Thursday, December 17, 2009


I watched the closing session of our Parliament yesterday afternoon. Phil Goff and Bill English were engaged in their normal ping-pong arguments but Gerry Brownlee and David Parker switched to good-humoured banter. Question-time ended in chuckles, catcalls and guffaws. It’s a fine tradition.

At present I am reading about one of the foundations of that tradition – Yale historian Steve Pincus’s history: 1688, The First Modern Revolution. Instead of the usual narrative this is a polemic arguing that the overthrow of the Catholic English monarch James 11 and his replacement by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange was the first modern revolution.

Pincus’s basic argument is that 1688 was not a clash between traditional and progressive forces – rather it was between two competing progressive ideologies. This has been he claims the pattern of subsequent revolutions, French, Russian, Cuban etc. As a result the victors transform the society and nation their way. It’s an interesting concept.

Pincus argues that James tried to set up an absolutist state similar to that being created across the English Channel by Louis XIV – a form of centralised power and monarchical monopoly. Against that the English commercial class – which included many of the nobility – looked to the Dutch model, dynamic, tolerant and open, good for business and for trade, governed by rules of contract and consent.

Methinks though persuasive the book pushes the case too hard. It rarely is as clear-cut as it is written down now. Though the kernel seems correct, the revolution was not nearly as bloody as the French or Russian ones were and religion was probably more important than Pincus allows. What I had not realised is how much a consumer society Britain had become in the late 17th century. The conflict was fought out over parliament – James trying to control elections and his opponents trying to elect their followers.

While the relatively peaceful coup in which the daughter and her Dutch husband supplanted the king was not necessarily ‘glorious’ as was and is often claimed, it did provide a fa├žade of royal continuity and enshrine certain long-held claims about ‘English liberties’. The past, as always, was ever-present in the change. Part of he claim ‘glorious’ is based on the fact that Britain did not have the ghastly blood-letting that occurred in France a century later. In escaping absolutism the nation was spared that ordeal. There’s enough truth on the claim for it to be credible. But there were other factors – for instance Wesley turned the workers from indignation and insurrection to worship and acceptance.

As you can see I am enjoying the book. I keep putting it down to argue mentally with its academic author. I wish it were not so heavy physically. That’s the trouble with the word-processor. That’s a small gripe in the scales of pleasure.

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