TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Brexit and Deep Structures in Anglo-American Politics

Political analysts have a tendency to consider political events within a relatively short time frame. This tendency has become worse over time as the study of political history has declined, and the historical memory of many analysts is often quite short.

Despite this, the case for looking at the politics of a country or civilization in terms of its longue durée is quite compelling, as there can be deep structures underlying politics that are not apparent until they are investigated. Brexit provides a good example. For many people Brexit is viewed in terms of the last twenty-five years and the impact that globalization has had on Britain, as if such things have only taken place in recent times. There are deep structures in the politics of any country that shape its political culture, and hence its response to changing circumstances.

In fact, the birth of modern English politics in the late Stuart period at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century can be seen as a response to England’s enmeshment with international politics. This was a period when key changes took place in England, including the proper establishment of parliamentary government based on regular elections (initially every three years) after the Glorious Revolution, a financial revolution that included the establishment of the Bank of England, increased religious toleration, an increase in the free dissemination of knowledge with the end of the licensing of printing, and the growth of a bureaucratic state. Scotland was included to create Britain in 1707.

The setting for much of these developments was the ongoing war against France and the expansionist dreams of Louis XVI. In the end Louis did not succeed. But the effect on England was transformative as the English state needed to fund the war and hence developed what we would term “modern” political and financial means to do so.

One important feature of England during these years was that engagement in an epic struggle against France did not create a unified kingdom. After all, what had happened in 1688 was that one king (James II, a Catholic) was expelled and another (William III, a Protestant) installed on the throne. A Pretender to the English throne lived in France hoping to return at some stage.

England in the 1690s and the early 1700s was a divided society in a range of ways. It was divided in terms of religion between High Church Anglicans on the one hand and Low Church Anglicans and Dissenters on the other. It was divided politically between the Tories, who were generally High Church and who favored authority and obedience, and the Whigs, who were more liberal in their political and religious outlook, favoring toleration and liberty.

There was another division, a quite traditional one, between court and country, between those who favored increasing the power of the central government and those who resisted such encroachments on local autonomy. At a time when the power of the government was increasing along with the power of finance, there was considerable anxiety about these changes, especially from those who could be described as gentry and who lived away from London. The aristocratic Whig Grandees, however, welcomed much of this change as they benefitted from it.

Part of the problem was, and is, that England is a city-state, much like the Venetian republic with which it was often compared, and so the growth of London as a major financial center tended to polarize the country into city versus country. One manifestation of this was the development of an ideology that emphasized the need to own land as the basis of politics. Those who owned land had a real stake in the country, whereas those who simply owned things of a financial nature did not. Financiers were not to be trusted, and this could easily lead to conspiracy theories regarding their activities. And, of course, those suspicions about “finance” were to be realized when the South Sea bubble burst in 1720.

The key thing is that an important aspect of division in England during those years was between those who were part of the new burgeoning financial economy and those who were not. Court versus country mattered. And, it should be added, the bulk of the English population was not on the side of the Whigs and the financiers. They did not necessarily support Toleration, or liberal ideas or the new international finance world. Much of the change was pushed through by Whigs, who did not have massive support from the people.

This can be seen quite clearly in the latter part of the reign of Queen Anne. In 1709 the Whigs made a huge strategic error when they chose to impeach in Parliament the firebrand High Church cleric Henry Sacheverell for a sermon he preached that they claimed subverted both the government and the Protestant succession. During the trial in 1710 there were riots, and this was followed by a massive Tory victory at the 1710 election. The Tories were subsequently elected in 1713.

Only with the arrival of George as a parliamentary monarch in 1715 were the Whigs able to regain the momentum and establish a hegemony that they held for decades. The supporters of the new commercial order won, but it was not on the back of popular support or the will of the English people.

It is also worth remembering that along with this new commercial order, which is often described in terms of “sweet commerce,” went an extremely savage penal code with the death penalty prescribed for what we would regard as fairly minor crimes against property. It was this “sweetness” that sent some of my forebears to a new country halfway around the world.

The point is that there were both country Whigs and country Tories, and that in some ways the court and country division or that of London versus the rest was the most fundamental in English politics. It is a division that one can see still in the Brexit vote. And the supporters of the “country” included those “Commonwealth men” who would be so important as influences on the American Revolution.

The American Revolution was deeply influenced by those who had resisted the new financial order during the late Stuart period. It was also suspicious of the power that the British government had accumulated and which the Americans believed was being used by King George and his ministers to enslave them. In other words, the American Revolution can be viewed as a revolt by the country against what the revolutionaries perceived to be the excessive power that the Court had accumulated and which it could use against the liberty of the people. This is why the Revolution received so much support from those outside of the cities in America.

It can be argued that the Court or City versus Country divide, growing out of the way in which English politics first developed in the late Stuart period, is fundamental to the politics of those societies that are derived from England. It most certainly has been important in Australia as well as the United States. Populism is not really possible without it. It is part of the deep structure of the political cultures of those countries.

To many, Brexit is a puzzle, as is the rise of Donald Trump in America. The obvious answer is that they have something to do with the effects of globalization, and to an extent this is true. However, there is also the issue of how particular societies that have inherited specific traditions respond to such challenges as globalization. It is worth remembering that Anglophone societies were by and large immune to fascism, unlike Germany or Italy or France (France had a massive fascist movement in the late 1930s). That owed at least something to their deep political structures. Part of those deep structures is the Court/Country divide, which is still having an impact on the politics of Anglophone countries in the twenty-first century.

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