A fortnight ago Bastille Day was celebrated across France, a day to celebrate the 1789 Storming of the Bastille, the first majorly symbolic moment of the French Revolution, as well as a British indie-rock band. Due to the propaganda distributed by British authorities and writers at the time, the revolution was until very recently seen through a lens of anti-French xenophobia and distrust of change. Because of the pervasiveness of this propaganda, Britain remains politically rooted in the past in two key areas, which I believe are detrimental to society.
One of the defining moments of the French Revolution was the execution of King Louis XVI in front a crowd of transfixed Parisians at the Place de la Révolution in January 1793. Although Louis did himself no favours by actively conspiring with his wife Marie Antoinette to overthrow the revolutionary government, a key reason for opposition to the king was rooted in public resentment of absolutism.
Due to many previous statutes and legal precedents restricting the powers of the monarchy, Britain managed to retain royalty because at the time of political upheaval in France, the British ruling class were able to shield the monarchy from that kind of revolutionary change due to the constitutional restrictions in place. Because of the strain of egalitarianism that existed in the minds of the revolutionaries, a (somewhat) democratic Republic was (eventually) going to be the result.
Where Britain is inferior is that is has a head of state that can veto any law passed by Parliament and the institution holding that veto lacks any form of democratic legitimacy; the argument correctly made by republicans, that monarchy is incompatible with a meritocratic democracy, is always ignored by the majority of the general public on the basis that historical examples of royal despotism, such as Louis, are not comparable, as if this line of argument somehow justifies the institutionalised inequality of this imperial relic.
On that point, the monarchy’s existence not only advocates a certain intrinsic opposition to the French Revolution’s principles around egalitarianism, but it also instantiates an undercurrent to current British society that I like to call a ‘passive hostility’ towards republicanism as an idea. What I mean by this is that due to the media, the monarchy’s cultural significance and the personalities of the members of the royal family (although I would dispute the existence of the latter) the British people’s immediate reaction to the idea of an elected head of state is one of hostility, directly as a result of such conditioning. It is ‘passive’ in my view as many people in society don’t have a view about the the constitutional role of the monarchy, yet these people will also vociferously support its perceived socio-economic and political benefits.
If the British people took anything away from the French Revolution it must be that a democracy must be lead by someone elected, directly or indirectly, by the citizenry. Whether such a role would be active as in France or ceremonial as in Germany is a legitimate debate to have, but the idea of an unelected head of state in the 21st century should repulse anybody committed to democracy.
Another equally famous political principle to come from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution was that of a secular government where all religions and irreligion are treated equally in the eyes of the law.
Since 1905 the French Republic has been instituting secularism as the ‘Laïcité’ principle whereby the government is absent in religious affairs; it is also predicated on the division of a citizen’s private affairs and their actions in the public sphere, thus giving the State no authority to take a standpoint on theology unless those religious positions infringe upon the liberty of other citizens.In recent years the implementation of this principle has come under more scrutiny however when compared with the situation in Britain, where the state is officially endorsing a particular branch of one religion, an imperfect secular state would be welcome.
Although the intertwining of religion and state is more benign that more religiously pious societies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, the fact that Bishops are allowed to vote on legislation without being held to any democratic standard is unacceptable in a modern democracy. Incidentally the only other country in the world that reserves legislative positions for religious clerics is Iran which is a self declared theocracy; the idea of religious leaders having a role in deciding legal statute should at least agitate all non-Anglicans.
In order to address this issue the government in Westminster should nationalise the assets of the Church of England and use them for the benefit of the nation. Most of land itself wouldn’t actually change as the lands with churches and other religious buildings could be sold off to the communities they serve, however the financial holdings of the Church would be put into the possession of the State to do as it sees fit- which could very well be gifting them back to the disestablished Church authorities.
By removing the Church’s political influence in this way, the State would be secularised, whilst benefiting financially and illustrating to the majority of the population (who are not Anglican) that the government was no longer going to give a certain religious group a privileged position in the affairs of government. With the establishment of political secularism the British state would no longer advocate, albeit passively, a specific branch of Protestant Christianity that has been influencing government policy for hundreds of years.
In these two areas specifically I believe that modern Britain is worse off for not embracing the ideological zeal unleashed on Revolutionary France. However the cowardice of politicians to even address these two constitutional issues is proof of how secular republicanism will probably remain a pipe-dream of people like me. The only time that this ambition will be realises will be if majority of the population begins to reject the myth that tradition, even when diametrically opposed to everything else they believe in, is inherently valuable. For some reason I feel like I’m going to be repeating myself over these issues for a number of years to come.