The Not-So-Glorious Revolution

This is a rarity from me – a serious political entry questioning statements by a writer I admire, and also worrying that I might not have got the joke, if there is one.

In the context of the British government’s latest ideas on fighting radical Islam at home. Ken MacLeod quotes a Marxist writer who argues that the Penal Laws of the seventeenth century were the Right Thing To Do:

The laws against Roman catholicism, as they developed after 1689, excluded catholics as a group from political power and attempted to undermine their wealth and consequent patronage by allowing protestant relatives to claim their land. These laws did not require a system of imprisonment without trial or a secret state which reached into the whole of political life. Though the country was a monarchy and far from democratic republicanism, its political life tended to be increasingly open.

The ‘English path’ was not a total absence of repression against those whose religious commitments led them to seek to overthrow the state. Rather it was the choice of forms of repression which were consistent with political liberty for those who were loyal to the regime: open laws against specific ideological positions, and an attack primarily on the political and property rights of religious opponents.

…The penal laws of the 17th century punished ‘seminary priests’ trained overseas with death; we would not need such extreme measures. Attendance at madrasas which teach the doctrine of jihad as a literal duty could be made a crime. Preaching the doctrine of jihad as a literal duty and the virtues of the ghazis is an act which it is not difficult to establish and could be readily tried by jury.

Ken goes on to say:

[This writer] reminds us how the anti-Catholic Penal Laws successfully defended Britain’s bourgeois revolution against an international conspiracy of religious and feudal reaction for centuries… he might be onto something. The Penal Laws worked against the Jesuits, but will something like them work against jihadists? It’s an interesting suggestion. Not Mill or Milton would have rejected it out of hand.

I’m going to detach this completely from the context of present day argument because I think Ken’s history is wrong (or, perhaps, I have failed to see the joke). I’m frankly surprised by his blithe acceptance of a) the 1688-92 revolution being a Good Thing and b) the “international conspiracy of religious and feudal reaction” which lasted “for centuries”. I realise that this is because I come at this from an Irish Catholic perspective, from which the Penal Laws appear as a crucial instrument of suppression of the rights and powers of the majority of Ireland’s inhabitants in order to entrench the power of a minority, with assistance from England. (And that’s the moderate version; the more hard-line version would deny that there was any “real” Irish person who benefited from the Penal Laws at all.) I don’t know much about Scotland at this period, so it may just be that Ken and I are talking past each other. But I’ve met enough otherwise sensible people from across the water who don’t, for example, realise that Cromwell was a Bad Thing, that I think it’s worth expanding on why I think Ken’s history is wrong.

Let’s indulge in a little counterfactual speculation. What if James II had not been overthrown? I carry no particular brief for him; he was obviously not the greatest king England (or Scotland, or Ireland) ever had, and was largely the architect of his own downfall; but before you start to rejoice at his overthrow, just bear in mind that the straw that broke the camel’s back was his enactment of the Declaration of Indulgence – ie that Catholics and Dissenters should have the same civil rights as Anglicans. Shocking, eh? The argument at the time was that this was part of the slippery slope to a Catholic absolute monarchy, but really, any leftist should find this about as convincing as Pinochet’s justification for overthrowing Allende in Chile in 1973. In fact, it’s difficult to believe that a continuing Jacobite regime would have done anything other than summon a new Parliament, which would this time have had significant Catholic and Dissenter membership, ie been more representative of the people, and come to a modus vivendi between the three groups based on rights rather than repression. (See for a supporting argument the Catholic Encyclopedia’s interesting nuances on the Revolution.)

Sure, under my scenario James would probably have continued to mismanage his politics, and may very well have ended up forced to abdicate later rather than sooner, if he didn’t die first. But it is absurd to argue that that he could have reversed the Reformation, and I don’t believe that was ever his plan. (if it had been, he certainly could not have kept the loyalty of invaluable aides like Samuel Pepys, who was a conforming Anglican and whose wife was a Huguenot refugee.)

I realise that part of the reason I don’t see much worth celebrating in the events of 1689-92 is that the people who I did see celebrating it as I grew up gave me every reason to believe that I personally had lost rather than gained as a result. I think my views have now moderated, to the point where I can relatively calmly argue that it didn’t make much difference, rather than that it was an actively Bad Thing. (My views on Cromwell, however, have not moderated.)

As for the “international conspiracy” lasting for centuries – well, when James lost the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, a Te Deum in thanks for William’s victory was sung in Vienna and the Vatican was lit up in celebration, so it looks to me as if the agents of the international Catholic conspiracy won rather than lost the war! Especially since the French recognised James’ overthrow as early as 1697; and I’ll bow to any Scot’s superior knowledge of the events of 1715 and 1745, but would be surprised to learn that an international conspiracy of feudal and religious reaction was the sole cause of conflict in either case. Certainly the British government doesn’t seem to have thought so; the Penal Laws as applied – especially in England – were clearly designed more to entrench the monopoly on legitimacy of the Church of England than to root out loyalists of foreign powers.

The final way in which the history is wrong is that the main period of religious repression in the British Isles was not the post-1690 period, but the events of the previous 160 years, following Henry VIII’s breach with Rome in 1534. Between the repression of Mary I and that of Elizabeth I and James I, there isn’t much to choose in terms of morality, it seems to me; the Protestants did more of it, and often more gruesomely (if it’s possible to choose between being burnt at the stake and being hanged, drawn and quartered), but that was because they were on the winning side (and I do put cause and effect that way round). Looking at the list of Catholic martyrs, none appears to have been executed after 1690. (One died in jail in 1692.) So by the time the penal laws proper were enacted post-Revolution, the serious struggle was over. We can perhaps discuss the rights and wrongs of the earlier period separately, but I don’t think you can seriously argue that in England after 1689 the anti-Catholic laws amounted to anything more than petty harassment of an already defeated minority.

I write these words from the village where William III camped with his army from 14 to 25 June 1690, prior to marching down to the river Boyne for the battle which took place on 1 July (not 12 July). We can’t avoid the fact that history stays with us, but we can at least try to get it right, especially if we’re then trying to generalise to the present day.

(Ken will now post a one-line riposte to the effect that he was Only Joking. If so, I fell for it, hook line and sinker!)

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