Posted by: secretperson | November 14, 2008

The English Revolution

Channel Four are to show a four part series set around the English civil war, and this has prompted Ronan Bennett in the Guardian to pen a piece on the English revolution.

He disputes that the Commonwealth of England was an aberration in English history, and argues it changed things fundamentally, despite the return of Charles II as king. He quotes one who believes the outcome of the civil war was “a significant acceleration in the process of the development of a distinctive English polity and political culture” and attacks those who use the eventual return to kingship and gradual development of our current constitutional monarchy as evidence for our “genius for compromise”.

I am of the view that it is possible to praise gradualism, while accepting the roles of radicals. Unknown changes have unknown outcomes, revolutions are too often replaced with something as bad or worse than what went before. Parliament had no more day-to-day power under Lord Protector Cromwell than it had under Charles. But when Charles II was invited by return by parliament it did set a precedent of parliamentary sovereignty over the king, reinforced in the Glorious Revolution when monarchs were again exchanged under parliamentary control.

Bennett also compares and contrasts two fascinating quotes, one from King Charles and one from Thomas Rainsborough at the famous Putney debates. Charles said:

I must tell you their liberty and freedom consists in having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not having a share in government. Sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a Sovereign are clear different things.

and Rainsborough:

For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest 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.

The first sentence of Charles is correct, laws under which our lives and our goods are our own are desirable, but his belief in an absolute monarch delivering them is misguided. Having a share in government is a good way of ensuring that government acts in the best interests of the majority. Of course having a share in government is no guarantee of good law or liberty and freedom, as we well know.

That is where Rainsborough comes in. Consenting to put oneself under a government is important. Obviously it is impossible for everyone to consent, there are circumstances in which a community has the right to act against one who threatens them, whatever their consenting status, we call this the law. But also we accept that majoritarianism is not correct, there are laws to protect minority groups and individuals from the tyranny of a majority elected democracy.

The concept of consent is the main reason I am a nationalist, using the admittedly circular definition that a nation is a group who feel enough common identity to consent to submit to soveriegn government decided by the democratic will of their own nation. I believe this achieves the best form of government, achieves the best chance of consent and consensus. I believe it achieves the most interested electorate and the best relations between electorate and elected, leading in turn, one would hope to (libertarian) laws under which our goods and lives are our own.

My words are idealistic, and I accept the realism of gradualism to achieve change. I accept that my libertarian views are not shared by everyone, but as England is my nation I feel I should stay and argue my case, and I accept the democracy of my fellows.

Of course, modern English nationalism faces different challenges to the 17th century. But we can look to the past for lessons, guidance and inspiration. Or even just for interest. It would seem strange to campaign for an English palriament now, and not be interested in the major developments of the English parliament in the past.

Ronan Bennet has no doubts there was an English revolution. I hope there can be a peaceful second one.



  1. Agreed. The Rainsborough words come from the Putney Debates in which the revolutionary army discussed politics, ie: what kind of society do we want? The rank and file wanted the vote, those with wealth were worried that their riches would not be respected – they were right of course. The upshot being that those fighting for the extension of democratic participation were ultimately defeated.

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