Liberalism From Cromwell to Lloyd George
By Gwydion M. Williams
Where did Europe’s liberal tradition really come from? The truth is a long way from what liberals believe.
‘Holy War’ was imported into Latin Christian tradition from Islam, replacing the older and more genuine Christian tradition of war being sinful even for a good cause. The Crusades were an unjustified assault by a barbaric and ignorant Europe on a sophisticated Muslim world. Islamic societies had been heading in the direction of something like modern science and industry. In an article called Crusaders And Other Barbarians (Problems No 65), I went into some details of this process. Not of course with any notion that it would suddenly become relevant to modern politics, but as part of a general re-thinking of where and why the modern world emerged.
The Islamic Golden Age ended thanks to the ‘double whammy’ of Christian Crusaders followed after a couple of centuries by Mongol hoards—a mix of Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Pagan, all sharing an enthusiasm for plundering Muslim wealth. Had Egypt’s Muslim army lost the key battle of Ain Jalut (Goliath Spring), then a very different future might have emerged. Had a Christianised Mongol Empire kept open the quickest and easiest route to the Spice Islands, would even Columbus have wished to try going the long way round?
Europe’s development of science, industry and world empires occurred after Columbus’s accidental discovery of a New World and the vast enrichment of Europe that resulted. Not just precious metals, but also new intercontinental trade with West African slaves shipped over to grow tropical products after the Native Americans had fled or been worked to death in the Caribbean. And Europe was able to use the gold and silver of the New World to trade with sophisticated Asian cultures that had little need for most European goods.
While modernising, Europe also went through successive bouts of religious extremism, followed by episodes of tolerance and scepticism. 18th century Europe was dominated by Enlightenment values, admiring some foreign ways. But the 19th century saw a ‘counter-Enlightenment’, with rulers encouraging religious views that they privately despised because they were scared of the radical forces released by the French Revolution. There was also a determined effort to impose this narrow Christianity on the rest of the world.
The last three decades look like a repeat of the 1790s to 1810s. The Soviet Union collapsed as spectacularly as Napoleonic France did, but the world has not gone back to being what it was. And cynical rulers who raised up religious enthusiasts are surprised to find that they are rather hard to control.
No society has functioned for long without a religion or state-cult. And in European history, it was often the religious extremists who were also Europe’s big achievers. Catholics from Spain and Portugal going right round the globe and waging crusades on anyone too weak to fight them off. Puritans following and wrecking Catholic hopes for wider conquests. But these same Puritans also making the most successful settlements in North America, and playing a large role in Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
No society has ever grown strong and modern without religious extremists who do things their milder descendants would sooner not talk about. Nor is any dynamic society safe from another outbreak, especially if its own ideology is shallow or obviously dishonest. A mature and settled society will have found a ways to divert religious enthusiasts into harmless and sometimes useful roles. But the glib ‘Punk Capitalism’ that developed in the 1970s and 1980s is neither settled nor mature
No society has ever modernised itself without a period of harsh authoritarian rule. England lost most of its traditional aristocrats in the mutual slaughter of the Wars Of The Roses. The harsh rule of Henry 7th and Henry 8th was acceptable to the newly risen gentry who had unexpectedly inherited. This achievement was well consolidated by Queen Elizabeth.
When the Stuart kings made a mess of the Tudor heritage, Oliver Cromwell gave another period of successful authoritarian rule. His personal memory was reviled at the Restoration, but most of what the Commonwealth had created was retained by the new monarchy. And without the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland—so drastic and brutal that Ireland stayed quiet during the later revolts by Highland Scots—the 18th century British Empire would not have been possible.
English people nowadays prefer to distance themselves from Cromwellian enthusiasts like Praise-god Barebone, the man who gave his name to ‘Barebones Parliament’. They were ancestral, culturally as well as biologically, but this is an embarrassment. The matter is hushed up, and no comparisons are ever drawn with other societies being painfully remoulded by cultural and religious enthusiasts.
The USA, though it contains rather more people who keep alive the heritage of Praise-god Barebone, also forgets that it began with citizens with a British heritage of being processed into a particular sort of person. Secular US opinion supposes that their way of life arose from the hazy generalities of the Constitution. Many secular Americans see religion as an irrational interference with ‘self-evident truths’, even though these ‘truths’ are a heritage from Cromwellian times.
Without going too far, how are you ever going to know what your limits are? I suppose that if the Islamic Golden Age had continued, we might have had Muslims with the equivalent of 19th century weaponry intervening to protect the nice moderate King Charles 1st from the fanatical ‘Christianists’ of the New Model Army. But whether British culture could then have flourished, having been prevented from working out its own solutions, is much more moot.
