Governing locally and its frustrations

Our tiring system of local councils was created in a political accident. Lord Salisbury wished to replace the Metropolitan Board of Works with an elected body like a giant municipal council, but had a minority in the Commons, and the Liberal Unionists would only support him only if he would erect elected councils across the whole country, from Cornwall to Zetland, which was done in 1888-9. They had other ideas to push too – the district councils that followed, just to ensure there is no escape from politics.

The system which preceded this revolution is perhaps better looked at in a separate article, but placed local administration in the hands of justices of the peace. These magistrates when sitting spent most of their time dealing with malefactors, and the rest on roads and bridges, policing and anything that had not been handed to public health boards, poor law unions and so forth. By all accounts, separating government from law enforcement was a tangled task and magistrates still sat as councillors and vice versa often in the same building. The system had been creaking and starting to break for decades so Salisbury’s accident had to happen at some point in some way.

It was not the first time the national government has tried to reform local government and found it created a monster. Hobbes recounts a reform by Cromwell:

The Protector, being frustrated of his hope of money at Santo Domingo, resolved to take from the royalists the tenth part yearly of their estates. And to this end chiefly, he divided England into eleven major-generalships, with commission to every major-general to make a roll of the names of all suspected persons of the King’s party, and to receive the tenth part of their estates within his precinct; as also to take caution from them not to act against the state, and to reveal all plots that should come to their knowledge; and to make them engage the like for their servants. They had commission also to forbid horse-races and concourse of people, and to receive and account for this decimation.

… Between the beginning of this year and the day of the Parliament’s sitting, which was September 17, these major-generals, resided in several provinces, behaving themselves most tyrannically. Amongst other of their tyrannies was the awing of elections, and making themselves and whom they pleased to be returned members for the Parliament; which was also thought a part of Cromwell’s design in their constitution.

– Thomas Hobbes: Behemoth

You can almost feel Cromwell’s frustration at lack of control. It is the eternal tension between needing to give power to local bodies, and then being annoyed that they are not your clones, and keep they making their own decisions. Legislation even today goes in a yo-yo between praising localism and then cursing and stopping it. The major-generals have not been called back, to ensure puritan rule, but Whitehall is pretty effective at the same job  nevertheless.

(The next ruler who tried to muzzle local magistrates was James II in 1688, and that was a move against established local power which saw him driven from the throne.)

The modern system is a frustration to central bureaucrats, but I think that is the point.

Voters may thinks Whitehall’s inner Cromwell is right to try to abolish councils wherever it can, as the constant elections are a bore. The weary electorate may wish the old system of unelected magistrates had continued. It  would make for unresponsive, distant administration with little care for the interests of those they are meant to serve, but it would mean we are no bothered by village politicians hammering on our doors. Those trudging endless streets with leaflets and a forced smile may agree.  In the cold as it is getting dark and yet another letterbox is hidden behind a bush or jammed, know that the Liberal Unionists are to blame.

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Ireland: spark and anvil of the war

Ireland was not an afterthought for Cromwell, but his urgent necessity since the very beginning. The Civil War began in Ireland, and it was finished here. History books following a linear narrative look at the Cromwellian invasion as a secondary campaign after the shouting but they miss the point: Cromwell fought all through England in order to get to Ireland.

The order of events and motivations gets jumbled as the ages pass. Lives, deaths, votes, decrees, battles – all can be put in strict chronological order, but the motivation is muddled. Those who were there, as Thomas Hobbes was, could provide a view of how it all unfolded.

The first rebellion was against Scottish bishops in 1639, but Ireland touched off the convulsion of the three kingdoms, in 1641. Rebels descended upon Protestant towns and slaughtered all they found: in Westminster, Parliament demanded action and for its own appointees to be put in command, as they did not trust the King – after all, the rebels claimed to be acting in his name and Queen Henrietta was after all a Papist. We can imagine the rising desperation in the Commons at fears that day by day more blood was being shed and nothing done; within months the breach was made.

