The Glorious Revolution: Three Centuries of Freedom David Flint
[This essay was first published, as “Three and twenty years of Freedom,” with footnotes deleted, in the journal Quadrant, November 2008, pp 40-47, Volume LII, Number 11. We acknowledge the editor’s kind permission to republish the essay ]
The Glorious Revolution is as relevant today in Australia, and in the wider world, as it was in England in 1688. It is arguably the most significant single advance in the provision of good government that the world has ever seen. This has been overshadowed by concentrating on its quite peripheral impact on the divisions among Christians. But the Calvinist Prince of Orange who became William III was driven by his fear of absolutist French hegemony over Europe, not by worries about Catholicism whose leader, the Pope, and was his temporal ally.
The point is that the freedoms ensured and the benefits gained from the Glorious Revolution far exceed anything gained from any other single event , including the mistakenly more celebrated French Revolution.
The Reign of Terror in the French Revolution was bad enough; but the loss of life from the resulting years of war which ended only in 1815 compares with the First World War, and that with a smaller population. The other great so called Revolution, the Russian, was more a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks, with equally disastrous imitations in Europe and Asia which led to the death of about 100 million.
The American Revolution was derivative and confirmatory of the Glorious Revolution.
The Glorious Revolution was in many ways England’s great gift to the world. It established those fundamental principles of good governance which best allow man to achieve and to exercise his fundamental rights.
It is of particular significance not only in the constitutional development of Britain and the Commonwealth, but also the United States.
This was recognized eloquently by the Founding Fathers of the United States when, believing that their rights as Englishmen were being denied, they declared that : “ We hold these truths to be self-evident : that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Indeed the American authority on global affairs, Walter Russell Mead, writes that “the Americans justified their overthrow of George III with the same arguments the English used to justify their overthrow of James II.”
The influence of the Glorious Revolution is not limited to the particular US model of government. Every year for the past two decades the United Nations has, in its Human Development index, measured nations according to the life expectancy, wealth and education of their people. The form of government of all of the leading ten and the leading twenty nations in every year, with the exception of Switzerland, derives from those principles established long ago in the Glorious Revolution. In most cases the form of government is based on the subsequent evolution of that model in Britain which came after the American Revolution.
And as Mead observes, since the Glorious Revolution, the Anglo-Americans have been on the winning side in every major international conflict. .
This indicates some advantage in the Anglo-Saxon system of governance. There is no evidence that this has anything to with race but rather, it is to do with the endorsement of what we may call political culture. Mead makes the point that not only is the United States a nation of immigrants, but so was England even at the time of the Glorious Revolution. This augurs well for the current massive immigration into the Anglo-Saxon countries. Good sense will make most realise that the system they have come to works and works well – the great majority will have little inclination to change it.
It is important to stress that the great advantages of the Glorious Revolution were not the result of some philosopher sitting down and designing them. That was what directed the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, near crazed men designing schemes to save the world that came close to ruining it. The style of the Anglo-Saxon is pragmatic; the style of the major continental powers has hitherto been more theoretical.
The wisdom of the Anglo Saxons has been in allowing institutions to evolve gradually over time and through trial and error. By way of contrast to continental thought, I would refer to the story of the French énarque who when the benefits of something we are familiar with were shown to him said: “Yes, it may well work in practice, but does it work in theory?”