Posts Tagged ‘England’

What’s the Matter with Britain?

February 24, 2019

I am an Anglophile. I love Great Britain and particularly England. I am a great fan of English literature, English history, English culture, and the English language. Although I am a patriotic American, there are times when I when a certain regret over the misunderstandings of 1776 that led to our separation from the mother country. The world might be a better place if America, Britain, and the other English-speaking countries were all part of a globe spanning Anglo-American Empire.

But then, I read stories like this one in the Telegraph and am grateful that we did separate from Great Britain, and write a constitution that includes the first amendment. England seems to be even more in the grip of political correctness than we are and they have no first amendment to keep the Fascists from throwing thought criminals in jail.

A docker from Humberside has been investigated by police over a limerick he posted on Twitter after an officer claimed it constitutes a ‘hate incident’ against transgender people.

Harry Miller, 53, from Lincoln was contacted on Wednesday by a community cohesion officer following a complaint that had been made about the plant and machinery dealer’s social media posts.

Citing 30 potentially offensive tweets, the PC singled out a limerick Mr Miller had retweeted which  questioned whether transgender women are biological women. It included the lines: “Your breasts are made of silicone, your vagina goes nowhere.”

Even though no crime was committed, sharing the limerick online was recorded as a ‘hate incident’.

PC Mansoor Gul told Mr Miller: “I’ve been on a course and what you need to understand is that you can have a foetus with a female brain that grows male body parts and that’s what a transgender person is.”

After Mr Miller questioned why the complainant was being described as a “victim” if no crime had been committed, the officer told him: “We need to check your thinking”.

“I can’t believe what is happening in the UK in the name of transgenderism and, worse still, we’re not even allowed to think never mind talk about it,” Mr Miller said.

The married father of four was alerted to the investigation by his company directors after they were approached by officers trying to make contact with Mr Miller.

The complainant had managed to identify Mr Miller’s place of work, despite there being no reference to his business or his full identity on his Twitter account. As part of the complaint to police it was alleged the firm was an ‘unsafe environment’ for transgender employees because of Mr Miller’s comments on social media.

Let’s get this straight. Mr. Miller did not commit any crimes. He did not assault or even make any disparaging remarks to anyone in person. He did not even compose the allegedly offending tweet. He simply liked or retweeted tweets that someone found offensive. The only reason the police were involved was because it was a “hate incident” and they needed to check his thinking.

What is the matter with Britain? Why are they putting up with this petty tyranny over there? What has happened to the liberty loving English of the past, the people who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, who chopped off Charles I’s head for being an overbearing tyrant, who fought the good fight against Hitler? When did the British people become a herd of sheep?

What exactly is a “hate incident”? If a hate incident occurs whenever one person says something that another person does not like, than no one is safe saying anything at all. Any comment, no matter how innocent could be taken as offensive. In fact, such rules against “hate” cannot be applied objectively and even-handedly. They are almost always applied in favor of “marginalized” groups against less favored groups. If a White, cisgender, heterosexual, Anglican had complained about a hate incident, I doubt anyone would have cared, no matter how hateful the tweet.

Does anyone really believe that banning hate speech will actually eliminate hate? It seems to me that it would only succeed in driving it underground. The people who are silenced will not change their opinion. They will only have the additional grievance of being silenced, and if the silencing is not objective or even-handed, as in fact it cannot be, the censorship may have the effect of increasing resentment against any favored groups.

There is also the problem of what actually constitutes “hate”. All too often, hate is defined simply as an opinion someone doesn’t like, especially if there happens to be some truth in the silenced opinion. The tweet that Mr. Miller shared may have been crude and not very nice, but it does express a truth. Gender is a biological fact, not a matter of personal choice. It is not possible to change gender, no matter how strongly a person feels as though they are really the opposite gender. A transgender man is not a woman, no matter what hormones he has taken or operations he has had. By punishing such sentiments as hate speech, the authorities in Britain are in the position of punishing a man for speaking a truth anyone can see and coercing people to affirm a lie, they cannot really believe.

If truth or a widely shared opinion becomes “hate”, than this blurs the lines between unpleasant pr inconvenient truths and statements that really are hateful. Punishing hate speech might have the unintended effect of making real hatred more acceptable, not to mention putting both the dissident stating unpleasant truths and the hater in the same position as defenders of free speech and free thought.  In general, I think the best way to deal with hate is to have everything out in the open rather than to let in fester in darkness.

I guess it was just as well we had that disagreement back in 1776. I prefer to live in a country where free speech is protected by the first amendment. Maybe the US should annex Britain as our fifty-first state so the people there can have the benefits of the first amendment.

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There is no Queen of England

August 30, 2015

One of my favorite movies is Megamind and this is my favorite scene from the movie.

 

The strange thing is that the statement made by Hal/Tighten, “There is no Queen of England” happens to be correct. There is, in fact, no such person as the Queen of England. She is as real as the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. If that is true than who is this woman?

