I am aware of the fact that some British people speak of Europe as “somewhere else,” to which they do not belong. In my opinion, Britain is very much a part of European civilization whether they want to admit so or not, but I am willing to grant them a special place within the European tradition. There is a reason why English became the first global lingua franca.
While I focus mainly on the history of science in my essays these days, let us have a brief look at some of the political ideas and concepts championed by the British in the modern era.
The famous English legal charter known as the Magna Carta, issued in the year 1215 and written in Latin, limited kingly power in England and had major long-term political consequences when combined with later events. King John (1166-1216) had signed the Magna Carta unwillingly, and the heavy spending and foreign advisers of his son and successor Henry III (1207-1272) upset the nobles, who once again acted as a class under the leadership of the nobleman Simon de Montfort (1208-1265), Earl of Leicester. In 1258 they took over the government and elected a council of nobles which was called parliament or parlement, a French word meaning a “discussion meeting.”
This “parliament” took control of the treasury and forced Henry to get rid of his foreign advisers. Henry died in 1272 and his son Edward I (1239-1307) took the throne. He brought together the first real parliament. Simon de Montfort’s council included only nobles and had been able to make statutes, written laws, and make political decisions, but the lords were less able to provide the king with money. Several kings had made arrangements for taxation before but, as David McDowall writes in An Illustrated History of Britain:
Edward I was the first to create a ‘representative institution’ which could provide the money he needed. This institution became the House of Commons. Unlike the House of Lords it contained a mixture of ‘gentry’ (knights and other wealthy freemen from the shires) and merchants from the towns. These were the two broad classes of people who produced and controlled England’s wealth. In 1275 Edward I commanded each shire and each town (or borough) to send two representatives to his parliament.
These ‘commoners’ would have stayed away if they could, to avoid giving Edward money. But few dared risk Edward’s anger. They became unwilling representatives of their local community. This, rather than Magna Carta, was the beginning of the idea that there should be ‘no taxation without representation’, later claimed by the American colonists of the eighteenth century. In other parts of Europe, similar ‘parliaments’ kept all the gentry separate from the commoners. England was special because the House of Commons contained a mixture of gentry belonging to the feudal ruling class and merchants and freemen who did not. The co-operation of these groups, through the House of Commons, became important to Britain’s later political and social development.
Merchants and country gentlemen were anxious to influence the king’s policies, as they wanted to protect their interests. When France threatened the important wool trade with Flanders they supported Edward III (1312-1377) in his war. During Edward III’s reign Parliament became organized in two parts: the Lords and the Commons, which represented the middle class; the really poor had no voice of their own in Parliament until the middle of the nineteenth century. Many European countries had similar kinds of parliaments in medieval times, but in most cases these institutions disappeared when feudalism died out. In England, however, the death of feudalism helped strengthen the House of Commons in Parliament.
Like the Civil War of 1642, the Glorious Revolution, as the political results of the events of 1688 were called, was completely unplanned. It was more a coup d’etat by the ruling elites than a revolution as such, but the fact that Parliament made William king, not by inheritance but by their choice, was indeed revolutionary. Parliament was clearly more powerful than the king and would remain so in the future. Its power over the monarch was written into the Bill of Rights in 1689. The king was from now on unable to raise taxes or keep an army without the agreement of Parliament, or to act against any MP for what he said in Parliament.
England was by the seventeenth century emerging as a great power whose influence increasingly stretched far beyond Europe. It was also one of the most intellectually creative regions in the world. After Isaac Newton had published his Principia in 1687, probably the single most influential text in the history of science, the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), a friend of Newton, in 1690 published his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, proclaiming the doctrine eventually known as the tabula rasa, where humans come into the world as blank slates. This was perfect for a world in which reason ruled and everything was possible. Human nature itself could be improved by applying reason, and history could take the direction of eternal progress. Locke published his Second Treatise of Government, stating that government is the servant of men, not the other way around, and that men possess natural rights, expanding on Thomas Hobbes’ concept of the social contract.
In the early 1700s, England's combination of economic prosperity, social stability and civil liberties had no equivalent anywhere in continental Europe, at least not among the larger states; smaller states such as Switzerland were a different matter. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) lived in England for several years in the 1720s and knew the English language well. He preferred British constitutional monarchy to French absolute monarchy. Voltaire praised England's virtues in Letters on the English from 1734 when he returned to Paris. This caused great excitement among French intellectuals for the ideas of Newton and Locke and the plays of Shakespeare, but their own philosophies went in a different direction.
That an important European city such as Paris was the home of a major intellectual movement is not too strange. It is more surprising that the smaller city of Edinburgh was so as well during the second half of the eighteenth century. What came to be known as the Scottish Enlightenment, whose effects were felt far beyond Scotland or Britain, produced a series of prominent intellectuals and scholars, including the pioneering modern geologist James Hutton (1726-1797), the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), the brilliant, but famously eccentric economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) and the historian Adam Ferguson (1723-1816).
Adam Smith from the University of Glasgow in 1776 – at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, although he did not realize this at the time – published his Wealth of Nations, widely considered the first modern work of economics. Smith stressed meritocracy and introduced the principle of competitive advantage and the metaphor of the invisible hand. Above all he championed the idea that trade is not a zero-sum game but a win-win situation; he challenged the ancient assumption that wealth is a pie of fixed size over which everybody has to fight to get their share by showing that the size of the pie itself can grow through trade.
Scotland at this time had a good education system and very high literacy rates, as did the emerging Scandinavian nations. The American polymath Benjamin Franklin, who visited Edinburgh in 1759, remembered his stay as “the densest happiness” he had ever experienced. By 1762 Voltaire was writing, with a touch of malice, that “today it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening.” In England and the Netherlands, where political power was already in the hands of the merchant middle class, intellectual activity was directed toward analyzing the practical significance of this change.
In contrast, according to scholar Bruce G. Trigger:
The continuing political weakness of the French middle class in the face of Bourbon autocracy stimulated French intellectuals to use the idea of progress to reify change as a basis for challenging the legitimacy of an absolute monarch, who claimed to rule by divine will and protected the feudal economic privileges enjoyed by a politically moribund nobility. By proclaiming change to be both desirable and inevitable, Enlightenment philosophers called into question the legitimacy of the existing political and religious order. Beginning as an intellectual expression of discontent, the French Enlightenment gradually developed into a movement with revolutionary potential ... . The Scottish interest in Enlightenment philosophy reflected the close cultural ties between Scotland and France but also was stimulated by the unprecedented power and prosperity acquired to the Scottish urban middle class as a result of Scotland’s union with England in 1707. Southern Scotland was experiencing rapid development but the highland areas to the north remained politically, economically, and culturally underdeveloped. This contrast aroused the interest of Scottish intellectuals in questions relating to the origin, development, and modernization of institutions.
Scottish intellectuals made very important contributions to science and to our understanding of the modern world, but it was the more revolutionary version of Enlightenment philosophy which developed in France that would become popular among the middle classes seeking more political power for themselves in Europe and in North America.
The sad part when writing this is that while Britain was once admired for its political system and was rightfully hailed as a beacon of liberty, today Britain is one of the most politically repressive countries in the Western world, which is saying a lot given how bad politically correct censorship is in the entire Western world these days. Britain today is a multicultural police state where sharia, Islamic law, is quite literally treated as the law [in some parts] of the land. I suppose there is a strange sort of symmetry in this: Britain was one of the first countries in the West to embrace political liberty and is now among the first to leave political liberty behind.