I have just read The English Revolution 1640 by Christopher Hill. It is available to read online, and that is how I read most of it before I bought the book secondhand. It’s a slim book that shouldn’t cost you more than £3.00.
My particular interest now today is to understand the reasoning and motivation of those in positions of power who favour a hard Brexit or indeed any Brexit. So I start with English history.
In A Nutshell
In a nutshell, the book argues that the monarchy, the landed gentry, the church, the big capitalists, the little capitalists, the merchants, the peasantry, the urban masses, the army – all had their positions to protect and advance, and their shifting allegiances in a changing world.
Capitalists were making money overseas and as pirates on the high seas. Those who bought land following the destruction of the churches under Henry VIII wanted rack rents from their tenants.
They weren’t interested in the feudal relationships that had kept the feudal landlords living like lords and they denied tenants their feudal copyhold entitlement to remain on the land.
Capitalists wanted workers. Tenants weren’t safe from being evicted from their land or unable to pay rack rents and were moving away to the towns to work in capitalist ventures.
The towns were bound by guilds that prevented the opening up of competition. Acts of Parliament prohibited those less well off from entering guilds – Parliament being the King’s parliament made of the King’s friends.
But things were changing, the makeup of Parliament was changing. And the capitalists had other means to circumvent the King.
They established ventures outside the towns, free of the restrictions.
Prices rose, and the feudal order collapsed because it was too expensive to maintain.
Meanwhile, attitudes changed because the Church was no longer the favoured or only route for disseminating truth and propaganda.
The result was civil war, the establishment of a republic, and eventually a change in the relationship of a changed parliament that brought back the monarchy stripped back to do its bidding.
What didn’t happen? The mass of the population were not able to take power. They tried but they failed.
What I learned
What can I take from reading the book?
I learned that every group was bound together by self interest; that groups changed their composition as outside forces changed them; that groups formed allegiances with former enemies; that it was always a struggle for ascendancy and someone else’s expense.
Beyond that, that economic changes and the march of history rarely favour those trying to stop change.
I think the look in the face of Charles II in this c.1678 terracotta bust attributed to John Bushnell says it all. He was brought back on condition that he knew his place and kept out of politics. (The bust is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.)
At the beginning of this article I said that my particular interest now today is to try to understand the reasoning and motivation of those in positions of power who favour a hard Brexit or indeed any Brexit. What make-up of this country do they want to bring about?
A Longish Quote
In that context, here is a longish quote from near the end of The English Revolution 1640.
Ever since then orthodox historians have done their utmost to stress the “continuity” of English history, to minimise the revolutionary breaks, to pretend that the “interregnum” (the word itself shows what they are trying to do) was an unfortunate accident, that in 1660 we returned to the old Constitution normally developing, that 1688 merely corrected the aberrations of a deranged King. Whereas, in fact, the period 1640-60 saw the destruction of one kind of state and the introduction of a new political structure within which capitalism could freely develop. For tactical reasons, the ruling class in 1660 pretended that they were merely restoring the old forms of the Constitution. But they intended by that restoration to give sanctity and social stamp to a new social order. The important thing is that the social order was new and would not have been won without revolution.
There is a worry from the hard Left and from the hard Right.