Queen-Elizabeth-II-

That is Her Royal Majesty Elizabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well various former British colonies. England is, to be sure, part of the kingdom she reigns over, but England has not been an independent, sovereign nation since the Acts of Union in 1707. The United Kingdom is made up of three kingdoms, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and one principality, Wales united into one nation with a common government and Parliament.

England is the largest of the countries that make up the United Kingdom both in area and population and so has tended to dominate the kingdom to the point that British has largely become synonymous with English. It is the English language that is spoken throughout the British Isles while the various Celtic languages are either endangered or extinct. It is understandable, then, that the Queen of Great Britain should be referred to as simply the Queen of England.

The Kingdom of England that was united into the United Kingdom is generally held to begin with the Norman Conquest of 1066, though, of course British history stretches back to the Roman province of Britannia. Since the Conquest did mark a drastic shift in English history, culture and even language and every monarch since 1066 has been a descendant of William the Conqueror, so it seems fair enough to regard it as the establishment of the English nation as we know it today. The English language and people existed for many centuries before the coming of the Normans, however. It was the Angles and the Saxons who invaded Britain after the Romans withdrew in 410 who gave England its name and language. These Anglo-Saxon invaders either drove out or assimilated the Latin or Celtic speaking Romanized Britons. For some time, England was split into many, the traditional number is seven, petty kingdoms and subject to invasions by the Norsemen, but in the century before the Norman conquest began to be unified under the rule of Wessex, the one English kingdom that managed not to be conquered by the Vikings. The Norman Conquest unified England somewhat more firmly and while the Normans brought continental feudalism to England with its potential for disunity and English kings had some trouble keeping their barons in line, England remained a more unified state than France or Germany. In time, England grew strong enough to dominate the British Isles.

The English flag

The English flag

I referred to Wales as a principality, but that is not strictly accurate. Unlike the English and Scots, the Welsh never quite succeeded in coalescing into a unified, sovereign state and the country now known as Wales was divided into many small kingdoms or principalities after the withdrawal of the Roman legions. Although divided and apt to fight among themselves, the Welsh did manage to fend off the Anglo-Saxons, thus retaining their language and separate identity. There were various Welsh lords who were able to conquer much of Wales and receive the acknowledgement as overlord by other Welsh rulers, but such Welsh kingdoms never outlasted the lives of the first rulers.

The Normans had somewhat more success in subduing the Welsh. In 1216, the Welsh lords agreed to recognize Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd as their Paramount Lord and King John of England gave him the title of Prince of Wales. This Principality of Wales only extended to about two-thirds of the modern Wales and the Princes of Wales were vassals of the English crown and while largely autonomous were not entirely independent. Even this limited independence was ended when England annexed Wales to the English crown in 1284. The custom of giving the heir apparent the title of Prince of Wales began in 1301. There were a number of rebellions by descendants of Welsh leaders but such rebellions were unsuccessful, but ultimately the Welsh descended Tudor, Henry VII, became King of England in 1485. His son Henry VIII united the governments and legal codes of England and Wales in 1542. Welsh nationalism has not played as prominent role in the politics of Wales as Scottish nationalism has had and there is little support for Welsh independence from Britain. Wales was granted a National Assembly with limited powers in 1999.

Welsh Flag

The Welsh Flag

The beginnings of the Kingdom of Scotland are somewhat obscure. The Romans conquered the southern part of Scotland, the lowlands, but were never able to extend their empire into the highlands. The Romans referred to the peoples North of their border as Caladonians, a term derived from a Celtic language, or  Picti, meaning the painted or tattooed ones in Latin. After the Romans withdrew from Britain there was a period of confusion and it seems that there were a number of kingdoms or tribal federations in Scotland. The word Scot is derived from Scoti, a name given to Gaelish raiders and invaders from Ireland. These Scoti gradually displaced and intermingled with the Picts and their many petty kingdoms were eventually united into the Kingdom of Alba by Kenneth MacAlpin in the ninth century. There followed a period of struggle against the Northmen and fighting for the crown by branches of the MacAlpin dynasty, but by the time of the Norman Conquest, Scotland had emerged as a rival kingdom to England.

Scotland was a good deal poorer and less populated than England and so was never really a serious threat to its southern neighbor. The Scots could raid and harass England’s northern borderlands, however, and the existence of an enemy on the Island of Britain always meant that England could never exert its full force against the French in their frequent wars. Indeed, France and Scotland were often allied together against England in what was often called the Auld Alliance. For their part, the English could invade Scotland and even conquer large parts of the kingdom but discovered that occupying a country is far more difficult than invading it. Scotland’s rugged terrain and stubborn people; even Scottish kings had difficulty controlling their subjects, soon induced the English to withdraw.

