Sunday, 24 March 2013

A Devilish People

I was recently asked to identify the various historical elements that led to the creation of Victorian Britain, the high-water mark of our national story, a time of innovation, of self-reliance and self-assurance, things that now seem a distant memory in our present state of senesce.  It comes really at an opportune time, right in the middle of my Trollope period, a novelist who did much to identity some of the significant political and intellectual trends in nineteenth century English life.  I also have a particularly close acquaintance with the work of Charles Dickens, another great chronicler of the day. 
The transformation that characterised the times, particularly in the Industrial Revolution, is the stuff of a thousand school essays!  The obvious things can be marched out with ease – the improvements in agriculture, in communication, in transport, in technology; innovations of all sorts.  Much of the mechanical improvement was directly related to the ever increasing demand for coal, a power source significant as far back as the Middle Ages.  But the mines go even deeper here, deep into our history.
On the eve of the Victorian period feudalism was a distant memory, effectively killed off as early as the fourteenth century.  In contrast it was a living reality on the Continent, in France, in Prussia and in Russia.  In the case of the latter it was to be a living reality as late as the early 1860s, with shadows long thereafter.  It is England not France that is the true home of liberty.  In France Liberty came late, trailing clouds of terror and bringing streams of blood. 
In England freedom was far more than a word.  From the myth of Robin Hood to the reality of Magna Carta, the first great break on royal power, it was a living reality.  I find it difficult to define this properly but I know a poet who can;
It is not to be thought of that the Flood
Of British freedom, which to the open Sea
Of the world's praise from dark antiquity
Hath flowed, "with pomp of waters, unwithstood,"
Road by which all might come and go that would,
And bear out freights of worth to foreign lands;
That this most famous Stream in Bogs and Sands
Should perish; and to evil and to good
Be lost for ever. In our Halls is hung
Armoury of the invincible Knights of old:
We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold
Which Milton held. In every thing we are sprung
Of Earth's first blood, have titles manifold.
We recently dug up the remains of Richard III, a reminder of the great fifteenth century dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses.  But that event was far more significant than a simple game of thrones.  It decimated the hereditary nobility that had effectively ruled the country since the Norman Conquest.  In its place came a new nobility, made up quite often of the middling sort.  Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, the two most powerful political figures during the reign of Henry VIII, were respectively the son of a butcher and the son of a blacksmith.  I can think of no other country at the time that where such a rapid ascent would have been possible.
Then there is Parliament, a uniquely assertive body in English history, present from the thirteenth century onwards.  It was to be an effective scrutiniser over time of national finances, granting fresh supply only after various grievances had been addressed.  It may have started on a Continental model of an assembly of estates but it became so much more, the best firm of accountants that the nation has ever had. 
So, if the Wars of the Roses saw the beginning of the end of aristocratic power, the political struggles of the seventeenth century saw the absolute end of royal absolutism.  It is not to be thought that the Restoration of the monarch in 1660, after a republican interlude, marked the victory of Crown over Parliament.  Charles II was to have almost as much trouble from his loyal assembles as his father did from his rebellious ones.  The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the overthrow of James II, sent all pretence of divine right monarchy to the grave.
The long Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was an important precursor here, freeing people from more traditional forms of thought and religious practice.  The process was also fairly uniform throughout mainland Britain, uniting people in a common Protestant ideology.  Where there is religious liberty and freedom of thought political liberty follows.  In France such religious liberty was the gift of the state, ended in a stroke of royal absolutism.  As England wakened to freedom France sunk deeper into the sleep of absolutism. 
If any one man supplied the ideological impetus for the Glorious Revolution, and the subsequent Bill of Rights, then it surely has to be John Locke.  For me Locke serves as an avatar of the English intellect, far more precise and empirical than the cloudy abstraction of so much Continental thought.  English itself is a precise language which, if used properly, is concerned with meanings and ends.  It is a language that does not readily lend itself to obscurity.  When it does it simply looks ridiculous.  A free language given to free expression, that is of crucial importance in understanding who we are, in understating our values and our dow-to-earth sense of what is right and what is wrong.  We must indeed be free or die, who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake.  The corruption of our spoken and written language is among our greatest contemporary dangers.
Our political struggles did not end with the Glorious Revolution, merely took on a different form.  The early Victorian period saw a new and bloodless civil war, fought between the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, which expanded middle-class representation in Parliament, and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which saw the final victory of the industrial over the landed interest.  Through this period, though passions were often heightened, problems were solved by pragmatic compromise rather than violence, another characteristic of the English.
Take the career of Benjamin Disraeli, for example, another kind of avatar.  He first made his mark in Parliament by a ruthless assault on Sir Robert Peel, his own party leader and the Prime Minister responsible for the repeal of the Corn Laws.  At the time Disraeli spoke for the landed interest.  But when he became Prime Minister himself later in the century there was no return to the past.  For him laissez-faire capitalism and free trade, defined by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, was the wealth of the nation.
Britain was fortunate in being the first industrial nation among a world of primary producers.  But while free trade opened the agricultural sector to foreign competition in did not entail terminal decline.  Instead the nation’s farms and farmers became more proficient, as proficient as their manufacturing counterparts in adopting new methods and techniques.  Farms became pure commercial enterprises with little of the inefficient and underproductive peasant agriculture that continues to be a defining feature of the French system.
The country was also fortunate in not having a standing army on the Continental model, a drain on national resources.  Instead there was the navy, based on the need to defend ever lengthening trade routes.  Naval officers were generally of a far higher level of ability than those in the army, many of whom bought their commissions.  An idiot could command a regiment; an idiot could not sail a ship.  The defeat of France in the Seven Years War established Britain as the leading sea power in the world, something that was to continue right into the twentieth century.  Secure trade meant growing wealth; growing wealth meant an ever greater flow of capital; more capital meant more investment, and onwards and upwards.
The English don’t do revolution by doing it so well!  The changes are outwardly subtle, so subtle than they can scarcely be seen to have happened.  Consider the difference between the England of Richard III and that of Queen Victoria.  In institutional terms little has changed.  They are all in place, the monarchy, the aristocracy and Parliament, both Lords and Commons.  But the balance between them has changed dramatically and continued to change.  The monarchy is now the decorative part of the constitution, something that would have caused Richard a new winter of discontent! 
If I take Disraeli as one avatar of the Victorian age the other has to be Charles Dickens, at once the least and most political writer we have ever had.  His work is in so many respects another human comedy along the lines of Dante, but he never lost sight of the various social, politic and institutional abuses of his time.  He is really the great giant of mid-Victorian liberalism, best caught in Charles Dickens, George Orwell’s brilliant pen portrait, which concludes thus;
When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
I don’t think there is any better description of the free English intellect.  It’s an insightful portrait of Dickens just as it’s an insightful portrait of Orwell himself. 
The English have never been hung on a cross of theory.  The Victorian age provides plenty of examples of this, of people reaching for practical solutions to practical problems. Karl Marx would have crucified us.  Though he spent many years in exile in London, he never understood the people among whom he lived.   Always expecting great things from the English proletariat, the most advanced in Europe, by the lights of his theory, he came to see that England was the one country in Europe with a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois working class as well as a bourgeois bourgeois! His last recorded words were “To the Devil with the British.”
To be cast to the Devil by Karl, is there any better compliment, I wonder? 


