Religion and Philosophy

Does the Whig Theory of History Hold True?

By Keir Martland

Libertarian Alliance

To answer such a vast question, it would help if we knew who the Whigs were. Essentially, the Whigs began as a political faction opposed to James II becoming King. The Whigs were mostly aristocrats who viewed monarchy as a tiresome added extra to their hegemonic rule over England. And in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when they finally got their way and deposed James, they cemented their hegemony for the coming centuries.

Not only this, but the Whigs set out to re-tell history. This is not to say that they re-wrote history or that they lied, but they set about doing what they saw as necessary to correct the standard interpretation of history. In practice, it did involve re-writing history and the most famous Whig historian, Macaulay, wrote romantically in the 19th century of the Glorious Revolution in the 17th century. He argued that the Whigs saved England from “despotism…anarchy…childish theories…blood and confusion.”

To an extent, this is true. The English early modern revolution really was ‘glorious’ in one respect: no blood was shed. The Revolution simply involved replacing one king with another. ‘The king has left for France; God save the king’, one might have said at the time.  The absence of bloodshed might have given the English revolution what the historian Professor John Kersey has termed “the veneer of continuity” – in reference, however, to the Restoration of 1660. The Glorious Revolution in fact represented a profound change in the way that all revolutions are a kind of profound change. The profound change represented by our Revolution, though, was brought about bloodlessly. On the continent, their revolutions were rather different. In fact, the French had numerous violent and destructive revolutions which tore apart all existing political and social structures and replaced them with nothing obviously better. My basic point is that ‘life went on’ after the Glorious Revolution and this is at least one way in which the Revolution differs from the ones on the continent. Our revolution was comfortable and predictable and, in this respect, unique.

With what a great crash our civilisation would have fallen, then, to paraphrase Macaulay, had the Whigs not ousted James II, united the nation behind a comfortable and predictable Anglicanism, and exercised a comfortable and predictable aristocratic rule.

The Whigs, to legitimise themselves, though, for what they were doing was revolutionary, evoked what was, in Macaulay’s words, already “engraven on the hearts of all Englishmen”: the ancient constitution. Our constitution, according to the Whigs, was and is a very vague and general compilation of such liberties as freedom of contract, no taxation without representation, parliamentary democracy, limits on the monarchy, and so on and so forth. They even cited historical illustrations of this self-sustaining and self-regulating constitution in action, e.g. the Constitutions of Clarendon, the Provisions of Oxford, and, of course, Magna Carta.

The Whig theory of history, then, is one of progress: every generation slowly and surely accumulating more and more knowledge and wisdom of how to govern, how to make profits, how to enrich the soul, and how to tap into natural resources. Over time, things improve – this is the message of the Whigs. The theory first was applied to politics and then, as we became richer and more confident, it was applied to every aspect of life.

Does the Whig theory hold true, then? The Whig theory of history was the orthodox interpretation of the past right up until the Great War. The theory was dealt a shocking blow by the First World War and what followed it. How could such a supposedly perfect political and economic system allow for such a disastrous and seemingly pointless enterprise? Why didn’t we avoid it and why couldn’t we bounce back from it?

While it is undoubtedly true that we have benefitted enormously from the Internet Revolution and from a considerable increase in living standards, people in the 1900s would have expected us in the 21st century to each own a flying car, to have to perform rather less manual labour than we presently have to, and to have made a lot more progress towards Utopia. Yet, in 2008, we entered the longest recession for a hundred years. In 2001, we began our longest modern war, the war in Afghanistan, lasting 13 years and costing over 450 lives. And, far from those in the 21st century experiencing no scarcity and living the high life, the lowest rate of income tax in Britain is still 20p in the pound. I could go on: the House of Lords may soon be abolished; the monarchy wields no power; and more laws have been made since 1997 than in the two thousand years before then. The aim of this paragraph is not to put a political spin on the article, but to show that the ‘ancient constitution’, that perfect un-written set of laws engraven – supposedly – on the hearts of us all, is dead and has been dead for years.

As it is, no other interpretation of history has risen from the wilderness to take the place of the Whig theory of history. There was a brief period when a Marxist interpretation held some sway, but it was by no means orthodoxy and did not endure. Is it good that we are living in an age when no single over-arching Grand Theory is imposed upon budding young historians like ourselves? Or is it symptomatic of a decline in the quality of historians? I would agree with the former and disagree with the latter, although I do like the idea of a theory which explains all of history, or at least all of a given aspect of it. Certainly, some attempts have been made. In my own opinion, the closest thing to such a Grand Theory is provided by Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his ‘Democracy: The God that Failed’, however even Hoppe will concede that such a priori theories as his only work with certain provisions made, such as the ceteris paribus proviso, and cannot explain everything. In short, then, I think that the Whig theory of history, while it may have once had some truth about it, ceased to be useful on that fateful day, July 28th 1914, when the world as it was then and had been for centuries was smashed to smithereens.

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