Within the literature, this period is referred to as ‘The Long Eighteenth Century’, and initially I used to wonder why that was. After all, one century seems to be much like another, in terms of duration. Briefly, I even wondered, a little frivolously, whether it just seemed long to those living at the time. After all, the three years since the Brexit Referendum feel like a lifetime. Frank O’Gorman, in his book of the same name (Arnold, 1997), argues for what appears to be something of a pragmatic consensus amongst academics that the ‘Long 18th Century’ refers to a period running from 1688 through to 1832. The bookends to this period are therefore the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the Reform Act (1832). As centuries go, I guess a period of 144 years is, indeed, a bit on the ‘long’ side.
I am more interested in the first of these two bookends. What is it about this revolution which might make it ‘glorious’? Part of the answer(2) to that question, is when you compare it to the alternatives: the English Civil War (1642-1651) was bloody and divisive, and that division extended to the junction between King Charles I’ head and shoulders, the consequent interposition of the Cromwellian Protectorate (1653-1658), followed by the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, under Charles II. Roll forwards to 1688, and whilst British politicians were regarding with increasing dismay the disastrous tactics of King James II, it is unsurprising that there was little appetite for a return to such schism. A private invitation (from five Whig and two Tory magnates) to William of Orange, was succeeded by William’s decision to invade with a small army of 14,000 troops at Torbay and the rest, as they say, is history. Well, I guess pretty much all of it is, from our perspective. James’ considerably larger standing army failed to engage with the invaders, and very shortly after he had fled to France – this revolution was ‘glorious’ in terms of its essentially peaceful nature, and O’Gorman comments that this was “the achievement of a coalition of Whigs and Tories”. Roll forward again to 1789, and when the French had their own revolution, a very different kind of ideology prevailed, with distinctly contrasting outcomes. And, again, in 1848. And, again, peut-être, in 1968. And, who knows, perhaps again in 2019, unless Macron gets a handle on the extent of public dissent and violent action on Parisian streets.
It is notoriously difficult to draw lessons from history, but perhaps it is all we have to work from when seeking to understand our own perplexing circumstances. It is certainly a step up the ladder from conjuring explanatory narratives out of thin air, or somehow pretending that the past didn’t happen, and proceeding on the basis of ideological novelty.
Perhaps one lesson is not to sneer at other cultures, based upon some false notion of the impregnability of ‘britishness’, or some similar concept. Our own national history is hardly a model of perfection. But there are some themes worth exploring. One is the ‘scratch the surface’ idea – the apparent stabilities and resilience of Western Europe are sustained by fundamentally tenuous forces (taxation plus redistribution, and the centralisation of bureaucratic rule), which means that the tissue of a perceived reality can be torn apart by, say, people wearing yellow vests. Populism in many of its variants is, at root, a drive for a sense of identity – and that’s not something that can be enforced via a kind of regulated utopianism. Indeed, one might argue that populism is a reaction to the strained fictions of EU top-downism.
The glorious revolution of 1688 owed much of its beneficial outcome to the consensus achieved between Whigs and Tories. For a variety of reasons it is difficult to imagine such circumstances pertaining now, when public and vocal demonstrations of profound division are played out interminably, on a kind of continuous loop. When the massed hordes took to the streets and social media the day after a democratic vote in 2016, in order to assert a contrary will, you know the writing is on the wall, that the word ‘democracy’ floats free of its historical context. Indeed, the real threat may not be Brexit at all, but rather the collapse of the puffball of democracy, having been systematically eviscerated of its ideological substance.
OK, so perhaps the ‘Glorious Revolution’ had its faults. Perhaps it wasn’t so glorious after all – but it did almost immediately spawn a few dollops of new legislation (The Bill of Rights, 1689; The Toleration Act, 1689; The Act of Settlement, 1700), all of which, within the context of their day, feel positively enlightened. From a 21st Century perspective, there are things there we’d do differently (it’s not that difficult to spot bones of contention), but the Protestant Christian moderation implicit within these new laws does actually demonstrate a nuanced awareness of recent history and present dangers, in order to chart the safest progress through the chaos of the day. As our own parliament engages in its Nth latest most futile indicative votes, MPs wage war against the very democracy that justifies their existence, and the multitudes engage in orgies of ad-hominems on the streets, there is a strange absence of evidence of progress.