Glorious or not?

Ken MacLeod has done me the honour of replying to my last post at length, and deserves a final reaction from me – though I don’t think we can really push this argument a lot further.

Ken in red; me in black.

In the previous post I referred to the Iraq-based Iranian MEK and the KLA as ‘jihadists’. A couple of emails have flooded in to call me on this. And yes, in this instance I can only put my hands up and say this was unjust and I retract it. Thre is plenty to be said against both organizations but calling them jihadists only confuses things. Fair enough. My holiday is almost over, so I might just add a small point on this – the original claim was that the US and its allies keep on backing on-side jihadists: the Iranian MEK, the KLA, the Chechen freedom fighters (the beasts of Beslan). The charge that the “Chechen freedom fighters” are jihadists has better grounds than the same charge against the KLA (I know little of the Iranian group). But they have received almost no support from the US and its allies, as far as I am aware, to the point of the international community studiously looking the other way when the Russians bombed supposed Chechen bases in Georgia three years ago.

But anyway, to the main points. Here’s Ken again:

No fair-minded person could dispute that in England the various laws against Catholics and Dissenters were prolonged by popular prejudice and Anglican interest well beyond any point where they could be justified by reasons of state; nor that they were an instrument of oppression against the majority population of Ireland. So in fact they did not protect the bourgeois revolution for “centuries”. I’m glad we have sorted that out. In that case the main assertion that I objected to, the idea that there might be some useful lesson from the Penal Laws of how to deal with today’s jihadists (other than “don’t make the same mistake”) falls.

To say that they ‘worked’ in England wasn’t on my part any considered historical judgement, merely to note that the auto-da-fe never became one of the crowd-pulling entertainments of London. Well, the public strangulation, disembowelment and dismemberment of Catholic clergy, often Irish, usually on trumped up charges, certainly was a crowd-pulling public entertainment under Elizabeth I, James I, both Charleses and the Commonwealth. While it can reasonably be said is that state violence against religious opponents was on a smaller scale in Britain and Ireland than it was in Spain (and there were many Catholic countries – for instance, the Papal States! – where state violence against religious opponents was also on a smaller scale than it was in Spain), it certainly was far from unknown. (The argument that Catholicism means you automatically get the Spanish Inquisition is surely about as valid as saying that Communism means you automatically get Stalin’s purges.)

Maybe they weren’t needed. The Jacobite conspiracies were real and produced two uprisings. Possibly with a less severe repression against Catholicism the uprisings would have met with more success. Or, perhaps, since we’ve entered the realms of the counterfactual, had there been less repression against Catholics, the risings might not have kicked off in the first place?

Nicholas makes two points which I hope he won’t take offence if I call debating points. The first is that the immediate occasion of James II’s overthrow was his Declaration of Indulgence. The second is that the Pope was on the same side as William of Orange. Interestingly, neither point is really disputed below.

Now nobody, from Macaulay to the author of the Catholic Encyclopaedia article cited, allows that James was a sincere convert to toleration. He had been, right up until that point, a relentless persecutor of Presbyterians and other Dissenters. The Declaration of Indulgence was indisputably unconstitutional. James had no authority to annul laws, however odious, that had been passed by Parliament and accepted by the courts. It didn’t take long for the Dissenters to be persuaded that the risks to them from an arbitrary Catholic monarchy far outweighed whatever temporary relief it might bestow. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was hot in the memory. (If, to take up the Allende analogy, the (counter-factual) constitutional Marxist president of a neighbouring state, say Argentina, had withdrawn previous solemn guarantees and used great violence against the Argentine middle classes, and Allende was in the meantime busy promoting hard-line revolutionaries to positions of power, Pinochet would have been even more widely hailed than he was.) Indulgence was a tactical manouevre, and as Macaulay shows it was recognised as such in widespread debate at the time.

My counter-factual speculation is this: If James II had succeeded in drawing Catholic and Dissenter into a pincer movement against the Established Church and the limits placed on the monarchy, it is doubtful to say the least that he would have established religious pluralism. (And, let me say again, the Catholic Encyclopaedia produces no supporting argument for this.) More likely there would have been a Catholic monarchy (now with a guaranteed succession) and a immense increase in Catholic power in the state. That after all had been his consistent course and aim. He had used his limited prerogative to place Catholics in every key position he could. What he would have done with an unlimited prerogative was expected to be more of the same. He might not have reversed the Reformation or even aimed to but there is no doubt at all that most of the population would have suspected him, with good reason, of such a design. James might well have had to rely on aid from France to hold power. A second Civil War seems a likely consequence. Defeat for the Protestant majority would have meant national subjugation; victory, a massacre and expulsion of Catholics. It is as well for England that it was spared either.

I was preparing a somewhat ill-tempered and indeed ill-informed riposte to this (grumbling that, among other things, it doesn’t fit awfully well to complain about James II acting unconstitutionally when the manner of his removal from the throne was equally unconstitutional), but find to my shame that has posted a long piece which illustrates my total ignorance of this period of history. (And Ken’s too.) I would like to ask , or indeed anyone, to recommend to me a decent history of England, Scotland and Ireland in the seventeenth century.

Such a history would certainly not be by Macaulay, the archetype of historian as political propagandist rather than objective analyst. I came to history late in my academic career, and in a Cambridge department under the founding influence of Herbert Butterfield; so I’m a little stunned to find anyone in the twenty-first century taking Macaulay seriously.

That the Pope celebrated William’s victory at the Boyne may for a moment nonplus an opponent who has never heard of this (and we’ve all met them), but it won’t wash as a serious historical argument. The Pope was allied with the other European powers, Catholic and Protestant, against the overweening ambition of France. That does not at all affect the point that William’s victory advanced the Protestant interest, and that his defeat would have favoured the Catholic interest. The Orangemen are no more deluded on that than the Irish Catholics were who supported James.

No, I’m afraid that’s not really good enough. Sure, you can make an argument about the interests of Catholics in England, or Scotland, or Wales; but if you believe that there was such a global phenomenon as “the Catholic interest” (a concept that I frankly doubt had much validity then, if ever) you really can’t go on to argue that you (or James II, or Louis XIV) know better than the Pope what the Catholic interest was!

Was the Glorious Revolution a Good Thing? I’ll try to emulate Nicholas’s candour and admit that I come to it from a perspective of having heard from childhood of the sufferings of the Covenanter martyrs, and later finding the same martyrs extolled in Marxist and Liberal histories. All the same, I find that I agree with the final ‘nuance’ of the Catholic Encyclopaedia:

But on the other hand we can now realize that the Revolution had the advantage of finally closing the long struggle between king and Parliament that had lasted for nearly a century, and of establishing general principles of religious toleration in which Catholics were bound sooner or later to be included.
These achievements seem glorious enough.

Hmm. I confess my only exposure to the Covenanters was in an article I read a few years back comparing their ideology and tactics to those of the unlovely Loyalist paramilitaries in late twentieth-century Belfast, which didn’t really endear them to me. No doubt if I start reading a bit more about the period, my mind will be broadened.

As for celebrating, Catholic Emancipation was eventually enacted in 1829, which is 141 years after the Declaration of Indulgence would have granted the same rights, had it not been reversed by the Revolution; and indeed 138 years after the post-Revolution government promised to protect those rights in the Treaty of Limerick, a promise which was rapidly broken. I hope you’ll forgive me if my celebration is somewhat muted.

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