Further thoughts on the Peculiarities of British History by Justin Champion

It is an irony that when public perceptions of trust in the institutions and personnel of Parliamentary politics are at an historically low ebb that Historians for Britain should hold up British ‘democratic’ practise as a model for the rest of Europe to emulate. The notion that the number of Parliamentary Committees are a reflection and substantiation of the practice of ‘accountable’ government rather than an opportunity for the various lobby groups to invest in the support of private financial benefits for members of parliament is frankly risible. Our contemporary political world, and the lobbying conduct, investment from private business concerns, and others in party infrastructure, might make even Sir Robert Walpole (famous for’ let sleeping dogs lie’ and ‘every man has his price’ as core political dicta) blush. Indeed in these terms of the institutionalisation of what the seventeenth century commonwealth tradition would call ‘corruption’ it is entirely possible that Historian for Britain’s claim that ‘we believe that the UK is a country hors norme’ is a plausible account of what Jean Jacques Rousseau regarded as a powerful trick played by rich elites on the poor in the name of representative democracy.

The Gordon Riots by John Seymour Lucas
The Gordon Riots by John Seymour Lucas

One of the powerful and repeated themes of Guy Rowland’s piece in this blog is the assertion that British contexts display a greater, better and more profound element of ‘accountable government’. This is capped by a remarkable claim that ‘there is no European public sphere, no demos, so vital to fostering accountable government’. It is not clear how this might be sustained with any historical or contemporary evidence. Take the matter of a free press: in France and Holland publishers and editors have been bolder and braver, and indeed the legal regulation of print media has allowed this freedom. The interventions of Charlie Hebdo in France, and the various cultural engagements of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands do not suggest an attenuated public sphere; indeed the public response to those crises also confirm a more general demos willing and able to express its collective opinion, opposition and support. The history of European culture since 1700 suggests that far from being at the vanguard of democratic freethought, British public media has been firmly regulated and disciplined. It is an historical naiveté to argue that the accidental lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 heralded a free press: there were many other means of censoring, regulating and destroying the free exchange of ideas. Books were still burnt at the hands of the Church and State. It is still illegal, and indeed treasonable, to imagine the termination of the monarchy. The state under Walpole controlled the newspapers by wise investment in journalistic opinion. Wilkes, Beardmore and many other suffered prosecution for expressing anti-court sentiments in newspapers, under the means of illegal general warrants.

If it is the case that Historians for Britain celebrate British difference in the form of the mobilisation of popular action, say like the London Crowd protest of the early 1680s, or the Gordon Riots of the 1770s or the popular political actions of the Chartists, or even today’s Occupy this might be something to mark as notable. The tradition of freeborn John, and the idea of the English Rebel, hardly sits well with the other concerns of ‘commercial regulation’ and the ‘meshing of legal traditions’. To insist that there is a distinctive quality in ‘questions of accountable and responsive government’ and that ‘the representative institutions of continental states were much more oligarchical or even unrepresentative of the broader territorial areas that they governed’ is again contested historical ground. From the writings of Michael Mann to Michael Braddick there has been a considerable scholarship on the origins of the British state, its fiscal competence and coercive capabilities. Arguably, one of the more interesting historical dimensions of that discussion could properly contrast the nature of the history of British state building, with more the devolved and regional forms of ‘governmentality’ in continental Europe. The centralised bureaucratic modern British state emerged as a result of a century of revolution, civil war and regime change. This legacy was rendered more distinctive by the continued preservation of a monarchical component to at least the rhetoric of constitutional government. It is an interesting aspect of the hostility to the EU that demands for popular referendum have been very noisy, but no such case is made for a similar judgement on the continuing existence of the Monarchy as part of the ‘accountable’ government of Britain.

The existence of a distinctive but unelected Head of State, hardly seems a good starting point for expanding upon traditions of accountability, especially given the evidence that suggests that for a good part of the last three centuries substantial proportions of the nation have been hostile to this aspect of government. The fact that that institution exercises an powerful but informal authority over for example the exercise of judicial appointments in the counties also points to a further complexity of discussions around the purity and accountability of British legal culture and its judicial institutions.

Justin Champion is Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London. His publications include The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken. the Church of England and its enemies, 1660-1730, now in a second edition (University of Cambridge, 2014).


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