State and Self-Government
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30



As we know, a coalition that formed in the English Parliament decided to dissolve it, and this necessitated new elections. These elections, which took place this month, were the prime subject of everyone’s attention. Europe wanted, and rightly so, to know not just their outcome, because this will be obvious when the new Parliament opens, but rather their future significance for English politics.

However, if we want to speak on the matter and evaluate the elections from the point of view of general and English politics, we will encounter great difficulty already with respect to electoral terminology itself. It is quite a problem right now to characterise any English party and even any single candidate who stood for election. Earlier, we used to talk about the Tories and the Whigs, and later also about the Radicals. Today, after those ancient Tory and Whig parties have disintegrated, there are no parties in the strict sense of the word. When mentioning a candidate, English newspapers no longer refer to him as a Whig or Tory – they do not even designate him as belonging to the Radical party; instead, they describe him as conservative or liberal. Then there are different shades of conservatism and liberalism: one candidate is characterised as a “pure” conservative, while the second is a “dubious” one; this one is “ultra-liberal” and the other “moderate”. This new English nomenclature clearly applies to the attitude to reforms, but even in this area, can it serve the purpose of dividing politicians into parties? What criteria do we use to determine these shades? How do we delineate the categories and classify as conservative or liberal not only the new candidates, but also former British statesmen? The Earl of Derby[1] who formerly headed the Tories and is now described as an ultraconservative – does he not belong to this English aristocracy which has always been liberal? After all, it was mainly this aristocracy that put forward reform initiatives, and the Earl of Derby never stated that he rejected all such changes. As a Peelist,[2] Mr. Gladstone[3] has shown that he is not opposed to reforms, but he is still numbered among the conservatives. No one was recently more vocal in opposing the reforms than Lord Palmerston[4] – he did not conceal his opinions even in his speech to voters in Tiverton.[5] Still, not only is he on the list of liberal members of the House: he fully relies on them in his hopes of achieving majority in the new Commons. And which reputedly ultra-liberal member of the former House of Commons – even the head of the radical opposition like Mr Roebuck[6] or head of the Manchester School like Mr Bright[7] – would like to see the reforms introduced completely without regard to the conservative principle?

However, this is not all. The difficulty is exacerbated further if we want to apply European, i.e. continental categories to this classification of English candidates into conservative and liberal ones. On the continent, Mr Cobden[8] is considered conservative as an opponent of war and a supporter of peace; in England, he is an ultra-liberal. Lord Palmerston, who is dubbed Lord Firebrand on the continent, since his politics are deemed aggressive, is a dubious liberal in England. The entire old Tory party (today referred to as conservative in England) has always supported war to the hilt – incomparably more so than the Whigs who are now largely considered liberal. And any radical party on the continent means almost the same as a revolutionary party, while in England no one wants or plans a revolution.

So already at first glance we can see that English elections cannot be assessed according to the concepts and meanings of words accepted on the continent. War and peace are hardly mentioned in electoral programmes in England and the desire to engage in the former or to maintain the latter does not determine whether someone is a conservative or a liberal there. These terms, which are used to describe the opinions and principles held by candidates in elections, and partly also by political parties, relate to internal politics, but here again revolutionary aspirations, which are the main feature that distinguishes conservatives from rebels on the continent, hardly find any practical application. One can be an ultra-conservative in England and promote war, armed interventions or even changes and revolutions in Europe, and one can be an ultra-radical, but still advocate eternal peace and calm; in a nutshell, one can be conservative in internal English politics and a near-revolutionary in external politics, and vice versa.

The explanation of this contradiction between the principles governing England’s external and internal politics reportedly lies in this globally unique phenomenon that exists in England – it is a state on the outside, but it relies on self-government on the inside. The completely exceptional geographical situation of the island, its maritime power, national character and the resulting institutions have allowed Great Britain to always maintain its position and even dominance in the continental political system without being transformed, without renouncing its own social model and without constraining the freedom which it enjoys, whereas all countries on the continent had to yield to such constraints in order to maintain their place in the states’ political system. Owing to England’s unique position, the Parliament squabbled with William of Orange[9] whether a permanent army of twenty thousand should be maintained, since self-government does not need a permanent army. England has adopted the idea of state only in its external politics. There, it was a state in the strict sense of the word: it was represented by a fleet, which its colonies and commerce required anyway. However, in its internal dealings this idea did not apply in the same manner as on the continent. England clung steadfastly to its national institutions, its form of government, and its liberties and freedoms; its society maintained its supreme independence, i.e. self-government, vis-à-vis the idea of the state.

In extraordinary cases, such as with the recent wars against France, when external politics demanded great sacrifices and when acting as a state resulted in great burdens that had to be borne at the expense of certain internal freedoms, patriotism came to England’s help. This patriotism was so perfectly aligned with the country’s interests and was in such perfect harmony with the pride of a nation that rules itself that it was really difficult to distinguish between the feelings that were combined in this single expression of English patriotism.

