Peaceful Revolution?

Several recent commentators on world affairs, including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, have suggested that what is required to solve current problems is nothing short of a revolution. Despite my sympathy with the need for drastic change, as an historian of the English and French Revolutions I always feel cautious about calls for revolution. Both of the revolutions I have researched provide ample evidence of the horrors that it can bring: the havoc and destruction it wreaks on the country and the devastation it causes to individual lives.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The Civil War, which was a key component of the English Revolution, is thought to have resulted, as noted in a previous blogpost, in the deaths of a larger proportion of the adult male population of this country than the First World War. The regicide - effectively a state-sponsored execution - that lay at the Revolution's heart, introduced a period of ten years of unstable government which had serious political and economic consequences. Moreover, the whole period brought division and animosity. Families were divided, with brothers or fathers and sons fighting on different sides. Royalists were excluded from the franchise in both of the constitutions of the 1650s: the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice, as well as having their land and assets seized. After 1660 the tables were turned and it was former revolutionaries, especially the regicides, who were punished. Even his early death in 1658 did not protect Oliver Cromwell: his body was dug up in order to be posthumously decapitated. Moreover, the social divisions survived well beyond 1660, with the labels 'Roundhead' and 'Cavalier' mutating into those of 'Whig' and 'Tory', which dominated British politics throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. 

'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

The French Revolution has an even greater reputation for violence. This was frequently perpetrated by the crowds. For example, around the time of the storming of the Bastille, the decapitated heads of authority figures were hung from lampposts, and in October 1789 a crowd of women armed with pikes marched to Versailles and forced the royal family back to Paris. Later, in the September Massacres of 1792, over a thousand prisoners were slaughtered to prevent them from joining with foreign troops who were imminently expected to invade Paris (but actually never came). Violence was also perpetrated by the government itself, via the use of the guillotine and by the declaration, in September 1793, that Terror was the 'order of the day'.

Of course, not all English or French revolutionaries insisted that violence and division were essential to achieving their aims. In each case there were prominent individuals who argued strongly against both. James Harrington was one of these. Though he supported the parliamentary cause financially during the 1640s, and argued that England was ripe for popular government in his major work The Commonwealth of Oceana of 1656, he acted as gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles I in 1647-8, having previously worked on behalf of Charles's nephew, the Prince Elector Palatine. In keeping with these connections, Harrington was intent, in the aftermath of the Civil War, on healing and settling a divided nation. To this end he even argued that royalists should be allowed to vote:

Extract from James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana,  in  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq.,  ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

Extract from James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana, in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq., ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

During the French Revolution calls for clemency were made by members of the Cordeliers Club who, as was demonstrated in my previous blogpost, showed an interest both in Harrington's works and in his understanding of democracy. In particular, Camille Desmoulins in his newspaper Le Vieux Cordelier, condemned Maximilian Robespierre's appeal to revolutionary necessity, which was used to justify the Terror. Against Robespierre's position, Desmoulins asserted the traditional Cordeliers call for the protection and defence of the rights of individuals, insisting that the Cordeliers' fight had been to defend: 'the declaration of rights, the gentleness of republican maxims, fraternity, holy equality, the inviolability of principles'. (Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, Paris: Belin, 1987, p.80). Freedom of speech and the liberty of the press were particularly important to him as means of protecting the people against tyranny, and as the fundamental foundation of republican government: 'What is the last retrenchment against despotism? It is the liberty of the press ... What is it that distinguishes a republic from a Monarchy? It is a single thing, the liberty of speaking and of writing.' (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 147). Moreover, Desmoulins turned this idea directly against Robespierre's notion - borrowed from Montesquieu - of a republic of virtue:

But to return to the question of the liberty of the press, without doubt it must be unlimited; without doubt republics must have as their base and foundation the liberty of the press, not this other base that Montesquieu has given them. (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 179).

