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Britain’s government would be familiar to Daniel Defoe

My Times column on the little-changed political institutions of London:

Two hundred and ninety years ago a novelist, spy, tradesman and bankrupt named Daniel Defoe began publishing his account of A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain. A book out this week by the distinguished sociologist WG Runciman imagines what Defoe would make of the island if he were to take his tour again today. His title gives away the conclusion: Very Different, But Much the Same.

For all the astonishing changes that would boggle Defoe’s mind — aeroplanes, toilets, motorways, telephones, cameras, pensions, the internet, religious diversity, vaccines, working women, electricity and vastly higher living standards especially for the poor — he would be just as amazed at the things that have not changed.

There is still a hereditary monarch, a Church of England, a Tory party, a bicameral parliament, one house of which is elected, the other still with bishops and a few hereditary peers on its benches. (Though not a Tory, Garry Runciman is a Northumbrian viscount, like me, although he no longer sits in the Lords.) There is still a bewigged judiciary presiding over trial by jury and sentencing criminals to prisons, and a City full of bankers and speculators, some of whom grow rich enough to buy country estates or horses to run at Epsom, and to send their sons to Eton and Oxford.

Most of these enduring features are in London, a city that dominates the country as much as it did in Defoe’s day, despite the emergence in the 19th century of an industrial, urban powerhouse astride the Pennines. It is astonishing that the industrial revolution, and the vast expansion of the population that it allowed, did so little to change the main shape and habits of Britain’s political and cultural institutions.

Once he had got the hang of modern technology, transport and clothing, Defoe would be quite at home in London. There are still West End theatres showing Jacobean tragedies and restoration comedies. Over all this a fairly small, London-based political and financial elite presides with powers of patronage and a tendency to periodic scandal that would be instantly familiar. Scotland is again semi-attached; India has come and gone since his day. It is all very Hanoverian.

What’s more, Defoe would still be able to boast of Britain’s unusual nature, says Runciman. He would “have as much reason as ever to remark on the distinctiveness of his own society’s political, ideological and economic institutions”. For three hundred years Britain has almost uniquely avoided slipping into feudal, theocratic, despotic or military rule. It has remained an untidy mixture of constrained monarchy, permeable oligarchy, imperfect markets, and representative democracy.

Defoe lived towards the end of a period of civil war, regicide, restoration, (“glorious”) foreign invasion, Jacobite civil war and the imposition of a new dynasty. Yet in the centuries since, with the exception of Culloden and the Blitz, there have been no battles within the country, let alone civil wars. With hindsight, says Runciman, it was never even likely that Britain would succumb to revolution or dictatorship. The idea of freedom was always too strongly popular: freedom of movement, opinion, assembly, speech, contract, trade and fair trial.

The early 19th-century prime minister Lord Liverpool constantly fretted that a French-style revolution could happen here. The Duke of Wellington thought the Great Reform Bill would start a revolution. Opponents of widening the franchise in 1867 thought the same. But compared with France in 1789, Russia in 1917 or Germany in 1933, Britain’s power elite was too constrained and many-headed, its peasantry and proletariat too free and empowered, and its civil society too entrenched for an autocratic outcome to be plausible.

If Labour in 1950 had gone to the country with a programme of full communism, or the Conservatives in 1979 with a programme of ultra-libertarianism, both would have lost by a mile. Gradualism was made inevitable by elections, which force parties to respect the cautious instincts of the people: observe how Ukip has suddenly accepted the sacrosanct nature of the NHS in order to be electable.

Runciman (like me) is a devotee of the theory of cultural evolution, the notion that society changes by the gradual and undirected emergence of new ways of doing things that persist by competitive survival, rather than by grand design. In Darwinian terms, some of Britain’s institutions are sociological coelacanths — living fossils that have changed little while the world has changed rapidly around them.

The Left generally sees this institutional persistence as evidence that (in Runciman’s words) the “apparatus of government has been the instrument of a self-serving ruling class determined to retain its control of the means of coercion and persuasion”. The Right sees it as evidence that Britain’s institutions “have consistently allowed for the representation of conflicting interests through a parliamentary assembly and delegation of power to local authorities while containing the risk of instability through judicious toleration of alternative opinions and lifestyles and prudent oversight of a market in commodities and labour”.

Although Defoe might be pleasantly surprised by a decline in the bossiness of the church and the excise man (gone are the law that all must attend church and the Calico Acts, forbidding cotton clothing, to protect wool and silk makers), he would undoubtedly be astonished by the enormous growth of other officious bureaucracies.

He would surely also be appalled at the degree to which we are subjects of an alien and unelected European nomenklatura. If, as Paul Johnson used to argue, Britain’s history can be seen as a series of painful and prolonged disengagements from (and resistance to) projects of European unification — by Caesars, popes, Bourbons, Hapsburgs, Bonapartes, Hitlers, Stalins, Delorses — then it would be reasonable to predict that cultural evolution will eventually lead us out of the EU. But predicting evolution is very hard.

It is hard to think of another nation — only the Vatican or perhaps the Netherlands spring to mind — where the main institutions have changed so little since 1724. Everywhere else they were remade in the 1780s, 1840s, 1950s or 1990s. On every measure of science, technology and society, we are as modern as you could wish. Yet we manage to be so within national institutions that are little changed from the time of George I.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times