The Real Meaning of Guy Fawkes Night

Though freedom is not a state of nature but an artefact of civilisation, it did not arise from design. The institutions of freedom, like everything freedom has created, were not established because people foresaw the benefits they would bring. But, once its advantages were recognized, men began to perfect and extend the reign of freedom and, for that purpose, to inquire how a  free society worked. Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty.


Tolerance is one of the most important virtues within the liberal tradition.  Being in a tolerant society is not always comfortable. In 1605 a band of angry Catholics tried to blow up the houses of parliament. Although this action was in no way justified, it was the product of a long and bitter conflict over religion in Britain.

Until at least the middle of the eighteenth century, British society was tearing itself apart. The role of the monarch, the power of the state and the changing nature of Britain’s economy and society were all issues that could potentially boil over into civil war (again).

Liberalism has roots far beyond the enlightenment. Yet, it was not until the late eighteenth century that the values of liberalism became influential. Furthermore, liberalism emerged not by design (in what Hayek refers to as the French rationalist tradition) but because it was practical.

This was not lost on the people of the eighteenth century. Without liberalism, the bear pit of British society could turn once again to bloodshed. It was not a coincidence that after liberalism rose to prominence Catholicism ceased to be a matter of life and death in British society.

Liberal values are perhaps the best tool at a nation’s disposal to balance competing ideologies, ethnicities and religions. Marx was proven utterly wrong when he proclaimed that it was in the liberal bourgeois countries where class war would begin. On the contrary, it was the countries were the liberal tradition was strongest that avoided such conflict.

Without liberalism and tolerance, we are left with an all or nothing struggle for supremacy. Our society is vastly more diverse, complex and fluctuating then it was the eighteenth century. However, under this pressure, many supposed stalwarts of liberty proclaim that the essential liberal value of tolerance should be dispensed with.

I have heard many express the view that tolerance must be abandoned to defend our way of life. They say that by abandoning our most important principles we somehow preserve them.

This is obviously ridiculous. Liberalism is not a doctrine of dominance, it cannot be enforced through the barrel of a gun. To turn it into such a doctrine would be to make the mistake that the rationalists made.

Liberalism does not promise heaven on earth, it is not utopian. It merely acknowledges the truth of human existence. Life is not always comfortable. To demand that all in our world adhere to the same values as we do is to abandon liberalism.

We should reflect on the lessons of 1605 as the sky fills with glowing lights and the smell of gunpowder. By claiming that those that do not share our views are ‘enemies’ and ‘others’ then we shut down channels for meaningful conversation.

Tolerance is important even if it makes us uncomfortable. If we stick to our principles, we stand a better chance of convincing those that do not already share our views that we are right.



  1. The Emperor Valentinian was not a kindly man, for example he had draft dodgers burned alive, but he understood that to persecute a large religious group was folly – one can not save souls by coercing bodies (God knows what someone really believes – regardless of what they pretend they believe to avoid persecution) and religious persecution weakens a polity – by turning people against each other (opening the land to external enemies who can use the religiously persecuted as a internal “Fifth Column”).

    But Valentinian’s view was rejected – and the Roman Empire returned to the view that it was up to the Emperor to define the “correct” doctrine and persecute everyone who did not adopt it. In the east (the East Roman or Byzantine Empire) this view led to disaster – with persecuted Christian groups either not resisting the attack of the Muslims in the 7th century or even joining in that attack.

    As for the early 17th century – the same when these events of the 5th of November (Julian Calendar – not our present, Catholic, Calendar) the Emperor Rudolf of the Holy Roman Empire was, like his father Maximilian II before him, trying to keep the peace by following a policy of religious tolerance – almost needless to say, Rudolf was thought mad and was eventually overthrown by his own family. This led to the 30 Years War in the Empire and the German lands – with about a third of entire population dying.

