The West: the Greco-Roman world provided the cultural and political foundations of what we today think of as ‘the West’, of which Britain is a part, especially the essentially pagan notions both of the universality of all humankind and the dignity and autonomy of the individual; more specifically, the Ancient Greeks contributed equality before the law as the basis of freedom and justice, plus direct democracy, involving individual participation in debates and decision-making by voting, without prior election of participants; the Roman’s enshrined rights in an ever-evolving secular legal code and took the Greek Stoic idea of universal humanity and used it to inform their empire, the ancient world’s mightiest; Christianity’s legacy has been a separation of religion and politics (between the things of Caesar and of God), which did not exist in its Judaic and pagan antecedents; the Christians also affirmed the Greek Stoic and Roman idea of universal humanity and a belief in the ultimate freedom of the individual; Britain’s particular contributions are liberty (freedom with dignity, notably freedom of speech) and representative democracy, involving elected representatives in a parliament or other assembly; modern liberal democracy is now understood to mean a secular democratically elected government – whose premise is the sovereignty of the people and the operation of which is based on contract and consent; also important are rights, freedom of choice, equality, including between the sexes, and the rule of law; Britain’s legal and institutional preferences have been of the utmost significance in the development of modern liberal democracies internationally; the jury system was first developed in Britain [see below, Human rights]; England’s common law tradition has been taken up in many countries, as a pragmatic alternative to civil law (i.e. judgements are based on written-down laws and on legal precedents made case by case in ordinary courts, not laws alone, as in the civil law tradition, enabling society to benefit briskly from experience); around the English-speaking world, common law precedents cited sometimes go back as far as medieval England; fair and public trials without indefinite detention (habeas corpus); independent courts (i.e. independent and impartial judiciary); due process in legal matters; public promulgation of laws, so that citizens might reasonably know what is expected of them; a distaste for the use of torture (abandoned in Britain long before continental Europe and other parts of the world) and of ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ (to quote Britain’s Bill of Rights of 1689 and America’s of a century later); the sanctity and enforceability of contracts; an ideal of small government, itself subject to the rule of law; free and fair elections; decent politicians; the robust search for consensus and balance via representative assemblies; incorrupt bureaucracy; freedom of the press and other media; a credible and transparent financial system; adherence to international treaties; respect for privacy; and a sense of order and fair play
Kings & queens: Britain’s has a limited monarchy not an absolute monarchy; the king or queen is not a ruler over subjects but a head of state of citizens; the monarch is there to serve the people, the people are not there to serve the monarch – as pointed out first by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) & John Locke (1632-1704); this is the contract theory of government; Hobbes and Locke said that authority could only derive from those over whom it was exercised and with their consent; rulers could not be despots, even benevolent ones, but had to be servants of the people, who must be citizens not subjects; so the ‘contract’ was ‘You can rule us but, remember, we are the real bosses’; Locke wrote:
'Men being, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent'
The English Civil War of 1642-6, with renewed fighting after 1648, was the first of the world’s great modern revolutions (which include the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – also in England – the American Revolution, the French Revolution & the Russian revolution); the nation was rent asunder; proportionately, there were more deaths than in the First World War; the Civil War established that the monarch cannot rule without Parliament’s consent; 1649 saw the execution of King Charles I; he was an absolutist believer in the divine right of kings; Charles was beheaded as a traitor to his people; it was the most shocking day in the island’s history; Oliver Cromwell, a commoner, military genius and, as it turned out, successful revolutionary, became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1653-1658; Cromwell came close to being crowned, but thought better of it; he was not in fact completely a commoner, as he had the blood of Powys kings in his veins; his was the world’s first parliamentary republic; it had been born of a nation rent asunder; it had been a revolt of the freeborn seeking their rights, in the view of John Lilburne (1614-57) and one of the great exceptions in Britain’s history of peaceful change gradually achieved; afterwards the Levellers put forward Agreement of the People; this was the first modern manifesto of political democracy and liberty of conscience; the English Civil War was the first of the world’s great modern revolutions, as described, the second was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – representing a one-two for the islanders in modern history; this later revolution saw the Protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary replace the Catholic James II, Mary’s father; this change brought in constitutional monarchy [see next item], an empowered Parliament, a tolerant church and a shift in emphasis from agriculture to manufacturing; the Glorious Revolution was so called because it was bloodless, yet it was every bit as radical as the gory revolutions in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1917; the foundations of the modern liberal state were laid in Britain after 1688, based on parliamentary democracy
Constitutions: these are the rules for running a country; the forerunner of all modern constitutions was Magna Carta; this was the Great Charter of English Liberties; it was forced out of King John [see John] by barons fed up with a disastrous foreign policy and arbitrary government and signed at Runnymede, beside the Thames, in June 1215; Magna Carta said that even the king had to obey the law, just like everyone else (Might is not Right); there was legal parity among all free men under the law; this was the start of the rule of law
'…the sealing of Magna Carta was an event that changed the constitutional landscape of this country and, over time, the world' (Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law, 2010)
Magna Carta in its chapters 38-40 says this, in translation from its original Latin:
