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The comforting mythology of historical patterns: An Encounter with an old friend on Baker Street:

English: Baker Street tube station.

The Giant Edifice of Baker Street tube station, For over a century, this station has served as a meeting spot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

London: Thursday 9th August 2012

The Globe Pub on Baker Street is not the world’s best drinking hole, by any means. It is pleasant enough if you like these sort of places, but compared to the 10,000 or so pubs in Britain’s capital, it is blankly unremarkable. It does however, have two redeeming features.

Firstly, it has, a generous allocation of outside seating, allowing it to make the most of the watery, humid summers in which Londoners are required to bask. And secondly, it is situated directly opposite Baker Street Tube Station; an unremarkable achievement until you realise that this particular station happens to be an intersection for no fewer than five tube lines.

In consequence of these happy accidents, The Globe Pub has served as a meeting place for people in London for as long as it has existed, and it is here that I arranged to meet an old friend, last Friday. Yet there is a danger to meeting in a place famed as a meeting spot. For the Globe must have played host to some of the blandest conversations in the history of language, as people who have not seen each other for years, use up precious time discussing things which actually don’t matter very much.

Three years had passed since our last meeting and there was a lot of catching up to be done in the short duration open to us. Or so you would think. The conversation turned with remarkable rapidity to politics, a subject dear to us both, and while it proceeded to meander over families, mutual acquaintances, ambitions, our respective jobs, these subjects took the place of punctuation in the overall conversation. This is not to say that I am uninterested in his life, quite the contrary. But it is a myth to think that people become friends as a result of their lifestyle choices. On the contrary, it is our friends’ characters and opinions that draw us to them. I can find any old punter to discuss his attitude to children or spouse, house renovation or the cost of living. These conversations, collectively identified as ‘small talk,’ are essentially wasted on friends, with whom we have something much deeper to explore: common ground and difference.

It was with relief therefore that we did not spend too long on stuff that correctly belongs in a Christmas card. Instead we turned to his politics. My friend is a passionate Libertarian, and deeply concerned with what he perceives to be the rapid erosion of individual freedoms in Britain.

There is always a danger in seeking to articulate another man’s argument. No man wants to be misunderstood and I frequently find myself becoming pedantic over the minute points of syntax, the moment someone else begins to speak for me, but I will try to outline his wider concerns.

My friend, was profoundly concerned at the sheer volume of legislation which came onto the statute book every day. As he put it to me, every day there is something that you could do yesterday which you are no longer able to do.

And this was not merely something which annoyed my friend, but worried him. “Every 300 years or so,” he said, “the people have to remind those in authority that there are constraints on their power; that the constitution doesn’t exist to serve them. That time has come around again.”

Now this idea immediately perked my ears up. My friend was articulating the idea of historical trends. He was suggesting that history is essentially cyclical in nature and that a nation’s constitutional settlement is eternal. To my friend, a constitutional crisis was due, triggered by en encroaching state, arrogantly believing itself able to adapt the constitution as it saw fit. But fortunately, to my friend, the lesson from history was comforting, suggesting that the British people would be moved to act and curtail the powers of the State.

This is radical stuff. It suggests that Britain (or perhaps, England) is a universal, eternal entity guided by precedent and recurring historical trend. This England will never be enslaved as the people themselves will rise up and protect their liberty. As the song goes, ‘There will always be an England!’

And the Logical conclusion of this line of thinking is also deeply radical. For if history can act as a divining rod to for an entity like England, might it not be possible to see the same trends for all societies?

Are the Russians always and forever to be bound in a cyclical world of State oppression followed by gradual liberalisation? Are the people of Afghanistan to be condemned to eternal, perpetual war? Will Africa always be poor? Will Europe always be divided? Will the US always be United? Is history a time machine that can carry us forward and not merely back in time?

In the last year I have read a book which I absolutely adored, Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules: For Now: The Patterns of History and what they reveal about the future. It is a book which attempts to demonstrate that by analysing humanity’s development throughout our history, we can plot a curve which shows us the future.

Only Mr. Morris doesn’t actually do any such thing. Instead he paints two alternate futures, one in which the advance of technology allows us to maintain exponential advancement and one where our own development becomes our enemy; releasing pandemics at astonishing rates across our ever heating globe.

