Does the Whig Theory of History Hold True?


The below is to be published in the next edition of the Winstanley College History Magazine. John Kersey and HHH in the same article is one thing; having such an article published in the History Magazine of a state college is quite another thing. If it is published, what a terrific coup it shall be!

Does the Whig Theory of History Hold True?

To answer such a vast question, it would help if we knew who the Whigs were. Essentially, the Whigs began as a political faction opposed to James II becoming King. The Whigs were mostly aristocrats who viewed monarchy as a tiresome added extra to their hegemonic rule over England. And in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when they finally got their way and deposed James, they cemented their hegemony for the coming centuries.

Not only this, but the Whigs set out to re-tell history. This is not to say that they re-wrote history or that they lied, but they set about doing what they saw as necessary to correct the standard interpretation of history. In practice, it did involve re-writing history and the most famous Whig historian, Macaulay, wrote romantically in the 19th century of the Glorious Revolution in the 17th century. He argued that the Whigs saved England from “despotism…anarchy…childish theories…blood and confusion.”

To an extent, this is true. The English early modern revolution really was ‘glorious’ in one respect: no blood was shed. The Revolution simply involved replacing one king with another. ‘The king has left for France; God save the king’, one might have said at the time.  The absence of bloodshed might have given the English revolution what the historian Professor John Kersey has termed “the veneer of continuity” – in reference, however, to the Restoration of 1660. The Glorious Revolution in fact represented a profound change in the way that all revolutions are a kind of profound change. The profound change represented by our Revolution, though, was brought about bloodlessly. On the continent, their revolutions were rather different. In fact, the French had numerous violent and destructive revolutions which tore apart all existing political and social structures and replaced them with nothing obviously better. My basic point is that ‘life went on’ after the Glorious Revolution and this is at least one way in which the Revolution differs from the ones on the continent. Our revolution was comfortable and predictable and, in this respect, unique.

With what a great crash our civilisation would have fallen, then, to paraphrase Macaulay, had the Whigs not ousted James II, united the nation behind a comfortable and predictable Anglicanism, and exercised a comfortable and predictable aristocratic rule.

The Whigs, to legitimise themselves, though, for what they were doing was revolutionary, evoked what was, in Macaulay’s words, already “engraven on the hearts of all Englishmen”: the ancient constitution. Our constitution, according to the Whigs, was and is a very vague and general compilation of such liberties as freedom of contract, no taxation without representation, parliamentary democracy, limits on the monarchy, and so on and so forth. They even cited historical illustrations of this self-sustaining and self-regulating constitution in action, e.g. the Constitutions of Clarendon, the Provisions of Oxford, and, of course, Magna Carta.

The Whig theory of history, then, is one of progress: every generation slowly and surely accumulating more and more knowledge and wisdom of how to govern, how to make profits, how to enrich the soul, and how to tap into natural resources. Over time, things improve – this is the message of the Whigs. The theory first was applied to politics and then, as we became richer and more confident, it was applied to every aspect of life.

Does the Whig theory hold true, then? The Whig theory of history was the orthodox interpretation of the past right up until the Great War. The theory was dealt a shocking blow by the First World War and what followed it. How could such a supposedly perfect political and economic system allow for such a disastrous and seemingly pointless enterprise? Why didn’t we avoid it and why couldn’t we bounce back from it?

While it is undoubtedly true that we have benefitted enormously from the Internet Revolution and from a considerable increase in living standards, people in the 1900s would have expected us in the 21st century to each own a flying car, to have to perform rather less manual labour than we presently have to, and to have made a lot more progress towards Utopia. Yet, in 2008, we entered the longest recession for a hundred years. In 2001, we began our longest modern war, the war in Afghanistan, lasting 13 years and costing over 450 lives. And, far from those in the 21st century experiencing no scarcity and living the high life, the lowest rate of income tax in Britain is still 20p in the pound. I could go on: the House of Lords may soon be abolished; the monarchy wields no power; and more laws have been made since 1997 than in the two thousand years before then. The aim of this paragraph is not to put a political spin on the article, but to show that the ‘ancient constitution’, that perfect un-written set of laws engraven – supposedly – on the hearts of us all, is dead and has been dead for years.

As it is, no other interpretation of history has risen from the wilderness to take the place of the Whig theory of history. There was a brief period when a Marxist interpretation held some sway, but it was by no means orthodoxy and did not endure. Is it good that we are living in an age when no single over-arching Grand Theory is imposed upon budding young historians like ourselves? Or is it symptomatic of a decline in the quality of historians? I would agree with the former and disagree with the latter, although I do like the idea of a theory which explains all of history, or at least all of a given aspect of it. Certainly, some attempts have been made. In my own opinion, the closest thing to such a Grand Theory is provided by Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his ‘Democracy: The God that Failed’, however even Hoppe will concede that such a priori theories as his only work with certain provisions made, such as the ceteris paribus proviso, and cannot explain everything. In short, then, I think that the Whig theory of history, while it may have once had some truth about it, ceased to be useful on that fateful day, July 28th 1914, when the world as it was then and had been for centuries was smashed to smithereens.