In 1371,Robert II the first of the Stewart or Stuart dynasty became King of Scotland. Robert Stuart’s great-great grandson James IV married Margaret Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII, King of England in 1503, linking the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. Their great grandson was King James VI of Scotland. As a descendant of Henry VII, James VI was the closest relative of Queen Elizabeth I of England and upon her death in 1603, James ascended to the English throne as King James I of England. Although the crowns of the two kingdoms of England and Scotland were united in the person of James VI and I in his person and in his heirs, the two kingdoms remained separate nations, each with its own Parliament, code of laws, and even state church.

The Scottish flag

The Scottish flag

The two kingdoms would have to wait a century before becoming united by the Acts of Union in 1707. Each kingdom had different reasons for desiring a united kingdom. The English were concerned that Scotland might choose a different monarch than England. James I’s grandson James II had been deposed the Glorious Revolution of 1685 by his daughter Mary I and her Dutch husband William III. William and Mary had no children and upon his death in 1702, Mary’s sister Anne became Queen. None of Queen Anne’s seventeen children survived to adulthood and since James II and his son James were Roman Catholic and so ineligible for the throne under English law, the next King of England after Anne would be George of Hanover, a great-grandson of James I. The Scottish parliament reserved the right to select its own King of Scotland so it was conceivable that the union of the two crowns could be ended as soon as Anne died. The English did not want that to happen. As for the Scots, union was desirable because Scotland had remained a poor and underdeveloped country compared to England. Since England and Scotland were separate nations the usual barriers to trade, like tariffs, were applied. Scottish nationals in England could be treated as aliens. Scottish merchants did not have full access to markets in England or England’s colonies in North America. Union with England was seen as a way to develop the Scottish economy and increase the standard of living to English levels.

Nevertheless, the Acts of Union were very unpopular in Scotland. It required clever parliamentary maneuvering, even outright bribery to get the Scottish Parliament to approve the Union. Scottish nationalism has continued to play an important part in Scottish politics. Jacobite pretenders from the Stuart family generally found considerable support in Scotland throughout the eighteenth century. More recently, there has been a growing Scottish National Party which is in favor of independence from the United Kingdom. Like Wales, Scotland was granted a Parliament with limited powers in 1999. The Scottish voters rejected independence from Great Britain in a referendum last year, but given that the Scottish National Party is the largest single party in the Scottish Parliament, it seems likely that the issue of independence will be revisited in the future. If Scotland were to become independent, they would probably retain the monarch, so the political situation in Britain would revert back to what it was before 1707, with Queen Elizabeth II of England becoming Elizabeth I of Scotland.

Last, there is the Kingdom of Ireland. Like the Welsh, the Irish never really cohered into a single kingdom. There was a High King of Ireland in the Early Middle Ages, but no high king really had much authority beyond his own realm. Such unity as existed in Ireland was destroyed after the tenth century by invading Vikings and later Normans from England. Henry II of England invaded Ireland in 1198 and made his son John Lord of Ireland. From that time the Kings of England also took the title of Lord of Ireland, whatever the Irish might have wanted, until 1542 when Henry VIII abolished the title of Lord of Ireland and proclaimed himself King of Ireland. Thus, the crowns of England and Ireland were united before the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, although the Crown of Ireland was an English creation. Ireland was brought into the United Kingdom by the Act of Union of 1800, making it the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Crown and Parliament of Ireland were creations of England for the Protestant English and Scottish settlers in Ireland. The native Irish were Catholics and generally played no part in the government of Ireland before and after the Union. By the end of the nineteenth century, reforms in the British government restored many basic rights to the Catholics of Britain and Ireland, but many Irish began to want independence from Britain. After a long and bloody struggle, the United Kingdom granted Ireland Home Rule in 1920. In 1922, Ireland became a dominion of the British Commonwealth under the name of the Irish Free State and in 1937 the Irish voted in a referendum to become completely independent from Britain as the Republic of Ireland. The six northern counties of Ireland with a Protestant majority opted to remain in the United Kingdom in 1920 and now form the region of Northern Ireland. This decision was controversial at the time, particularly among Northern Irish Catholics and Irish nationalist who wanted an undivided Ireland and remains controversial to the present day, although the violence has declined. The strong majority of the people of Northern Ireland prefer to stay in the United Kingdom and there is little chance of Northern Ireland gaining independence or joining with the the rest of Ireland. Like Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland has a parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, with limited powers.

Northern Irland

Northern Ireland

So, there is no Queen of England because there is no Kingdom of England. Next time you happen to meet the Queen be sure to refer to her by her proper title as Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.

 

Conquest: The English Kingdom of France

July 10, 2015

The Hundred Year’s War is not really an accurate name for the medieval war between England and France. The war actually lasted one hundred sixteen years, from 1337-1453, and was not a continuous war but a series of conflicts, with off and on fighting depending on the belligerence of kings and the course of the plague. The war began when the last son of Philip IV of France died without issue. As the mother of the English King Edward III was Phillip’s daughter, Edward claimed the French throne, as well as his own. The French refused his claim, citing the Salic Law which prohibited royal inheritance by a female descendant of the king and gave the crown to a nephew of Philip IV, Philip VI. Naturally there was war.

