#Brexit: Can we be Proud of Britain’s History?

British MP Liam Fox said last week in a speech discussing why Britain should leave the EU that Britain had a proud history that it didn’t have to hide from…

Now of course this led many to raise their hands and say, “Wait a minute, what about…” Of course they are quite right British History is very much like a Teenager’s face, pot-marked with blemishes…

One example of those questioning Liam Fox’s view is internet Journalist Mic Wright

I’m not one to claim I’m ‘proud’ of being British. The idea of national pride makes me queasy, being a hop, skip and a jump away from the more virulent idea of nationalism. If you come from the position that we are one humanity, the notion of throwing blanket support over one nation is difficult.

That said, my great-grandfathers fought in the First and Second World Wars, my grandfather was in the Royal Navy (national service) and my parents are both Royal Navy veterans. My dad in particular served in the Falklands War, a conflict I believe was entirely necessary. Some hippy notion of a borderless world is also impossible for me to countenance.

The problem with banging the drum for Britain’s historical role during the 20th Century is that it’s only a sustainable position if you’re white and prone to selective hearing and vision.

Britain was a colonial power well into the middle of the 20th century, it pioneered the use of concentration camps during the Boer War, had the RAF firebomb Dresden, withdrew from Palestine knowing war was inevitable between the Jews and Palestinians, saw its soldiers shoot civilians during Bloody Sunday and had its fingerprints on any number of dark deeds during covert wars. And that’s far from a complete list.

For me, as a graduate of History, this is an interesting topic and an interesting question. Can or should we be proud of British History or Britain itself?

This I believe is a matter of perspective. It depends, I contend, on how you judge statism. If you believe in the idea of statism, that is you believe there must be a state and that the state can be a force for good then you may judge the British state rather harshly. If you have a specific standard by which all states should behave, then Britain probably fails. I’m not sure what Mic Wright believes on this point — I won’t pretend to guess.

However as a Libertarian, of the minarchist variety, I don’t believe in the idea of the ‘Good State’. Statism is a fundamentally flawed outlook and as a result all states are bad. The only question that really matters is, how bad? All states centralise power and resources to some degree therefore there will always be a level of corruption and violence associated with every state.

The state is though a historical fact. There is no real example of a non-state society and it’s difficult to think what a non-state society might look like. This may change, but it hasn’t happened yet and doesn’t look like it’s going to. If you take this position, like many Libertarians do, you may assume that the aim of freedom lovers is to minimise state power and violence rather than eradicate it. The latter being impossible.

Many throughout history have come to similar conclusions. This explains why ideas like Democracy and the Judiciary have developed, they are tools to minimise the impact of the state, not to make it perfect. Attempts to limit state power were made by both the Founding Fathers and the Roman Republic. Neither the US nor the Roman Republic are or were perfect societies, they both attempted though to minimise state power and violence. For a period of time they were relatively successful and the US system continues to be to some degree. As Obama said…

“Our Founders designed a system that makes it more difficult to bring about change than I would like sometimes.”

Therefore I don’t believe, unlike Mic, that ‘President’ Trump poses a great threat to the American system. I would contend that the Founding Fathers designed their system specifically to cope with demagogues and populists like Trump.

If you tackle British History from an anti-state/anti-statism perspective then Britain doesn’t look so bad. It could be much worse and over the last 500 years under the British variant of statism a lot has been achieved.

Relatively speaking Britain and its Empire aren’t associated with some of the truly awful crimes of History. Yes, The Opium Wars with China, the 1857 Mutiny in India, the Boer War, Bloody Sunday, Iraq and various other incidents were terrible. They certainly are not to be endorsed, repeated nor celebrated.

However fundamentally Britain for several hundred years now has been a relatively decent state. It has in its own hodge-podge way tried to minimise state power and violence. This is reflected best by the fact that we can discuss the quality of our state, question its current policies, its ideological outlook and its history. There are many states, like Saudi Arabia, where this can’t be done right now.

