Brexit and the British Constitution: Part II. The Whig spirit of the Old Constitution.

The frontispiece is from the first “Whig” History of England-by a Frenchman.

The spirit of the Old Constitution

How history is recorded plays a central part in Britain’s uncodified constitution. Rules and conventions remain subject to interpretation, precedents are by definition all located in the past, but applicable to actual circumstances, subject to judgement, therefore challengeable, and all the while placed in reserve for the future.  This phenomenon became particularly evident during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the formative narratives of modern Britain took shape around the key dates of 1529, Henry VIII’s break with Rome; the civil war of 1641-1649; and the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Henry looked back to the 1140s, known as “the anarchy” and the last time that a woman  ruled England, when the country was convulsed in permanent baronial warfare. Fearing his lack of a male heir, Henry was  little aware that his own daughter would prove a formidable ruler. As she regularly reminded her courtiers, she was “the daughter of my father”-in other words, she had inherited his ferocity. In the run up to the civil war both monarch and parliament appealed to past precedents. Parliament’s side appealed to Magna Carta, while James and Charles considered parliaments to be  medieval relics, whose proceedings  represented an infringement of the royal prerogative. Kings ruled by divine right, they believed. The idea is expounded in a High Tory classic, Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha or the Natural Power of Kings, possibly written in the 1640s, and eventually published in 1680, at the time of the Exclusion crisis of 1679-1681, about which more below. The people, he wrote, are “a headless multitude”, and can only form a community when under a sovereign. The politics of a country is like that of a family, governed by the rule of primogeniture, and where the patriarch is owed untrammeled obedience.  [1]  Charles I neatly clarifies the point in his last speech on the scaffold. The King made no bones about his quarrel with parliament:   “For the people, he is recorded as saying, ..truly I desire their Liberty and Freedom as much as any Body whomsoever. But I must tell you, That their Liberty and Freedom, consists in having of Government… not for having a share in government ..”.[2]


Tory historiography.

As heir to his beheaded father, Charles II was deeply skeptical about his fellow human beings. His main aim was to restore the legitimacy of monarchy. In these endeavours, he was aided by Edward Hyde, the first Earl of Clarendon, who gave his name to the Clarendon Code designed to re-install the supremacy of the Church of England and also to cripple the power of the Dissenters-in effect Cromwell’s erstwhile followers. The Code-in effect four Acts of parliament-closed the paths to any possibility of reconciliation between the Anglican Church and those who came to be called Nonconformists. The Test Acts of 1661, 1673 and 1678 required all office holders to take communion according to the rights of the Church of England. Conditions for Dissenters were eased in the Glorious Revolution, but the Test Acts had a baleful effect on Ireland, where a majority of the population remained loyal to the old religion, and were hence excluded from office.

As a result, the British religious landscape became both deeply polarized, and pluralist. Unlike, many other European countries after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), ending the Thirty Years War, what came to be Great Britain after the Union of 1707 between Scotland, and England, never developed religious uniformity. The Anglican Church  existed alongside Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians in Scotland and northern Ireland, and Catholics in England, the Highlands of Scotland, and notably in Ireland.

Clarendon’s daughter married Charles’ brother James, and her two daughters became respectively Queen Mary (1689-1694) and Queen Anne (1702-14). An Act of Indemnity and Oblivion was passed, showing mercy to  the King’s enemies, though the regicides if 1649 were not spared. But religious passions continued to smolder, and broke out anew in the Exclusion crisis of 1679-1681. A bill went before the Commons with the intention of excluding the Catholic James from the throne, but Charles used his prerogative to dissolve parliament and to stymy the bill.

One lasting result of the crisis was the codification in 1679 of the writ of Habeas Corpus, promoted by Whig leaders rightly apprehensive that the King would try to arrest them. The Act held long-term implications for the British, then American legal system. The other lasting result of the crisis is that it marked the emergence of  political parties in England. Those who supported petitions calling on Charles to complete the passage of the Exclusion Bill became known as Whigs, while those who opposed the bill became known as Tories.[3]  While the Whigs later claimed patronage of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, in fact it was a combined Tory-Whig initiative.  The first major account of the seminal events shaping modern British political culture came with the publication of Clarendon’s  multi-volume The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England. The tone of this High Tory account is illustrated in Laurence Hyde’s preface to his father’s work:  “In an age when so many memoirs, narratives, and pieces of history come out as it were on purpose to justify the taking up arms against that king, and to blacken, revile, and ridicule the sacred majesty of an anointed head in distress; and when so much of the sense of religion to God, and of allegiance and duty to the crown is so defaced that it is already within little more than fifty years since the murder committed on that pious prince by some men made a mystery to judge on whose side was the right and on which the Rebellion is to be charged.”[4]