    It took the 30 Years War, and the religious persecution of various different ruling groups in Britain (easy to support oppression when you are certain your group is going to be in power – but in Britain different religious groups kept coming to power, one year the Anglicans might be supreme, the next Oliver Cromwell might be stabling his army horses in their cathedrals) to make religious tolerance a more fashionable idea.

    And even then Louis XIV of France (the “Sun King”) went back to a policy of savage religious intolerance in France – as if the events of the previous couple of centuries had not shown this to be a good idea. And the persecution of Protestants in France led to renewed fear of Catholics in Britain (just as the Spanish Inquisition in Spain and the slaughter of vast numbers of Protestants in France had led to the persecution of Catholics in Britain in the late 16th and early 17th centuries), and to the religious wars and laws in Ireland – whose bitter legacy is still with us (I will be in Ulster this time on Monday).

    By the way – the late F.A. Hayek was WRONG.

    The institutions of liberty established by the “Old Whigs” did come from design. Various people (such as John Locke) looked at the world and decided that tolerating the religious beliefs of other people (with whom they did NOT agree) would produce a better country and a better world – as long as their opponents could be convinced to adopt the same toleration.

    The various Protestant and Anglican groups were convinced (with quite a lot of resistance) to tolerate each other – the Roman Catholic Church still made universal claims, but gradually stressed them less and less.

    It was not that tolerance was established and then benefits unexpectedly came from it – on the contrary (contra Hayek) religious liberty was established because people hoped that benefits would come from it (peace) – it was indeed the product of human DESIGN.

    Ditto the rest of liberty – the Old Whigs and those Tory folk that supported economic liberty (such as Sir Dudley North back in the 17th century) believed that better economic standards of life would come if liberty was adopted (if private property was secure). This was not just a British thing – for example in Descartes in one of his letters to the Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (back in the 1640s) wrote of how if-people-were-honest-and-peaceful (IF) then each person striving for their own economic betterment would benefit everyone else – yes the “invisible hand” more than a century before Adam Smith.

    It is very difficult to establish pro liberty institutions – people do not engage in this hard work if they do not expect real returns (peace and prosperity – at least relatively so). They predict, in advance, what will happen if a certain policy is adopted and then strive for it to be adopted – in short F.A. Hayek was just wrong.

    The source of Hayek’s wrongness was David Hume – the great mocker of 18th century British liberty. I can understand why Hume had a cynical contempt for British liberty (regarding its “euthanasia” into despotism with indifference) as he knew what had happened in Scotland. Higher taxes after the Union of 1707 and the savage reprisals against people after the Jacobite rising of 1745-6. But, anyway, David Hume set out to sneer at the whole Old Whig project – philosophical and political. In the most polite language the “acid of Hume” ate away at the Whigs – and at such things as “Scottish Enlightenment” of Thomas Reid and co.

    The fact that the modern age (such as F.A. Hayek) regards David Hume as a Whig – as central to the philosophy of the British Revolution and Bill of Rights of 1688-1689 and the American Revolution and Bill of Rights of the late 18th century is, perhaps, the greatest irony of intellectual history. The purpose of the life of David Hume was to UNDERMINE this philosophy and politics.

    Actually even Tory folk, such as Dr Johnson, understood that David Hume was (in his ultra polite way) the arch ENEMY of the philosophy of freedom – of human personhood (moral agency) itself.

    The idea that American Founding Fathers such as John Adams were nodding with agreement at the philosophy of David Hume, rather than Thomas Reid, is just wrong.

    One might as well say that the Old Whigs and the American Founding Fathers were admirers of Thomas Hobbes.



  2. My last (long) comment has not appeared – but that often happens on this site (there is something technically odd about it – but I am too ignorant of computers to know what). So I will just carry on with a second comment.

    In my first comment I did not deal with Islam.

    In Christianity such theologians as Augustine (5th century) justified violent religious persecution – and a whole nightmare of abuse was built on this crooked foundation over the centuries (an “evolution” to a more-and-more intolerant stance – stick that in your pipe F.A. Hayek). However, a honest reading of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ do NOT justify such things. So there was always hope that Catholics and Protestants could be convinced to take up a more tolerant stance.