England’s interest is precisely this interface between its external and internal policies, between the state and self-government. The state’s interest is the overarching principle in the system that is based on the idea of the state; England’s interest is the overarching principle in the self-government system. The state’s interest may be the same as England’s interest or it may be incompatible with it. In the latter case, which one will yield? “The cause of Queen Isabella[10] must prevail, if only because England’s interest so demands!”, claimed Lord Palmerston in Parliament during the war in Spain against Don Carlos, pretender to the throne.[11] “And where will this principle lead us?”, asked Robert Peel,[12] who was then sitting in opposition benches vis-à-vis the Whig Cabinet. “Well, it will lead us to justify any armed intervention, even in the least justified case as long as it appears to ministers that the English interest so demands”. This was England’s voice against the state.

However, Lord Palmerston accepted all the consequences of the principle he put forward and the English nation accepted them together with him, it appears. England boldly joined the system of states and its external politics does not differ in any respect from that of the other continental states. It recognises nationalities, but other states also do not deny their existence – it is just that, like England, they never take them into consideration in their political calculations. It is indifferent to the form that government in continental states takes; it enters alliances in accordance with its interests and for no other reason; it signs treaties based on political equilibrium; it does not reject the basic tenets of common principles and solidarity of interests; it occupies a prominent place in the present system of states alongside the other great powers. Looking very closely at England’s external politics, no one would realise that its internal organisation is quite different from that of the rest of states on the continent, that inside, such a vast gap separates it from the idea of the state and that the principles it follows in external politics do not apply in its internal politics, that it meticulously observes in its internal dealings the freedoms and liberties that it is so dismissive of in others and finally that, while supporting cosmopolitanism on the continent, it strives to preserve its own individuality using all means available.

England probably could not have acted otherwise. The political system of states has been strengthened so much that no power, even the greatest one, could afford to stay outside. The eastern war provided a measure of the power of this system: England was forced to expand its permanent army to one hundred thousand soldiers. Its internal politics felt the entire pressure exerted by the idea of the state and it resulted in changes, i.e. internal reforms without which England could no longer function as a state.

And things do not end here either. The idea of the state is not just the basis of a political system, but it is also a social idea. Its social aspect has already affected England and penetrated its internal politics for a while. Today, nobody doubts that the organisation of the English society will change. These changes have been discussed for a long time; some writers see them as England’s undoing, while others see a bright future. Without venturing any guesses, one can certainly argue that these changes, which correspond to the reform of the administration that has been proposed for a long time in England, will bring social change. In practice, this is demonstrated by the collapse of the old parties. There are no Tories and Whigs any more; there are conservatives and liberals instead. The former parties represented purely English interests, while today’s divisions between the parties only correspond to social shades.

Indeed, there is no doubt today that the future of any country no longer depends on political or constitutional changes but rather on its social organisation. The foundation on which the society is built is an uncertain one, it is being assaulted and it is prone to resist. Almost everywhere, the issue is not the political form of the society but its essence. Can the principles that underlay society to date still stand – this is the main question in all internal politics.

The state of affairs is similar in England. There, the political question is in fact a social one. Institutions are made for people there, not people for institutions. English institutions may well be the best and those who defend them, i.e. the aristocracy, may well take the position that is best for their preservation, but this is still no guarantee that they will win. This will ultimately be decided by the entire English society, or rather by its attitude towards these institutions. This attitude is uncertain and we cannot know it in advance, but one thing we know for sure is that the future of England does not depend on its institutions alone.

It is true that English institutions are primarily opposed to the influence exerted by the idea of the state on England’s internal functioning; it is they that are the difference between England’s internal politics and its external politics. However, their resistance to the application to the theory of the state does not come from their form but rather from their substance. The source of strength of English institutions is not the parliamentary system, as some maintain, but rather the elements from which these institutions originated and on which they are based, and particularly the English aristocracy. If England has managed so far to avoid – and if it can avoid in the future – the absolutism and anarchy to which continental countries are alternately succumbing, it will owe this not only to its political organisation and to its ancient institutions, but primarily to the stance adopted by the aristocratic element within this organisation. The English nobility took a completely different position than the nobility of other countries; it has never renounced its connections with the other classes – with the plebeians; it is not exclusive and it allows so-called new people to join the ranks, and English does not have such terms as mésalliance or parvenu that would describe improper relationships or recent advancement. The Polish language has no such terms either. The English nobility was never alien to the people of England – the people’s affairs and interests were never outside its sphere, nor did it do the monarch’s bidding, although the monarch was never able to do without it. Hence the English aristocracy does not just serve as a support for English institutions – it constitutes a real part of the nation. We assume that were the House of Lords to be abolished, the constitution would probably be damaged externally (i.e. as to its form), but its essence would not be destroyed. The aristocratic spirit and the national character could remain intact since the true foundation of the magnificent edifice of the English constitution is municipal autonomy, i.e. self-government.