A very different account is David Hume’s History of England, first published in six volumes over the years 1754 to 1761. The background to this best selling history was twofold: first, the Tories had been tainted by the reigning Whigs of the early eighteenth century as disloyal associates of the Jacobite uprising of  1745- an uprising that had come close to embroiling Great Britain in continental wars.  Hume’s main concern was to legitimize the Glorious Revolution as the new constitution of England. Second, as he wrote in 1776, he wrote for the Tories in full knowledge that the Whigs held all the levers of patronage and power.[5]“It is ridiculous, he wrote,  to consider the English constitution before that period as a regular plan of liberty.” The Whig  history of English liberty as some form of Teutonic inheritance was nonsense; there was no Norman Yoke”, rather the Conquest had been beneficial, teaching the Saxons ‘the rudiments of science and cultivation”.  Simon de Montfort, reportedly parliament’s founder,  was violent, rapacious and tyrannical, and his death “the most happy event which could have happened to the English nation.” Cromwell had taken power by “fraud and violence”. The English, Hume pontificated,  should be grateful for the liberty they enjoy,-a liberty acquired not by some epic struggle over the centuries, but through a  “great measure of accident with small ingredient of wisdom”. [6]As Nicholas Phillipson has written, Hume hoped to cut the umbilical cord connecting the English political imagination to an idealized past, which could be best left in “silence and oblivion”.[7]

It can be no surprise that Thomas Jefferson considered Hume’s history to be poison. In a letter to John Adams dated 25 November 1816, he wrote that “This single book has done more to sap the free principles of the English Constitution than the largest standing army..”…“ Hume has consecrated, in his fascinating style, all the arbitrary proceedings of the English kings, as true evidences of the constitution, and glided over it’s whig principles as the unfounded pretensions of factious demagogues. he even boasts ,  in his life written by himself, that of the numerous alterations suggested by the readers of his work, he had never adopted one proposed by a whig.”[8] 

The origins of religious toleration and free speech.

Whig, not Tory, history came to dominate the English, British and American political imagination for the coming three centuries. Its bard was John Locke, of Puritan stock, and patronized by the Whig grandee, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury. Locke fled the country in 1683 under suspicion that he was involved in the Rye House plot, to assassinate both Charles II and his brother, James. In Amsterdam, he may well have met and discussed ideas with free thinking protestant groups, and he did return from Dutch exile in the train of William and Mary. The bulk of his publishing took place after his return- notably the Two Treatises of Civil Government, and A Letter Concerning Toleration. His target was the concept of the divine right of kings and its corollary that subjects owed their monarch unconditional obedience. Rather than have the authority of the monarch grounded in divine unction, his  was was a contract theory of society.  In the state of nature, people had rights to “life, healthy, liberty and possessions”,[9]but those rights could be ensured more effectively in society with the help of government. The purpose of government is “not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom”. [10]Governments exist by consent of the people, and their task is to protect their rights and to promote the public good. “[Consent] is absolutely necessary to the very being and subsistance of our government and without which our peace and religion cannot possibly be any way secured…” [11]Governments that seek to rule without consent  may be resisted because the people are the ultimate authority: “the legislature cannot transfer the making of laws to any other hands for it being a delegated power from the people, they who have it cannot pass it to others”.[12]

Locke’s writings were not widely known in the years following the Glorious Revolution, but became so through the agency of Voltaire- “le sage Locke”- and more importantly through his influence on the American revolutionaries. In a letter of February 15, 1789, Jefferson wrote that Bacon, Locke and Newton were “the three greatest men that ever lived”. [13]Locke’s influence is all over the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: the separation of powers; the concept of consent; the emphasis on freedom from tyranny; and most importantly at the heart of the Constitution of the United States is the principle of freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. Although Locke considered Roman Catholics and atheists as not worthy of toleration-“because where they (Catholics) have power, they think themselves bound to deny it to others”[14], his Letters Concerning Toleration formulated three key arguments for religious toleration: human beings, and the state in particular, are not qualified to evaluate opposing truth-claims of competing religions;  if they try to enforce “true religion”, they would not succeed, because  belief may not be ordained by force;  efforts to impose religious uniformity where none exists fosters more strife than does acquiescing in a diversity of religions.[15]