After the death of Edward III in 1377, the fighting died down somewhat as both realms were more concerned with internal matters. Henry V renewed the fighting in 1415, taking advantage of  political unrest between branches of the French royal family, particularly the feud between the Armagnac or Orleans faction and the Burgundians. After his decisive victory at Agincourt, Henry V was able to compel the French King Charles VI to disinherit his own son, the Dauphin, later known as Charles VII, and declare Henry his heir. Henry V died in 1522 leaving an infant son Henry VI who became king of France upon the death of Charles VI later that year. Thus France had an English king from 1420 to 1450, at least in theory.

This English kingdom of France is the subject of Juliet Barker‘s Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, which covers the last part of the Hundred Year’s War. It is a fascinating story of a France almost completely defeated rising again to expel the invader, of a disinherited prince with no hope of gaining his throne turning the tide with the help of Joan of Arc, and of an infant king  with a faction ridden council of regents and a land worn out by fighting, growing up into a weak king willing to make peace at any price. It is a story of battles and sieges, of brave knights and treacherous mercenaries and family squabbles that affect the course of nations.

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Juliet Barker makes this story come alive with the skill of a novelist. She brings out the personalities of the principals involved in the war and politics of the two kingdoms and describes the events in a way that excites the interest of the reader. By the time I was halfway through the book, I found the narrative so fascinating that I had trouble putting it down. If you like the Game of Thrones, you’ll surely love this history of a real life game of thrones. The only complaint I have is that the maps really weren’t enough. It might have been nice to include one or two maps showing the course of the various campaigns. Other than that, this was an excellent history of a long ago war.

Was the American Revolution a Mistake?

July 7, 2015

For Dylan Matthews at Vox.com the answer to that question is yes.

This July Fourth, I’m celebrating by taking a plane from the US to the United Kingdom. The timing wasn’t intentional, but I embrace the symbolism. American independence in 1776 was a monumental mistake. We should be mourning the fact that we left the United Kingdom, not cheering it.

Of course, evaluating the wisdom of the American Revolution means dealing with counterfactuals. As any historian would tell you, this is messy business. We obviously can’t be entirely sure how America would have fared if it had stayed in the British Empire longer, perhaps gaining independence a century or so later, along with Canada.

Would we be better off today if the Revolution had not succeeded? Rather than celebrating our independence from the mother country, ought we to regret it? I am something of an anglophile, so I am a bit wistful about that regrettable separation myself. Sometimes I do think it would be nice to be part of the country that gave us Doctor Who and Mister Bean, not to mention the many more substantial gifts that the British have given the world. Still, that is not saying that we would all be better off, and it is possible that much that was good about the British Empire may not have come to be without the sentiments expressed by our founding fathers.

The best thing to have come out of England, except for the Magna Carta, the English language, etc.

The best thing to have come out of England, except for the Magna Carta, the English language, etc.

It is, of course, impossible to know what would have happened. It seems to me that much would depend on the way in which the American Revolution had failed. If King George and his ministers had been more statesmanlike and showed a better understanding of the sentiments of the colonists, and if cooler heads had prevailed in the colonies, the Revolution might have been averted altogether. Perhaps there might have been some trouble in 1775 which was quickly resolved by judicious compromises, in which case the North American colonies might well have developed somewhere along the lines of Canada or Australia. On the other hand, if the British had defeated the Continental Army in 1779 or 1780 and killed George Washington, things might have been very different. Years of war had increased bitterness on both sides and it is likely that the rebellious colonies would have been held as conquered and occupied provinces, much like Ireland. Like Ireland, there might have been continuing unrest and repeated rebellions. Since Mr. Matthews seems to take the former scenario, so will I.

Maybe this would have been the flag of the Anglo-American Empire

Maybe this would have been the flag of the Anglo-American Empire

Dylan Matthews gives three reasons for believing that the American Revolution was a mistake.

But I’m reasonably confident a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: Slavery would’ve been abolished earlier, American Indians would’ve faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse.

I believe all three reasons are mistaken. I do not think that slavery would have been abolished earlier, that the policy towards the Indians would have been greatly different if the American Revolution had not succeeded, nor do I believe that a parliamentary system of government is superior.

The main reason the revolution was a mistake is that the British Empire, in all likelihood, would have abolished slavery earlier than the US did, and with less bloodshed.

Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of theSlavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there, too, in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.

This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.

According to Matthews, the American Revolution was fought by White men, for White men and everyone else would have been better off if they had failed.

The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America’s white male minority. For the vast majority of the country — its women, slaves, American Indians — the difference between disenfranchisement in an independent America and disenfranchisement in a British-controlled colonial America was negligible. If anything, the latter would’ve been preferable, since at least women and minorities wouldn’t be singled out for disenfranchisement. From the vantage point of most of the country, who cares if white men had to suffer through what everyone else did for a while longer, especially if them doing so meant slaves gained decades of free life?