Camille Desmoulins,  Le Vieux Cordelier , no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France,

Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France,

Neither Harrington nor Desmoulins proved very successful in their attempts to bring about a more harmonious settlement. Despite his best efforts, Harrington's proposals were not taken up by the government. After the Restoration he was arrested and imprisoned by the authorities, and he did not publish any further works during his lifetime. Desmoulins suffered even more drastically for his views. He was sent to the guillotine in April 1794 by the man whose ideas he had criticised in Le Vieux Cordelier, his former schoolfriend, Robespierre.

Yet, just because they failed, does not mean that the ideas of Harrington and Desmoulins were not feasible, or that they do not have something useful to teach us. Most historians no longer subscribe to a narrow Whig interpretation of the past, but rather acknowledge that the ideas that did not win out, and even the paths not taken, are worthy of some consideration. Finding political solutions that can unite those of very different political persuasions (as Harrington sought to do) is an appealing idea at a time when politics is more divisive and combative than ever. And the notion that freedom of speech and a free press should form the foundation of the political system is widely respected, if not always enacted, today. Moreover, these two ideas are combined in an interesting initiative that has been gaining some traction. Advocates and practitioners of local participatory democracy have shown that allowing groups of interested parties openly to discuss and debate issues often leads to greater consensus. Applying this kind of local participatory democracy more widely could perhaps offer a solution to the current democratic crisis.

No doubt part of the appeal of Harrington's ideas to Desmoulins and his fellow Cordeliers was his attempt to combine a commitment to innovative and revolutionary ideas - not least democratic government - with a concern to heal divisions and to build a society that was open to a range of viewpoints as well as being harmonious. And I am aware that my own interest in both Harrington and Desmoulins stems partly from the same desire. For me, these thinkers offer the possibility that we may be able to bring about positive and lasting change to our society, including its political institutions, without recourse to revolutionary violence or even to the silencing of 'inconvenient' views.










Holding Representatives to Account

Concerns about the accountability of members of the UK Parliament have been common in recent years. These have centred, for instance, on the expenses scandal - with claims being made that had little or nothing to do with parliamentary work. This originally broke in 2009, but continues to rumble on. Thus, in October 2017 it was revealed that sixteen peers who had not spoken at all in 2016-17 had nonetheless claimed a total of more than £400,000 in tax-free expenses over that period. Members of Parliament have also been accused of being unaccountable in appearing to challenge, or ignore, the will of the people - for example over Brexit. The reluctant response of some MPs to the referendum - reflected most recently in the voting of an amendment on 13 December 2017 which will give Parliament a legal guarantee of a vote on the final Brexit deal - has led some to accuse MPs of inhibiting the popular will. However, the accountability of those in power is by no means a new issue.

Engraving of George Wither by John Payne from  A Collection of Emblemes  (1635). Taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Engraving of George Wither by John Payne from A Collection of Emblemes (1635). Taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Having been prompted into rebellion by the actions of an unaccountable monarch, who had ruled for an unprecedented eleven years without calling Parliament, the English revolutionaries of the mid-seventeenth century were particularly concerned with the issue of accountability. Some, such as the parliamentary propagandist Henry Parker, insisted that a parliament would, by its very nature, embody the wisdom of the nation and so could not betray the interests of the people, (Henry Parker, Observations upon some of his Majesties late Answers and Expresses, London, 1642, especially p. 22). But, by the mid-1640s, a number of commentators were becoming concerned about the accountability of Parliament itself. The Puritan poet George Wither addressed this issue directly in his Letters of Advice: Touching The Choice of Knights and Burgesses of November 1644. According to Wither, the Houses of Parliament had resolved to call 'false and apostate' members to just account and to disable them from returning to parliamentary trust, so fresh elections were expected. Wither's aim in the work was to advise the knights and burgesses on the kinds of men to choose. In doing so he expressed specific concerns about MPs being unaccountable and therefore becoming distanced from their constituents:

by heedlesnesse in this dutie, they shall make Tyrants and Fooles, Lords over them, who will fawne and court them, till they are elected, and then, scorne and trample them under feet, putting such an immeasurable distance, betwixt themselves and others, of that Body whom they represent, and out of which they were chosen, as if they had forgotten what they were (George Wither, Letters of Advice: Touching the Choice of Knights and Burgesses, 1644, p. 4).

