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A Historical Background of Liberalism and Democracy at Great Britain

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Democracy and Liberalism in Great Britain.

The nation of Great Britain has a long history of a parliamentary democracy and in obtaining progress in what it means to be a liberal democracy. Most people think that the creation of the British nation began in 1707, with the passage of the Act of Union 1707 were the Kingdoms of England and Scotland united under one ruler. However the English had a long history of dominating the Scottish dating back to the time of King Edward I of England during the late 13th century. However for many years England was not a democracy at all. Starting in 1066 with the Norman Conquest of England, the nation was dominated by a monarch, the first being William of Normandy. William’s descendents continue to be the monarch to this day. (House of Windsor by Andrew Roberts 1984) (Queen of Elizabeth II of House Windsor is a distant but direct descendent of William).

For the first two centuries of the united monarchy the kings ruled with absolute authority, and it was not until King John of England signed the Magna Carta that began to limit the authority of the king. Signed in 1215 at Runnymede it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on payments to the crown. Also known as the Great Charter this document was the beginning of the start of a gradual move of the island nation toward a democracy. (Magna Carta: An Introduction, Claire Breay) England for a brief period of time was ruled as a commonwealth from 1649-1660 dominated by the Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell. The commonwealth was established after the English Civil War between Charles I of England and and the parliament.

This was due to Charles marrying a Catholic, his belief in divine right and his attempt to levy taxes without the consent of parliament. Charles’s armies were later defeated and he was charged with treason and then beheaded. Eventually his son Charles II succeeded him to the throne the civil war not only proved that the crown had limited authority but it showed that the crown could be overthrown(Carlton, Charles Charles I: The Personal Monarch,). The final transition from the personal rule of the monarchs to the more parliament orientated style was finalized with the end of rule of William and Mary being succeeded by George I of House Hanover. George I was the first King of Great Britain rather than having the three titles of King of England, Ireland and Scotland like that of his ancestors. His reign finalized Britain’s ending of a powerful monarchy into a constitutional monarchy. (Carlton, Charles (1992), The Experience of the British Civil Wars)

The Parliament of Great Britain has played a huge role in the political culture of the nation. The parliament has legislative supremacy over the country and its territories and ultimate power over all other political bodies in Great Britain.(Sayles, G. O. The King’s Parliament of England (1974) The British Parliament was created in 1707 with the merging of the English and Scottish Parliaments after the passage of the act of Union. By 1807 with the passage of the Act of Union 1807 this merged the British and Irish Parliaments together creating the modern system. The Parliament played a huge role in modernizing the political system of Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution.(Wasson, E. A. (2000). Born to Rule: British Political Elites. Stroud.

The Parliament is bicameral with an upper house and a lower house which are the House of Lords and House of Commons. The House of Lords being the upper house membership was based on family aristocracy and for a long time had most of the power.Blackstone, Sir William (1765). Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press).

But by the beginning of the 17th century the House of Lords power began to lose authority. Parliament began to grant more power to the House of Commons the lower house these members are elected from the common folk or the non aristocracy. The fact that they began to wield more power marks how Britain started to become a more liberal democracy then a nation dominated by the royal family and the aristocrats.(Pollard, Albert F. (1926). The Evolution of Parliament, 2nd ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co) The Parliament played a huge role in granting suffrage to many peoples in Britain. However the colonies were excluded from representation in Parliament including the 13 American Colonies, Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand. Also excluded from the political process were women and minorities. Parliament also passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, outlawing slavery in Britain and all of her colonies.

Parliament also did much to curtail the powers of the crown, as stated before at one time the monarch had near universal authority over the nation, however with the uncodified constitution the monarch can create corporations via royal charters and grant honors in domestic policy. In foreign affairs the monarch can ratify treaties, recognize foreign states, and to credit and receive diplomats. However the monarch can only do this after parliament has given permission to do so.(Cannon, John; Griffiths, Ralph (1988). The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy. Oxford: Oxford University Press) The evolution of power from the monarch to the parliament represents the idea of liberalism in terms of sovereignty and autonomy. This also reflects the evolution of more power of the monarchies to the parliaments in Europe. With this the British began to see themselves more as citizens of a British state rather than the subjects of the Royal family.

Historically the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish all valued having a King in their own right. An English king for England, a Scottish king for Scotland, a Welsh king for Wales and a Irish king for Ireland. Though now due to parliament having sovereignty rather than a king, the people of the British Isles expect a parliament that looks out for British interest. Interesting enough the United Kingdom has had a process of devolution (a political process were more political power is at a local level rather than centralized with a unitary national government. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own parliaments that do practice a fair amount of autonomy and sovereignty. It will be interesting to see what the future of the British state will hold as the U.K has decided to leave the E.U, but Scotland overwhelmingly voted to stay.(Dardanelli, P (2005): Between Two Unions: Europeanisation and Scottish Devolution, Manchester University Press)

The fact that these nations have their own parliaments shows a progression of more liberal policies compared to their histories of Scotland. Ireland and Wales being nominated by England.

