November 12, 2006

An Anglo-Dutch Moment

David Starkey writes today in the Times about the position of religion within England. Starkey's overall point is a simplification but an apt one- that religion and established religion has a chequered history in England. But pulling back the most consequential and interesting thing about Starkey's article is not his views about religion but his views about history.

Starkey reflects what most historians, pressed by the two Jonathans Isreal and Scott, now beleive- that England's formative century- the seventeenth- was in many ways England's Dutch century. Whether in the chancelleries of the Rump Parliament where Oliver St John pursued a union with Holland or the palaces of Whitehall where alliances with the Stadtholder were mooted again and again until the Stadtholder became a Stuart and then a King, the society that the English looked to was Dutch. Many of the great reforms and great institutions built within the seventeenth century were explicitly modelled by English reformers upon Dutch models- the Bank of England founded in 1693 was an imitation of the Bank of Amsterdam, the East India company charted waters the Dutch East India Company charted before- and many of the acheivements of eighteenth Century England from naval supremacy to colonies in America (New York the great example) were successions from the Dutch.

Throwing light on the Dutch origins of much of English politics reminds one of a couple of key facts- that the English constitution and the much vaunted traditions of English liberty, tolerance and even imperialism have very foreign roots flowing from the reformation and the bloody battles of the Thirty Years War- that the English constitution as it still largely exists was framed by men who had imbued the experience of competition with another republic across the sea and opposition to French imperialism and lastly that the English experience is not an undivided whole running all the way back to the Middle Ages but was contingent upon the interventions of others (even some might argue the exploitation of others) and still is.

Recognising that the English constitution is not as organic as often thought is both an exhilerating and frightening thought- it demands of us that we reconsider why things are the way they are and hence rediscover the rationales for seemingly accidental arrangements, but also pushes us to the recognition that the English constitution is both vulnerable and fragile- not an oak but a rose, (to oppose two icons of English nationalism) we are quite capable of killing it ourselves. Afterall there isn't anything particularly English about it.


edmund said...

I would say "oversimplified and absurd" on Starkey's article which contained a handfull of errors , a multitude of oversimplifications a foolish policy propsal

Having said that great post- and very true on the Dutch -English connection. All I would say (not really in contradiction) is that just becaude an idnetiy is shaped by being abroad (even abraham's supposed to be from iraq!) does not mean it is not real and true. the linda colley conclusion is much weaker than the linda colley thesis.

Gracchi said...

Yes but I do think that it points to how contingent and hence how vulnerable it is. In a sense this is my most 'conservative' small c post so far in that I do think things in politics are delicate and you have to be careful in changing them, not that that means don't change, just take care.

As to Starkey's article, its typical of the man, some intelligence, a lot of bravado and a conclusion to upset people and get noticed.