Though he admits that abolishing slavery would have been harder if the North American colonies were still in the British Empire.

It’s true that had the US stayed, Britain would have had much more to gain from the continuance of slavery than it did without America. It controlled a number of dependencies with slave economies — notably Jamaica and other islands in the West Indies — but nothing on the scale of the American South. Adding that into the mix would’ve made abolition significantly more costly.

But the South’s political influence within the British Empire would have been vastly smaller than its influence in the early American republic. For one thing, the South, like all other British dependencies, lacked representation in Parliament. The Southern states were colonies, and their interests were discounted by the British government accordingly. But the South was also simply smaller as a chunk of the British Empire’s economy at the time than it was as a portion of America’s. The British crown had less to lose from the abolition of slavery than white elites in an independent America did.

It is not clear to what extent abolitionism would have gained any traction in Britain if a major part of their empire depended on slave labor and if the principles of equality and consent by the governed that were expressed so well by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence had remained unwritten. In any case, slavery would not have been confined to the South. In 1776, slavery was legal and accepted in all thirteen colonies. It was only after the American Revolution had been won that the first wave of abolitionism, prompted in part by the obvious hypocrisy of declaring all men equal while still holding slaves, led to the Northern states to abolish slavery. In 1787 the Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, organizing the Northwest territories and prohibiting slavery. Most people believed that it was only a matter of time before slavery was ended in the South. This didn’t happen partly because of the invention of the cotton gin and partly because the expansion into the south west, where slavery hadn’t been prohibited, was made easier by slave labor.

It seems likely, then, that by 1834 slavery would still be legal throughout North America both in the original thirteen colonies and in the settled lands beyond the Appalachians. Would the British Parliament still have abolished slavery, knowing that such an act would lead to revolution in the colonies. We would have fought the American Revolution in the 1830’s instead of the 1770’s. It seems likely that the Parliament might have delayed abolishing slavery for many years rather than lose the colonies, especially if the French, no Louisiana Purchase, and the Spanish, no Florida cession and perhaps no revolutions in Latin America, maintained some presence in North America.

What about the Indians?

Starting with the Proclamation of 1763, the British colonial government placed firm limits on westward settlement in the United States. It wasn’t motivated by an altruistic desire to keep American Indians from being subjugated or anything; it just wanted to avoid border conflicts. But all the same, the policy enraged American settlers, who were appalled that the British would seem to side with Indians over white men.

American Indians would have still, in all likelihood, faced violence and oppression absent American independence, just as First Nations people in Canada did. But American-scale ethnic cleansing wouldn’t have occurred. And like America’s slaves, American Indians knew this. Most tribes sided with the British or stayed neutral; only a small minority backed the rebels.

Ethnic cleansing is a loaded word that is not particularly applicable to what occurred in the relations between the Indian tribes and the American government. It was never an official policy of the U.S. government to exterminate the Native Americans. Here is what the Northwest Ordinance had to say about the Native inhabitants of the Northwest territory.

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.

Condescending, to be sure, but meant well. Unfortunately both Indians and settlers wanted the same lands so there was war and the Indians were defeated. This is bad enough but not the same as rounding people up and exterminating them in camps. But, who cares about accuracy when we have a chance to portray America as the Evil Empire? In any case, there is no reason to believe that the Indian policy, both intended or actual, would have been greatly different. The Proclamation of 1763 could not have been enforced for any period of time, given the demographic pressures that led the British colonists to want to expand westward. Matthews compares the treatment of the Indians by America and Canada, in Canada’s favor, but there were fewer settlers in Canada and the lands were less desirable.

Finally, the question of good government.

And parliamentary democracies are a lot, lot better than presidential ones. They’resignificantly less likely to collapse into dictatorship because they don’t lead to irresolvable conflicts between, say, the president and the legislature. They lead to much less gridlock.

In the US, activists wanting to put a price on carbon emissions spent years trying to put together a coalition to make it happen, mobilizing sympathetic businesses and philanthropists and attempting to make bipartisan coalition — and they still failed to pass cap and trade, after millions of dollars and man hours. In the UK, the Conservative government decided it wanted a carbon tax. So there was a carbon tax. Just like that. Passing big, necessary legislation — in this case, legislation that’s literally necessary to save the planet — is a whole lot easier with parliaments than with presidential systems.

This is no trivial matter. Efficient passage of legislation has huge humanitarian consequences. It makes measures of planetary importance, like carbon taxes, easier to get through; they still face political pushback, of course — Australia’s tax got repealed, after all — but they can be enacted in the first place, which is far harder in the US system. And the efficiency of parliamentary systems enables larger social welfare programs that reduce inequality and improve life for poor citizens. Government spending in parliamentary countries is about 5 percent of GDP higher, after controlling for other factors, than in presidential countries. If you believe in redistribution, that’s very good news indeed.

