I’ve been reading – or rather re-reading – How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters by Daniel Hannan, the eurosceptic Conservative MEP for Southeast England. It’s a book I bought a year or so back, and which rather annoyed me because, in my view, it explained neither what freedom was nor why it mattered. Freedom, in my view, isn’t something that anyone ever “invented”: it’s a condition that people either do or do not enjoy.
But once the term “freedom” was replaced by “representative government”, my objections largely faded away. And the book has since proved enthralling.
It’s really a potted history of England (and also America). It’s about the Anglosphere, and about the gradual emergence of bottom-up representative government in the face of top-down, royal control.
Up until the Norman conquest in 1066, England already had kings, but also a primitive representative government in the form of the witan. But when the Normans arrived, it was swept away and replaced by ferocious top-down control. Britain became two cultures: an indigenous Anglo-Saxon English-speaking culture controlled by a French-speaking ruling class.
Subsequent history, as Hannan describes it, has been one of the gradual re-assertion of the Anglo-Saxon culture over the Norman culture, including the emergence of the English language. This was something that began when the French king annexed Normandy, leaving the Norman conquerors stranded in England, and thereafter helplessly English. The signing of Magna Carta in 1215 was one of the first examples of English rights being asserted against Norman royal power. While the Civil War that broke out in 1642 was another moment when bottom-up Anglo-Saxon Protestant parliamentarian culture prevailed over the top-down royal control. The Protestant Levellers of the time, as Hannan describes them, were the first libertarians.
I think that this cultural division between Anglo-Saxons and Normans in England is one that is still evident today. There are a lot of Norman-descended families in England, with names like Beaufort, Beauchamp. Montmorency, etc . One might say that the English ruling class have always regarded themselves as a bit French (sometimes even speaking it), and to have admired European culture, and these are the people who are now the Europhiles. For them, joining the EU seems entirely natural: it’s like going home. But for the Anglo-Saxon majority, France is where the hated Norman overlords originated. And throwing off the Norman yoke is as much an imperative now as it was nearly 1000 years ago. And it’s people like Nigel Farage and UKIP who now represent the Anglo-Saxons. An ancient largely-buried social division is re-emerging in the modern era.
Hannan goes on to say that Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689 were taken to America by English colonists from South-east England (the very place where Hannan is an MEP, and Farage is seeking to become an MP), and now underpin the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. (I had not known that the English Civil War was also fought in America, with Virginia supporting the royalist cause, and New England the parliamentary.)
But perhaps the most interesting thing was that, while parliamentary control over royal power was being exerted in England, the exact opposite was happening in Europe.
Across the Continent, seventeenth-century rulers swept aside what few restraints had been placed on their power, and put in their place the novel doctrine of the divine right of kings. Peter the Great in Russia, Frederick William in Prussia, Charles XI in Sweden, and above all Louis XIV in France constructed the elaborate machinery of autocratic rule, complete with fiscal independence and juridical supremacy.
In 1614, while English MPs were attacking the excesses of royal spending in the most hectoring and ill-tempered manner, the French Estates-General, which had never been more than a weak advisory body, were being dissolved, not to meet again until 1789. In 1653, when England was at the height of its republican interlude, the Diet of Brandenburg met for the last time and formally surrendered what was left of its tax-raising powers to the monarch. In 1665, when Charles II was discovering that he was as financially dependent on Parliament as his father and grandfather, Denmark adopted the “King’s Law,” authorizing the sovereign to close down any alternative centres of power and declaring that “he shall from this day forth be revered and considered the most perfect and supreme person on the Earth by all his subjects, standing above all human laws and having no judge above his person, neither in spiritual nor temporal matters, except God alone.”
England and Scotland, almost uniquely, spent the seventeenth century travelling in the opposite direction. (p..154)
And isn’t history repeating itself, as the EU emerges as yet another top-down controlling autocratic state, with weak democratic constraints – while in Britain the groundswell of growing opinion is in favour of a re-assertion of bottom-up Parliamentary control? Europe appears to be reverting to type, and so is England.
Seen in this historical context, the the Anglo-Saxon English are simply carrying on doing what they’ve been doing for the past 1000 years: throwing off the Norman yoke. And if they remain true to type, they will leave the European Union, because it’s another Norman yoke that they don’t need.
The English don’t like top-down control.
Happy New Year.