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Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican
particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.
At the Cambridge Union Society on Thursday, 27th February 2014.
Speakers have each 10 minutes. Interruptions from the floor are allowed. Peter's address to the Union took three parts
... So much for republican principles. I want now to talk a little about British history.
Present day monarchists like to claim that the present symbolic monarch is a link with the past.
But this is not true in any deep sense.
Throughout British history, until the late nineteenth century, we have had to a greater or lesser extent a monarch with power balanced by other institutions - notably parliament.
And there was been an ongoing debate about this balance of power.
More than that, a terrible civil war was fought over this question. However, the matter was largely settled in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
In 1688 the major players were the newly formed Whigs although they were inheritors of ideas that go back to Saxon times. The Whigs throughout their long history defined themselves by the principle of restraining and balancing the power of the monarch against that of parliament.
This is of course very close to the Republican principle of separation of powers that I spoke of. In fact the dividing line between Whigs and republicans is often hard to draw and many Whigs were accused with some justification of being republicans.
The Whigs remained in the ascendency for much of the eighteenth century while the monarchy-grovelling Tories were in disgrace.
So you see this principle of separation of powers to protect us from overweening power by either the executive or by parliament is not just a republican principle but has long been the defining element in the British constitutional arrangements.
The constitutional monarchy with a powerless mute monarch is decidedly, in terms of British history, a Johnny-Come-Lately.
The Whig system was much admired throughout Europe in the eighteenth century.
The great theorist of Republicanism the French writer Montesquieu visited England in 1729 and was so impressed by what he saw that he described it in his book, The Spirit of the Laws, and this became a key text in the creation of the US republican constitution where the British system was virtually replicated - with the difference of course that the head of state had to be elected.
Like all Whigs of his time, the great Charles James Fox supported the American Revolution and opposed George III’s war against the Americans. He could see the American Revolution was being run by Whigs - just like himself.
The Founding Fathers were nothing if not Whigs.
Later he supported the French Revolution until he realised it was not being run by Whigs - but by a whole load of other people.
Nowadays, everyone has heard of the Whigs but few, I dare say, know what they stood for. In the current climate of fawning to the monarch [a posture Whigs viscerally despised] their ideas are considered altogether too dangerous.
As a result, they have been largely airbrushed out of our history.
If the Whigs were around today the logic of their position would lead them to a full blown Republicanism. The sight of a gagged monarch and an all-powerful Prime Minister would have appalled them.
But why did the Whigs go into decline?
I think the explanation is in the growth of populism in the nineteenth century together with its fellow traveller jingoism. It is the growth of these that provided fertile ground for a simplistic unquestioning monarchism.
Today populism is being taken even further with the increasing infantalisation of the culture we see all around us.
The antics of the royals - constantly brought to our attention - do nothing to counter that shift.