Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, the Reform Acts: will we never learn?
Libertarians, contrary to popular belief, are not Whigs. If we were to take a time-machine trip to the 1640s, we would not be fighting on the side of parliament. In 1688, we would not be cheering on the Bloodless Revolution.
Whiggism is false; it is not true. There is no simpler and more accurate way of putting it.
The problem with the Whig ideology is that it rests on a rather simplistic narrative of English history. The Whigs like to see themselves as the successors to the barons of Magna Carta, to those who deposed Richard II, to the parliamentarians in 1642, to the magnates in 1688, to the ‘Whigs’ who put forward the 1832 Reform Act, and to Gladstone.
On the surface, there appear to be similarities in their motivations, their aims, their reforms. But the common denominator seems to me to be an increase, not a decrease, in the power of the state.
To briefly take two of these examples.
Magna Carta was, as we know, a peace treaty between a particularly miserly king and his particularly hacked off barons. The charter was annulled almost immediately and when it was re-issued, in 1216, the aim was not to weaken the king (Henry III) but to strengthen him. It was, rather like Aethelread’s promise to the witanagemot in 1014 to rule in such and such a way, no limitation on the king, it instead bolstered him. Constitutions and constitutional settlements, while they may seem to say what the king cannot do, invariably become the list of beastly things the king definitely can do.
As with the Revolution of 1688, the constitutional settlement of 1689 did not weaken the monarchy. Not a bit of it. The immediate effect of it was to allow more snouts into the trough, so to speak, as the private government of James II gave way to the public government of William of Orange and parliament. As a result, taxes increased, government spending increased, the national debt was created, the Bank of England established, costly and seemingly endless wars on the continent were waged…
And so is it any wonder that nowadays all politicians are essentially Whigs? No serious politician, if probed, would defend James II, or Richard II, or Disraeli, or King John, or Toryism. But the fact remains, that from a strict libertarian point of view, government is smallest and most constrained when private rather than public. Politicians in the modern state need not consider the long-term effects of their actions; monarchs in the traditional state lived by such considerations. Constitutional settlements, rather than limiting absolute monarchs, gave those in the upper echelons of the state apparatus legitimacy enough to burn. Predictably, then, constitutions have not prevented the inexorable growth of a surveillance state in virtually every European country and certainly every country in the Anglosphere. Rather, constitutions made this development possible and hence all the more likely.
Daniel Hannan is all too often lauded for the libertarian hero that he isn’t. Here he is further perpetuating our national myth; the myth of the perfect ancient constitution. The myth of the brave Whigs taking on the wicked tyrants to create the freest society on the planet.
At least the original Whigs, and the appropriated ‘Whigs’ of many centuries gone by, were talented men and in a few cases fighting for control of the state against the odds. Hannan is an MEP in the modern Conservative party and he is firmly on the side of the establishment. He makes even Gladstone look appealing.
This may seem unimportant, but it really isn’t. History shapes our understanding of the present; political history shapes our understanding of politics. If we are taken in by the great Whiggish lie, then, when the next great Reform Act comes in, enfranchising 16 year olds, abolishing the monarchy and the remnant of the House of Lords, and reducing the lengths of parliaments to three years, we might end up actually supporting it.