In fact, such attitudes on toleration were advanced quite early on in the feuds between Roundheads and Cavaliers, between Whigs and Tories. The founder of the colony of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, wrote a passionate plea for absolute religious freedom and the separation of church and state. He was widely read in the home country. [16]Sir Matthew Hale, Justice of the King’s Bench from 1671 to 1676, wrote down advice for  judges to judge equitably. In  “Things necessary to be Continually had in Remembrance”, he advised judges to  remember : “That in the administration of justice, I am entrusted to God, the King and Country”; “That I rest not upon my own understanding o strength, but …carefully set aside my own passions..”.[17]In Ireland, Jonathan Swift,  author of Gulliver’s Travels, and A Modest Proposal, in which he proposed to have the poor sell their children for food to the rich- considered himself    “a lover of liberty, I found myself to be what they called a Whig in politics…But, as to religion, I confessed myself to be an High-Churchman.”[18]It was in Catholic Ireland, that the Test Acts weighed most heavily. Over time, their severity for non-conformists came to be blunted by the issue of indemnities and in the late eighteenth century a series of laws extended relief to Catholics. These measures prompted a backlash, notably in the so-called Gordon riots of 1780, some of the most violent and protracted of London  riots in British history. Le Courier de l’Europe, an eight page journal published in London from 1776 to 1792, dubbed the rioters-supportive of the American revolutionaries and rabidly anti-papist, as “la faction Oliverienne”, in other words Cromwellians. [19]Emancipation for Catholics was achieved in 1828, with strong support from the Duke of Wellington, whose army in the peninsula campaign against Napoleon from 1808-1814 was heavily manned by Irish and Scots.

For the Huguenots, persecuted under Louis XIV and Louis XV for their adherence to the Protestant cause, the Great Britain of the Bill of Rights  was a sanctuary for toleration. The Huguenot exile, Paul Rapin de Thoyras, François-Marie Arouet, know under his pen name Volatire, and Baron de Montesquieu all spoke appreciatively of the  England of the 1720s, when  Robert Walpole governed as  England’s first Prime Minister at the height of Whig influence. The main thesis of Rapin’s Histoire de l’Angleterre, published in fourteen volumes between 1724 and 1727, was that ‘the English have at all times been extremely jealous of their liberties”. As Rapin wrote in his dedication to George I, “One will see clearly in this History that the constant union of the Sovereign with his Parliament, is the most solid foundation for the glory of the Prince and the welfare of the Subjects”. Voltaire, visiting England from 1726 to 1728,  wrote in similar tones: “The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them; …  where the nobles are great without insolence, though there are no vassals; and where the people share in the Government without confusion.”[20]Baron de Montesquieu, also visiting England from 1729 to 1731,  wrote with admiration, “the English have made the protection of foreign merchants one of the articles of their national liberty”, and know ““better than any other people upon earth, how to value at the same time these three great advantages, religion, liberty, and commerce.” [21]His theory of the separation of powers, presented in his  L’Esprit des Lois,  were predicated on his observations of the British constitution.


The Whigs  and the French revolution.

The Whig founders of the United States placed the separation of powers at the heart of their constitutional design, along with a balance between a strong central government and a political federation. Yet it was a Whig, Edmund Burke, who denounced the French revolution, much to the consternation of Thomas Jefferson. As Connor Cruise O’Brien writes in his biography of Burke,The Great Melody,[22]Burke’s positions on public policy may only be understood through the prism of his Irishness: his mother, a Catholic; his father, a Dublin lawyer; his early Catholic schooling; his wife, the daughter of a Catholic family; his later caricature by the London press as a whiskey-toting Jesuit, a secret Catholic practicing Anglican rites for interest of preferment; his being a target of hostility during the anti-Papist Gordon riots in 1780; his education in the 1740s as a member of the Church of Ireland at Trinity College, Dublin; his belief that the British parliament was the only site from which to right the wrongs wrought on Ireland by what is still called the (Protestant) Ascendancy; his employment as secretary to the Whig grandee, the Marquess of Rockingham; his criticism of the King’s policies towards the American colonies; his hostility to the corrupt practices of the East India Company; his defence of the principles of representative government against the notion that elected officials should merely be delegates;[23]his support for free trade with Ireland, for Catholic emancipation and an end to Test Acts; and his early condemnation of the French  Revolution. It was the events of October 6 1789, when a crowd marched on Versailles to compel Louis XVI to return to Paris, that convinced Burke of the association between British religious radicalism and French revolutionary thought.

