by John Ward
The Sovereign body in first of all England and then Great Britain has appeared in various forms over the last 800 years. Its mobile nature is always based on changing wealth distribution, bribery, threats of violence and putting off the inevitable.
King John (the one and only) thought he could variously promise, bamboozle, lie, evade and con those barons whose help he had used to ensure his brother Richard stayed in a dungeon far away while he took over. Eventually, one day in 1215 after too much runny meade had been consumed, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: it’s your call Johnny – steel up the jacksie or we get to share power. So he gave Magna Carta his autograph and after that his power waned. She later morphed into The Great Council.
John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his young son Henry. The senior/richer peers and clergy governed on Henry’s behalf until he came of age.
The genie was out of the bottle: it gave them a taste for power, and over the centuries the forced migration of power became a conventional part of British life. Or put another way, an addiction that caused every nouveau riche to reckon he or she could run things better than the anciens who had won the right to raise taxes off King John.
From the start and forever afterwards, power was about munneeee, and vice versa.
Thus the Great Council became the House of Lords, but the ‘knight’ and merchant class of commoners wanted their own sphere of influence – so by 1341, the Commoners met separately from the nobility and clergy for the first time. This Upper Chamber became known as the House of Lords from 1544 onward, and the Lower Chamber became the House of Commons.
But there remained a sort of push-and-shove triad in which the landowners and the commercial classes used wealth to gain influence…..and the monarch (who wanted to conquer more terrorities via war) had to ask their permission to raise taxes.
Henry VIII then came along and put his obsessive search for an heir via six wives into the mix. The Church of Rome – pretty much like the Commission in Brussels today – saw itself as answerable only to God, and thus free to give national royalties a thick ear every now and then. The pontiff refused Henry’s plea for a divorce, and so H8 formed a bourgeois social club of those protesting against this, called protestants….and later, the Church of England.
As the CofE lost more and more lands and worshippers, so too its influence declined to the point where, today, it begs everyone to be less materialist – and sides on all occasions with those who, like them, don’t have much in the way of spondooliks. This has ensured its complete irrelevance to the prosecution of political power.
The main spanner in the works was that a lot of catholics refused to become second class citizens or indeed recognise the CofE as anything other than a Hellfire Club of heathens. Worse still, Henry’s later successors felt real power lay with Rome, and either openly or secretly continued to worship in the Catholic manner.
Exceptions to this rule were his daughter Elizabeth – a surrealist who threw her drake at an Armada to save us all from the Spanish Acquisition – and James I, who so annoyed the Catholics, they used knives and fawkes in a plucky bid to blow up Parliament with James inside it.
After that, left-footers in England kept a much lower profile; but later, Stuart Kings hid his catholicism behind a pointy beard while plotting to restore the Church of Rome. This resulted in a Civil War between some overdressed royalists fops and their dour opponents with rounded heads. Their somewhat languid and cavalier approach to fighting battles led to defeat for Stuart, who completely lost his head as a result of the unpleasantness.
Although billed as a religious tiff, the English Civil War was in fact the powerful landowning and merchant classes deciding they’d had enough of Divine Monarchs wasting their munneeee. As the 18th century dawned, Monarchs were increasingly imported until they became fully Constitutional, and thus almost as irrelevant as the Church of England. Thus, even though the third George mislaid the American colonies, went mad, and sired a fourth George of great obesity and depravity, the Monarchy turned into a multi-part series for television, The Royal Family…..and until quite recently, lived happily ever after.
Perhaps you can see a trend developing here. King John put off devolving some power to those with money, and thought being resolute would keep him absolute. The Church of Rome put off the reformation required to keep those of wealth in the tent pissing out, while Catholic kings in turn refused to turn their backs on divinity. Those of round heads then bought toupées and became Whigs, while cavaliers stopped wearing effeminate hats and settled into a life of landowning exploitation called Conservatism.
The old powers put off adapting, and became political eunuchs. Now it was time for the new powers to put off a reaction to the realities of the Industrial Revolution.
Mechanisation and a growing population saw a gradual shift in the balance of power between city-dwelling manufacturers, and retailers supplying goods in mass numbers to the lower orders, who became over time less willing to take orders from those above them, such capitalist Whigs in turn entertaining similar doubts about taking orders from bucolic aristos who had moved on from gay headgear to questionable beauty spots. Some of the new manufacturing classes in turn wanted to buy the beauty spots owned by the Toffs in order to build factories thereupon.
The newly united Kingdom was growing an empire via the need for raw materials, and creating a working class of cheap labour for the factories the new rich were building. The military officer class was still largely recruited from the old rich. A lot of lions were being led by donkeys who ordered them to charge the wrong objective with the weapons of the previous war. As time went on, this tendency caused a degree of bad feeling. The shires Tories able to swan into the House of Lords based on generations of inbreeding were slow to catch onto the new breed of politician breeding their own electors through the medium of buying votes with munneeeee.
After the French who eschewed underwear started forcibly culling their aristos, some Whigs became enamoured of that approach, and began calling themselves radicals, Foxes and Wilkes. Fearful of the spread of this diabolical Gallic infection, a very upmarket Wellie was sent overseas to stick the boot into a bony Corsican upstart, eventually defeating him in a close-run battle at Waterloo station.
So grateful was the British nation, the Wellie became Prime Minister, and thus the inevitable increase in electoral enfranchisement was put off. Until 1832, when a Whig Electoral Reform Bill was introduced into Parliament and seemed on the verge of being rejected. A gigantic Mob of Gordons Gin fans made camp around the Westminster Palace, threatening the inhabitants with malign intentions, mass murder, and multivariate mayhem.
Lord Wellie took the hint, and allowed the Bill’s passage. Ever since, loitering within tent around the Houses of Parliament has been a crime….except in the cases of E. Heath and A. Blair, where it was allowed on the grounds of Executive Privilege.
Despite the obvious historical fact of political life – that putting off leads to potential demise – such can-kicking is equally obviously addictive for the Turkeys.
Since 1832, the British political class has:
- put off coming to a naval arms race accord that might have stopped the First World War
- put off arriving at a Jewish homeland solution in the 1920s that might have saved millions of Holocaust-ended lives
- put off stopping Hitler until it was too late
- put off a reconsideration of the Special Relationship with the US
- put off the reform of State pensions until it resulted in a gross injustice meted out to 3.6 million women
- put off the imposition of affordable and skill-based immigration restrictions
- put off regulation of financial services malfeasance
- put off an investment in rebalancing the UK economy
- put off dealing with Islamic demands and Jihadism, preferring appeasement to action
- put off concerted action on democratic reform in the EU until it became a divisive issue
- put off recognising a People’s decision made in 2016 for Brexit
- put off preparations to deal with the inevitable global econo-fiscal crisis on the horizon.
Putting off the inevitable is what our political class does best.
This means that, at the best of times for we the citizenry, it tends to turn into the worst of times.
Enjoy the rest of Sunday.