there was a monarchy and when there was not. Great Britain is a different story. There is no easy answer to that as it is something that has grown up over time, however, I think the origins of what I call the “republican mentality” in the United Kingdom can be traced back to a certain point in history. Not everyone may agree with me, but this is my view of it.

I am sure many people would give the answer as being 1688 and what is known in Great Britain as the “Glorious Revolution” and that would be a pretty good answer. It is not mine, but many do date the current form of the British constitutional monarchy as being born at that time. The problem is that something like the “Glorious Revolution” cannot just happen right out of the blue. It is not every day that a reigning monarch, to whom everyone had sworn their loyalty, is overthrown, a foreign invading army welcomed in unopposed and there be very little bloodshed in the process. It is all the more unusual in that, despite what his detractors may say, King James II had not done anything all that outrageous. Of course, there were those who believed that reunion with Rome was right around the corner and the Catholic Church was about to supplant the established Protestant church, however, when we take a step back, the dispassionate observer will not see anything all that “radical” going on. King James II never took any steps to actually disestablishing the Church of England, he never claimed unprecedented, far-reaching powers and he did not start burning Protestants at the stake.

Obviously, he did do things that caused people to turn against him, but what was it that made such treason (and it can hardly be denied that such it was) thinkable to so many people? Religion would be the easy answer but that alone does not quite suffice. After all, were that the case he likely would never have come to the throne in the first place as he had been open about his Catholicism for some time. Quite the contrary, his succession to the throne had been peaceful and he had little difficulty in suppressing the one effort against him, namely the Monmouth rebellion. To my mind, the real beginning of the change in attitude that led to the limited British monarchy of today, and the events of 1688, goes back to the English civil wars or at least the aftermath of the conflict. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that the rebellion against King Charles I was justified (it was not -for the record) there did rise up a considerable number of people who wanted Parliament to be supreme and wanted to abolish the monarchy altogether. In the end, as we know, the downfall of the King did nothing for Parliament as Britain got the dictatorship of Cromwell who was, effectively, the executioner of the traditional British Parliamentary system. But, it happened, and the enemies of the monarchy liked to think that everything had gone more or less to plan and some even today still idolize Cromwell despite his record of tyranny and vicious brutality.

Some might think that this should not be too consequential. After all, eventually, the regime of Cromwell came to an end and the monarchy was restored in the person of King Charles II; right? True, but things were not quite the same, and I submit never would be again. The problem was that the republicans (the Parliamentarians who possessed the republican mentality) had won the war. King Charles II was finally restored to his rightful throne but that was due to the failure of the Cromwell regime and was a result of political alliances and negotiations. The republicans had not actually been crushed on the field of battle and so never felt themselves to be truly defeated. Even as King Charles II was invited to resume the throne, there were efforts to place conditions on his return. It was a tense and uneasy political situation he inherited, underneath all the celebrations and frivolity, that ultimately culminated in the events of 1688.

Throughout the reign of Charles II, he was constantly being faced by challenges to the direction he wanted the three kingdoms to take. The monarchy was back but the republicans still wanted to call the shots, still felt themselves to have been the winners in the struggle between the Crown and Parliament and were determined to be the real power in Great Britain. Charles II, though quite the libertine, was astute enough to know that he had returned to the throne because of an agreement and not an absolute victory and did his best to pick his battles carefully. Time and time again he gave way on issues even when he strongly disagreed and even when it caused him great personal pain. The republicans usually got what they wanted but they remained rather annoyed that they had to deal with the King at all (when they represented the ‘winners’ and he the ‘loser’ in the late struggle) and they knew that the King was “allowing” them to have their way but was still opposed to what they stood for, whether it was their religious views or their determination to make France their enemy in foreign policy. Because of this, the threat of another civil war was always just beneath the surface and it almost came about when Charles II was confronted by an issue he finally could not compromise on and that was the monarchy itself. Toward the end of his reign he finally dissolved Parliament over their continued efforts to force him to divorce his wife and disinherit the Duke of York (James II) because of his Catholicism.

King Charles II was adamant that it was God by whose grace the King reigned and not the pleasure of Parliament and thus he was equally adamant that God alone would determine the succession and not a Parliamentary vote. So, he sent Parliament packing and ruled in his own right for the rest of his (thankfully uneventful) reign, something which was made possible in part by his being supported financially by King Louis XIV of France. He had called the bluff of the republicans but they had not really blinked. If some disaster had arisen which would have forced some government action the King would have had to recall Parliament or risk going down the same path as his father and there might well have been another civil war. As it was, the stalemate simply continued until the reign of King James II. In that fateful year of 1688, when King James II was shown the door and his daughter and son-in-law were enthroned in his place as King William III and Queen Mary II, Parliament (including those with the republican mentality) made it abundantly clear that from that time on there would be strict limitations to what a monarch could and could not do and that, while “by the grace of God” might remain on the coins, it was by the grace of Parliamentary support that the monarchy continued.

And the rest, as they say, is history (well, okay, actually it’s ALL history, but you get the point). The events of 1688 were pivotal, no doubt about it, but as I see it, the real change came with the civil wars when it was Parliament that was victorious on the battlefield and which saw a reigning monarch given a show trial and then executed like a common criminal. That was something that the agreed upon restoration and the desecration of the corpse of Cromwell could not un-do. The forces of Parliament had won, they had achieved the downfall of the monarchy and even asserted the power of life and death over the person of the King. Ever since that time, it seems to me, they have held themselves to be above the monarch. To avoid problems they bent to necessity and saw it restored but still clashed with the King until they were able to see another monarch lose his crown and ensure that from that time on, no matter what the letter of the law said, the monarchy would have only as much authority as they allowed it to have and would only continue so long as it pleased them that it should. In time that developed into the situation of today where so many in Parliament have the attitude that the monarchy is to be nothing more than a harmless, powerless tradition, tolerated so long as it gives no trouble and does not attempt to interfere in their rule of the country.

