Political stability is a consummation devoutly to be desired. How quickly may we lose it?
Professor J H (later, Sir Jack) Plumb delivered the Ford Lectures at Oxford in 1965. They were published in 1967 as The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725. In them, Plumb said that lasting political stability was not common until recently and that ‘it is certainly far rarer than revolution.’ He defined political stability as –
…the acceptance by society of its political institutions, and of those classes of men who control them.
Instability comes from ‘conspiracy, plot, revolution and civil war’. Plumb thought that political instability came in England because of three things –
….single party government; the legislature firmly under executive control; and a sense of common identity in those who wielded economic, social, and political power.
Since we now see political instability in England, America and Australia, especially in those parties that brand themselves ‘conservative’, we might learn from Plumb’s account of the arrival of stability.
There is one warning. Anyone who thinks that the Whig v Tory divide might resemble the split between the two major parties in any of the three nations now is dead wrong. The old concept is as simple as that of the Holy Trinity. (Upon the arrival in England of the Germans (Hanoverians) in the person of George I, Sir Lewis Namier said that the ‘Tory gentlemen worshipped the Throne and loathed the Court, believed in authority and disliked Government…..expressing these contradictory feelings in harmless fancies about the ‘King over the water’, a royalty uncontaminated by administration.’ Try threading that needle with a knight of the shire after a few snifters in front of the fire after the hunt – while remembering the terminal penalty for treason.)
Migrant nations have become familiar with the resentment of migrants, especially among those who have missed out on the glittering prizes in their new home. They see newcomers as trespassers on their property, as threats to what they have achieved. (Our common law started with arguments over the forms of writs, and the earliest, and most fruitful form of writ was the writ of trespass, the word that figures in the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer.) Those protesting against migrants sense that the migrants are debasing or diluting the currency of their citizenship – which might be their most valuable asset in their nation – and threatening to deprive them of a livelihood that is already precarious. What you get is the syndrome ‘kick away the ladder.’
This issue often figures in what is called ‘nationalism’ – like America First – and is often a front for something worse. People who want to puff out their chests about their nation often puff out their chests about themselves. In their grosser form, you get megalomaniacs like Mussolini and Trump.
For some people – again those who are not among life’s winners – the colour of their skin is an asset that that allows them to fulfil a need to put some people beneath them on the social ladder. These crude and nasty instincts are fanned – for profit – by those parts of the press that we least admire.
The Tory party would eventually lead to the Conservative party. The ancestors of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage did not like foreigners. (For a while England had a Naturalization Act.) The dislike of outsiders, Plumb instructs us, was rife among country Tories. ‘Xenophobia was a very strong concomitant of Toryism.’ If you wanted to find a closet Tory, you just had to mention the Dutch. Of course, the French later became the bête noire of the English – and General de Gaulle did all in his power to keep them there – to the extent that de Gaulle may be honoured as the spiritual founder of Brexit. His rank ingratitude has come back to bite Europe on the bum.
The tags Whig and Tory did not so much stand for differences on policy, but different attitudes about how to get and handle the levers of power. In the time we speak of, England ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption. ‘The vote was the basic coin for traffic in influence.’ But, then as now, if political parties stand for too little or too much, they splinter. The death word is faction. Without a strong, rooted balance of power, a party is exposed to the cancer of faction. The result is, almost by definition, incoherence. The party has to confront the proposition that if it cannot govern itself, it cannot govern the nation. That is precisely the problem faced by the soi disant conservative parties in our three nations. The plots and conspiracies in Australia have acquired an aura of vaudeville.
Walpole is seen now as England’s first prime minister. He had a genius for managing the business of government. Someone called him the greatest bomb-disposal expert in history. ‘Walpole created a centre of gravity at the heart of the administration.’ Previous monarchs had not achieved that and ‘every Cabinet from 1689 to 1714 rapidly disintegrated into faction; their composition rarely remained stable for more than a year.’
We have seen that in the U K and here, and it looks very likely that the political pressure that is about to be applied to the Republicans will see them go the same way. They have so far shown an appalling lack of moral fibre in allowing a political brute to trash almost every part of their political dispensation.
What is different in Australia is that two generations ago all the factions, cranks and crooks were on the other side of politics. Now they are on the so called conservative side, and you can watch their inanity being aerated every night on Sky News or each morning with The Australian as Rupert Murdoch inflicts on the land of his birth the lesions he has so sadly inflicted on the land of his choice.
It follows a fortiori that a government that cannot control its parliament or congress is by definition unstable. Trump now finds himself in a position similar to that of the prime minister of the U K and Australia. Both got where they are faute de mieux after a squalid faction fight and each looks both transient and wobbly – the antithesis of the required centre of gravity.
Plumb tells us that after 1601, the Commons were ‘fundamentally out of hand – difficult to screw money from and a hotbed of criticism; no one could manage them for long, neither James I, Charles I, Cromwell, nor Charles II.’ They were in truth king-baiters from hell. (In another work, Plumb memorably said of the arrival of George I: ‘He was not in any way enamoured of his new subjects. They had an evil reputation amongst monarchs for shiftiness. He was aware that most of the noblemen who fawned on him at his arrival had dabbled in treason.’)
All three nations have taken the benefit of the English settling their constitution in dealing with the caprices of the Stuarts, but blood and pain had to be drawn to achieve that settlement. Seventeenth century England is a terrible lesson of a parliament out of control. And that’s without looking at the mayhem in the outliers.
