From Queen Anne to our current prime minister, political misuses of history are nothing new—but still dangerousby Rebecca Rideal / October 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
“Are we going back to a time when a king claimed absolute authority? Is it going to be King Boris I versus the parliamentarians meeting in the fields?” asked Margaret Atwood during a recent radio interview. Atwood is far from alone in linking recent political events to Charles I and the constitutional crisis of the mid-seventeenth century. With the powerplay between the executive and parliament, the purging of MPs, deep political divides regarding sovereignty, and rhetoric about respecting the “will of the people,” it is not hard to see why. But how useful are these historical analogies?
From a purely factual perspective, comparisons between Boris Johnson’s unlawful prorogation of parliament and Charles I’s personal rule are largely moot. Not least because the largest constituent parts of what we now call the UK were separate entities in 1629, only linked (despite Stuart attempts otherwise) through a shared monarch. Of course, both episodes have questions over the balance of executive power at their heart, but the political landscape in the mid-seventeenth century was entirely different: England was still several decades away from birthing the political factions that would grow into Whigs and Tories, there was no such thing as a Prime Minister and MPs were voted for by a limited, propertied few. Plus, despite being seen by many as an abuse of power, Charles I’s period of personal rule was in fact within the bounds of law.
Similarly, the repeated invocation of the phrase “Will of the People,” by Johnson and others is factually, historically, and politically dubious. Famously used by Rousseau and linked to the French Revolution, the phrase has since been connected to totalitarianism in all its manifestations. The term, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, creates an artificial link between a leader and “the people” whereby the leader assumes the guise of spokesperson for the masses and invents or shapes their perceived collective wants to further his or her agenda.
In using such phrase, the leader’s base of supporters is encouraged to believe that “the people” are constitutionally sovereign and it is the job of the executive (and parliament) to listen to them at all costs. Yet this is not how parliamentary democracy works and history is littered with examples of large groups being ignored by the executive—from…