Also like the spotty teenager mentioned above Britain’s history isn’t all bad — it’s not all spots and surly strops…

The British Empire defeated Napoleon, a nasty power hungry little demagogue. It was British Parliamentary Democracy that between 1808 and 1843 ended Slavery within the Empire entirely. It was the British system that allowed both the Suffragettes and later the Gay Rights campaigners to succeed.

The British played a significant part in defeating Nazism and Communism — both truly abhorrent strains of the statist disease. Britain is not associated with any truly horrific acts. It doesn’t have the Nazi death camps or the Communist Gulags. There was no Great Leap Forward.

Unlike the Spanish Empire it didn’t plunder so much silver and gold that it brought its own economy to its knees. It didn’t carry out the Gallic Wars, which Caesar himself believes killed 1 million people.

Britain for centuries has been a relatively peaceful, stable and free country. As a result it is a country that has allowed many new political and philosophical ideas to develop and flourish. Many great thinkers such as Smith, Mill, Hayek, Keynes, Woolf, Orwell and even Karl Marx have lived and worked in Britain. Great debates have flowed between the likes of Paine and Burke, Hayek and Keynes.

In science we gave the world both Newton and Darwin — both highly controversial figures in their day. In medicine John Snow discovered the cause of Cholera and Alexander Fleming gave us penicillin. Britain not only played a crucial role in developing many positive things but also helped spread these things around the globe.

In Britain today we don’t beat Women because they’re caught spending time alone with men. A result of a relatively free country, that over time has done away with a lot of the religious superstition that holds much of the world back. And importantly for a long time we’ve had a diverse and powerful feminist movement.

States are not pretty, cute institutions with clean hands — they’re not like Battersea Dogs Home… They are dirty, often poorly led, incompetent, and history shows they generally commit acts of horrendous terror. Britain though is and has been one of the better states — we’re not Switzerland or Luxembourg — but we’re somewhere near the top and we’ve given a lot to the world — certainly more than Switzerland and Luxembourg…

I’m not sure I’m proud to be British or proud of all its history. I certainly can’t lay claim to any of the achievements nor am I responsible for any of the crimes or failings.

I am though very glad to be British. I’m glad I was lucky to be born in a relatively free, wealthy, stable and pleasant country. This is a result of our history — as Newton sort of said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants…” And overall there is no doubt in my mind if the world were a bit more like Britain it would be a better place.

Upcoming meetings

I’ve been busily organising the speaker schedule for the next few months, and am keen to share the details of an exciting programme.

Minimum Wage with Sam Bowman

Sam Bowman

Sam Bowman is a well-known figure at the Adam Smith Institute and recently appeared as the “right-leaning think tank” bogeyman on a somewhat biased BBC World Service programme to debate the minimum wage with “principal of Hertford College in Oxford” Will Hutton. Despite the anchor woman’s best efforts Sam made it clear that the empirical evidence is stronger than some believe and that imposing a minimum is also a moral problem. This will be a great opportunity to hear his arguments in full.

March 6th at the Rose and Crown

Political Marketing on Social Media with Rob Waller

Rob Waller

Rob is the social media entrepreneur who invented the “Fakers App” which embarrassed Barack Obama (and host of other well-known figures) who all seemed to have a larger twitter following than they rightly should. His particular thing is making interesting use of data to produce better business outcomes. He’ll be explaining some of the basic (and not so basic) ways to use social media marketing and how they apply to the field of politics.

Rob also founded this Meetup, obviously, so remember to buy him a drink!

April 3rd at the Rose and Crown.

The Libertarians of the English Revolution 1647-1649 with Richard Carey

Richard Carey © Brian Micklethwait

Richard Carey © Brian Micklethwait

Richard Carey is a regular at the Rose and Crown, a Libertarian Home author, a passionate historian and a very smart guy. This talk has been trialed at Brian’s Fridays and I found it to be a fascinating and detailed account of the time, it’s epistemological fancies, the political debate and a fateful regicide.

May 1st at the Rose and Crown.