Hobbes however looks further back: the breach between the rising middle classes and the King had been going on for years. In Behemoth he identifies several classes of men and their motivations – Papists, Protestant radicals, educated men misreading Greek and Roman ideas, the City merchants envying Holland, and men with nothing to lose. It weakened the authority of the Crown, and this weakness, Hobbes says, emboldened the Roman Catholic Irish lords to rise up. When they did, it burst open the breach in the other kingdoms.

From 1642, bloody war raged across England and Wales, a war each side had expected to be brief but which lasted for years. In all those years the Confederates controlled most of Ireland, doing their will, which to the imagination of the Protestant English, and possibly in reality, was a bloody one. By the end of the war in England in 1649, Cromwell was in undisputed command, and he turned at once to the business which had been tormenting for eight long years: Ireland.

Perhaps Cromwell thought the Irish campaign would be brief too, but it was two years of blood. Vengeance is an ugly word but unavoidable. Cromwell set foot in an Ireland divided by language and cultural attachment, and in territory as the Romanist Confederates had been kept out of much of Ulster, County Dublin and Cork, though the rest of the island was theirs.

The slaughters of 1641 were very much in mind, and the rolling back of English-inspired culture.  He set out to terminate the illegitimate government of a cardboard cut-out state that was ruling what naturally is part of the single British-Irish nation, to defeat genocide (as we would now call it) and to de-Catholicise the island. It is a familiar motivation. That the majority still clung to the Church of Rome could only have been put down to  the waywardness of the local lords, who would therefore be extirpated for the better edification of the people. Those still stubborn, not accepting the Gospel, would be driven beyond the Shannon and their places given to sounder men. In the event, more were killed by sword and famine and it placed a vital spark in a determination to resist reformation.

All that followed, followed logically. In our day it looks like vicious persecution and murder, and it felt like that at the time, but it was considered necessary by those who did it.

The war was brief compared to many that had torn at Ireland and brought a brutal peace after centuries of continual turmoil. The collective memory kept it running for centuries though: Flanders and Swann were not far wrong when the sang over-jovially “They blow up policemen, or so I have heard, and blame it on Cromwell and William The Third”. The retelling of grievance over generations, expanded with each telling, is a danger to conquerors and may blow up even three hundred years later.

In our day maybe it can subside.  It is all seems so distant: the unleashing of deadly fury with religious zeal to defend, and then defeat, the Roman religion in Ireland – when that religion is now being freely abandoned by the descendants of those same Irishmen. What another generation will think, I cannot tell.

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How the war began

B.: “But how came the people to be so corrupted? And what kind of people were they that did so seduce them?”

A.: “. . . . . .

Fourthly, there were an exceeding great number of men of the better sort, that had been so educated, as that in their youth having read the books written by famous men of the ancient Grecian and Roman commonwealths concerning their polity and great actions; in which books the popular government was extolled by that glorious name of liberty, and monarchy disgraced by the name of tyranny; they became thereby in love with their forms of government.  And out of these men were chosen the greatest part of the House of Commons, or if they were not the greatest part, yet by advantage of their eloquence, were always able to sway the rest.

Fifthly, the city of London and other great towns of trade, having in admiration the prosperity of the Low Countries after they had revolted from their monarch, the King of Spain, were inclined to think that the like change of government here, would to them produce the like prosperity.

Sixthly, there were a very great number that had either wasted their fortunes, or thought them too mean for the good parts they thought were in themselves; and more there were, that had able bodies, but saw no means how honestly to get their bread.  These longed for a War, and hoped to maintain themselves hereafter by the lucky choosing of a party to side with, and consequently did for the most part serve under them that had greatest plenty of money.”

– Thomas Hobbes: Behemoth

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Fall of the House of Cromwell

In the year 1658, September the 3rd, the Protector died at Whitehall; having ever since his last establishment been perplexed with fear of being killed by some desperate attempt of the royalists.