'38. In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
39. No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
40. To no man will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.'
Magna Carta had arisen out of a suggestion in 1213 by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, that a deal should be done between King John and his barons on the basis of the Charter Of Liberties of 1100 in which King Henry I had stated that his powers were exercised under the law; Langton’s other claim to fame was that he divided the books of the Bible into chapters; after revisions and reissues, the text of Magna Carta was copied on to the first English Statute Roll in the reign of Edward I and passed into English law; William Pitt the Elder, speaking in the House of Lords in 1770, said of King John’s rebellious barons
'My Lords, I think that history has not done justice to their conduct, when they obtained from their sovereign that great acknowledgement of national rights contained in Magna Carta: they did not confine it to themselves alone, but delivered it as a common blessing to the whole people'
The Provisions of Oxford of 1255 were an extension of Magna Carta, letting the baron’s elect the king’s council, thus limiting royal authority, and having more to say about the rights of the people; these were concessions by Henry III in the face of reformist barons led by Simon de Montfort; for the first time the day-to-day powers of a king were being curbed; Oliver Cromwell introduced the world’s first written constitution in 1653, The Instrument of Government; this was at a time when there was no monarch; the monarchy was restrored in 1660, in the person of Charles II; Britain later invented constitutional monarchy; this is the idea that the monarch was bound by a constitution, as consensual head of state not as despotic ruler by divine right; this started when William and Mary came to the throne after the Glorious Revolution of 1688; the power of William and Mary was limited by the world’s first Bill of Rights, of 1689 [see below, Modern British Constitution]; in 1994, the Indian prime minister left a plaque at Runnymede that reads
'As a tribute to historic Magna Carta, a source of inspiration throughout the world, and as an affirmation of the values of Freedom, Democracy and the Rule of Law which the People of Inida cherish and enshrined in their constitution.'
Democracy: this means rule by the people; the wisdom of many minds, expressing the will of the people, is preferred to personal rule by a monarch; Britons vote in elections for someone to represent them in Parliament (an assembly) at Westminster in London; ‘Parliament’ comes from the French word parler, ‘to speak’; Parliament has sat since the 1200s, with the first elected members in 1265; the British Parliament has two chambers, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, for a first draft and second thoughts; this is a bicameral (Latin, two chambers) system; ; there have usually been two main political parties at any one time, the world’s first modern-style political parties having come into being in Britain in the 1640s; the party with the most Members of Parliament (MPs) forms a government to run things; the government is led by the Prime Minister (PM); MPs sit in the House of Commons; new laws are subject to revision by peers sitting in the House of Lords and require royal ascent thereafter; Hansard, the parliamentary record, first appeared in 1608; a parliamentary system is an example of representative democracy; referendums are sometimes held in Britain; this is direct democracy; Britain’s Parliament is known as the Mother of Parliaments because Britain gave the world parliamentary democracy; the phrase ‘Mother of Parliaments’ is in fact a misquotation; what John Bright actually said in 1845 was “England is the mother of parliaments”; yet in its misquoted form the statement is accurate, because Britain’s Parliament has had many offspring overseas; after all, ‘motherhood’ is not about being the first of its kind or the only one, but about progeny; historically, the monarch was constrained in Britain by wealthy aristocrats, then Parliament – unlike the despots of continental Europe who were less trammelled; John Milton (1608-74) wrote in 1660 of the ideal, “The happiness of a nation must needs be firmest and certainest in full and free council of their own electing, where no single person, but reason only, sways”; an early British king enacted a set of laws around 420 BC; he is known to history by the Latinised form of his name, Dunvallo Molmutius; his legal code, the Molmutine Laws, are extant and speak of conventions (i.e. meetings) to establish harmony by mutual reason and agreement; these conventions could be called by public proclamation, not only by the king or the lord of a district or the local leader, but also by a family representative; ordinary people got to vote – a vote to a man at puberty, to a woman when she married; the country’s vote was needed to change laws, dethrone a sovereign, astoundingly, and for the adoption of new ideas and practices by bards; in-coming Anglo-Saxons, AD mid-400s and after, observed the Molmutine Laws, the chroniclers tell us; their kings ruled with Witenagemot (‘Meeting of the Wise Men’), with meetings below that of Shires, Hundreds (i.e. of villages) and individual villages; from 1200s Parliament, from French parler, ‘to speak’; First Complete Parliament – otherwise known as the Model Parliament – of Edward I, Longshanks, 1295, who said “That it was right that what concerned all, should be approved of all”; the route to democracy in Britain was mostly via evolutionary change, including the Great Reform Act of 1832 (fairer distribution of parliamentary seats, widening of franchise to include middleclass men), a further widening of the franchise to include skilled male workers in 1867 and women finally regaining in 1918 the vote they had under Dunvallo Molmutius 2,400 years before; there was freedom under the law and constitutional restraints on the exercise of power; Britain’s concept of representative assemblies has been globally influential, as has been a suspicion of overmighty government; in modern era the ‘Westminster system’ has been adopted in many countries; this sees the prime minister and members of the executive (ministers of government, in other words) sitting in Parliament and reporting to it; the contrast involves a ‘separation of powers’ between legislature (congress) and the executive (led by a president); this arrangement is a recipe for stalemate and conflict; parliamentary systems tend to be more stable than presidential ones, studies have shown; after the Second World War, the allies pressed parliamentary systems on West Germany, Italy and Japan, democracies that have endured; the British ideal is of stable, responsive, honest, minimal government