In actual British history, the anti-Christian historian David Hume describes how the Puritan enthusiasts rejected names like Henry, Edward, Anthony and William, regarded as heathenish. Even New Testament names like John and Peter were too secular and they took Old Testament alternatives like Hezekiah, Habakkuk and Joshua. Some chose a whole godly sentence; Praise-god Barebone had a brother called ‘If Christ had not died for you, you have been damned Barebone’, called Damned Barebone for short. And a jury from that time was said to have included Redeemed Compton of Battle, Be Faithful Joiner, Faint Not Hewit, Fly Debate Roberts, God Reward Smart of Fivehurst, Fight the good Fight White, More Fruit Fowler, Hope for Bending, Earth Adams, Graceful Harding, Called Lower, Weep not Biling, Kill Sin Pimple and Meek Brewer. (David Hume, History Of England, Chapter LXI footnotes.)
By chance, I took Hume’s History with me on a trip to China in 1997. I’ve never seen anyone try to view Mao’s Liberation War and later Cultural Revolution in parallel with England’s own Civil War and intense ideology under the Commonwealth: it would be fruitful, but is beyond the scope of this article. For now, I will repeat that English ‘common sense’ was a product of forces that England now sees as alien.
Common sense as of 2001 is also not what it was 20 years ago, or 50 years ago. It’s predictable that in 20 years it will be something else again. And there is a struggle going on right now to determine what it will be, with the ‘certainties’ of the 1990s suddenly in doubt.
I borrowed the title of this article from Tom Wolfe’s own crib from Savonarola. And that’s all I need from him: the man’s a glib fool, selecting bond traders as his example of iniquity, one of the few areas of the new finance that does no harm. They are condemned because they are not concerned with the original raising of the money, nor spending it: this is like criticising a grocery store on the ground that people don’t grow their food there, nor go there to eat it. Bond trading is as legitimate as bonds themselves, which differ from regular debts in that they are intended to be tradable, so why not specialists in such trade?
The damaging side of ‘Money-mongering’ is not specialist traders in reputable bonds. It lies rather in obscenities like ‘junk bonds’, asset-stripping take-overs, currency speculation and derivatives. The Money-mongers have turned previously safe area of finance into a gigantic casino.
All of this and much else, including lowly catering workers and uninvolved tourists, were mingled in the World Trade Centre that Tuesday morning. But, if the USA can be glib about ‘collateral damage’ when foreigners are bombed, should we be surprised that their enemies are just as casual?
As many commentators have noted, the death of tens of thousands of lower-status people does not receive anything like the same attention. True, it was the single biggest man-made disaster since regular television broadcasting began. (Not since the invention of television, as someone claimed: the Nazis had it at their 1936 Olympics, a point Carl Sagan reminded us of in his novel Contact.) It was a well-documented horror, even so. But Arabs who’d seen their own suffering marginalised by the West were not likely to be sympathetic.
It’s also a move in the wider war of cultures, viewpoints within the West as well as protests by the non-Western world. Consider the following:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)… The most improper job of any man, even saints … is bossing other men.. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity… There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’ it may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.
These terrorist sentiments come from J R R Tolkien, author of Lord Of The Rings (Letter 52, written in 1943). He felt that the war against Fascism had been used as an excuse to strengthen all that was wrong with Western society. Not, indeed, that he had any regard for the Nazi alternative: I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense… I have in this War a burning private grudge … against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler… ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. (Letter 45, 1941)
Britain and America were as guilty as the Nazis in blurring the hard-won distinction between military and civilian targets. Rules of war had been painfully established in the 18th century. Wars were to be fought between rival professional armies and navies, instead of the mass slaughters of whole populations as had occurred in the 17th century Wars Of Religion. Prisoners need give only their name, rank and number rather than be tortured for their valuable knowledge. In as far as warfare could be decent, civilised and limited, that was what it became. For a time.
Britain was not the only power that de-civilised warfare, but Britain’s record is very far from clean. When Europe’s regular armies were no match for Napoleon, Britain funded and encouraged irregular warfare, especially the original ‘guerrillas’ in Spain. Britain chose to impose a total blockade on Germany in World War One, knowing that this was going to produce mass starvation. Its decision to bomb open cities in World War Two would have happened even if the Nazis had not pioneered the tactic at Guernica. Britain also funded and support Partisan Warfare all across Europe, legitimising it and producing a damaging and brutalising effect on the whole society.
