Political upheaval, a heavy burden of national debt, huge pressure on public spending, a major international rupture, religious conflict, bubbling popular unrest... The 1760s and 1770s were a tumultuous time in British history.
These decades began in triumph with the conclusion of the Seven Years War in which Britain defeated France in theatres from Guadeloupe to Bengal and laid the foundations of empire. They ended in catastrophe, with international humiliation and the loss of the American colonies.
In between the country had not one or two but seven different prime ministers, a political merry-go-round accompanied by escalating populism. There were riots in support of the radical reformer John Wilkes in 1768, but the potentially revolutionary effect of latent religious tensions was still more threatening.
Yet after 1784 and the election of the Younger Pitt, Britain was settled enough to open free trade negotiations with the French, and strong enough ultimately to fight and defeat Napoleon. And in 1794 the Jay treaty would reveal the new nation of America pivoting away from its French allies and back towards Britain, laying — with more than the occasional later snafu — the foundations of the modern international trading order.
Amid the present anger and distrust, there are salutary lessons here, perhaps. History never quite repeats itself, but it nudges us: to recall how much worse things have been, how resilient and dynamic this country often is, how swiftly events can reverse themselves, how even apparently intractable problems can yield unexpected solutions.
In fact, however, the real achievement of these years was not so much practical as intellectual. In 1770, Edmund Burkehad set out in canonical form the basis of representative government, and emphasised the central importance of political parties, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.
Six years later Adam Smith would do the same thing for free markets and the benefits of commercial society in the Wealth of Nations . These great works are the hinges of our political and economic modernity. Over what historians call the “long 18th century” stretching from 1688 to 1815, Britain emerged as a country renowned not merely for empire, but for tolerance, trade, constitutional government and the rule of law. So the UK has largely remained.
What, then, can we learn today, in another age of seething popular discontents, from this extraordinary moment? I suggest there are three specific lessons.
The first is the need to be clear about the danger. Burke saw revolution coming to France in 1789, long before his contemporaries, in part because he knew its signs: a contempt for public authority, attacks on private property, a populist yearning to ignore inconvenient facts and rush to judgement. We see all of those things today.
Burke understood how language could be debased through the rhetoric of abstract nouns such as “liberty” or “equality”, which move people without enlightening them. A century and a half before George Orwell, he saw how political discourse in France was degraded from respectful disagreement with opponents to labelling, to personal contempt, and ultimately to public denigration and hatred of them as enemies of society. The ultimate result of such trends can only be the supersession of politics, of peaceful exchange and reconciliation of views, by violence.
We are a long way from revolution now. But signs of political extremism are being normalised, and becoming ubiquitous, made ever easier by the echo chambers of social media.
The second lesson is the requirement to tackle populist myths. Take the French Revolution itself: it was expected to end privilege, destroy elites, enfranchise the poor and break the power of the church. In fact it did none of those things. Rather, it led to violence, bloodshed, anarchy, terror and civil and then international war, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. In many ways it was an utter catastrophe.
Similar myths proliferate today. Free markets have their weaknesses, but when they function properly they are not tools of an evil capitalism but the greatest force for human economic development, equality and freedom ever created. We need to take these myths on and make the argument against them.
But most importantly, we must make the case again for representative government, and for the liberal virtues of our commercial society. Britain’s is a constitution in which parliament, not the people, is sovereign. Our political and legal institutions, our monarchy, our courts, have an interlocking logic of their own. They are the products of evolution, across hundreds of years of conflict and compromise and mutual accommodation.
They thus encode a set of understandings and arrangements which can never be written down and could never be rationally devised now by any set of legislators. They can always be improved, by careful and gradual reform. But collectively, they blend legitimacy with expertise, and sensitivity to immediate concerns with a capacity for long-term decision-making. However much we may despise our legislators, we must respect our institutions.
It seems to be the fate of every generation to think of its own issues as entirely new and without precedent. That is a dangerous, indeed a potentially revolutionary, delusion. It springs often not from mere ignorance, but from a willed decision to ignore history and seek a new beginning. We need to combat it with knowledge, energy, respect and love.
[This article was first published in the Financial Times on June 23, 2017 (£)]