Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, the Reform Acts: will we never learn?


Keir Martland

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.

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12 comments

  • Whigs are somewhat peculiar as they were in a way anti-establishment (pretty much like UKIP) as they stood up for Christians of other denominations as the established church was anglican which was supported by the Tories.

    I must admit, if I was alive back in the 17th or 18th Century, I would have been a Whig but as I would have entered the 19th Century, I would have been a member of the Liberal Party as it promoted a more radical free trade way of thinking plus a freedom of conscience in terms of speech and expression (whilst of course remaining loyal to the monarchy of course).

    In the early 20th Century, I would have been a Liberal Unionist led by the Duke of Devonshire before being merged into the Conservative Party of old. I would have been a Constitutionalist at the time but stayed a Conservative until the Maastrict treaty where I would have been a member of James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party before going on to join UKIP.

    Now I have my own way of politics and how it should be run which includes establishing Fusionism in the UK which is a mix of traditional and social conservatism mixed with economic classical liberalism and a small state agenda.

    It goes to show how far politics has progressed since the days of the Whigs as we are all now establishing our own ways of how politics should be done.

  • Very good article Keir. I’d post a longer response but a bit busy right now.

    • I think my head just exploded.

      • Because I said it’s a good article? Because I’m a bit busy right now? 😉

        I am very much of the view that Libertarians are not Whigs.

        • Keir’s just finished most of his AS exams, Ian, and is knackered.

          • No, David, I’ve not had an exam for over a week. Hardly knackered.

        • For the generally very nice comment, Ian.

  • What frustrates me about all this learned talk is that none of you is proposing an alternative programme, except apparently me. The late Ayn Rand wrote “the battle consists not only of opposing but exposing and offering a full consistent and radical alternative”.
    Some years ago i got rather fed up with reading all these depressing books like the “Naked Capitalist” etc and decided to try to put together an explanation of what is going wrong, thanks to the late Wing Commander Leonard Young, the result of which is my website (www.camrecon.demon.co.uk) which in a simple way provided an explanation of what is going wrong and a suggestion that a few simple re-adjustments to the constitution would put it back in kilter. With that ammunition in mind I started down the electoral track as an Independent and only withdrew because I am now 75 and do not have £500 to waste, NOT because I think I was wrong. I think my explanation is spot on. During that process i developed my argument even further about how the “manifesto packages” are a subtle form of tyranny and had I been able to afford the loss of £500 would have been happy to carry on “educating” the public about the “Divide and Rule” party system, which they all hate anyway and why an Independent is the only safe alternative.
    My notes thoroughly expose how the party system frustrates us. Neil Lock’s article about the different gangs is perfectly correct at a certain level but does not offer an alternative. May I invite others to examine what I have written and decide to do something positive (what ever that may be) or shut up complaining from the side lines

  • Reblogged this on Drinking Hemlock and commented:
    An interesting perspective on the libertarian-Whig relationship

  • Keir,

    I’m no historian. But have you not noticed the dynamic by which, when new political ideas are put forward and implemented, they often make things better at first, but soon become corrupted, and end up making things worse?

    If you want examples, how about parliaments? (The fruits of Magna Carta). Or constitutions and bills of rights? (The fruits of 1689 and its aftermaths). Or universal suffrage?

    You know all this. For you say, in essence, that the original Whigs were (at least trying to be) the good guys, but after that, the movements or ideologies they inspired went wrong. And you make the same point about constitutions, even more strongly.

    If you want to be a(n) historian, should you not be looking harder at the big picture?

    Cheers,
    Neil

    • There were of course some benefits from rule by the Whigs, but they were incidental. Don’t misunderstand me when I say that the Whigs were fighting against the odds in some cases. They were, but they were fighting for themselves, not for an abstract principle like ‘liberty’.

      As for the examples of parliaments, constitutions, and democracy, the results have been catastrophic and it ought to have been apparent that this would be the case from the outset. The transitions from feudalism to absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy to parliamentary democracy have each strengthened, not weakened, the state.

      If you want a big picture, then read, or reread, Hoppe’s ‘Democracy: The God that Failed’ or his shorter work ‘From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy.’

      • From my way of looking at it, all the Whigs ever really wanted was some sort of Parliamentary Dictatorship (which we now live under) and any talk of freedom was just about transferring power from the monarch to the Parliament, which they portrayed as valid because the Parliament is supposedly “the people”. All of this part of their belief in a “progress” which is forcefully implemented, by themselves (rather than a libertarian “progress” in which change and development happen in the market or, more broadly, as the result of all the individual choices people make).

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