For the time being, the monarchy in the United Kingdom is quite safe, quite popular and in no immediate danger. However, monarchists can never become complacent and it is the republican mentality that has created this situation that monarchists must work to eradicate. That may not necessarily mean that the monarch is given more power or takes on a political role and it certainly does not mean a return to absolutism (which never really existed as much as some think) but it does mean a change in attitude and a change in how people view the monarchy, the centrality of the institution and the true recognition that politicians are the servants rather than the masters.

11 comments:

  1. I'd say the English Civil War was instrumental in influencing everything in the world after it. For starters, many Cavaliers settled in the South, while as our own history tells us, the Puritans settled in New England, and sowed the seeds of the American revolution and later the Civil War.

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    1. Actually such attitudes existed already. Some years ago I did a post on the English civil war in America and the pattern was the same. The Puritans of New England were the last to recognize the restoration while the more "High Church" colonies of Maryland and Virginia did so enthusiastically.

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  2. The British monarchy has very little influence and power now compared to two centuries ago. The monarch doesn't even have the role as the leader of the country anymore. Why can't we monarchist secure the future of the monarchy by having a law that will clearly say that the monarchy cannot be abolished by any means and that the Crown Estate will always legally be the property of the royal family? Italy has a similar law in the constitution preventing any change to the republican form of government.

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    1. As does Germany, France and probably many more. Such a law would never happen in the UK because of typical republican hypocrisy. For a monarchy to insist on loyalty is terribly authoritarian but for a republic it is a perfectly acceptable defense of "freedom". The blatant double-standard is positively staggering.

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    2. Don't forget the United States, which explicitly requires it's member states to have a "republican" government, removing any choice in the matter at the local level, even for, say, Hawaii, which has a legitimate royal family.

      The funny thing is, it's as if the framers of the constitution were aware of the widespread popularity/appeal of monarchy, otherwise they would have had no need to explicitly ban it. You don't need to bother banning things people don't want in the first place, only the things you believe are a genuine threat by virtue of their popularity. An early case of politicians assuming they know what's best for everyone.

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  3. "When Britain Went Wrong "
    When they allowed US to republicanize the 2nd Reich & the Hapsburg Realms in the end of WW I

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    1. The US had next to nothing to do with the break-up of Austria-Hungary and toward Germany the US had only pressure, it was the German revolutionaries who brought down the monarchy without a single US soldier ever setting foot in the country. If Britain is to be blamed it would be for urging the US to get involved OR in choosing to enter a war they could not win without help from America. Putting your own national interests in the hands of another country is never a good idea.

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    2. Still woodrow wilson directly involved in the republican movement in the axis countries. I think UK should do sometime about this.

      http://christopheranton.hubpages.com/hub/The-Curse-of-Republicanism [GERMANY and AUSTRIA HUNGARY section]

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    3. The Allies had agreed to carve up Austria-Hungary before the USA ever entered the war. "Pressure" to get rid of the Kaiser is not the same thing as overthrowing him and the entire monarchy, again, the Germans did that without a single American soldier setting foot on German soil. Was Woodrow Wilson an evil man? Absolutely but it is Americans who should despise him, not others. The guilty parties in Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary etc should not escape notice and get off because everything is blamed on Woodrow Wilson. I should also point out that if Wilson had not been President, the President would have been Taft (who wanted a League of Nations even before WW1) or Teddy Roosevelt who would have entered World War I from the very start.

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  4. I think the BIGGEST loss in British history was the VICTORY in the French and Indian war. I know maybe this sounds an odd suggestion, but by WINNING "New France" away from France, they lost it to the Americans later on. I mean all the lives lost and money spent to take the territory benefited them nothing since it became American territory down the road. In addition, it was the arming of colonial militias that gave the 13 colonies the spirit of independence, and the indian raids that made colonists feel Britain was not their protector (like when the police can't show up fast enough to a crime scene then people start arming themselves).

    Had the British never seized New France (or ideally only taken the Acadian part of Canada) and left it in French hands, it would of put the American Colonists on a crash course with France. Remember, one of the big causes of the Revolution was Americans crossing the settlement line Britain had promised native Americans they wouldn't colonize over that line (The Proclamation of 1763). It would of been FAR easier to let those lands be French and let the French deal with rowdy colonists rather than try to stop your own people from settling the newly conquered lands and then getting all the blame.

    In addition, Spain handed over it's portion of the region to France, which became the Louisiania purchase, precisely because France was dying to get back a region in the area. It's likely had neither of these happened, France and Spain both would of controlled large regions of America and even if they supported the Thirteen Colonies when it breaks away, would of likely then turned into adversaries to prevent it's expansion and ironically later probably try to conquer it or encourage Britain to retake it.



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  5. 1. I'm Democratic.
    2. Monarchies are not bad, as long as they are constitutional, and a person can rise from the poor and become the actual person in charge, Prime Minister.
    3. This is going to be a question? Do you think the Osman Dynasty should be restored in Turkey?

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