This is actually the best argument I could make against a parliamentary system. It is too easy to pass legislation. Under Britain’s current system all that is needed to make any changes imaginable is a majority in the House of Commons. There are no checks and balances. Any dictator would only need that majority to impose whatever rules he wanted. It is only tradition and the good sense of most Britons that has prevented anyone from trying, so far. I would be happier if the House of Lords had equal power with the House of Commons and the Monarch would still exercise a veto over legislation. This would be undemocratic, but many people confuse democracy with liberty, or ends and means. The end of government is the preservation of liberty. Democracy is only a means to that end. A democratic government can fail to preserve liberty and tyranny under a democracy is every bit as odious as any other kind. Frankly, I prefer freedom to efficiency in government.

After reading this article, I am not convinced that the American Revolution was a mistake. If anything, I am more grateful than ever that the founding fathers made the sacrifices they did to make the United States of America a free and independent country. I do not believe the world would have been a better place if the revolution had failed. It is more likely to have been less free and less prosperous. So, I will continue to celebrate the Fourth of July, while being grateful that the British are our best friends.

Besides, we would have him to look forward to as our next king.

Besides, we would have him to look forward to as our next king.

Talk Like a Pirate Day

September 19, 2014

Arrrr! Ahoy mateys, today be Talk Like a Pirate Day. This be the day those who be scallywags talk like true buccaneers not like lubbers.

English: Mark Summers ("Cap'n Slappy"...

English: Mark Summers (“Cap’n Slappy”) and John Baur (“Ol’ Chumbucket”), founders of Talk Like a Pirate Day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, the pirates of the Caribbean didn’t really talk like that The real language spoken by a pirate crew would have depended on the nationality of the crew, an English crew would have spoken English, French would have spoken French, and so on. Whatever language they spoke, the crews of a pirate ship would probably have spoken a lower class sailor’s dialect, not too different from the workingmen’s speech of their native country, though with nautical jargon. Of course, the Caribbean was a melting pot of races and nationalities and I suppose pirate crews reflected that diversity. There were a number of pidgins and creoles spoken in the region, which were spoken on pirate ships and which didn’t sound much like the language we associate with pirates.

So, where did our ideas about talking like a pirate come from? Most likely from the same place most of our other ideas about pirates, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Treasure Island. That children’s adventure story is responsible for most of ideas about pirates, buried treasure, parrots, pirate ships,pieces of eight,  the whole genre. Treasure Island is where you can find such expressions as “shiver me timbers” and “avast, matey” not to mention the dead man’s chest.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Cha...

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The actual sounds and wording what we think of as pirate language seems to have come from the actor Robert Newton who played Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney adaptation of Treasure Island. He reprised the role of  Long John Silver in an 1954 Australian film of that name. Newton also portrayed Blackbeard in Blackbeard the Pirate. Newton was originally from Dorset, in south-west England and he was educated in Cornwall. For his pirate roles, Newton opted to use an exaggerated version of his native West Country dialect with its rolling r’s or Arrrr’s. Robert Newton’s portrayals of pirates were popular enough that his speech became established as the real pirate speech in popular culture. Thus we have a Talk Like a Pirate Day in which people don’t really talk much like pirates at all.

Then again, Robert Newton’s dialect may not have been that far off. A lot of sailors came from south-west England and the region was a center of shipping and trade and it is likely that many pirates came from the region, including Blackbeard. Of course, we have no recordings of the way eighteenth century pirates or sailors spoke, so there is no way to know for sure. Still, it’s fun and we could all use some more fun in our lives.

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest!

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Indepenence for Scotland

September 15, 2014

Next Wednesday the people of Scotland will be voting on a referendum to separate from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to regain their status as an independent nation. I do not have any idea how the details of the separation will be managed if the referendum passes, particularly how the division of economic and military assets will be managed. I suppose there will be a lot of hard negotiations ahead if Scotland separates. Here is an article in Yahoo News which goes over some of the questions and likely outcomes. An independent Scotland would undoubtedly quickly become a member of the United Nations and it would very likely join the EU and NATO. They would keep the Pound as their currency, if England lets them, and they would retain the monarchy. I imagine, then, that Scotland will revert to the status it held before the 1707 Act of Union, an independent country with its own Parliament which shared a king or queen with England.

Before 1603, Scotland was entirely independent with its own king. Scotland and England were rivals and often enemies in war. Scotland was poorer and less populous than England and by itself, the kingdom was more often a nuisance on England’s northern borders than a real threat. The Scots and the French perceived they had a common enemy in England and in alliance against England, they could divide English strength, and make England’s frequent wars against France more difficult to pursue. The Scots and the English shared the island of Britain and spoke the same language, the Scottish dialect of English had been slowly replacing Scottish Gaelic over the centuries, and by the sixteenth century, it seemed a shame that the two kingdoms didn’t have better relations. In 1503, the Scottish King James IV Stuart married Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of the English king Henry VII, and the two kingdoms formed an alliance. This alliance lapsed when Henry’s son, Henry VIII became king in 1509 and when Henry went to war against France, Scotland fought on the side of France. The idea of a British alliance did not completely fade away.