In a similar spirit, the USA funded and supported the Islamic extremists throughout the Arab world as a counter to left-wing secular regimes that gave a non-religious sense of dignity to their people. The exact relationship that once existed between bin Laden and the CIA remains disputed. But no one doubts that the USA played a big part in encouraging Islamic extremism, and in funding and arming Arabs to fight the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan.
The USA created the social milieu within which bin Laden operates. A milieu which will continue even if they kill him and overthrow the Taliban regime. There is a widespread believe among the experts that the bin Laden movement is not coordinated, just a collection of individuals inspired by him. Which would mean he’d be more dangerous dead than alive.
The Taliban are different, an outgrowth of Pashtun national consciousness. An outgrowth that occurred because the stable existence of Afghanistan was disrupted by Cold-War games and by US neglect after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops.
The Taliban have failed to bridge the gap between Pashtun national consciousness and the minority peoples, notably the Tajiks who dominate the ‘Northern Alliance’. In modern times, Islam has usually failed to act as a bridge between the different peoples—in the Third World only Marxism had ever managed it, and even Marxism failed to deal with Afghan diversity and lawlessness. But, for Pashtuns at least, the Taliban offered a way out of the total anarchy that followed the fall of a pro-Soviet government.
The Taliban have not wanted more than to run Afghanistan their own way. Their overthrow will lead to a flood of refugee supporters with good reason to hate the USA. A war will globalize their viewpoint
The USA continues its standard tactics of being a ‘rogue superpower’. Some of them now are talking about a ‘Jacksonian’ solution:
The terrorists who attacked the United States last Tuesday have made the gravest blunder any human being possibly could commit. They have trampled out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; they soon will find that they have loosed the fateful lightning of a terrible, swift sword. It hasn’t lately been fashionable to say so, but when their blood is up, Americans are the fiercest warriors on earth…
Without even counting the casualties from the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American bombs are estimated to have killed 900,000 Japanese civilians in the last five months of World War II… Fighting wars ruthlessly, and targeting civilian as well as military targets, is part of what I call Jacksonianism. Called Sharp Knife by the southern Indians he crushed, Andrew Jackson acted quickly and decisively to defend the national interest and prestige. As a general, he crossed international frontiers to capture and hang British subjects inciting American Indians to rebel from the presumed safety of Spanish Florida. As president, he sent the U.S. Navy to Sumatra…
Jacksonians believe with Douglas MacArthur that there is no substitute for victory. ‘Unconditional surrender’ is what Jacksonians want from an enemy, and unconditional surrender—or extermination—are the only outcomes they will accept. (Braced for Jacksonian Ruthlessness, By Walter Russell Mead, Washington Post, September 17, 2001)
The various US wars against Native Americans were limited wars against a weak foe, small in numbers and divided by language and culture. Wars in Asia involve bumping up against cultures that were vigorous and old long before there was a distinct English identity, never mind the brash US-Anglo offshoot.
Andrew Jackson was also noted as the victor of the Battle Of New Orleans against the British Empire. But that War of 1812, begun by the USA at a time when Napoleon seemed unshakably supreme in Europe, was a blunder that nearly led to the extinction of the young republic. The attempt to conquer Canada failed, nor did the USA manage to change the iniquitous maritime law under which the British Navy would seize American sailors of British origin, claiming them as deserters.
After Napoleon’s decisive defeat in 1814, there were many in Britain who wanted to snuff out the source of Republicanism, repudiate the 1783 treaty which recognised US independence. It was fortunate for the future of democracy that the Duke of Wellington was no ‘Jacksonian’ but a proper Tory, inclined to caution where there was no necessity for action.
Wellington knew that it is always very possible to wreck a system by too much enthusiasm in its defence. A lesson that later leaders have failed to learn.
Wellington wisely refused to accept command in North America, and peace was made instead. This had the added benefit that the Duke and much of his army were on hand to deal with Napoleon’s last fling that ended at Waterloo. But the victors of 1814 could eventually have crushed both the USA and a revived Napoleonic France, and even re-conquered Spain’s rebellious New World colonies, had that been their aim. Instead they were authentic conservatives, and the balance they established lasted for decades
It was lucky for the USA that some leading British politicians had a heritage in the Old Whigs, influenced by Edmund Burke who had always seen the American Revolution as justified. And their general policy was of conciliation and forgiveness, France was treated as a friend once the Napoleonic regime was gone, just as Germany after 1945 was treated as a friend and ally. It is this rather than Jacksonian ruthlessness that makes for authentic success in global politics.
This comes from a much longer article called ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities: the world after 9/11, as foreseen at the end of 2001. Here under the simpler title The World After 9/11.