Not surprisingly, fears about lack of accountability only seem to have increased after the regicide enacted by a purged 'Rump' Parliament.

   Those concerned with accountability had various ideas as to how the problem could best be addressed. A common solution was to call for regular elections, as the Levellers did in The Agreement of the People. They insisted that 'to prevent the many inconveniences apparently arising from the long continuance of the same persons in authority' the Parliament that was then sitting should be dissolved on 30 September 1648 and a new Parliament elected every two years. (The Agreement of the People, clauses II and III). Others worried that the mere threat of not being re-elected would not be sufficient to ensure the good behaviour of those in power and so called for those stepping down from office to be required to give a public account of their actions on the basis of which they could then be judged, and if necessary punished. Wither advocated precisely this measure in the postscript to Letters of Advice. He described MPs as: 'servants and inferiours to their respective Counties and Burroughts; and that, by them, they may be called to account, for every omission or commission worthie questioning: either before the present Parliament whereof they are members, or before the next that shall be summoned.' (Wither, Letters of Advice, p. 13). He even toyed with the idea of dismissing those who proved to be 'unfaithful in trust' mid-term. (p. 14). De-selection no less.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

   Not all seventeenth-century political commentators, however, believed that such accountability measures were an unalloyed good. Some acknowledged that there was a tension between making rulers accountable (especially by means of frequent elections) and the need for them to develop experience and expertise. John Milton in The Readie and Easie Way, a last-ditch attempt in 1660 to avoid the restoration of the monarchy, questioned the idea of limited terms of office: 'For it appeers not how this can be don, without danger and mischance of putting out a great number of the best and ablest: in whose stead new elections may bring in as many raw, unexperienc'd and otherwise affected, to the weakning and much alterning for the wors of public transactions.' (John Milton, Selected Prose, Harmondsworth, 1974, p. 341). Similarly, the Calvinist minister Richard Baxter argued that: 'To have the ignorant and unexercised introduced, and then turned out before they can grow wise' was not a sensible means of operating. (Richard Baxter, A Holy Commonwealth, ed. William Lamont, Cambridge, 1994, p. 140 )

Richard Baxter, after Robert White, oil on canvas based on a work of 1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 521. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Richard Baxter, after Robert White, oil on canvas based on a work of 1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 521. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

 Both Milton and Baxter were responding directly to Harrington's concern with accountability and his distinctive proposals for how this might be secured. Harrington insisted that members of both legislative houses, along with most office holders within the commonwealth, should hold their positions for a period of three years after which they would be required to spend an equivalent period out of office. Elections, though, would occur annually, with one third of the members of each assembly being replaced each year. This system had some advantages. Not only did it mean that there would be no hiatus between the ending of one parliament and the opening of the next, but it also meant that at any time the assemblies would be composed of one third of members with two years' experience who could speak as experts, one third who were in the process of developing their expertise, and one third who would bring new ideas and approaches to national government.

Harrington, and many of his contemporaries, would have identified severe problems with our modern parliamentary system as regards accountability. Holding elections just once every five years would have seemed foolish and dangerous to many of them. Moreover, the idea that at the end of a given parliament the same MPs could immediately be re-elected, without any official scrutiny of their conduct, would certainly have been condemned by Wither and Harrington. They would have derided the fact that it is possible for an MP to sit for more than 40 years without any time out of office - as the 'father of the house' Tam Dalyell did. While it is necessary to balance accountability against the benefits derived from experience, a major problem with our system, as Harrington would have recognised, is that because they are not forced to spend time out of office, members of Parliament can quickly become separated from the interests and concerns of the general public. Moreover, their ability to make laws means that they can prescribe different rules for themselves than for the rest of the population. They do not, as Harrington would have put it, have to live under the laws that they make. Perhaps a move to a system in which there are more frequent elections (perhaps on a rotational basis), with the requirement of regular terms out of office, would increase their accountability?