Human rights: the three fundamental rights are to life, liberty (freedom with dignity) & property; in the modern era these rights were spelt out by John Locke (1632-1704) [see below, Liberty]; no-one can kill or hurt you, stop you doing anything lawful or steal from you; rights are a vital bulwark in a democracy, protecting people from the tyranny of majorities; property rights were asserted early in Britain, giving people a stake in stability, consensus and matter-of-fact solutions to problems, free of ideology; rich and poor are equal before the law; if you are charged with a crime you are presumed innocent not guilty and you have to be given a fair trial without being locked up for a long time beforehand; it was the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, passed to reinforce an earlier Act of 1640, that confirmed freedom from arbitrary detention; habeas corpus means literally ‘you have the body’; the great legal authority William Blackstone (1723-80) records the first use of habeas corpus during the reign of Edward I, in 1305; a writ of habeas corpus may be issued to someone detaining another and the detainer will have to appear in court to explain themselves; it is a check against arbitrary detention
'The simplicity of the writ is its strength and virtue. It has been widely recognized as the most effective remedy against executive lawlessness that the world has ever seen, a remedy introduced and developed by the judges and adopted elsewhere, notably in the United States' (Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law, 2010)
This cornerstone of British liberty passed onto the statute books in 1679 through a deliberate miscount in the House of Lords; the teller for the bill’s supporters counted the ‘inordinately fat’ Lord Grey as ten votes rather than one; trial by jury had been reintroduced in Britain by Henry II in 1166, based on an earlier tradition tracing back through Alfred the Great to the Molmutine Laws [see Dunvallo Molmutius & Alfred the Great]; the accused, presumed innocent at the outset, is judged on the basis of the presented evidence by a panel of 12 fellow citzens; the jury system, a great British social invention, empowers and dignifies ordinary citizens; though more cumbersome and expensive than professional adjudication, juries uniquely embody collective wisdom and fair-mindedness; it was established in 1670 that juries can refuse to convict and do not have to explain themselves; all 21st century jurors should appreciate this long-won fundamental freedom; human rights are protected by laws; citizen’s should obey the law so as not to infringe other people’s rights; another idea underpinning laws is the principle of do as you would be done by; Britain suggested (Winston Churchill), mostly drafted (David Maxwell Fyfe) and was the first to sign the European Convention on Human Rights, 1950; humans have rights by dint of being human so these cannot be granted, only recognised; legally enshrined rights are a vital safeguard for individuals against tyranny, including the potential tyranny of democratic majorities; the rights to life, liberty and property were recognised early, implicitly, in ancient laws; the chroniclers recount that Britain’s first king, Brutus [see Brutus], prescribed for citizens ‘laws for their peaceable government’; this was around 1100 BC; Britain’s earliest code of laws still available to be read by anyone is that of Dunvallo Molmutius around 420 BC, the Molmutine Laws; according to historian Flinders Petrie:
Britain’s Marcia, queen consort and latterly regent around 350 BC, republished the Molmutine Laws and also drew up a set of laws of her own; these were the Laws of Marcia or the Marcian Code that were translated and adopted in AD 800s by King Alfred the Great, who called them the Mercian Code, not recognised their Marcian origin and instead attributing them to the Mercians; for their part, the Molmutine Laws were adhered to before and after Roman times by Britons and later Saxons, also being incorporated into his code by Alfred; these laws showed 'greatest respect for weakness and misfortune, high rights for women, full consideration for foreigners, and great privilege for learning, for the arts, and the crafts... Government was not despotic…', according to Flinders Petrie; these laws were still being referred to in the AD 900s, in the Laws of Howel; in regard to the right to property 'The three ornaments of a tribe were a book, a harp and a sword, and they could not be distrained by law', wrote Flinders Petrie of the Molmutine Laws; who owns what has been clear from the earliest times in Britain; Domesday Book of 1086 was one of earliest national ownership surveys ever conducted, in this case of 2 million inhabitants [see William the Conqueror]; English forms of land tenure came to be adopted widely overseas; a secure right to property reduces conflict while encouraging savings and investment and hence economic growth; the modern police force was invented in Britain in the 1800s, for the protection of law-abiding citizens against the unruly; the first police force was London's Metropolitan Police, established in 1829 by Home Secretary Robert Peel [see Police force]; Britain is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations; the United Nations officially come into existence on 24 October 1945; its Acting Secretary General was Gladwyn Jebb (1900-96), a Briton, who served until February 1946; Jebb remains the only head of the UN to have come from a permanent member of the UN Security Council; the United Nations held its first session in 1946 in Central Hall, Westminster, London; Britain is the only one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council to accept as compulsory the verdicts of the International Court of Justice, which first met in 1946