Initially, events in France were welcomed in England. The House of Commons proposed a day of thanksgiving. Charles James Fox saw 1789 as following in the footsteps of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, and welcomed the news of the storming of the Bastille on July 14 as “ thegreatest event … that ever happened in the world! and how much the best!”.  Dissenters were enthused: Dr. Richard Price in November 1789 preached a sermon “On the Love of Our Country” to the Reformist Society for Commemorating the (Glorious) Revolution (of 1689) on “the anniversary of our deliverance…from the dangers of popery and arbitrary power”.[24]“We ought to consider ourselves as citizens of the world, Dr Price declared, and take care to maintain a just regard to the rights of other countries.” By taking care, Dr Price meant that “our first concern …must be to enlighten them”, notably about the principles of the  Glorious Revolution. “I will, Dr Price assured his listeners, take notice of only three (principles):  First; The right to liberty of conscience in religious matters. Secondly; The right to resist power when abused. And,Thirdly; The right to chuse our own governors; to cashier them for misconduct; and to frame a government for ourselves.”

One hundred years on, the Revolution of 1689 in England is far from perfect, Dr Price explains. Inequality in our representation is a”defect in our constitution so gross and palpable, as to make it excellent chiefly in form and theory”. Without equality in representation, “government is nothing but a usurpation”; and “ when the representation is partial, the kingdom possesses liberty only partially”.  That being said, patriots should take inspiration from the events in France:  “ Be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom, and writers in its defence! The times are auspicious. Your labours have not been in vain. Behold kingdoms, admonished by you, starting from sleep, breaking their fetters, and claiming justice from their oppressors! Behold, the light you have struck out, after setting America free, reflected to France, and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes, and warms and illuminates Europe!” Dr Price ends his peroration in the authentic voice of Cromwell:  “Tremble all ye oppressors of the world! Take warning all ye supporters of slavish governments, and slavish hierarchies! Call no more (absurdly and wickedly) Reformation, innovation. You cannot now hold the world in darkness. Struggle no longer against increasing light and liberality.  Restore to mankind their rights; and consent to the correction of abuses, before they and you are destroyed together.”

Burke’s famous Reflections on the Revolution in Francewere a direct response to Dr Price’s sermon. In a nutshell, Burke argued, 1789 was not 1689. No word was spoken, writes Burke, in the 1689 Declaration of Right about how we “chuse our own governors; cashier them for misconduct; and form a government for ourselves”. Price, says Burke, is thinking of the French revolutionary spirit as a summons to the  civil war of the 1640s, not to 1689. Price wants the completion of Cromwell’s revolution; 1689, by contrast, put Cromwell to rest, settles the succession to the throne and “preservesour ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty”.   That spirit does not trade “in the ancient principles and models of the old common law of Europe meliorated and adapted to its present state”. It does not consider a political community as a “permanent partnership of the living, the dead and the yet unborn”.  Rather, it despises the past, the country and its inhabitants and writes “a totally new constitution for a great kingdom”. The rights of man it lists are abstract,”extremes: and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false”. What is true is that “history consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same”. “These vices   are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good”.

If the permanent partnership of a community is torn asunder, a new, abstract constitution imposed, and the passions of men let lose, the ensuing rivalries will bring forth “some popular general, who understands the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself”. “The moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master..of your king, the master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic”. In other words, what France’s revolutionaries will accomplish is that “you lay down metaphysic propositions which infer universal consequences, and then you attempt to limit logic by despotism”.



Whigs and radicals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Burke’s Reflections  prompted a chorus of denunciation. Burke had ditched the Whigs for the Tories; Charles James Fox, the Whig opposition leader, told the Commons that he “admired the new constitution of France, considered altogether, as the most stupendous and glorious edifice of liberty, which had been erected on the foundation of human integrity in any time or country.” [25]In similar vein, the radical, Thomas Paine, wrote in his best welling pamphlet The Rights of Man, published in 1791, that  the French Constitution represented “the rational order of things”. But Burke’s vision won out, as the French revolution radicalized.  In January 1973, King Louis XVI was executed; The Republic’s response to the royalist uprising in la Vendée that year was to put the place to fire and sword; in October, Marie Antoinette shared the same fate as her husband; four years later, Napoleon seized power, as Burke had predicted. In his last Letters to a Regicide Peace, in opposition to William Pitt government’s peace negotiations, Burke argued that the war was not against France, but against the revolutionaries governing her.”It is not France extending a foreign empire over other nations: it is a sect aiming at universal empire, and beginning with the conquest of France”.[26]

It is scarcely an exageration to remark that Burke stamped his sensibilities on British political culture. They may be encapsulated in this  sentence from Reflections: “A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution”  Prior to Burke, England was the revolutionary country to which Frenchmen looked for inspiration for reform at home; after Burke, Great Britain became the model  for a politics of pragmatic evolution, suspicious of ideology and open to moderate, step-by-step reforms.  In the nineteenth century, this Whig cause was taken up by the historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay.

