Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Lessons from the past

ID cards debate today. An overly-powerful executive trying to impose its will on the people, claiming it has the right even though nearly four fifths of the population either outright oppose it or don't care who rules, reminded me of a certain spat from the mid-17th century which also kicked off (at least in part) thanks to the executive claiming the right to lock people up without trial and stifling freedom of speech.

Not that we're going to end up with another civil war, obviously, but still. I was then reminded of one of my all-time heroes of political writing, the frequently unprincipled genius that was Marchamont Nedham. To wit, some words of wisdom from 1656's The Excellencie of a Free State:
"It is pity, that the people of England, being born as free as any people in the world, should be of such a supple humour and inclination, to bow under the ignoble pressures of an arbitrary tyranny, and so unapt to learn what true freedom is. It is an inestimable jewel, of more worth than your estates, or your lives...

"the first insurrection [in the Roman Republic] was occasioned by the usury and exactions of the great ones; who by their long continuance in power had drawn all unto themselves: so the second was occasioned by the lordliness of those ten persons, who being elected to do justice, according to the laws, made use of their time, only to confirm their power, and greaten themselves, by replenishing their own coffers, ingrossing of offices, and preferring their own kindred and alliances: and at length, improved self-interest so high, that they domineered, like absolute tyrants, advancing and depressing whom they pleased, without respect of merit or insufficiency, vice or virtue; so that having secured all in their own hands, they over-ruled their fellow-senators at pleasure, as well as the people...

"the main interest and concernment both of kings and grandees, lies either in keeping the people in utter ignorance what liberty is, or else in allowing and pleasing them only with the name and shadow of liberty instead of the substance... The truth of it is, the interest of freedom is a virgin that every one seeks to deflour; and like a virgin, it must be kept, from any other form, or else (so great is the lust of mankind after dominion) there follows a rape upon the first opportunity...

"when government is managed in the hands of a particular person, or continued in the hands of a certain number of great men, the people then have no laws but what kings and great men please to give: nor do they know how to walk by those laws, or how to understand them, because the sense is oftentimes left at uncertainty; and it is reckoned a great mystery of state in those forms of government, that no laws shall be of any sense or force, but as the great ones please to expound them...

"for Satan had a new game now to play, which he managed thus: First, he led a great part of the world away with dangerous errors, thereby to find an occasion for the prelates, to carry on the mystery of their profession; and so, under pretence of suppressing those dangerous errors, they easily screwed themselves into the civil power..."

4 Comments:

Blogger D-Notice said...

Not sure if you know, but the link on "a particular person" doesn't work...

6/28/2005 02:59:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Ta. Fixed.

6/28/2005 03:30:00 pm  
Blogger Churl said...

NM, my reading of the Civil War of 1642-51 is that it was started off by Charles I refusing to admit that Divine Right of Kings was wrong and that he was wrong about many things - such as the Prayer Book, the ship tax and the taking of the common land for the Crown. From what I have seen, Freedom of Speech wasn't an issue.

6/29/2005 08:19:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Churl - depends on your interpretation, but trust me, it was far, far more complicated than that - and far more complicated than I can easily summarise without rambling off into a book-length essay.

The freedom of speech thing was not for all people (but then, in that period, nothing ever was), merely for parliament - and by association the gentry - largely to enable them to remain free from arrest for criticising royal policies. It was also (in part) to try to force the king to actually allow parliament to sit - after the "Personal Rule" they wanted their voices heard. Freedom for parliament to speak was an essential part of the power struggle between king and commons - and the war was nothing if not a power struggle. It's rare to kick off years of violent conflict over abstract notions like divine right, or even taxation (although that naturally played its part as parliament claimed sole right to levy tax).

It's fascinating stuff, that period - insanely complex and never simple to understand, especially when you delve into the pamphleteers (as I did a bit during my postgrad research). I'll happily suggest Austin Woolrych's Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660 as by far the best recent introduction to the broad insanity that was the civil war period, if anyone wants to look into it a bit more then that'll point you in the right direction.

6/29/2005 09:53:00 am  

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