'The whole air is that of simple conditions and a free life, with much personal cultivation and sympathy in general conduct. It would be impossible to produce such a code from a savage or violent people”; Flinders Petrie also said that ‘Social duty was strongly held, and the full power rested on the vote of every free man and woman, even to deposing the king.' (Flinders Petrie, Neglected British History, 1917, reproduced as More 17)
Modern British Constitution: the oft-repeated statement that Britain does not have a written constitution is incorrect; it is just that it is not written all in one place; among the constitutional texts is the Coronation Oath, written by St Dunstan (AD 909-88), Archbishop of Canterbury [see Archbishops], and entered into first by King Edgar in AD 973; this is a promise by each new monarch to uphold law, justice and mercy; it represents a covenant with the people
'The people of the islands detested kings who broke their Coronation Oaths by failing to defend the just laws and liberties of their people. They dethroned John, Edward II, Richard II, Richard III, Charles I and James II, while Americans sacked George III. Repeatedly the people will try to hold their leaders accountable and control their excesses.' (Catherine Glass & David Abbott, Share the Inheritance, 2010),
Other components of the British Constitution include the common law (since Alfred the Great, AD 880s, Magna Carta (1215), Statute of Westminster (1275, enabling Parliament), the Petition of Rights (1628), the Bill of Rights (1689), the Act of Settlement (1701) and the Act of Union (1707); so Britain is like other nations in having a written constitution, though it lacks a constitution consolidated into one document such that one can sympathise with Queen Elizabeth II who was once overheard saying “The British Constitution has always been puzzling and always will be”; in other countries the constitution is supreme, as interpeted by the judiciary; legislation held to be in conflict with this constitution can even be declared invalid; in contrast, the British Constitution grants supremacy to two key elements – the rule of law and Parliament; on the rule of law William Pitt the Elder said in a House of Lords debate in 1770, “We all know what the Constitution is. We all know that the first principle of it is, that the subject shall not be governed by the arbitrium of any man or body of men, but by certain laws, to which he has virtually given his consent, which are open to him to examine, and not beyond his ability to understand”; referring to parliamentary sovereignty, Britain’s prime minister and the other government ministers act in Parliament on behalf of the monarch, who is the head of state; the British Constitution can therefore be summed up as ‘The Queen in Parliament is supreme, under the rule of law’; Britain’s love of freedom and democracy and adherence to the rule of law has influenced constitutions in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and many other lands; Britain’s limited monarch as head of state and a powerful Parliament is a clever way of preventing the rise of tyrants; the importance of the monarchy is not in the power that the monarch has but in the power of which the monarch deprives others; there have been a number of important constitutional changes in recent times to the age-old pragmatic and low-key British order of things; these include membership of the European Union since 1973, the Human Rights Act of 1998, devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, also in 1998, reform of the House of Lords in 2001 and the establishment of a Supreme Court in 2009
'Liberty is Britain’s greatest gift to the world. From Magna Carta to the European Convention on Human Rights, from trial by jury to the Enlightenment, from habeas corpus to America’s ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishments’, from freedom of speech to the notion that rich and poor should be equal before the law – Britain has led the way. We provided the world with the first written constitution, its first Bill of Rights and its first proposal of a ‘social contract’ between state and the individual.' (Peter Kellner, Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty, 2009)
Freedom is in the British air; words have mattered more than weapons and wars; Britain’s idea of liberty, notably freedom of speech, has been exported worldwide, notably across the Atlantic; to quote Winston Churchill (1874-1965):
'…the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus, trial by jury and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence'
It has been said that liberty is the golden thread that runs through Britain’s island story; freedom is why Britain has produced so many pioneer thinkers in so many different fields down so many centuries; the Age of Enlightenment started in Britain in the 1700s; this was the freeing of the mind through the use of reason (e.g. David Hume, 1711-76, philosopher of liberty, Adam Smith, 1723-90, founder of liberal economics); influential advocates of liberty have included Thomas Paine (1737-1809) [see United States of America] and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873); none has been more influential than John Locke (1632-1704), the father of liberalism; he wrote
'Man, being born with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men' (John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1690)
Around 420 BC Dunvallo Molmutius enacted a famous legal code for Britain, the Molmutine Laws, which became part of Alfred the Great's common law; these laws were expressed as triads for ease of recollection; one of these triads says that
'There are three protections and securities of the social state: the protection of life and person, protection of possession and place of residence, and protection of natural right.'