His five volume History of England from the Accession of James II, covering the years from 1685 to 1702, was published between  1848 and  1859. Macaulay’s volumes were an ode to the Glorious Revolution of 1689, in which England threw off superstition and autocracy, created a balanced constitution and adopted a forward-looking political culture of religious liberties and free speech. His themes are introduced in the first chapter: “I shall relate how the new settlement was, during many troubled years, successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how, under that settlement, the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage,rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible; how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power, compared with which every other maritime power, ancient or modern, sinks into insignificance; how Scotland, after ages of enmity, was at length united to England, not merely by legal bonds, but by indissoluble ties of interest and affection; how, in America, the British colonies  rapidly became far mightier and wealthier than the realms which Cortes and Pizarro  had added to the dominions o Charles V;  how in Asia, British adventurers founded an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander”.

Like Burke, Macaulay saw the Glorious Revolution as the defining event of modern politics. But whereas Burke was all too aware of the contingency of events, Macaulay gave full voice to mid-nineteenth century British confidence in progress. Not for him, the idea of an “ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England”, championed by the choleric Lord Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke, in the years leading up to the civil war. [27]That was too democratic. Macaulay’s champions were the Whig élite, who, has Robert Tombs writes, had brought forth trade, factories, libraries and public baths. Lord Acton, the great Cambridge historian of the late nineteenth century, schooled in the discipline of German historiography, gave short shrift to Macaulay’s history, but recognized its literary merits whereby Macaulay “had done more than any writer in the literature of the world for the propagation of the Liberal faith, and he was not only the greatest, but the most representative, Englishman then living”.[28]Robert Tombs goes further: ““Macaulay defined the English not by race, religion or culture, but politically as a free nation with parliamentary institutions, and as the world leaders of modernity”. [29]

Mid-nineteenth century historiography also witnessed a revival in the reputation of Oliver Cromwell, previously considered a bloodstained tyrant. In Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, publishedin  1845, Thomas Carlyle depicted Cromwell, like Napoleon, as a hero, placing his stamp on the whirlwind of events. Find the ablest man in any country, he wrote, “raise him to the supreme place, and royally reverence him: you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit”.[30] This was the message picked up the newly enfranchised Nonconformists in their struggle “against drink, vice, poverty, the Establishment and popery”,as Robert Tombs writes.  Their view was confirmed in Samuel Rawson Gardiner’s nineteen volume history of England from 1603 to 1660. “Oliver’s claim to greatness, writes Gardiner,  …receives higher and wider appreciation as the centuries pass by….; ” even his critics  “.. remember with gratitude his constancy of effort to make England great by land and sea; and it would be well for them also to be reminded of his no less constant efforts to make England worthy of greatness.”[31]In his trilogy on Garibaldi, Macaulay’s great nephew, George Macaulay Trevelyan, depicted the leader of the Italian Risorgimento as a Carlylean hero, a Whig champion in Italian garb, fighting for “freedom, progress and tolerance, who vanquished despotism, reaction and obscurantism of the Austrian empire and the Neapolitan monarchy”.[32]

Abe Lincoln and William Gladstone were the two heroes of Anglo-American  liberalism, a syncretic mix of Whig ideas of human progress, and what Peter Clarke has called “moral populism”, [33]where the purity of intention is taken as the hallmark of a clear conscience. Born aloft on a tide of optimism about action as  the cure to inherited ills, British politics moved away from mid-century doctrines of laissez-faire towards more state intervention at home and more activism abroad. This development had two major consequences. First, Germany and Great Britain drew apart. As Peter Clarke writes, “the country of Bismark did not speak the same political language as the country of Gladstone”. [34]Second, the extension of the franchise, combined with the politics of moral populism and pressures for more state activism, raised important constitutional questions.


World wars did not bury Whig history.