In the later years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the question of the succession became critical. Elizabeth had never married and had no children, nor any surviving siblings. Her closest relative was King James VI of Scotland, the great-grandson of James IV and Margaret Tudor and so when Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, James VI became James I of England and he dutifully moved to London rule his new kingdom, founding the Stuart line of English monarchs. At this time England and Scotland were legally separate kingdoms and nations which had the same monarch. In fact James I would have liked to unify the two kingdoms he ruled, but neither the English nor Scottish parliaments showed much enthusiasm for the idea. Oliver Cromwell also attempted to form a united republic of Britain, but that didn’t survive the end of his rule.

The two kingdoms remained separate for as long as the House of Stuart remained on the thrones of England and Scotland. The last male Stuart, James II, grandson of James I was removed from the throne by Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and replaced by his sister Mary II and her husband William of Orange who reigned as William III of England. William and Mary had no children and while her sister Queen Anne had many children, none survived into adulthood. There was another succession crisis looming, and a real possibility that Scotland and England would have different monarchs. The English Parliament had decided to recognise George of Hanover, a grandson of James I as Anne’s successor. There were a number of Stuarts who had a better claim to the throne,but they were barred from the English succession because they were Roman Catholic. The Stuarts were still popular in Scotland, despite being of the wrong religion and for the next century Stuart pretenders could always gain a following in Scotland.

While the English motive to propose the union was largely political, to keep an independant Scotland from allying with France or Spain against England, the Scots had economic motives for joining with England. By 1700, England had become a major power in international trade and had established colonies in North America. Because Scotland and England were separate countries, the Scots were excluded from participating in this trade and from emigrating to the colonies. Scotland was still a poor country compared to England and its finances were in some disarray. The prospect of joining in English prosperity and empire persuaded many Scots to support union with England and so in 1706 the two kingdoms negotiated a Treaty of Union which was ratified by the English and Scottish Parliaments the following year. The separate Kingdoms of England and Scotland were merged into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, although Ireland was not merged into Britain until 1800.

Britain

Britain

Well, that was the past and next week we will learn if it is the future of Britain. Personally, I hope the Scottish people decide against independence. Scotland is still a poor country compared to England, though well off by international standards. With England, Scotland is part of the second rank of world powers. Without England, Scotland would have as much influence and power as Denmark. Besides, I would hate to lose the Union Jack.

Beyond the Pale

March 3, 2014

I sometimes hear or read the phrase, “beyond the pale”, meaning an action or statement that is unacceptable or beyond the limit of respectable behavior, and I have to wonder just what a “pale” is and how the phrase came to mean what it does. Naturally, I looked it up. A pale is simply a fortified fence or boundary. The word pale derives from the Latin “palus” which means a stake, such as one used to build a fence. The origin of the word, pale, and the phrase beyond the pale, is most likely from the English Pale in Ireland. Historically, the Pale separated the region of Ireland under English control from the areas still ruled by the Irish. The origin and history of the Pale is interesting.

 

Ireland has never been unified into a single nation, before the modern Republic of Ireland. Instead, the Irish have usually been divided into many kingdoms, subkingdoms, clans, etc. There have been high kings of Ireland, but they have seldom had much influence beyond their own lands and allies. This chaotic political situation has often offended the more orderly English, who felt obliged to invade Ireland in order to provide the Irish with more stability. The first such invasion was the Norman Invasion of 1169. The Normans easily conquered most of Ireland, but, like most conquerors, they found it harder to rule the land than to invade it. With distractions such as the Hundred Year’s War and wars with Scotland, the Anglo-Normans didn’t have the manpower to effectively occupy Ireland. They could send Norman colonists to Ireland, but these colonists tended to intermarry with the Irish and adopt the Irish culture and language. Finally, during the fourteenth century, the English built a system of fences and fortified ditches which came to be known as “The Pale”. Within the pale English laws and culture were enforced. English was the only permitted language and intermarriage with native Irish strictly forbidden. Beyond the Pale, the English maintained nominal control of Ireland through alliances with Irish leaders and the descendants of the Norman settlers. So, within the pale, everyone was supposed to be proper, civilized Englishmen. Beyond the pale were the wild, barbarous Irish.

 

Historical map of Ireland from http://Www.wesl...

Historical map of Ireland from http://Www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/maps/historical/map1300.gif (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The plan didn’t work, in the long run. Over time, the lands defined by the Pale shrank as the English crown was preoccupied by wars, and internal unrest. The Irish gained control over more and more of their island and even within the pale, the inhabitants became increasingly Irish is culture. Finally, in 1541, Henry VIII had the Parliament of Ireland declare him King of Ireland and set about conquering the whole island. It wasn’t until 1603 that all the resistance was crushed and Ireland was pacified. There was no more need for a boundary and the pale was allowed to fall into disrepair. The English settlers in Ireland became entirely assimilated into the Irish population, especially since they had refused to give up Roman Catholicism during the Reformation. All that remained was the phrase which distinguished what was and was not acceptable.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Royal Baby

July 22, 2013

Our British friends are celebrating the birth of the newest addition to the royal family. Catherine, the duchess of Cambridge gave birth to a boy. This newborn is now the third in line to the throne, after Princes Charles and William. I suppose its a good thing to know that the royal line will continue for another generation though there is no shortage of heirs to the throne. The Wikipedia article lists fifty people but states that there are several thousand people potentially in line to the throne.