Values: British values include freedom (particularly to speak your mind), democracy, fair play (dealing decently with people, keeping your word, abiding by contracts; see Paying your debts), tolerance, pragmatism (‘What works is best, regardless of theory’), civility (e.g. queuing) and seeing the funny side of life (“And it thanks to the Magna Carta/That was signed by King John of old/That in England today we can do as we like/Just so long as we do as we're told!”; the CVpedia is indebted to Bill Cooper, translator of the Tysilio Chronicle for providing this music hall verse); individualism is another key British value, encompassing preparedness to be different, the dogged and meticulous British amateur, eccentricism, originality, pioneering and creativity; this orientation was alluded to in 1951 by future prime minister Harold Macmillan who remarked that “The genius of the British has always been originality”; an important aspect of British originality and pioneering has been in the area of humanitarianism, after the rise of the anti-slavery movement, which started in Britain [see Abolition of slavery]; a modern British extension of tolerance is social inclusiveness, which chimes in some people’s minds with the perceived need for the human family to pull together to look after a world in sore need of thoughtful tender loving care (TTLC) and sustainability (‘Please thrive carefully’, to misquote rural British road signs,); the London 2012 Olympics are aiming to be the most inclusive Games ever; the British have a clear sense of identity, everybody else being over the sea; yet the British are not insular; they have an outwardlooking global perspective that makes isolationism a psychological impossibility
Islanders: in a national sense it has helped that Britons are on an island, since everyone else is 'overseas'; the British thus have a clear sense of identity; there was a shared tongue by the 1400s, Norman French having confused matters for a time before English won out; literacy was common but not quite universal by 1700; in terms of personal identity surnames appeared in the late 1300s and early 1400s; privacy and inviolability have been much prized ("a man’s home is his castle", said England’s most renowned jurist, Edward Coke)
Religious independence & eventually toleration: as part of the Protestant Reformation, Britain broke with Catholic Rome in the period 1529-33, at the instigation of Henry VIII, who wanted to divorce his wife; by this means was the influence of the papacy eliminated from the island’s spiritual life, even as the role of domestic kings was to be constrained later in the temporal sphere; Protestantism and its work ethic was disseminated widely overseas by Britain; the British brand of Protestantism, Anglicanism, is unique in Europe because Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I elected to keep heirarchy and church ceremonial; Anglicanism developed as a subtle, reflective and tolerant version of Christianity
Bible in English: the King James Authorised Version of 1611 is one of history’s most influential books; it incorporated the work of William Tyndale, who is thus one of the founders of English literature; the King James Bible does not mention Britain by name, but some have identified it with the 'islands of the sea' of Isaiah, 11.11; another widely influential work was the Book of Common Prayer, of 1549
John Locke: 1632-1704; first to expound liberalism, today’s most influential political philosophy; Locke is regarded by some as the father of the European Enlightenment; a genteel revolutionary, Locke was famously amiable and charming; with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) Locke was the pioneering exponent of the contract theory of government which sees political authority arising from the governed with their consent; rulers should serve the people, who would be citizens not subjects; the people were not there to serve the rulers
Age of Reason: this was the clearing of the Western mind also known as the Enlightenment; this started in Britain with Isaac Newton’s Principia of 1687, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and John Locke writing in 1690 of ‘life, liberty and estate’; the Age of Reason continued in the 1700s with philosophers David Hume (1711-76) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and economist Adam Smith (1723-90), among many others; sceptical reason was enlisted against ignorance, superstition, privilege and tyranny; society could be perfected via common sense and tolerance, it was argued; the foremost value was freedom of speech, the freedom that supports all other freedoms; England had gained a head start, so to speak, by decapitating a non-consensual king, Charles I, in 1649, and experimenting with republicanism under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658); a great American republican was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States; Jefferson had portraits of whom he felt to be the three greatest men in world history; the portraits were of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke, Britons all; an influential and timely advocate of freedom in the later Enlightenment, especially in America, was Thomas Paine (1737-1809; see United States of America); a later champion of liberty was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who preached “governance by discussion” in domestic and global affairs; the antecedent process to the Age of Reason was the Protestant Reformation, a process which started in Britain under Henry VIII and saw its culmination under William & Mary [see William & Mary]; thus was the British mind cleared for greatness, as evinced by the birth of modern science in Britain in 1660, with the foundation of the Royal Society, and the Industrial Revolution, from the mid-1700s