Carnage in the war of 1914-1918 dealt Whig pride and belief in progress a major blow. In particular, war accelerated the decline of the British aristocracy-the natural ruling élite of Whig and Tory historiography- that had set in with the fall in land prices in the 1880s, mass imports from the new World of wheat and frozen meat, and the emergence of vast industrial and financial fortunes. War brought an exhorbitant rate of attrition to Great Britain’s ruling class.  Yet Whig history lived on : in 1926, Trevelyan, produced his best-selling one-volume History of England. David Cannadine writes: “This work set out what he saw as the essential elements in the nation’s evolution and identity: parliamentary government, the rule of law, religious toleration, freedom from Continental interference and involvement, and a global horizon of maritime supremacy and imperial expansion. The book sold exceptionally well, thereby establishing Trevelyan as the supreme historical commentator on Baldwin’s England in the same way that he had earlier been on Asquith’s England.” [37]

His major work, which took up the national story where Macaulay had stopped, was a trilogy, England under Queen Anne. Its general tone may be savoured through this extract: “In manor house, farm and workshop a race of country-folk who, commonly heard and thought about little save their own quiet occupations, were stirred by the strange new from the Danube (Blenheim), which opened wide vistas to the imagination, recalled fireside talks of King Harry at Agincourt (1415), and Queen Bess at Tilbury (1588), and pointed forward to a future of illimitable magnitude for their country and their children, dimly descried like the sun rising behind the mist. There was little to fear that England would be misled by militaristic ideals and dreams of continental expansion in Europe, for her very prejudices were anti-military”. During the Second World War, which he feared was bringing about the fall of European civilisation,

“Trevelyan, writes Cannadine,  produced his most sensationally successful book, English Social History, which was intended to complement his earlier (and mainly political) History of England.” The four volume book offers “ his readers a beguiling picture of the past life of the nation that was by turns inspiring and nostalgic. Writing in the darkest times he had known, he poured out his patriotic feelings for what seemed to him the mortally endangered fabric of English life: its landscapes and localities, its flora and fauna, its people and places.”

Despite Trevelyan’s reknown, his books were not uncritically received. William Morgan, writing in 1934, points out that Trevelyan’s portrait of the average Englishman of two centuries earlier painted “ far too rosy a hue”. [38] Ominously for Whig historiography, Morgan writes that his last sentence would not meet with approval from French and German historians-a benchmark which Whig historiography ignored. Roy Jenkins, the man most responsible along with Edward Heath, for taking the United Kingdom into the EEC, wrote of him,  “Trevelyan’s reputation as an historian barely survived his death in 1962. He is now amongst the great unread, widely regarded by the professionals of a later generation as a pontificating old windbag, as short on cutting edge as on reliable facts.” [39].

The remark summarises Jenkins’ no-nonsense assessment of Trevelyan,but also provides an insight to Jenkin’s realization that entry to “Europe” meant a fundamental re-write of British history. E.H. Carr, a writer of Timesleaders during the second world war,  pronounced, wrongly,  that Trevelyan was one of the last authors of the Whig tradition.[40]The statement is misleading in at least two ways: it grossly under-estimated the market in the Anglosphere for Whig history; and it failed to anticipate its durability into the twenty-first century. Winston Churchill’s four volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, started in the 1930, and published in the years 1956 to 1958, met with immediate success and is still in print. In his introduction to the first volume, Churchill writes that his story “does not seek to rival the works of professional historians. It aims rather to present a personal view on the processes whezreby English-speaking peoples throughout the world have achieved their distinctive position and character”. Clement Attlee, his political rival, deputy and friend, was not far off when he suggested that the history should have been entitled, “Things in history that interested me”.

The style rolls along, modelled on the prose of Gibbon and Macaulay,and its theme is the familiar story of how in Britain’s blessed plot, the ideas and practice of constitutional government, the rule of law, a free press, property rights, and trial by jury, emerged over the centuries.  The volumes are an ode to the “special relationship” with the United States, and what is now called the “Anglosphere”, the nations that Churchill believed by the time of its publication, represented the last and best hope for mankind.  “The Declaration of Independence is not only an American document,” Churchill told an Anglo-American rally at the Albert Hall on US Independence Day 1918.  “It follows the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title-deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking people are founded.” [41]

Churchill’s History takes the story to 1900. Its sequel is Andrew Roberts’ A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, which appeared in 2006.  Two quotes illustrate its theme: “’If one reflected on the molst important events of the last millennium compared with the first, the ascent of the English-speaking peoples to predominance in the world surely ranked highest”.[42]“Iy must be in the interest of the United States to see that a politically united Europe does not emerge… see Europe remain a congeries of independent states, happy, as in the the past, to be free riders in the world order maintained by the US imperium”. [43]Roberts’ great enemy is the traitor within: those who militated for entry to the European Community, discounted warnings of its constitutional implications, jettisoned privileged trade relations with the Commonwealth, the moral cowardice exemplified by Edward Heath, “in the dour and defeatist Seventies”, when two forces of subversion were at work on the old constitution: the supremacy of the European Court of Justice over UK law; and the militancy of the far-left, mobilized in the trade unions, to create a “people’s democracy” in the United Kingdom. Eventually, the Eurocommunist wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain won out: its journal, Marxism Today, edited by Martin Jacques, became the bible of the cultural warriors who signed up to Tony Blair’s project to make Britain over.