The cabinet of the Prime Minister also played a big role in shaping a modern Britain. Unlike the United States that has separation of powers, The British Prime Minister is technically a member of Parliament and is chosen by the majority party after an electoral victory. The Prime Minister then selects other members of parliament to be part of their ministry. Unlike the American system where the head of the executive A.K.A the American President who is both head of state and head of government, the British Prime Minister is only the head of government. They are strictly in charge of running the day to day functions of the government. The British head of state who represents the nation on foreign visits is the monarch.

Not only were they in charge enforcing the policies of parliament but they also provided services that the population began to rely in. for example the head of the Board of Trade serves in the cabinet of the Prime Minister and is responsible for the regulation of domestic and foreign commerce. For the most part the British pushed for free trade in term of the shipping of products across the sea and the British built a strong industry on silk, tea and sugar. Beginning in 1782 Parliament created the Home Office which was responsible for several things including regulation of immigrants, prisons, police services, marriage, death and birth certificates, and the naturalisation of aliens into citizens. During this time period local police departments were created to ensure law and order such as Scotland Yard and the nation began to move away from vigilantism toward a state sponsored police service.

Political parties also played a big role in shaping the political landscape of the British nation. The first political parties were the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, both these parties date back to the time of the English Civil War, were King Charles I clashed with the parliament. The Cavaliers were the supporters of King Charles and the crown while the Roundheads supported the rights of the parliament. They eventually evolved into two rival political parties, the Tories and Whigs respectfully. The Tories first founded in 1678 was made up predominantly of supporters of King James II of England. The Tories credo was “God, King and Country”, this party advocated for monarchism, a high Anglican religious heritage and were opposed to the liberalism of the Whigs.(Feiling, Keith. A history of the Tory party, 1640-1714 (Clarendon Press, 1950)

The Tories had famous leaders such as William Pitt the younger, Robert Jenkinson and Robert Peel. The Tories are the political ancestors of the modern day Conservative Party which was founded in 1834 and spawned many famous Prime Ministers such as Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and Theresa May.(Blake, Robert (2011). The Conservative Party from Peel to Major (4th ed.). London: Faber Finds) Their rivals in history was the Whig party founded in 1688. They evolved from the Roundheads who were the supporters of the members of parliament against Charles I. They were the standing enemies of the kings that hailed from the House of Stuart, a royal house of Scottish origin that were Roman Catholics. The Whigs were firm believers in the supremacy of parliament, tolerance of Protestant dissenters and opposition to Catholicism.

From 1721- 1753 the Whigs controlled the government led by Robert Walpole and later his protege Henry Pelham. By the 18th century the parties had evolved with the Tories supporting the Stuart Royal House, the established Church of England and the gentry. While the Whigs supported the great aristocratic families, the House of Hanover rules such as King George I (who was Protestant), and the religious tolerance of non Anglican Protestants. By the time of the Industrial Revolution the Whigs drew support from wealthy merchants and industrialist, while the Tories main supporters were from landed interest and the royal family. Finally by the 1850s the Whigs base of support not only the supremacy of parliament over the crown and free trade but Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and the expansion of franchise.(Cannon, John Ashton, ed. The Whig Ascendancy: Colloquies on Hanoverian England)

The electoral process played a big role in shaping Britain into a parliamentary democracy. Before the Magna Carta and the devolution of power towards parliament, if the citizens did not like the policies passed by the monarch they really had no power to do anything to stop it. However due to parliamentary elections the people gained much more power over the policies that affect them. Only the members of the House of Commons are elected, while the House of Lords are hereditary titles passed on through the family. The first election in Great Britain occurred in 1708, the first election to be held after the Act of Union which united the English and Scottish Parliaments. The Whig Party won 291 seats compared to the Tories with 222. The elections could be held anywhere from 3-7 years so party leadership could often change. Following the 1708 election and until 1768 the Whigs were the majority ruling party. This resulted in much of their policies being passed such as the protectionist corn laws, favored an anti- Catholic foreign policy which resulted in conflict with the catholic rulers of France and Spain in the French and Indian War in North America 1754-1763 and they passed the the Stamp Act, Tea Act and Sugar Act on the American colonies which eventually lead to the American Revolutionary War. However the Tories did make a comeback in 1783 under the leadership of William Pitt. this new Tory Party was more imperialistic when it came to foreign affairs and on the domestic front were no longer seen as keen supporters of the monarchy and did much to curtail the power of King George III. This was due to what was perceived as King George’s incompetence during the American Revolution. The electorate seemed to like this as they had not elected a party that promised to restore the monarchy to its former glory, the people of Great Britain due to this consider a weak monarchy and a strong Parliament the norm.(Smith, Simon C. British Imperialism 1750-1970. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998