Being importuned in his sickness by his privy-council to name his successor, he named his son Richard; who, encouraged thereunto, not by his own ambition, but by Fleetwood, Desborough, Thurlow, and other of his council, was content to take it upon him; and presently, addresses were made to him from the armies in England, Scotland and Ireland. His first business was the chargeable and splendid funeral of his father.

Thus was Richard Cromwell seated on the imperial throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland, successor to his father; lifted up to it by the officers of the army then in town, and congratulated by all the parts of the army throughout the three nations; scarce any garrison omitting their particular flattering addresses to him.

B. Seeing the army approved of him, how came he so soon cast off?

A. The army was inconstant; he himself irresolute, and without any military glory. And though the two principal officers had a near relation to him; yet neither of them, but Lambert, was the great favourite of the army; and by courting Fleetwood to take upon him the Protectorship, and by tampering with the soldiers, he had gotten again to be a colonel. He and the rest of the officers had a council at Wallingford House, where Fleetwood dwelt, for the dispossessing of Richard; though they had not yet considered how the nations should he governed afterwards. For from the beginning of the rebellion, the method of ambition was constantly this, first to destroy, and then to consider what they should set up.

B. Could not the Protector, who kept his court at Whitehall, discover what the business of the officers was at Wallingford House, so near him?

A. Yes, he was by divers of his friends informed of it; and counselled by some of them, who would have done it, to kill the chief of them. But he had not courage enough to give them such a commission. He took, therefore, the counsel of some milder persons, which was to call a parliament. Whereupon writs were presently sent to those, that were in the last Parliament, of the other House, and other writs to the sheriffs for the election of knights and burgesses, to assemble on the 27th of January following. Elections were made according to the ancient manner, and a House of Commons now of the right English temper, and about four hundred in number, including twenty for Scotland and as many for Ireland. Being met, they take themselves, without the Protector and other House, to be a Parliament, and to have the supreme power of the three nations.

…..

the government, which by the disagreement of the Protector and army was already loose, to fall in pieces. For the officers from Wallingford House, with soldiers enough, came over to Whitehall, and brought with them a commission ready drawn, giving power to Desborough to dissolve the Parliament, for the Protector to sign; which also, his heart and his party failing him, he signed. The Parliament nevertheless continued sitting; but at the end of the week the House adjourned till the Monday after, being April the 25th. At their coming on Monday morning, they found the door of the House shut up, and the passages to it filled with soldiers, who plainly told them they must sit no longer.

Richard’s authority and business in town being thus at an end, he retired into the country; where within a few days, upon promise of the payment of his debts, which his father’s funeral had made great, he signed a resignation of his Protectorship.

(from Behemoth)

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The Wrong Side of History

The idea of inevitable progress is worse than folly: it is a positive impediment to thought, leading to decrepitude.

Finding patterns in things, Isaiah Berlin observed, is a human trait (“To understand is to perceive patterns”) but he explained that it was all fantasy, like seeing the shapes of animals in the clouds. History, viewed from a distance shows few examples of constant motion in any direction: short of the social changes brought about by the discovery of metal and new materials, the invention of wheels and writing, it is hard to place any ‘inevitable’ thread in the human story, but for one, which Thomas Hobbes observed:

it is evident that dominion, government, and laws, are far more ancient than history or any other writing.

Things may change in any society in a way we perceive, from tyranny to freedom, from oligarchy to democracy, but all these concepts have come and flourished and decayed and fallen many times in recorded history. There is no inevitability. Berlin again said:

Historians of ideas, however scrupulous and minute they may feel it necessary to be, cannot avoid perceiving their material in terms of some kind of pattern.

There is no pattern though, and there is no set idea of progress, whatever the Whig historians thought or Marx wrote. As to inevitability, consider the Augustine Age of the Roman Empire; universal peace, prosperity, law and cultural continuum – and compare it with the situation in Europe just 500 years later. Europe did not match the achievements of Rome until the Renaissance, if then. The Renaissance was not to last either: it posited a stable relationship of crown, mitre and scholarship, but it just took a monk nailing his theses to a church door showing the falsehoods on which that culture was built, and it came crashing down.

