Mrs Thatcher stole our revolution

1688 book

Any storyteller will tell you: it all depends on the way you tell it. The same story, told by different people in different ways, can have a completely different meaning and impact.

And the same is true of the great narrative of history. Take one of the greatest stories in our national history: the story of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when King James II was deposed, and William and Mary assumed the throne. William was the Prince of Orange, the Stadholder of the Netherlands; Mary the Protestant daughter of James.

The conventional telling of this story, nowadays, it that it was a Very British Revolution. In other words, no very big deal, a mere slight interruption in the taking of tea during the peaceful cricket match of our national life. James II had been trying to impose an absolutist regime like that of his neighbour Louis XIV of France, at the same time forcing the country to become Roman Catholic, and the ‘Revolution’ had merely restored things to how they were, before all that nasty stuff happened. The Revolution was aristocratic, polite, consensual, and above all non-violent.

And yet, throughout the century following the events of 1688, a different story was told and believed (though not uncontested by some). In fact, the makers of the French Revolution took the English as their model and inspiration. One of them said, “Why should we be ashamed, Gentlemen, to acknowledge that the Revolution which is now establishing itself in our country, is owing to the example given by England a century ago? It was from that day we became acquainted with the political constitution of that island, and the prosperity with which it was accompanied; it was from that day our hatred of despotism derived its energy. In securing their own happiness, Englishmen have prepared the way for that of the universe. Whilst on all sides tyrants were attempting to extinguish the sacred flame of liberty, our neighbours with intrepid watchfulness and care cherished it in their bosoms.”

So where did the currently held ‘story’ of the Glorious Revolution come from? Its best known versions come from the last decade of the 18th century, from Macaulay’s History of England (1849) and from G. M. Trevelyan’s The English Revolution, 1688-89 (1938). The dates are significant: these accounts date from the time of the French Revolution, the European (and Chartist) uprisings of 1848, and the fall of the Weimar Republic and rise of the Third Reich. They were written to form public opinion, to say: Those nasty and foreign foreigners have violent, bloody and dangerous revolutions: we English are more civilised and do not do things that way.

This Whig version of the story has become so widely accepted, that when the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution came along in 1988, it went off with all the excitement of a damp squib. In his book 1688: The first modern Revolution, Steve Pincus writes:

In 1988 politicians of the left and right could agree that there had been no revolution in 1688-89. Lord Hailsham was left the unenviable task of opening the Banqueting House exhibit marking the tercentenary. He told the assembled audience that the Revolution of 1688-89 should be celebrated for what it was not and what it may have prevented. “Our own Glorious Revolution,” he explained, “coming when it did, spared us any convulsions comparable to the French Revolution of 1789 or even the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the fall of the Weimar Republic in 1933.” The significance of the Revolution of 1688-89, argued Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was that it showed the irrelevance of popular radicalism. “Political change should be sought and achieved through Parliament,” she claimed, “it was this which saved us from the violent revolutions which shook our continental political change should be sought and achieved through Parliament, she claimed, it was this which saved us from the violent revolutions which shook our continental neighbours.” Given this remarkable consensus, given the hegemonic exposition of the establishment Whig interpretation of revolution principles, it is hardly surprising that the tercentenary events were sedate and dull affairs. Popular celebrations would have been antithetical to the spirit of the revolution.

But Pincus puts forward a different view of the nature and causes of revolutions, and insists that most of the details of the received story of the Glorious Revolution are wrong. He argues that it was much more far-reaching than has been thought. In seeking to emulate the Dutch model of society, it aimed for much greater toleration in religious and political matters, and, crucially, for a shift from an economy based on land, to one of manufacturing. It was also much more populist, and more violent in terms of attacks on property and individuals, than we know. And - here’s the thing - its supporters saw it not as an end, but as the beginning of ongoing reforms in many aspects of human society. It was to be a continuing revolution… until the landed and vested interests of British society put a stop to it and began to launch a different story.

Pincus’s book is a big read, but I think an important one in our own turbulent political times. What sort of society do we want? And how are we going to get there?

And no, it wasn’t actually Mrs Thatcher who stole our revolution. (That’s just the way I tell it.) But it was sure as hell stolen (and still is stolen) by the people who had most to lose, and least to gain, from a real and lasting British Revolution.

Written on January 25, 2017