We are about to be either architects of a glorious future or our own demise, apparently.

I loved the premise of this book, that far from being written by great men, history evolves as a matter of inevitability, which great men themselves are powerless to alter in any meaningful way. Morris demonstrates that even if a truly great western leader emerges, he or she will not arrest the relative decline of the West in relation to the East. Geopolitical trends are too powerful for that.

Yet what appeals to me is something entirely different. For the idea that historical trends exist and that we can plot humanity’s development against them is, at one and the same time, darkly pessimistic and oddly comforting. It suggests that bad events are inevitable and unavoidable, but also that they are self-correcting, driven by, as Morris puts it, ‘Lazy, frightened people seeking, easier, safer ways of doing things.’

Thus, if we are unhappy with our lot in life, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that at least history will correct itself for future generations.

What my friend and Ian Morris were articulating was two alternative views of history, one (The Tory School), sees history in cyclical terms. Sometimes you are up and sometimes down. But history will always bumble along on an inevitable trajectory. The result is continuity.

The other (Whig) school of history is that articulated by Ian Morris. It sees history as being the story of human development, characterised by periods of rapid development and relative stasis. But once a skill is learned it is not possible to unlearn it. Thus humanity is destined always to improve toward a threshold where it will be required to consolidate before finding the means to break through again.

In their simplest form, both schools of thought are manifestly and demonstrably simplistic. Just as there are plenty of examples in history of skills being lost, as they become irrelevant, so it is nonsense to suppose that there is any reason that England will always, inevitably exist in its current form or view itself in the same way. No polity is inviolable or eternal, and by definition, therefore, no constitutional settlement, regardless of how successful can be either.

And so, with the benefit of a few days to think about what my friend was saying, I have become somewhat pessimistic about his arguments. The liberty my friend holds so dear is in many ways taken for granted by the British. And while relatively few British people share the certainties of British greatness with their Victorian great grandparents, enough British people still regard democracy and freedom as worth believing in.

Yet, I sense something else too. The British are apathetic. This might seem a silly statement if you have been watching the crowds for the Olympic games, but I would contend that it is there all the same.

The British people I have spoken to, seem not to be interested in defending or even articulating British values. On the contrary, they appear to be interested in being less open and free.

One woman I spoke to (a taxi driver of about 50) referred to the influx of people into her occupation who spoke no English. She seemed hesitant to say what she really thought, although she could have spouted any political view, no matter how unreasonable, without the slightest danger of offending me. But she did edge towards an assertion that perhaps Britain should require people to speak English in order to live here.

It was, she felt, unfair that people could come to Britain without any need for them to behave like the British or even speak our language. Yet, she reminded me, the British are expected to go to other countries and behave according to their rules.

I asked her if she felt that our openness and tolerance were qualities to be proud of, and she was unequivocal. No. Britain needed to behave less tolerantly. People should prove themselves to be an asset in order to live here. People were taking our country for a ride.

Her opinions were far from unique. And in a real sense Britain has always debated the extent to which her values should come before real world priorities. The debates over free trade or protectionism at the start of the twentieth century are a case in point. Britain’s Empire was founded on Free Trade and the Pound, as the world’s reserve currency, funded projects, not only in her colonies but across the globe, funding expansion across the US and South America as well as in Russia, China and the Middle East. Yet in 1900, Britain was struggling because of competition from the US and Germany, both of whom protected their industries through trade tariffs. Surely it was time for Britain to do the same.

This debate caused such a storm that it caused Winston Churchill to swap the Conservative Party, which was in favour of tariff reform, for the Liberals, who maintained a Free Trade stance. In the end, Britain maintained free trade, gambolling that this exposure would leave British industry more competitive than their German or American competitors.

At the start of the 21st Century, however, Britain seems to be in a different spirit. Far from seeing our values as virtues, to be defended, we see them as a weakness. Rather than standing up for British values, the British, increasingly, are adopting a view that they should play by the rules of the rest of the world.

This is bad news for my friends wish to protect the constitutional settlement of Britain. Far from being prepared to remind the government of their historic rights and freedoms, the British are increasingly demanding fewer of them, in the interest of the greater good.