If you who believe that the process of modernity is proof of rightness, consider these:

In 1642 the Civil War began in England. It is seen today as a modernising struggle for democracy, but it was the opposite. Parliament was old, mediaeval and progress in that age, demonstrably, was to enlightened despotism as demonstrated by Europe’s most advanced monarch: Louis XIII of France. King Charles gathered young and energetic advisers, while those who opposed him were the older generation. John Pym was 58 in 1642 (four years older than Thomas Hobbes); John Hampden and Cromwell spritely at 47 and 43 respectively. The coming men would dispense with the mediaeval hang-over that was parliament. The Civil War was reactionary, a rebellion launched by the passing generation quickly before it was too late, before the young pups could take over. Democracy was against the tide of history.

In 1688, James II & VII tried again. He had lived in exile in France, seeing the spectacular achievements of his cousin, Louis XIV, who excelled his father (and bankrupted his nation, but that was unseen). The old ways got in the way and had to go; the reformation was a past enthusiasm to be replaced by the modern counter-reformation. King James removed the old guard from their positions, appointing new, younger men steeped in the ideas of the Sun King. Parliament was dismissed and royal authority over state and church established. It was the way all the world was going. Democracy was reactionary and old-fashioned; it survived only by a rebellion of the old guard.

The Whig Interpretation of History which followed the Glorious Revolution tried to recast the reactionary rebellions by imagining a general progression towards freedom and democracy. It served well: it gave a rousing national story to encourage us to ever-greater achievements and it ensured that future developments in Britain and its Empire followed that idea, but it was based on wishfulness, not fact.

In the 1850s, slavery in the southern states of America was perfected as a system, as the local establishment thought, such that the Manifest Destiny of these slave states was to expand their system over a ‘Golden Circle’ embracing Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Led by the Democratic Party, the bold new vision declared that “We will expand, as our growth and civilization shall demand – over Mexico – over the isles of the sea – over the far-off Southern tropics – until we shall establish a great Confederation of Republics – the greatest, freest and most useful the world has ever seen.” To bring it to reality, private armies invaded Mexico and conquered Nicaragua (until an attempt to conquer the rest of Central America caused a reverse). In Congress, a proposal was debated to establish slavery as the law in any new territory acquired by the United States to the south, in anticipation of this expansion. It was the future. Only the Civil War and the merciful abolition of slavery ended this vision of progress.

In 1912 the first of the International Conferences of Eugenics met. This was a vigorous scientific discipline, promising an improvement of all mankind. Chairs in Eugenics were founded at universities, the imagined benefits became a staple of futurist literature, because this was the certain future. Those who opposed eugenics were ignorant, superstitious reactionaries, so the world was assured by its ‘enlightened’ minds. The opened gates of the Nazi death camps and the sight of what lay within wiped this grotesque future from our future.

In the 1930s, democracy and ideas of individuality seemed to be winding to their end. Socialism was the future, the nations were assured, and the only struggle was between factions of socialism: Communism or Fascism. Pliant journalists shown the new Soviet Union came back to say “I have been over into the future, and it works.”, even as Ukrainian peasants starved in their millions. Anyone opposing socialism was behind the times, ignorant of modern thinking, harking back to an anarchic system incompatible with modern life. A modern, mechanised age required a modern, ordered, mechanised system of rule, of life and of death. Both fascism and communism promised order and effective action. We saw how that went.

In each case, the widespread acceptance of inevitability sapped resistance. It narrowed the scope of the imagination. Those who opposed socialist takeovers, as Franco did, just imposed their own versions; because that was modern.

Belief in today’s enthusiasm as a universal, timeless ideal drives out constructive thought. From this will come only stagnation and collapse.

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