  1. England's greatest gift to the world is the English language; invented in England but perfected in America!...

    1. Now that's a point of view! Goodbye, Anthony, my dear friend. :-)

  2. With your main points I agree, Ana, and with the general spirit of what you are saying. One reservation I have is about your characterization of the English language. I don't know that European languages are all that different from one another in their capacity to communicate empirical or other general attitudes. English proved perfectly capable as a vehicle for Hegelian metaphysics, didn't it?

    The French go on (or used to) about the clarity and logicality of French, but it doesn't seem to have helped their political and economic thinking much.

    1. Mark, I was thinking specifically of Sartre and Heidegger, the two gas giants of European thought.

  3. I'd just like to point out that the Scots insisted upon keeping their own legal system after the 1707 Union and as a (surprising) result the last relics of feudalism in Scotland weren't actually abolished until the 1920s.

  4. Parliament over the centuries has been the main engine in driving forward democracy. Today it has become the major stumbling block and is gradually undoing all that it has achieved as bit by bit our civil liberties are being curtailed. Politicians and political parties are now the enemy of democracy as they more and more govern as if by divine right. That is what ditching all Victorian standards and values not just the bad ones and embracing modern ones where statism and corporatism dominate gives you.

    1. Antisthenes, I agree. Our political institutions have degenerated along with our language.

  5. Hey Ana, thanks for the post I really enjoyed reading that.

    Anyhow, I would really like to hears your words and thoughts on the present crisis in the EU.


    1. Ah, Damo, you will find plenty here on the EU. I could see this crisis coming several blogs ago. :-)

  6. A brilliant essay, Ana--well done!

    I would only add that Locke's peer, believe it or not, is William Tyndale, who is as influential in the political development of English liberty as Locke, and as influential in the development of the English language as a matchless aesthetic vehicle as was Shakespeare.

    See also James Shapiro's brilliant book on Shakespeare 1599 for the importance of sermons--a now almost entirely forgotten genre--in shaping public consciousness in the crucial centuries you've so brilliantly, and otherwise in a miracle of compression, comprehensively, limned.

    Best, Chris

    1. Thanks, Chris. Yes, I should have mentioned Tyndale. I have in the past as one of the well-springs of our language.