Moreover, the British are not behaving out of context. After a century in which democracy has spread widely throughout the world, increasingly, influential people are asking the question, whether the systems of Democratic accountability are themselves damaging to the competitiveness and success of these nations.

Could it be that while the British and Americans congratulate ourselves on having created the global system, this was in fact achieved in spite of, rather than because of democracy and freedom.

You could see the argument going something like this:

  1. Britain became great due to mercantilism and entrepreneurialism, as well as an advantageous geographic location, controlling Europe’s access to the Atlantic and the New World.
  2. Britain was aided by the decision of their rivals, the French, to revolt in favour of more Democratic government, and fight a series of self-destructive wars across the European consequence. France’s defeat lead to a period where Britain sat, unchallenged as the worlds global power.
  3. However, none of this is due to Democracy, or freedom. Britain was not Democratic, and for millions, enslaved in the factories of the Industrial Revolution or passionately committed to Churches and Chapels which preached sacrifice and hard work, freedom was a concept with little relevance beyond the freedom to worship.
  4. As the 19th Century drew to a close, the Free Trade principles of the British Empire were beginning to disadvantage her. Far from patenting and protecting her developments, Britain had exported these and left herself open to competition. American and German Protectionism were killing British industry.
  5. Moreover, calls for Democracy, for opening up the great wealth of the empire to the great mass of people who had built it, were gaining ground. At the very moment when the National interest required of Britain, solidity and consolidation, instead a series of catastrophic political experiments were being enacted increasing the franchise to those least able to use it dispassionately and most vulnerable to the manipulation of Snake Oil salesmen. Britain would embrace a catastrophic set of political masters during the following century as right and left sought to outbid one another in manipulating the popular vote with short-term policies often damaging to British national interest.
  6. For a long time this was hidden from view. Britain’s participation on the victorious side in the Battles with Nazism and Communism owed little to Britain, who fought more loosing battles in WWII than winning ones. But this, and the transcendence of the same free market economic model of the United States allowed Anglo Saxons to equate power and recent glory with their current values system, rather than the one which made them great and which they had just abandoned.
  7. Only with the rise of Asian economies, showing similar economic dynamism but none of the accountable politics, can we now see that this  vision was flawed. Capitalism depends upon the rule of law, not the sovereignty of a democratic parliament to function effectively.

But, this does not necessarily address my friends point. To him, the Magna Carta, The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution were examples of Britain reminding it’s rulers of their place as servants to the Rule of Law (specifically Common Law).

But none of these revolts against the prevailing Monarch were democratic. Magna Carta preserved the rights of the Nobility, not Humanity, first and foremost, The English Civil War heralded the 10 year Commonwealth, a military dictatorship fronted by a puritan military Junta, while the ‘Glorious Revolution’ was irrelevant to democracy, signalling the formalisation of the transfer of ultimate sovereignty from an undemocratic Monarch to an undemocratic parliament, peopled by the Gentry.

If you have cause to doubt this, consider that following the 1688 Glorious Revolution, Parliament would take 234 years to embrace democracy, a figure which grows further if you wait for women and men to gain the right to vote at the same age.

The concerning thing, for my friend, who asserts that the British periodically, remind the hegemony of the day of the primacy of the rule of law, is that such revolts have always been, by definition, small-scale, acute stabs at the ruling authorities: a short sharp smack. Monarchy itself did not fall in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution or Magna Carta and it fell for only 10 years following the English Civil War. These were a long way from the radical mass revolutions required to change systems in the era of popular empowerment.

Ultimately, for my friend, looking to mobilise the people behind the worthy cause of protecting the primacy of the Rule of Law (and thus their freedoms), paradoxically, it is likely to be the extension of the franchise and the mass exercise of democratic empowerment which will be the biggest impediment to the next Glorious Revolution.

For in the early 21st Century, Our great liberal Democracy has trumped Common Law with the primacy of Statutes from parliament. And it doesn’t matter whether this was legal, for statute has behind it an army of 60 million (admittedly apathetic) voters, in whose name and with whose mandate the prevailing Government of the day does its bidding.

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