The second part of a five part piece by Robert Henderson exploring England’s democratic tradition (read the first part).
The treatment of foreigners
Compared with other peoples, the English have been noticeably restrained in their treatment of other peoples residing within their country. A few massacres of Jews occurred before their expulsion from England in 1290, but from that time there has not been great slaughter of a minority living within England. Since 1290 there have been occasional outbreaks of anti-foreigner violence. During the Peasants’ Revolt London-based Flemings were murdered. In later times an anti-Spanish “No Popery” mob was frequently got up in London and he influx of Jews and Huguenots in the 17th and 18th centuries caused riots, one so serious in 1753 that it caused the repeal of a law naturalising Jews and Huguenots. But these riots did not result in great numbers of dead, let alone in systematic genocidal persecutions of any particular group. Most notably, the English fonts of authority, whether the crown, church or parliament, have not incited let alone ordered the persecution of a particular racial or ethnic group since the expulsion of the Jews. They have persecuted Christian groups, but that was a matter of religion not ethnicity, the Christians persecuted being English in the main. The only discrimination the English elite have formally sanctioned against an ethnic group for more than half a millennium was the inclusion of Jews within the general prohibitions passed in the half century or so after the Restoration in 1660 which banned those who were not members of the Church of England from holding a crown appointment such as an MP or election to public offices such as that of MP.
Peaceableness and constitutional development
Is this comparative lack of violence a consequence of England’s political arrangements, or are the political arrangements the consequence of the comparative lack of violence in the English character? Probably the answer is that one fed the other. But there must have been an initial exceptional tendency towards reasonableness which started the long climb towards settling disputes without violence.
Perhaps the fundamental answer to English peaceableness lies in the fact that the English enjoyed a level of racial cultural homogeneity from very early on. Long before the English kingdom existed Bede wrote of the English as a single people. The English have never killed one another in any great quantity simply because one part of the population thought another part was in some way not English. That is the best possible starting point for the establishment of a coherent community.
The favoured liberal view of England is that it is the mongrel nation par excellence. In fact, this is the exact opposite of the truth. The general facts of immigration into England are these. The English and England were of course created by the immigration of Germanic peoples. The British monk, Gildas, writing in the sixth century, attributed the bulk of the Saxon settlement to the practice of British leaders employing Saxons to protect the Britons from Barbarian attacks after Rome withdrew around 410 A.D. The English monk Bede (who was born in A.D. 673) attributed the origins of the English to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came to England in the century following the withdrawal of the Romans at the request of British war leaders.
Archaeological evidence suggests that substantial Germanic settlement in England had a longer history and dated from the Roman centuries, perhaps from as early as the third century. What is certain is that in her formative centuries following the exit of Rome, the various invaders and settlers were drawn from peoples with much in common.
They were the same physical type, there was a considerable similarity of general culture, their languages flowed from a common linguistic well.
When the Norsemen came they too brought a Teutonic mentality and origin. Even the Normans were Vikings at one remove who, if frenchified, were not physically different from the English nor one imagines utterly without vestiges of the Norse mentality. Moreover, the number of Normans who settled in England immediately after the Conquest was small, perhaps as few as 5000.
After the Conquest, the only significant immigration into England for many centuries were the Jews. They were expelled from England in 1290. There was then no really large scale and sudden immigration from outside the British Isles until the flight of the Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which granted limited toleration to the Huguenots within France) in 1684 by Louis X1V.
There was other immigration in the period 1066-1650, but it was small and highly selective. Craftsmen of talent were encouraged particularly in the Tudor period. Italian families with trading and banking expertise (such as it was in those days) appeared after the expulsion of the Jews. Foreign merchants were permitted, but for much of the period on sufferance and subject to restrictions such as forced residence within specially designated foreign quarters.
The upshot of all this is that for six centuries after the Conquest England was an unusually homogeneous country, both racially and culturally. This is reflected in the absence since the Norman Conquest of any serious regional separatist movement within the heart of English territory. There has been meaningful resistance at the periphery – Cornwall, the Welsh marches and the far north, but even that has been effectively dead since the sixteenth century. Englishmen have fought but not to create separate nations.
The Free-Born Englishman
It may have taken until 1928 for full adult suffrage of English men and women to arrive, but the essential sentiments which feed the idea of democracy - that human beings are morally equal and enjoy autonomy as individuals and a natural resentment of privilege and inequality – are ancient in England.
If there is one outstanding trait in English political history it is probably the desire for personal freedom. This might seem odd to the modern Englishman who sees the large majority of his country men and women consistently welcoming the idea of the most intrusive forms of ID cards and who stand by dumbly as many of the age-old and ineffably hard-won rights which protect the individual, such as the abridgement of jury trial and the right to silence, being swept away by modern governments. But it was not always so and that “always so” was not so long ago. The great Austrian political and economic thinker Friedrich Hayek put it forcefully during the Second World War:
“It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that only in English society, and those societies deriving from it, is the notion of individual liberty built into the social fabric. The English have been free not primarily because of legal rights, but because it is their evolved social nature. They accept liberty because it seems natural to them.” (The road to Serfdom – chapter Material conditions and ideal ends)
In short, individual liberty has been and is part of being English and part of England. It would be going too far to claim that the English masses have ever had any highly developed sense of liberal with a small ‘l’ sentiments, but throughout English history there has been both a widespread resentment of interference, either public or private, in the private life of English men and women and an acute awareness that privilege was more often than not unearned and frequently cruelly used to oppress the poor.