I don’t think they have released any photographs of the new prince yet. If the young royals need a baby sitter, I understand that Mr. Bean is available, though perhaps they might not want to take advantage.

They also haven’t released the name of the baby yet and people are taking bets on what names will be chosen. I wouldn’t care to speculate myself, but I can guarantee that the name chosen will not be John. There was only one King John of England who was not a very successful king. His legacy has been so negative that no royal prince has been named John since his time.

In case you’re not that familiar with English history, John reigned from 1199 to 1216. He was the youngest son of Henry II and the brother of Richard I the Lion-Hearted. He wasn’t actually a complete disaster as king. He made the administration of his government more efficient and continued the judicial reforms of Henry II. He paid more attention to England than his brother Richard, who was always off crusading. Unfortunately he was unsuccessful at war and during his reign, England lost most of its territory on the continent to France, earning John the name of lackland and soft sword with his barons. He managed to alienate the Pope, who placed England under the interdict, and his barons, who rebelled and forced him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. When it became clear that King John would not adhere to the Magna Carta, the barons rebelled again and invited Louis, the son of Phillip II of France to be their king. They changed their minds when John died in 1216 and his nine year old son Henry III became king and Louis had to go back to France. No one in England wants a king so bad that rule by the French is preferable, so the royal family avoids the name John.

God’s Fury, England’s Fire

January 21, 2013
Cover of "God's Fury, England's Fire: A N...

Cover via Amazon

The English Civil Wars, which were fought  from 1642-1649 were every bit as significant event in English History as the American Civil War was in the history of the United States. It is often said that the American Civil War was a fight of brother against brother. This was not true except perhaps in the border states. The English Civil War really could be a fight between brothers. There were few consistent patterns which determined which side any one individual might take. Even in regions that were solidly in favor of the king or Parliament, there were those who supported the other side.

Indeed, the English Civil War could be considered the first of the modern revolutions that have changed the world, predating the French Revolution by a century and a half. This war, which began as a dispute over King Charles’s royal prerogatives to rule and raise money without the consent of Parliament, and over questions involving the extent of the Reformation over the Anglican Church, became, once shots were fired, a war to determine how England, and to some extent Scotland and Ireland, were to be governed. Was the king to rule by divine right or did the people, through Parliament possess the sovereignty?

As the war continued, positions hardened and became more radical. By the end of the decade, the Levellers were calling for the end of the class system and something like a modern idea of democracy. There are arguments over how much freedom of conscience should be granted for dissenting religious views, and just what were the dissentients, the ones who favored the traditional forms of worship and the authority of bishops, the Presbyterians, or the Independents? By the end of the war, Charles I had been executed and England became a republic. Even though the English Commonwealth only lasted until 1660 and ended with the restoration of King Charles II, the English Civil Wars had a lasting effect on the political development of Britain and ultimately led the way to Britain’s modern constitution.

Michael Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire is a comprehensive history of the English Civil War and the crises that preceded it. Braddick explores in detail the issues and factions which led to the breakdown of England’s political system in the years preceding the war. While this is a history of a war, Braddick seems less interested in the military history, which he does cover more than adequately, than in the ideas raised by the war. He spends quite a lot of space describing the arguments raised by the writers of pamphlets from differing factions and the role of public opinion in determining the positions held by more prominent actors in the struggles. (The fact that the decreasing cost of printing made it more possible for more people to put their opinions out into the marketplace of ideas was one of the factors that made the kingdom harder to control.) Braddick also tries, with some success, to give an idea of what the war was like from the perspective of individual soldiers and the villages where much of the fighting took place.

God’s Fury, England’s Fire should not be, perhaps the first book to read about the English Civil War but it is indispensable in learning about the issues over which the combatants fought.

 

 

Canute and the Waves

July 17, 2011

Canute or Knut was a Viking king who reigned from 1016-1035. At the height of his power, he ruled England, Denmark, Norway, and parts of Sweden. He was a powerful and general good king, known for his statesmanship and good relations with the Church.

According to legend, once he sat his throne at the sea-shore and commanded the tide to halt. It didn’t and he got his shoes and robes wet. If King Canute were alive today, he would probably be an EPA administrator trying to regulate the concentration of naturally occurring components of the atmosphere.

Of course Canute’s intention was to show his flattering nobles how powerless any earthly king was next to the One King of Heaven and Earth. Too bad our modern-day Canutes show no such humility.


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