    With Islam things are rather different. Muhammed was a killer (there is no point in pretending he was not) and he had no problem about surprise attacks against people he had promised peace to, or about killing unarmed people. His early “revelations”, before he got his own private army, do indeed contain peace-and-tolerance stuff (basically – do not hit me, I am nice tolerant person), but when he created his own army he got new “revelations” which negated the previous ones.

    Tolerance only works if it is a two way street.

    I do not hold with such disgusting and vile language as “Fuck the Pope” but tolerance of Roman Catholics will only work if they agree that such disgusting and vile language should be legal. Ditto Protestants must agree that to say “fuck Martin Luther” or “fuck John Calvin” is legal to – indeed that to write books arguing that these were the worse men to ever walk the Earth must be legal.

    Islam makes very clear that to “mock” Muhammed is punishable by death.

    This is not some Islamic Augustine coming along centuries later – this was established by Muhammed himself.

    Even if the mocker was an old blind poet, or a pregnant women – DEATH, DEATH, DEATH. That was the order of Muhammed.

    Islam without Muhammed is like Hamlet with the Prince – one can not have it. And there can be no live-and-let-live with a man like Muhammed – he kills you, or you kill him. The only “peace” a man like that is interested in is SUBMISSION.



    1. Paul, Thank you for your comments- informative as always.

      I partly agree with you about Hayek. I think that when he says there was no preconceived ideological framework for liberalism he went too far. I find this facet of his thinking peculiar, he is usually a measured man and avoids extremes of opinion.

      But I still think that his central point is a valid one. That if people try to establish heaven on earth- in the rationalist tradition they will be doomed to failure. Unless you are the Chinese government, then you consistently redefine heaven to match your current circumstances every 5 years.

      Before the late 1700s there had never been an industrial revolution in any country. There had been plenty of advances in productivity ( what the historical James Belich calls the non-industrial revolution) but the advances in wealth made after 1815 could not have been predicted by folk a century earlier.

      The early proponents of liberty were right that more freedom would benefit mankind. But they fell far short of predicting the future. And rightly so; serious thinkers should stay well away from futurology.

      It is hard to dismiss Hayek’s point that Liberty gives us the chance to secure wealth and happiness, but it does not promise us these things. That is an important distinction from the utopian position.

      Regarding Islam, I doubt that we will agree here- but claiming something is a ‘two-way street’ is easy to say but hard to put into practice. Do individual Muslims need to prove somehow that they are loyal to liberal values? Or does the whole of Islam need to undergo a sort of ‘trial’? In either case, it is difficult to see how this would work.

      Askin people to prove threat they are worthy of tolerance does strike me as rather illiberal. But perhaps there is an aspect to this issue that I have not considered…



      1. I think the problem Sir is that in his politics Hayek sincerely supports liberty but in his philosophy Hayek follows David Hume in holding that liberty (as an ordinary person would understand that word) does not really exist.

        To Hume-Hayek people do not really make choices in the sense that they could have chosen otherwise than they did – and (to them) this is somehow “compatible” with moral responsibility (even though it clearly is not). Hume-Hayek are not as blatant as Thomas Hobbes – who openly denies human personhood, holding that humans are flesh robots whose actions are predetermined, but they are fundamentally on the same side as Hobbes.

        The Old Whigs (of 1688 and all that) would have disagreed with Hume-Hayek – as would many Tory folk also (such as Dr Johnson – and the American Samuel Johnson as well). Hayek tries to maintain the politics of the Old Whigs whilst adopting (essentially) the philosophy of determinism that they despised. His philosophical project, unintentionally, undermines his political project.

        It also undermined Hayek’s historical project – his philosophy will not allow him to say people decided on certain pro liberty principles and created policies to try and put those principles into practice, even though that is what happened. So he blathers about social and legal evolution……


      1. As I am least technically minded person on the planet I am the last person to lecture you Simon – I leave things in your capable hands.


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