By the 1970s, the Tory-Whig historical narrative had dominated public discourse for three centuries. From Rapin de Thoyras, through Burke, Macaulay and Gardiner to Trevelyan, Churchill and Roberts, its bards sang of British exceptionalism, not, they thought, as propagandists so much as chroniclers of an extraordinary story of liberty’s progress. Because this story was in many ways so dramatic, it became part of folklore where working people knew by heart the dates of kings and battles, and could cite from prayer book, bible and author. Edward Shils, the famed US sociologist attended a dinner party at a British university in the 1950s, and heard “an eminent man of the left to say-in utter seriousness-that the British constitution was “as near to perfection as any human institution could be”. [44]Shils recorded this as a curiosity, but it was not. It was a widely held view of the time, shared by Charles de Gaulle in 1960 as much as by John Adams, in his capacity as US envoy to the Court of St James, who stated in 1787 that the British constitution was “the most stupendous fabric of human invention” in all history. Adams, his biographer writes, “should be applauded for imitating it as far as had been done, but also, he stressed, for making certain imp0rovements in the original, especially in all hereditary positions”. [45]

Disraeli, as a Tory, was more acerbic. His novel-Sybil, or the Two Nations, published in the same year as Friedrich Engel’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844– referred to “the “political mystification” of an oligarchy , who for a hundred years had exploited people without political rights and without education by making them believe themselves the freest and the most enlightened people in the world”.[46] Disraeli’s interest in what was called the “Condition of England question”- the distress experienced by the majority of the country’s working classes-stemmed from his interest in the Chartist movement, a working class reform movement of the time, nearly all of whose reforms became law within a hundred years: the the no property qualification act of 1858; secret ballot act of 1872; constituencies of equal size in the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885; the payment of MPs Act of 1911; universal male suffrage 1919 in the Representation of the People Act 1918. The only request half achieved was the demand for annual parliaments. The Chartists meant annual elections; their demand has been half-achieved through the process of prorogation, whereby a parliamentary session is closed, parliament goes into recess, and the monarch opens the new parliamentary session for the coming year.

In short, the traditional constitution of the United Kingdom opened its doors to include the whole population. The national electorate of 1945-the largest single vote to date in British history-replaced the oligarchy which Disraeli had identified one hundred years previously. Its greatest triumph was that all citizens of the United Kingdom, and subjects of His Majesty, now had the right to elect their own legislators.

In conclusion to this part, the dominant narrative of British history into the 1950s, and beyond, told a tale of an exceptional country, fortunate to have been blessed by the Glorious Revolution of 1689. With Hume and then Burke in the latter half of the eighteenth century it merged into a Tory-Whig historiography, where the two strands flowed together in myriad forms: a sense of hierarchy, religion, authority and deep scepticism about abstract plans on the Tory side, and a firm belief on the Whig side of the benefits of constitutional monarchy, habeas corpus, the rule of law, a vibrant press, and religious freedoms. It talked of a self-governing, exceptional  country, which by good fortune(Hume), respect for “ancient liberties”(Burke), won, ifu need by by force,-in Dr Price’s words-“the right to chuse our own governors; to cashier them for misconduct; and to frame a government for ourselves.”

The power of this narrative became evident over the years 1990 to 2016, as the EU’s encroachment on constitutional conventions-deeply rooted in the assumptions about how  Great Britain’s constitutional arrangements worked- were constantly challenged to adapt. The next section will cover the hundred years of constitutional reform, seen through the eyes of its major chroniclers, and provide an explanation of why confidence in the UK’s constitutional legacy drained away, to open the way to the bid for membership in the EEC- a fundamental challenge to the bases on which the old Constitution, and its popular moorings, was based. That is the subject of the next section. The final section deals the  massive changes stemming from membership in the EEC/EU from 1972 to 2019.

[1]Peter Laslett,”Sir Robert Filmer: The Man versus the Whig Myth,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1948. pp. 523–546.

[2]KING CHARLS, HIS SPEECH, Made upon the SCAFFOLD At Whitehall-Gate, Immediately before his Execution, On Tuesday the 30 of Ian. 1648 Published by Special Authority.London: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange. 1649.

[3]The name of “Whigs” derived from “Whiggamores”, or Scottish Presbyterians known for their hostility to the established Church; “Tories” derived from Toraigh, or Irish Catholic rebels, and supportive of the Stuart cause.

[4]Quoted in R.C. Richardson, Richardson, R. C. The Debate on the English Revolution London: Methuen, 1977,pp. 33-34.