David Hume: 1711-76; laid the foundations for scientific positivism and philosophical scepticism; arguably Britain’s finest philosopher of liberty; Peter Kellner in his book Democracy, 2009, says of Hume that “As his 1741 essay ‘Of the First Principles of Government’ shows, he believed that people’s rights would be better protected by a pragmatic monarchy than by a pure republic – that is, a society in which the people have to approve every measure. However, Hume favoured local pure democracy, where, he argued, people would behave rationally and be less swayed by ‘popular currents and tides’”
Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’; this was not said by Enlightenment savant Voltaire (1694-1778), but by his English biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1818-1919), in the spirit of Voltaire, who did however say that if he could be reincarnated he would return as an Englishman
Other political thinkers: Edmund Burke (“the ancient order into which we are born”); George Berkeley; Thomas Hobbes (characterised the state as 'Leviathan', in his book of that name, of 1651); Thomas Paine ('father of the American Revolution' and author of The Rights of Man, 1790-2, and the anti-religious The Age of Reason, 1793; Paine coined the term ‘the United States of America’; see United States of America); John Stuart Mill (author of On Liberty, 1959); Herbert Spencer; Alfred North Whitehead
Empiricism: this is experience-based knowledge and is the characteristic British school of philosophy; Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill (Bentham and Mill were utilitarians, believing that the right action is that which most promotes human well-being; for Bentham's ideas on prison design, see Prison reform), Bertrand Russell (most distinguished philosopher of the first half of the 1900s), George Moore (who, with Russell, founded Analytical philosophy), A J Ayer, Karl Popper (the scientists’ favourite philosopher; a logical positivist; excoriated thinkers from Plato to Marx who valued the collective over the individual); in the political arena there has been an emphasis on pragmatism, eschewing a utopian search for human perfection; empiricism over theorising has prevailed in science, too, as illustrated by Newton, who advised students of nature “…first to search carefully for the properties of things, establishing them by experiments, and then more warily to assert any explanatory hypotheses”; colloquial English differentiates with greater clarity than other languages between opinions and ‘hard facts’ (‘I think’, ‘as far as I know’, ‘to be precise’ etc); to the list of British empiricists can be added two early scholars in the same spirit; the first is Adelard of Bath (c1080-c1152), who believed Nature could be studied without invoking its first cause, God; and the second was William of Occam (c1288-c1348), one of the major figures in medieval thought; Occam’s Razor states that ‘plurality is not to be assumed without necessity’, i.e. opt for the simplest explanation
Liberal economics was born & raised in Britain
William Petty: 1623-87; author of Political Arithmetick, 1690; founder of modern economics
Adam Smith: 1723-90; his The Wealth of Nations, 1776, is the supreme work of the Enlightenment mind [see Age of Reason]; it laid the foundations of modern economics; a fine statue of the great man, by Alexander Stoddart, was unveiled in Edinburgh in 2008
David Ricardo: 1772-1823; systematized economics and introduced the theory of comparative advantage
Thomas Malthus: 1766-1834; his famous pamphlet in 1789 on population outgrowing agricultural production has proved wrong, so far; he inaugurated environmental concern; H G Wells, also troubled by population growth, invented green politics, saying that mankind should live rationally in a pollution-free global garden; in the 50 years to 2010, human population trebled
'The dismal science': this celebrated description of economics was coined in 1849 by Thomas Carlyle
John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946; the most influential economist of the 20th century; invented macroeconomics; the backdrop of his work was the Great Depression; Keynes’s signature work in 1936 was The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money; in this work Keynes said, among many things, that economies should fluctuate because people behave in unpredictable ways, under the influence of 'animal spirits'; the stimulus packages of governments during recessions are routinely described as Keynsian; meanwhile Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), a Viennese migrant to Britain, celebrated free markets, saying that central planning was impossible because no person, however clever, knew what people wanted; Keynes and Hayek took part in a famous debate at the London School of Economics in 1931 on whether the state should step in to help the depressed economy; the interventionist Keynes won, on how best to make capitalism work
Pound sterling: Britain has had an unrivalled record of monetary stability between the 16th and 21st centuries; the Roman denarius was followed by the Byzantine solidus, then the Dutch guilder; then sterling took its turn for over 200 years as the leading international currency, into the 1900s; in the first decade of the 21st century sterling (GBP – Great Britain Pound) was the third-largest reserve currency after the US dollar and the euro and was the fourth most traded currency in the foreign exchange markets after the US dollar, the euro and the Japanese yen; the penny, of which there are now 100 to the pound, was introduced by Offa, King of Mercia in the AD 700s