Most importantly, over the centuries the elite gradually adopted the ideal of personal freedom into their ideology. Here is the elder Pitt speaking on the notion that the idea that an Englishman’s home:
The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow though it - the storm may enter – the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter! – All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement! (Quoted in Lord Brougham’s Statesmen in the time of George III)
The desire for liberty and a freeman’s due is seen in the constant demand by mediaeval towns for charters which would free them from aspects of royal control, most particularly taxation. In some respects it helped fuel the barons’ demand for Magna Carta. It drove the Peasant’s Revolt. It provided the emotional engine for the decline of serfdom once circumstances were propitious after the Black Death.
The Levellers made it their ideological centrepiece in the 1640s, their leader, John Lilburne, revelling in the name of “Freeborn John”. “Wilkes and Liberty” was the mob’s popular cry in that most aristocratic of centuries, the eighteenth. The Chartists held tight to the ideal in the nineteenth.
The idea that liberty was part of the birthright of the English survived until after the Second World war. Indeed, the English remained in their daily lives, once the wartime social controls such as rationing were removed, very free from until the 1960s. Apart from the laws of libel, slander, obscenity and the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship of the theatre, there were no legal bars to what might be said or written. The concept of “hate crimes” was unknown. Employers might employ who they chose; those providing goods and services whom they would serve. The ideas which we now call political correctness had no hold on any but small groups of people who were at best considered eccentric and at worst fanatics.
That precious natural liberty began to be eroded in the 1960s. The mass immigration of the post-war years provided the excuse to pass Race Relations Acts (RRAs) of increasing severity in 1965, the second in 1968 and the third in 1976. The passing of 1965 RRA provided the breach in the dyke of English liberty. Through it climbed the gays and feminists to obtain, sooner or later, legal protections from equal opportunities legislation. From that has grown the immense state apparatus – all public bodies have to by law preach the political correct gospel – of enforced “equality” (in reality the granting of privileges to those approved of by the politically correct) which binds us today.
In 1972 a further lance was driven into the side of English liberty with the Heath Government’s abduction of British sovereignty as he happily gave it to what is today the European Union (EU). This has destroyed the ability of electors to hold governments to account because the British mainstream political class overwhelmingly supports British membership of the EU. That institution constantly thrusts on Britain ideas which are wholly at odds with England’s traditions of freedom, for example the judicial abomination which is the European Arrest Warrant, a legal device which allows any person to be extradited from Britain to another EU state without any meaningful test of the evidence against them.
Come the 1980s and a more diffuse and slippery weapon to undermine English freedom was introduced by Margaret Thatcher. This was a fanatic ideological commitment to laissez fair economics at home and abroad which lingers to this day. What became known as globalisation destroyed employment in Britain, especially mining and manufacturing, and provided the excuse for another great flood of immigrants from the third world. The institutionalisation of mass unemployment (the real figure has been in the millions since the late seventies, much of it disguised as long-term sickness, a device instituted by Thatcher when the employment figure soared to over three million and cynically continued by all governments since). The mass unemployment made people dependent on the state at a level never previously seen and the increase in immigration both increased the competition for work and drove the social fracture already made in the priceless homogeneity of the country massively wider.
The final nail (to date) in the coffin of English freedom is the devolution settlement which granted power to parliaments or assemblies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales whilst denying England any such privilege. The English were left with no political voice , while watching vast amounts of English taxpayers’ money being shipped to the Celtic Fringe (around £16 billion pa at present) and MPs from non-English seats making laws for England which would not apply in their own constituencies.
The upshot of sixty years of gradual squeezing of English freedoms is that an English man or woman may no longer say what they thing about race, immigration, sexual equality or sexual predilection without at least risking the loss of their employment and quite possibly being subject to criminal prosecution; employers live in fear of any member of an ethnic minority, woman or gay suing for sexual or racial discrimination; political correctness is the watchword of anyone in public life and history has become next to dead as a meaningful subject in English schools because all the parts which would embarrass immigrants or make them feel excluded from “our island story” have been excised from the curriculum.
That is the sad state of the once free-born Englishman. Is he gone for ever? Not yet, but in another generation or two he probably will be lost forever. We can revive the mentality provided we act now. The first necessity is to leave the EU and throw off any other treaty restraints which undermine democratic control. After that the stripping out of political correctness from our legal system and institutions can begin; mass immigration be ended; a judicious protection for vital industries introduced and the pandering to minorities cease. That will provide the soil in which English freedom can revive.
Next instalment coming soon: Equality and privilege
Image credit: The Online Library of Liberty