 

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4 comments

  • The old Whigs (and some Tory folk also – because it was not only Whigs who acted against James II in 1688) were those people who opposed the domination of Britain by Louis XIV of France (the despotic “Sun King”) or, in general, any unlimited government – that might prove a threat to liberty and property (the latter being the latter being the essential foundation of the former), especially large scale property (despots often try the “divide and rule” of Class War, ENVY based politics – attacking individual rich people and families, or wealthy bodies corporate such as Churches or trading companies). Rightly or wrongly James II was seen as a puppet of Louis XIV.

    However, somewhere over the centuries the word “Whig” came to be associated with a theory of history which the actual “Old Whigs” did NOT believe in – a theory of history that held that “progress” was natural if not inevitable and that every major change was an improvement (an historical theory mocked by Herbert Butterfield and others).

    A theory more remote from the actual “Old Whigs” would be hard to think of – after all they believed that without massive desperate effort (indeed the risking of one’s life) political matters tended to decline over time – indeed collapse into despotism.

    The price of liberty is indeed “eternal vigilance” – progress (in the sense of things getting more free over time) is anything but “natural” (if people do not have a good understanding and great courage things actually tend to worse – not better) and major changes are certainly not automatically for the better.

    As for democracy the Old Whigs had no special love of it (far from it) – their position was that unlimited monarchy was a threat to liberty and property (so they would not have agreed with Hoppe) but that mob-rule (the old definition of democracy) – the ideal of both Whig and Tory folk was a “mixed” or “balanced” constitution where neither the mob or the King had all power and NOT an oligarchy of big landowners either. Edmund Burke (and other “Old” Whig thinkers) viewed wealthy landowners as one element in the Constitution – a very important element, but they must NOT be the only element, Otherwise (to use Aristotelian terms) the aristocracy becomes an oligarchy – ruling for its own benefit producing such things as the Corn Laws (for the benefit of famers at the expense of others) – law is the application in the circumstances of time and place of the principle of justice, the principle of justice being to each their own.

    Such things as the Corn Laws are (therefore) unjust – and laws should be with the grain of the principle of justice (not against it). – remember law is the application of the principle of justice (to each their own) , it should not subvert it.

  • Socialism acts a lot like a cancer this respect. It capitalised (I know…) on our weakness after WW1 to gain a foothold then grew, feeding on the strength of the organism while destroying it.

    The Whig theory isn’t wrong as such but the British constitution lacked the necessary safeguards to prevent the state growing out of control.

    • If most stars have planets – and there are at least 5×10^+22 stars if not more – and if the Universe is by now statistically rather uniform in its chemical composition, then there ought to be many trillions of rocky planets within the “goldilocks regions” of their systems (ie: liquid water and surface temperatures of about 250-300 Kelvins.

      If this is so, then it’s reasonable to suggest that rather a lot of these have developed “carbon-based life”, which seems to have got going more or less spontaneously on Earth because of the mere physical laws of chemistry and thermodynamics. (See the “Drake Equation” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation ….This hypothesis is being criticized by “progressive” scientists” and was I believe initially rubbished in “The New Scientist”, but that’s a reason for thinking it plausible rather than fanciful, and the NS Luvvies have now come round to reason.)

      Out of say one billion planets on which life arose and proceeded to a high level of organisation, it’s also reasonable to think that high-technology – which is to say: something like modern maths-backed chemistry and physics – should have turned up on several hundred thousand of these. But we don’t seem to be being killed in the rush of orderly RF/HF/HF/microwave signals emanating from really anywhere in the sky – and worryingly, not so far even “fossil” ones, suggesting that a high-civilisation might have existed somewhere in the past. Admittedly the distances are great and we haven’t been searching for many years, so the question remains open.

      I suppose my point is that these civilisations may well exist only briefly: and the reason? Something like socialism, plausibly-moralo-religiously-based, gets its teeth into the ankles of a burgeoning society, and slowly but surely drags it back down to the amoral levels of its barbarian hunter-gatherer–prehistory. Structured radiations of what are clearly data, may be seen for perhaps 200, 300 or a few more years.

      And then the transmission cuts off. Not suddenly owing to Carl Sagan’s nuclear holocaust scenario of “unforgivable negligence”, but it just, well, fades down over a few decades….and goes out.

      If I am right, then the cancer of socialism requires “surgical operations” and possibly even “radiotherapeutic” techniques, before it’s too late.

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