Summer Social

No speaker, but an opportunity to enjoy the sunshine in the beer garden with like-minded company. If you have any unused books or other literature that you are done with and wish to pass on, then bring them along to the Rose and Crown on June 5th.

 

As usual, all the speaker events will be video recorded and made available here, where the discussion can continue. I am also working on ways to make Q&As available. These are considerably more work to edit and it may involve changes to how the Q&As are run. I don’t like to mess with a winning formula but people have made it quite clear that the Q&As are interesting to them so a bit of experimenting will be going on.

Video: Steve Davies’ History of Individualism

The brief summary below is derived from the above video of the inaugural Counting House lecture by Stephen Davies.

The civil war undermines and blasts apart political and spiritual authority, and a radical movement develops. By the end of the first part of the war in 1646 Richard Overton is imprisoned at Newgate from where he fires his Arrow Against All Tyrants, effectively a libertarian pamphlet. Notably it is a property rights respecting right-wing form of individualism, not an anarcho-communist screed as might be expected for a “Leveller” as Overton was falsely described.

The Levellers’ Agreement of the People (the third version in particular published 1 May 1649) was a draft constitution for England that sketched out a radically minimal system of Government. The third draft contained compromises, though they did inititially extend the offer of liberty to catholics and the Irish. The document delegated broad powers to the state, but carved out a long list of very extensive exceptions that the state did not have power over, for example, all commerce. The document was not adopted as the constitution of England (an enormously significant decision) and the tradition went underground through the 1700s.

First, by the time of the 1688 Glorious Revolution a new Ancien Regime was established. A highly religious oligarchy, authoritarian, and corrupted by self-serving laws. Offices of State are bought and sold as commododities, slavery is openly supported as a mutually beneficial moral good, and the function of the state is, and is seen to be, and is accepted to be, the maintenance of the true religion (Anglicanism). It is (still) common for religious minorities to be excluded from public life.

During that century the Commonwealth Men targetted the Ancien Regime. The movement was associated with religious minorities, Congregationalists and Unitarians (more on them later) and on the American Colonies, and twards the end of the centrury and into the 1800s a new self aware “freedom movement” develops to reform the law and social norms of the country. They were not conservatives and would not have agreed that liberty had existed, apart from perhaps in fairytales from the times of the (already ancient) Saxons or as far back as Troy. Bentham comes into play with a individualist hedonic psychology. The success of this movement was enormous. The confessional state was largely dismantled, although leaving the present monarchy. Catholics were emanicipated (and in Ireland permitted to ride horses, carry weapons, and own land), and so were minority protestants. That assumption about the role of the state was underminded. The slave trade was abolished in 1806 then slavery itself in 1832.

Total Ideological Victory

Let’s be clear about how enormous those achievements were. Modern libertarians want to make a fundamental change to the role of the state in this country. The dismantlement of the confessional state, consisting of a reduction in the power of the Anglican church; and the emancipation of minority religions represented just such a change.

Modern libertarians must fight entrenched interests with massive incentives to preserve the status-quo. Public choice theory says this is difficult or impossible, but the abolition of slavery also flies in the face of public choice theory.

I find it enormously encouraging to hear that the challenges we face today have been overcome by past generations with similar views to our own. In the case of slavery, a total ideological victory was won. The moral assessment of slavery was that it was good for those enslaved and was divinely sanctioned. Ten people in a pub totally changed that view to the extent that nobody would now knowingly endorse slavery, and must now conceal their views beneath the soluable veneer of “redistribution”.

Somewhat to the contrary, Stephen also talks about how interlinked the various campaigns are. The network of groups fighting slavery, religious freedom, militarism and imperialism, fighting for free-trade, against the poor-laws, in favour of women’s rights, parliamentary reform and peace all shared a basic individualist analysis. They had a common individualist philosophy, a shared view of government policy and a drive to preserve and expand personal autonomy. They also shared members in common, and together acheived successes in many of the areas mentioned above.