The rise of the English and later British Empires resulted in the idea of British supremacy. The English long dominated the Irish and Scottish and later moved toward colonizing the New World. The English first colony was set up in Jamestown Virginia in 1607 and eventually the British set up the 13 American Colonies which later became the first 13 states of the United States of America. By 1763 after defeating the French and the Spanish in the French and Indian War, the British took control of all the land east of the Mississippi River, Canada, Florida Jamaica and Cuba. However after the American Revolution ended with a treaty in 1783, The British were forced to give up the land East of the Mississippi, Florida and Cuba. This was the end of the first British Empire.(Lloyd, Trevor Owen. The British Empire, 1558-1995. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996

The Second phase of the British Empire begins right after the British lose their American colonies. British naval Captain James Cook while on a voyage in the Pacific Ocean claims the continent of Australia to the British. Originally used as a penal colony for convicts until the 1800s, were eventually settlers from Great Britain began to move there due to economic opportunities. To this day the “White Australians” are descended from people of the mother island. New Zealand to was claimed by the British and by 1840 it was a fully fledged colony with a large population of settlers. The British also moved into the continents of Asia and Africa. The British East India Company was founded in 1698 to ensure British trade interest with China and India to ensure the steady flow of opium, tea and silk. But by 1858 the British government assumed direct control over India making it another overseas colony. (James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin’s Press)

British immigration to Southern Africa began in 1820 at the time were it was populated by Dutch and German settlers or “Afrikaners” eventually the British took full control of South Africa ruling the area until the end of World War II. British gains in East and South Africa pushed British statesman Cecil Rhodes to push “from Cairo to Cape” a message that eventually became reality as the British now ruled lands starting in Egypt connecting all the way down to South Africa(Blaut, J. M. The Colonizer’s’ Model of the World. London: The Guilford Press, 1998). By the height of it’s power during the reign of Queen Victoria I the British occupied a territory in every continent. In North America they ruled Canada, in South America the Falkland Islands were under British control, in Africa the British ruled huge amounts of territory, India was under British rule and so was Australia and New Zealand. The phase was coined “the sun never sets on the British Empire” showed how mighty the British were. (Bryant, Arthur. The History of Britain and the British Peoples. 3 vols. London: Collins, 1984–1990)

The fact that the British ruled over so much territory made them believe that they had a superior culture. Their language, religion and way of life spread to all those corners of the empire. To this day English is spoken in many parts of the nation Christianity is still practiced and they have based their political systems off of what the British had. The British brought with them the political and legal aspects of what it meant to be British. Australia, New Zealand and the former African colonies such as South Africa have a parliamentary system that was based on the motherland. The aspect of home rule and self governing is what also brought the colonies to their independence. Perhaps the most famous was the American colonist who grew tired of a parliament and a king three thousand miles across the Atlantic and that they were not represented in Parliament nor should they pay taxes to a government that they have no voice in. As an American patriot once said “taxation without representation is tyranny”. This notion came from the British political norm of a limited monarchy with a powerful parliament, though the American one came to encompass not only an anti monarchy but also a separation of powers for a government. (W. B. Gwyn, The Meaning of the Separation of Powers (1965)

War also played a big role in the creation of the British State and how it evolved. The British conquered much of their territories through conflict. For the North American colonies they battled the Native Americans, the Dutch, French and Spanish. In Africa they came into conflict with the the Dutch, Germans and native African tribes such as the Zulus. Not only did the British conduct war to protect their islands from foreign invasions. Not since 1066 the time of William the conqueror has a foreign army been able to invade and conquer Britain. The Spanish under King Philip attempted to take England in 1587-1588 by sending the Spanish Armada. The reasons behind the attack was one a rivalry between England and Spain over their American colonies and to restore Catholic rule to England . At the time Queen Elizabeth I of England was head of the new Church of England. (Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII broke off with the Catholic pope over his divorce from Catherine of Spain). The invasion failed and made clear to the world that England will be the naval superpower of the world. Even French leader Napoleon Bonaparte failed to successfully invade Britain.(Armitage, David. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Though England was successful in their wars for the most part the series of long and expensive wars did play a role of the decline of the British Empire. By 1914 the British Empire was still across the world but world tensions were flaring up mainly between Britain, Germany, Russia and Austria- Hungary. Interesting enough King George V of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were all first cousins to one and other. The war at the time was called the “Great War” but we know it as World War I and nearly bankrupted the empire. By the 1930s tensions in Europe were on the rise again as Germany began to annexed territories under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s. By 1942 Britain was the only nation of the European allies that was free of German occupation, as the French government had fled into exile following the german invasion of France, the Soviet Union was under direct assault from a German Blitzkrieg however Britain was under constant air raids by the German air force that destroyed many British cities. Not only were the british fighting in Europe but also in Africa, Pacific Asia and the Middle East against German, Italian and Japanese forces. (Louis, William. Roger (ed.). The Oxford History of the British Empire. 5 vols. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998-1999