Royal Mint: 1100 years of continuous minting; the most famous Master of the Mint was Isaac Newton, the renowned mathematician and physicist; this was when the mint was at the Tower of London; the Royal Mint is now in Llantrisant, South Wales; Newton oversaw the Great Recoinage of 1696-8, an enterprise unprecedented in the history of money; almost seven million pounds sterling (i.e. silver) in coinage was recalled, melted down and restruck, to defeat counterfeiters, coin clippers and illicit cross-border metal speculators; this was more coins than the Mint had produced in the preceding three decades; in the course of this monumental industrial exercise, the omnicompetent Newton conducted what is believed to be the first time-and-motion study on record, greatly increasing productivity; Newton established a network of informers and undercover agents to pursue counterfeiters with unremitting zeal; he turned himself into the most effective criminal investigator London had yet seen [see Isaac Newton]
Paying your debts: the political entity known as the United Kingdom has never failed to pay back money it has borrowed from foreigners – that is, there has been no sovereign-debt default, so called; yet fourteenth-century England did default; this was during the time of Edward III, when England was facing military challenges on two fronts, Scotland and France, becoming financially overstretched; in 1340 Edward III declined to pay back his Italian loans, causing a run on Florentine banks; this is regarded as the first true international debt crisis; ultimately England became the first nation to develop a modern financial system, to pay for its wars; note that the islanders have financial records going back way beyond those of most other nations; the record of defaults of leading European nations is as follows – England (1340, 1472, none later), Spain (1557, 1575, 1596, 1607, 1627, 1647 and 13 more times to 2008), France (1558, 1624, 1648, 1661, 1701, 1715, 1770, 1788), Portugal (1560 and 6 more times to 2008), Germany (Prussia) (1683 and 8 more times to 2008) and Austria (1796 and 7 more times to 2008); the British islander’s default-free record thus goes back more than 500 years and is distinctive; other Anglophone countries derived from the mother country – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – have also remained default-free, paying down their debts
'…it cannot be overemphasized that one of the major factors underlying England’s relatively pristine repayment record is the country’s remarkable success in its many wars.' (Carmen Reinhart & Kenneth Rogoff, This Time is Different, 2009)
The greatest sovereign-debt restructuring in history occurred in 2012, involving Greece, that nation's creditors being subject to a savage 'haircut'
Scottish & English banking: this has been emulated worldwide; there have been many innovations, including the first cheque book, as issued by a London bank in 1660, and the first printed cheques by Lawrence Childs, 1762; unprinted cheques themselves were used in Arabia in the 8th century; another pioneering contribution was modern ‘hole in the wall’ banking via automated teller machine (ATM); a rudimentary prototype cashpoint machine was invented and tested in the US in the late 1930s but proved unpopular with clients and was withdrawn; the machine as we now know it was patented by James Goodfellow in 1966 and separately developed by John Shepherd-Barron of De La Rue; Shepherd-Barron's device was first demonstrated by Barclays in 1967 and this cashpoint machine became the world's first permanently installed ATM; bringing the solid benefit to bank customers of instant cash 24 hours a day, the ATM, a British development, rates as the greatest financial invention of the most recent era (a rival claimant to this title, the credit card, dates from an earlier period)
Bank of England: otherwise known as ‘the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’, this was founded in 1694; William III wanted money for war – and used it to fight Louis XIV’s France to a standstill; for centuries the Bank of England has been a model for other central banks; it was the first to issue banknotes (June 1695) on a general and permanent basis and is the longest continuous issuer of such banknotes in the world; never in its history has it stopped honouring any of its notes; the Glorious Revolution of 1688 strengthened Parliament role in controlling expenditure and debt contracts; this built trust with foreign lenders; ‘…the Bank of England, by providing a bureaucratic “delegated monitor” to oversee the government’s debt service, providing the key instrument through which Parliament expressed its power.’ (Carmen Reinhart & Kenneth Rogoff, This Time is Different, 2009); a gold standard was adopted in 1844, with many other countries emulating the Bank of England in the 1870s; the bank is located on the London campsite of Boudicca, who attempted to oust the Romans in AD 60; this was the only time that London was ever sacked and that was by Britain’s own people!; the foundation of the Bank of England and its borrowing from the British people to lend to the government, creating the modern concept of a national debt, allowed the country to spend its way to greatness by building a navy; by the mid-1700s the Royal Navy commanded the Seven Seas; Britannia really did rule the waves; Britain taught the world how to unleash the power of money; most modern central banks in the world have been modelled on the Bank of England
City of London: for over 500 years into the 21st century the City has been a premier international financial centre; it is on the site of an original Roman trading post next to the Thames; yet London was not founded by the Romans but long before that [see London]