Bentham

There is, Stephen says, a popular libertarian narrative that there was a tradition of liberty that had established itself spontaneously in Britain and which was undermined by the Benthamites. Stephen did not refer to Hayek specifically but here is a quote in that vein from Ch. 4 of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty:

The two traditions [of institutional design vs empirical observation and evolution] became finally confused when they merged in the liberal movement of the nineteenth century and when even leading British liberals drew as much on the French as on the British [evolutionary] tradition. It was in the end, the victory of the Benthamite Philosophical Radicals over the Whigs in England that concealed the fundamental difference which in more recent years has reappeared as the conflict between liberal democracy and “social” or totalitarian democracy.

Stephen appears to call this “nonsense” because the individualists of this period had in fact acheived many victories against the Church and local oligarchy and also believed that threats to personal autonomy come not just from politics but also from church, “strong local communities” and even oppressive public opinion. Stephen suggests that if you do not also reject those sources of coercion you cannot call yourself an individualist, but only a libertarian, in doing so Stephen appeared to make a distinction between cultural and political coercion and to reward an additional positive label to those that opposed both, and it is the folks with this broader label that are mentioned in the title of his talk.

Cobden

Stephen pauses to consider one Manchester based victory that demonstrated the benefits of intransigence. Rejecting compromises and promises the movement for the repeal of the Corn Laws, the largest movement ever seen, succeeded in getting their repeal and rendering protectionist policies unpopular for 100 years, especially in the Labour Party. Interestingly free-trade (if not free-markets in a general sense) still enjoys majority support. Also, it was noted, that because protectionist tariffs were a major source of revenue this campaign also completely changed how tax is collected and used, another goal of modern libertarians.

Peak and Collapse

Later, in the second half of the 19th century (~1850 onwards) there is a revival of imperialism, militarism, jolly heroic wars and also the rise of the collectivist movements. This latter group claimed the modern state would offer liberty to the people through the means of “collective liberty” (!). In response however, from 1870-1905 the self-aware individualism reaches a peak. Institutions are formed and individualist thinkers were widely read, and the individualist bourbon democrats in the US were strong. Then, suddenly, from 1914 the strong and self-aware individualist movement collapses. They had failed to recruit a new generation of activists and the individualist focus had narrowed to free-market economics.

Recent times

From the 1920 more and more people switch focus to economic liberty in this way. Stephen argues, rightly in my view, that this is misjudged for the specific reason that free-market economics is a consequence of the individualist and small governement analysis. Favouring a small state and personal autonomy due to a preference in free-markets is arguing in the wrong direction. It isn’t wrong, but you are holding the the picture upside down. I would only add that one needs to consider an individualist analysis of ethics as well.

In the middle of the century institutions form to fight the good fight against the welfare state and in favour of economic liberty. He discusses Ernest Benn as one of the heroes and founder of the Society of Individualists, and a rare example of someone who fought on non-economic issues. Overall, however the war for economic liberty has been gradually lost. State spending rose from 12% in 1900, down to 10% in 1910, up to 43% and now 52%, a catastropic loss only momentarily halted by Thatcher.

However, there have been improvements in personal agency. This is especially true for females, who’s rights and recognition have obviously grown but is true to some extent for everybody, though not as a policy and only as an accident of rapid economic growth. This growth means that now the 48% of your money you are permitted to control is actually much larger than the 90% you were permitted to keep in 1910. I can’t help wondering if this is a clue as to why the collectivists have gotten away with so many morally corrupt and destructive policies.

The future

To conclude Stephen points out that fundamental re-alignments in politics happen every 40 to 50 years, so we are due for a big one. Through the last 50 years the political argument has been one between economically authoritarian liberals and economically liberal conservatives, and this has carried on without the presence of a significant self-aware movement fighting consistently for liberty. Therefore, it seems likely that a self-aware group of consistent liberals will come to a confrontation with consistent authoritarians, of the smoking banning, internet censoring, journalist detaining sort. This is a clear battle between good and evil with blue water between the two. It is also a good clean fight that we can look forward to, without the confusion of tribal inconsistency; but the most encouraging thing about Stephen’s talk was hearing that similar battles have been won before and several times over and by people a lot like us.