[5] “But though I had been taught by experience that the whig party were in possession of bestowing all places, both in the state and in literature, I was so little inclined to yield to their senseless clamor, that in above a hundred alterations, which  further study, reading, or reflection engaged me to make in the reigns of the two first Stuarts, I have made all of them invariably to the tory side. From David Hume’s My Own Life,’slife.htm

[6]David Hume, History of  England, vol 2. p.446

[7].Cited in Nicholas Phillipson, David Hume: The Philosopher as Historian, London Penguins, p.117.


[9]Second Treatise of Government, Ch. II, sec. 6

[10]Second Treatise of Government, Ch. VI, sec. 57

[11]Letter to Edward Clarke (c. April 1690), quoted in James Farr and Clayton Roberts, ‘John Locke on the Glorious Revolution: A Rediscovered Document’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Jun., 1985), pp. 385-398.

[12]Second Treatise of Civil Government, Ch. XIX, sec. 222


[14]An Essay on Toleration (1667), quoted in Mark Goldie (ed.), Locke: Political Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 151-152.

Alister McGrath, 1998. Historical Theology, An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. pp. 214–15.

[16]Clifton E. Olmstead, History of Religion in the United States, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, 1960s, pp.102-105.

[17]Quoted in Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law, , Penguins, 2011. Pp. 20-21.

[18]Cited in Christopher Fox, The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift. Cambridge University Press. 2003. pp. 36–39.

[19]Howard Weinbrot, The Courier de l’Europe,The Gordon Riots and Trials, and the Changing Face of Anglo-French Relations,

[20]Lettres Philosophiques, Letter VIII, « On the Parliament ».

[21]Cited in William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England Book the First, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1765. P.253.

[22]Conor Cruise O’Brien,The Great Melody. A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke. University of Chicago Press, 1992.

[23] “Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol” 3 Nov. 1774, Works 1: 446–48


[25]Loren Reid, Charles James Fox: A Man for the People, Missouri University Press, 1969.p.266.

[26]  Connor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody, Minerva, 1993 Edition, pp.539-560.

[27]  On Coke, see F.W.Maitland, The Constitutional History of England, Cambridge, first published 1908, pp.268-271.

[28]Quoted in John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (eds.), Historical Essays & Studies by John Emerich Dalberg-Acton, First Baron Acton ,London: Macmillan, 1907, p. 482.

[29]Robert Tombs, The English & Their History, Penguins, 2015 edition, p.267.

[30]Lecture VI : The Hero as King, Cromwell, Napoleon: Modern revolutionism”, in Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero Worship and the heroic in History, printed in Poland, Amazon Fulfimnet.

[31]Samuel Rawson Gardiner, Oliver Cromwell , London, Goupil, 1901, p: 315-8.

[32]David Cannadine,”Trevelyan, George Macaulay(1876-1962” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

[33]Peter Clarke, The Locomotive of War: Money, Empire, Power and Guilt, Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 17.

[34]Clarke, p.346.

[35]John Lewis-Stempel’s book Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, London, Orion Books, 2010.

[36]Alexander Churchill, Blood and Thunder: The Boys of Eton College and the First World War, The History press, 2014.

[37]David Cannadine, « GM Trevelyan, : A Historian in tune with his time, and ours”,The Telegraph, July 21, 2012.

[38]William Thomas Morgan“Reviewed Work: England under Queen Anne by George Macaulay Trevelyan, The Journal of Modern HistoryVol. 6, No. 2 , June,  1934), pp. 192-194

[39]Roy Jenkins, Portraits and Miniatures, Bloomsbury, 1993. P.254.

[40]See  E. H. Carr, What Is History?. The George Macaulay Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge, 1961, .p. 17.

[41]Quoted in Andrew Roberts, Churchill : Walking With Destiny, Allen Lane, 2018,p.260.

[42]Professor Deepak Lall, In Praise  of Empires, Globalization and Order, MacMillan palgrave, 2004, p.45.


[44]Edward Shils, “British Intellectuals in the mid-Twentieth Century”, Encounter, April 1955.

[45]David McCullough, John Adams, Simon and Schuster, 2002,p.375.

[46]Elie Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, , New York, MacMillan, 1928, p.81.



About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) ( His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
This entry was posted in Europe, France and Germany, The United States, United Kingdom, World politics, business and economics, World war and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Brexit and the British Constitution: Part II. The Whig spirit of the Old Constitution.

  1. Pingback: Brexit and the British Constitution: Part V. Modernisation or Vandalism? | Writing about history, politics & economics

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