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Monday, February 25, 2019

A fork in the road: British unity, or civil disorder? (Revised version)

Is Britain approaching a 1776 moment? Or is it more like 1789?

Again and again, on talk radio phone-ins and bear-garden TV shows like Question Time, ordinary people are rudely challenging elected representatives to carry out the result of the 2016 EU Membership Referendum. The latter often seem struggling to contain their fury at such impertinence, as though a scullery maid or horse groom had dared to speak out of turn to His Lordship.

We are moving past consideration of the EU, which is financially and politically doomed (or perhaps its citizens are) whether we remain or leave. The issue has become - for some it always has been - the legitimacy of power itself. And not merely the power of the EU, but the validity of the British Parliament.

Wars, civil wars and revolutions have been fought about this for centuries.

Boston, August 1775: George Washington's army is besieging the British, and the General has learned that captured American officers are being lumped in with other ranks. His protest is rebuffed by General Gage, who says that he does not recognise any rank not derived from the King. On the 19th, Washington replies:

"You affect, Sir, to despise all rank not derived from the same source with your own. I cannot conceive any more honorable that that which flows from the uncorrupted choice of a brave and free people - the purest source and original fountain of all power."

This, from a man brought up in the aristocratic world of the eighteenth century, predates by five months the publication of Paine's bomb-burst pamphlet "Common Sense" (10 January 1776; 150,000 sales among a population of only two million colonists.) Together with the outrageous torching by the British of Norfolk, Virginia on New Year's Day, America had both provocation and a philosophical theory of power to underpin her resistance.

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes," said Mark Twain...

The growing recession hitting our country, Europe and the world will provide a similar societal stress - some say this is part of an inevitable historical cycle related to credit, debt and collapse. Once that happens, all it needs is for a radical theoretical debate on power and governance to light the flame.

Revolutions don't happen overnight. They are not spontaneous: masses need organising and leading. So it won't happen after the Brexit deadline in March (or is that to be May?) But if the sovereignty issue is not settled sensitively - it was arrogance and brutality that lost the thirteen colonies - the pamphleteering will begin.

If the balloon goes up, it won't be a colonial revolt; it will be more like a revolutionary civil war, which is far worse because it is much harder to make a lasting peace. There are many fault lines in our society ready to crack open. Even the major political parties have begun to split.

This calamity is avoidable.

Britain nearly had a conflagration in 1789. The philosopher Richard Price, a friend of Paine, gave a French Revolution-inspired speech  "A Discourse on the Love of Our Country", looking at the fundamentals of politics and, like Paine, rooting power in the people. The reception was enthusiastic (a term with distinct connotations of danger, in those days.)

The State was alive to the danger, and acted. Certain gentlemen came to advise Price on his future conduct. Edmund Burke began to compose a justification for the British Constitution in rebuttal. 1789 marked the last time a woman was burned at the stake (in London, for coining.) Radical groups such as the London Corresponding Society were infiltrated by government agents and ultimately suppressed; yet even with the brakes on, the vehicle of power was pushed inch by inch towards electoral reform and democratisation.

Now, Parliament, Whitehall and other well-mounted elements of society are trying to welch on the evolutionary compact with the common people. The latter are divided - votes are divisive, the key to peace is to accept them as decisive - but those with access to power and the media have worked hard to jemmy the cracks wider. The process of re-radicalisation has started, and this time the State seems either unconscious of the peril, or (like George III) sure of its ability to patronise and repress.

Burke articulated a pragmatic scheme for the Parliamentary government we now have, a balance between the royal Executive and popular representation, and between constituency representation and mere delegation. This circumvented the bloody conflict of first principles that played itself out on the other side of the Channel.

But he was addressing the problem of how we govern ourselves, not whether we should be able to govern ourselves at all; even pragmatism has its limits. And on this latter issue, the people - firmly assured by their representatives that this vote would be decisive - made their determination. The task of their representatives was then to carry it through, while closing the divisions among the people as they went forward. They have failed on both counts. The issue has then turned from UK versus EU, to people - a confused, disunited, squabbling people - versus Parliament itself.

If the solution to the threat of revolution in Britain as France burned was to fashion its own sustainable form of democracy, then to discard democracy is to wind the clock back to pre-revolutionary days. And then the clock will start forward again, towards fresh crisis and already-failed solutions.


James Higham said...

They’re desperate for civil unrest so those for British sovereignty are removed from the board. Not so much civil war as occupied territory by the Germans and French, with puppets in place. It will be not unlike WW2 France.

Sackerson said...

It didn't work in 1775 et seq.