Though Britain was victorious in the second world war, she lost most of her colonies. Egypt, South Africa, India and the Australian continent had become completely independent in governing from Britain. The truly last major foreign colony Hong Kong was given back to the Chinese in 1997 as the people there did not feel a connection to the British nation but more to their ethnic relatives of the People’s Republic of China. (Heinlein, Frank. British Government Policy )In 1922 another major political change came after much conflict, the Island of Ireland broke away from the United Kingdom and formed the Irish Republic, now making the United Kingdom encompassing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.John A. Murphy, Ireland in the Twentieth Century)( The Irish being ethnically and religiously different than the English wanted their own independent state and finally achieved it after hundreds of years of conflict to get away from the British crown, (Rose, J. Holland, A. P. Newton and E. A. Benians (eds.). The Cambridge History of the British Empire. 9 vols. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1929–1961

Religion also played a huge role in the Britain dating back to the time that island was under the rule of the Roman Empire. In the 4th century A.D the Romans adopted Christianity and soon the Christian faith became the dominant religion throughout the empire. This included Britain and for over a thousand years they were loyal to the pope in Rome. However by the time of King Henry VIII the English had broke off over a disagreement with the pope. The Church of England was created with the English monarch as its head. The British have a long history of discrimination against Catholics at one time making it illegal for a Catholic to hold a seat in Parliament and they did not want a Catholic to sit on the throne. The Irish remained Catholics and religious tensions between the Catholic south and Protestant north plagued the Emerald Island for years. It can be said that unlike the Americans who dislike the notion of mixing religion and politics the British consider it the norm as the monarch is the head of the Anglican religion. The fact that Britain had its own church often isolated itself from the rest of Europe was Roman Catholic and due to the nation not being connected to Europe the British have their own unique identity. (Marshall, Peter James (ed.). The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

The question arises now at what does it exactly mean to be British. The term Britain comes from the name Britannica the term used for the island that the Romans called it when they impose their imperial rule. But the nation Great Britain was created when the Kingdoms of England and Scotland united under one monarch. Then in 1807 the Act of Union passed that combined the Kingdom of Ireland and created the United Kingdom. However one can say there is no British ethnicity as all the kingdoms are ethnically different. The English are predominantly descended from the Angles, Saxons and Jutes Germanic tribes that invaded Britain in the 5th to 6th century and drove out the originally inhabits the Britons. The English Also have Norman ancestry as Duke William took over the Anglo Saxon kingdom and replaced the aristocracy with Normans. (How William the Bastard Became William the Conqueror BBC news Robert Bartlett) The Normans were a unique group of French citizens with mixed bloodlines of the Viking Norsemen and the Roman Gaul inhabitants. The Irish, Scottish and Welsh are descended from the original inhabitants of the island the Celtic Britons.(Stephen Oppenheimer (2006). The Origins of the British: a Genetic Detective Story. Constable and Robinson. This distinct identity played a big role in the devolution of power from the Parliament in London to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Parliaments. It will be interesting to see as Britain had voted to leave the E.U but the voters in Scotland voted to stay if Scotland votes again to leave the U.K it will be interesting to see what the future of Great Britain will look like but it also shows how much more liberal the British have gotten since Parliament first came into effect. (Shell, Donald (2007). The House of Lords (3rd ed.)

Britain has also made many kings that were not technically British, Duke William was a Norman, Richard the Lionheart his descendent was of the French House Plantagenet, the Stuart dynasty originated in Scotland, House Hannover was German and even the the present day Queen Elizabeth I is of House Windsor which is of German ancestry. So the monarchy is suppose to be the symbol of the British people despite the royal family having a very mixed bloodline dating back centuries. Though every monarch who has sat on the throne is a descendent of William the Conqueror. (Britain’s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy)

Understanding Britain’s history allows you to see were its norms and the progress it has made. Britain has played a unique role in the powers of parliamentary democracy and inspired a whole new set of governments to move away from monarchies and towards democracies. But this all stems from the British history of limiting the monarch’s power and to to ensure the autonomy and sovereignty of the British Parliament is respected and honored.

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