John Law: 1671-1729; this Edinburgh-born individual provoked in the early 1700s in France the first-ever stockmarket bubble, with asset prices far exceeding real value; when the Mississippi Bubble burst after four years, it caused widespread financial collapse; the French state remained weak for long decades thereafter, such that it can be said that John Law, a negatively influential islander if ever there was one, ultimately helped cause the French Revolution of 1789; note that unlike England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, which laid the foundations of the modern liberal state, the French version, for all its rhetoric of brotherhood and freedom, gave way to bloodshed and tyranny
Banking crises: there have been nineteen banking crises since the Second World War, the ‘Big Six’ being Spain (1977), Norway (1987), Finland (1991), Sweden (1991), Japan (1992) and the US (2007); the last-mentioned put intense pressure on the banking systems of many nations globally, including the UK
Great Fire of London: in four days in 1666 three-quarters of the city was destroyed; this extraordinary conflagration led to the establishment of London's modern fire brigade and the pioneering introduction of fire insurance [see next item for more on insurance]; Roman Londinium had itself been destroyed by fire around AD 125, by the Hadrianic Fire, at the time of the Emperor Hadrian
Insurance: the first life policy was issued in 1583; the first fire insurance came in after 1666 [see previous item]; the first life insurance company was established in 1706; the first car insurance policy was issued in 1896; all these developments occurred in London [Source: Robertson]
Mass consumer society: this was born in England in the early 1700s; ‘shopping’, the word, first appeared in print only in 1778, in Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina; modern window shopping followed:
'The first store with plateglass windows without sash bars (i.e., the whole window glazed with a single pane) were installed at 16 Charing Cross Road in London, at a former print shop converted into a tailoring establishment by Francis Place and reopened on 8 April 1801. Although this innovation was condemned on all sides as reckless extravagance, Place wrote in his memoirs that he "sold from the window more goods...than paid journeymen's wages and the expenses of housekeeping.' [Source: Robertson]
The world’s oldest department store is Austin’s of Derry, Northern Ireland, which opened in 1830
Napoleon: he did not say that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers; he was speaking admiringly and was referring to the British as commercial operators
Privatisation: the islanders led an international round of nationalisation in the era after the Second World War, then the transfer back of state assets into the private sector was itself pioneered in Britain in the 1980s under prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of fiscal rectitude; an innovative role had been played by a local council
'In the early 1980s Wandsworth pioneered privatisation policies that subsequently transformed the British economy.' (The Economist, 22 September 2012)
Privatisation embodies the idea that ownership is pivotal, with private enterprises likely to be better run than state ones:
'The economic benefits of privatisation are widely accepted: a 2003 OECD study found “overwhelming support” for the idea that “privatisation brings about a significant increase in the profitability, real output and efficiency of privatised companies”.' (The Economist, 9 July 2011)
Financial deregulation of the City of London occurred in the same era as privatisation, being known as the financial ‘Big Bang’; these were aspects of a revitalisation of capitalism that had global implications, notably in Eastern Europe, where countries emerged from decades of socialist tyranny:
'The collapse of the Soviet empire was the most important event of the 1980s. The Soviet catastrophe for once was a turning-point in world history which appeared to be such at the time… It happened for several reasons. First, there was a recovery of Western defences in the early 1980s, as well as the extraordinary and still most controversial Strategic Defence Initiative – ‘Star Wars’… Second, victims of their own propaganda, the Soviet leaders saw the growing campaign for privatisation, denationalisation and the withdrawal of the state from the economy (inspired by President Reagen in the United States, and Mrs Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and then slowly followed elsewhere within the leading Western nations) as evidence that capitalism, so far from being defeated, was reviving… Third, the leaders of the Soviet Union seemed to have abandoned their belief in the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, after the death of Suslov in 1981.' (Hugh Thomas, An Unfinished History of the World, 1995)
The private-finance initiative (PFI) was introduced in 1992, to raise money off-balance-sheet from private sources to fund infrastructure projects; this approach, of public-private partnerships, has been '...replicated across the world' (The Economist, 3 December 2011); the twenty-first century has been increasingly dominated by the state capitalism of emerging markets; this is where state-owned companies are run as extensions of the state and, with the aid of a domestic monopoly or near-monopoly position, become national champions on a global scale; with the eclipse of communism [see Karl Marx] state capitalism is the greatest threat to the Western model of liberal capitalism, within which the spheres of business and politics are separate and firms are allow to thrive or die according to market forces; Britain provided an early example of state capitalism, in 1600 [see East India Company]
[see European Union]