Sunday, July 01, 2007

Our First Revolution: Michael Barone

Michael Barone is an American political pundit – pretty universally respected for his in depth Almanac of American Politics. So this book about the 1689 Revolution is quite a departure. And one which, in the main, he pulls off.
The very title pretty well makes clear what his final analysis will be and I feared something a little clunking. I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised.

The book starts in quite a pedestrian fashion, and is a little heavy in quotations from Churchill. Oh god I thought a Brit the Yanks have heard of, here we go. But my ears were unsubstantiated.

On the whole this is a very readable, well researched book. It makes it clear that contrary to much modern opinion Barone feels that the 1688 revolution was indeed a revolution, or more precisely a counter revolution. James II he describes as optimistic in contrast to his more pessimistic brother Charles II. Charles II, remembering how lucky he was to have his own life, let alone his Kingdom after the travail as of the Civil War, bent to prevailing winds and kept himself and England pretty stable. His conversion to Catholicism took place on his deathbed and in private. His brother however was convinced that all was well and he would be able, by dint of his right to rule could overturn almost al of the carefully constructed hypocrisies and balances that had kept the land together.

To that end he unpicked the various rules governing Catholicism, and peopled the army, the magistracy, courts and Parliament with co-religionists. In American terms, it appears he almost too much of an interest in the colonies doings, (after all New York is named after him). To that extent he had started abolishing their nascent assemblies imposing direct rule through Governors. All this could have been born, what Barone suggests is that he was not in itself trying to Catholicise Britain, merely making it safe for Catholics. The next two heirs to the throne after him were protestants, but after that came a Catholic.

However all bets were off when he had a child, a son at that. Despite enormous doubts that the child was indeed his at all, this pressed the panic button, sending many in the protestant corner into the desperation of committing treason. The seven who signed a letter to James in Son-in-Law William, Prince of Orange, Stadtholder of the Netherlands and married to James’ daughter Mary, did so because they were in real fear of revolution.

William, desperate to shore up an alliance against the then hegemonic power of France, and seeing a catholic Britain as a very real threat, took his chance. Landing near Torbay on the auspicious date of November 5th he made his way to London. By the time he finally arrived James had fled twice (the first time he was caught by some sailors) the next William had ordered a door left open. It was December 29th.

Barone makes it clear he sees the ramifications of this bit of British history as still resonating today. Both in the Constitutional settlement, the reality of annual ;imited parliaments, anti-hegemonic (a favourite word by the way) foreign policy (would that it still were) and so on.

Some complaints, after a pedestrian start the book fair rolls along, but in the speed there are annoying repetitions. I had worked out the first time that the Dutch had a hell o a lot of printing presses for the time, by the third time I was hoping for early internet. There was little about Ireland, both at the time (despite being an illustration from the Boyne) and the ramifications (they blow up policemen or so I have heard, and blame it on Cromwell and William the third). In a similar vein, he is pretty hard on Catholics in general, but looking around the continent at the time, there is no doubt that Catholic nations were distinctly more prone to autocracy and the restriction of freedom than the few protestant nations, and recent history had shown with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes that Catholic Kings got catholic countries, by hook or by crook.

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