Failures in the political system have a snowball effect. People lose respect for institutions that have caused or at least allowed these fissures to open up. People then tend to align themselves by interest in distinct groups rather than as a citizen of the nation or a member or supporter of a party.
Plumb spoke of ‘a sense of common identity’ by those who wield power and the acceptance of the institutions and those who control them. All that has gone clean out the window in Australia – and it does not look healthy elsewhere. There is scarcely a political, religious, business or sporting body that does not have a dark cloud hanging over it.
An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that only the planet is worth conserving – but it is precisely on this issue that self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ have betrayed us and themselves – morally, intellectually, and politically. England’s dull, imported Hanoverian kings were better with logic and science than our native born dunces. It’s OK for the shock jocks – they are just there for the lucre and their vanity. But have our would-be statesmen no care for the rest of us? Nor does it help that their most voluble stooge, the IPA, covertly gets its gelt from Madam Coalminer Extraordinaire.
Scare tactics have been known since Pisistratus, but Walpole brought them to a form of squalid perfection. There is an appeal – overt or covert – to that bad actor called patriotism. Plumb says:
Patriotism, almost xenophobic in its intensity, had long been regarded by the Tories as one of their own sacred principles; it was an emotion, they half believed, that no one could feel so intensely as themselves. Hence, if Walpole could reveal, not once but time and again, that leading Tories were involved in treason, he knew the effect would baffle many a country squire proud of his Englishry, and draw him to support the Crown.
The bogeyman then was called Jacobitism – the prince across the water, the threatened return of the Stuarts and the Church of Rome, and a return to the hell of the previous century.
And of course, accusations of Jacobitism were extremely useful at elections….Like McCarthyism in our own time [they] generated public fear and sapped the will to oppose.
The bogeyman now is Islam and it is a sitting duck for brutal bullies because it is even less coherent than its pursuers – and given the unhinged hysteria of Trump about a migrant caravan, that is no small suggestion. Ruling by fear itself leads to instability, because it demeans the institutions that permit or require it.
Now for the bad news for those who call themselves conservatives.
But, first, what is there left in the name ‘conservative’? How may that word be usefully applied in a welfare state facing the slow death of churches and the fading of once grand institutions? Plumb was after all speaking of a time more than two centuries before the evolution of the welfare state in England. Some ‘conservatives’ say they want small government. Well, the role of government was very much smaller in England before they set up their jails down here. This was a time of which Lord Shelburne could say, offhandedly enough: ‘Providence has so organised the world that very little government is necessary.’ England then was just like a well-run cricket club, and you were OK as long as you played cricket.
To return to the bad news:
It is necessary to stress this moral collapse….. the Tory party was destroyed, destroyed by its incompetent leadership, by the cupidity of many of its supporters, by its own internal contradictions; weakened by its virtues and lashed by events, it proved no match for Walpole…..It failed to provide an effective barrier to Walpole’s steady progress towards a single-party state.
Walpole, Plumb says, made ‘the world so safe for the Whigs that they stayed in power for a hundred years.’
Only a very robust and blithe member of the Conservative, Republican or Liberal Party could now suppress a heart tremor on this recall of history. Can they divorce themselves from one word of the above citation? In stressing the ‘moral collapse’, Plumb was warning us of the weakness of character and failure of nerve that is destroying political parties in our time. It’s a shame that more historians don’t bite that bullet – au fond, political issues involve moral issues.
Now for some worse news. So far we have sought to find guidance from Sir Jack Plumb in looking at our current instability here and elsewhere. But Plumb did not have to confront what some see as our biggest problem. The English were and are beset by caste as well as class. We do not have the first problem as a matter of law: and for the most part, we do not have much of the second problem as a matter of fact.
But we have a huge worry with inequality of wealth and income – that looks to keep getting worse. A bank teller may be paid one hundredth of what her boss gets paid – and that pay is likely to go up by his firing more people like her.
Any social group must rest on an implied and shared assumption of fairness, decency, and tolerance. The bank teller cannot retain any faith that that assumption still holds good. If that is right, our ship of state is in very dangerous waters. Since at least 1789, people espousing what some are pleased to call Western civilisation have been committed to some form of equality. If our want of it is too great or painful, the result is not just instability, but revolution.
‘Identity politics’ is a vogue but shifty phrase. (What else underpins trade unions, churches, cricket clubs, towns, party politics, or nations?) But if you want to see how all hell breaks loose when a group of people come together out of interest at the unfairness of their lot in life, have a look at the sans-culottes – roughly, blue collar ‘tradies’ – in France after 1789. Just look at how they doted on Robespierre, then they rejected him, then they slew him, and then they forgot him. Bored with mere lynchings, they had turned to the guillotine, then the Committee of Public Safety, and then the Terror. They were plainly not our first terrorists, but they did terrify people by killing others. They killed to avoid being killed. And they did so in the name of equality – or what some call justice.
Too many people in political parties that were once truly conservative are now flirting with the mob – or, if you prefer, the gutter. My dad didn’t have much truck with politicians, but he said to me more than once: ‘Son, if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.’
And if there is one thing that is transcendentally clear about the nature of conservatism, it is that people who claim to be under that umbrella while indulging the mob – while looking warmly at Hanson, Abbott, Farage, Johnson or Trump – are not just deluding themselves, they are spitting in the face of the history of mankind – if not of God.
In truth, the crowds that cheer on Farage and Trump have a lot in common with the crowds that cheered on Jack Cade and Barabbas.