As long as this autonomy remains in full effect, England can be a state in the strict sense of the word on the outside, but inside it cannot be one. This is because self-government does not allow the English society to accept the administrative form that is called bureaucracy on the continent. There is no bureaucracy in England, and this is the true and only basis for its free institutions. Worldwide, only England has this exclusive privilege that even America lacks. And it is able to use this privilege thanks to its aristocracy. However, it was not the parliamentary system that the English aristocracy has used to keep bureaucracy away from England to date. The Parliament would not have been able to do what the aristocracy did thanks to its wealth and its reasonable position – it was because of the aristocracy that the British did not need paid officials, since the aristocracy provided independently and free of charge all the services required by the English people. Had the English aristocracy functioned differently, it would have probably collapsed as it did everywhere else in spite of parliaments. The abolition of certain feudal privileges, which the English aristocracy waived, would probably not have saved its skin, since the collapse of the feudal system provided a prelude to the fall of the aristocracy almost everywhere and gave rise to bureaucracy at the same time. This is because the idea of the state grew on the ruins of the feudal system.

Thus, if the English society was not to be transformed in line with the idea of the state, if England were not to create a bureaucracy, if it were to preserve its self-government, and finally, if the English aristocracy wanted to avert its ruin, after the collapse of feudalism it had no choice – it had to assume the aforementioned position vis-à-vis the nation. Suffice it to look at the many attempts to restore the aristocracy undertaken in multiple European states. The restoration of aristocracy alongside bureaucracy is unthinkable, as is the preservation of self-government. The English aristocracy would not have been helped a single bit by majorat laws and other aristocratic freedoms, i.e. privileges of English institutions; as we can see, these privileges of the aristocracy in other countries, especially German-speaking ones, did not enhance its present influence or restore that which has been lost. The parliamentary form of government would also not have saved the British aristocracy and self-government. Parliament is neither an expression of English freedom nor its essence, although it may sometimes be a body that exercises this freedom, as it originates out of self-government nowadays. The latter only gives it the necessary autonomy to act as a body that exercises freedom. Where this is not present, the parliament has no autonomy and is an external form of freedom without any substance. A parliament devoid of any autonomy is perfectly aligned with the bureaucracy. In this case, elections serve the bureaucracy, and this in turn serves the parties that sit in the parliament. This was the case in France. Just look at Prussia’s efforts to combine, within a parliamentary system, its bureaucracy with the seemingly restored aristocratic element – the only result has been the increasingly large and complex machinery of government. And in which country whose parliament is deprived of autonomy has the aristocracy risen from the ashes? The English aristocracy had no other way but to maintain self-government by demonstrating in practice that England could do without bureaucracy owing to the position occupied by the aristocracy within the nation. Self-government is also the only privilege of the English nation; it has allowed England to preserve its natural autonomy. Self-government is the sole basis, not only political but also social, of English institutions and of the freedoms and liberties that inhabitants of Great Britain enjoy.

Therefore if England seeks to change its internal organisation, if it yields to the pressure exerted by the idea of the state which has been embraced by the entire continent and which England follows in its external politics, then the stakes in this transformation are not by how much and in which direction English institutions change but rather whether the very basis of these institutions and their guarantee, i.e. self-government, is affected as a result.

The outcome depends on the attitude of the English society. Can England do without bureaucracy? – this is the entire social question that is being considered in England. If England has managed to avert bureaucracy to date thanks to its self-government, it cannot avert the social question. The English society has undergone a sea change, and it appears that nowadays bureaucracy is seen by many in England as a remedy against the social evil that is spreading in the country. There are probably many causes for this social question in England and they cannot be enumerated here, but the question should be primarily attributed to unfettered industrialisation. In England, the industry swallows not only all other elements of national wealth, but also all other elements of existence, so to say. The excessively developed and vast industrial sphere has created a dangerous proletariat and threatens the English autonomy. The aristocracy, which has already sacrificed much to defend this autonomy, can now hardly count on the elements that used to be its allies. In the cities, small bourgeoisie has lost all power and has become a slave to the capitalists. Benefits from industry and commerce are usually limited to a small number of people and there is no clearer or wider gap between the rich and the poor than that which exists in English cities. Faced with the huge movement that developed in England, small industry could not sustain itself and so it either started to serve great industry or swelled the ranks of the proletariat. In villages, the situation was similar – the entire landholding farmer class (yeomanry) which was rightly seen as the militia of the British aristocracy, has diminished in size remarkably. Only sophisticated agriculture, which requires a great deal of effort and thus considerable resources on part of the farmer, can compete with the industry and commerce that is present in England. As a result, independent peasants have almost gone extinct and nine tenths of land in England now belong to capitalists. Those only have wealthy tenants – poorer and smaller ones have now become part of the proletariat. This incredible mass of the proletariat breeds constant worker rebellions and demoralisation, which can hardly be cured by the Anglican Church, because on the one hand one can say that there is nothing more democratic than the English aristocracy, but on the other hand one can also safely claim that there is nothing more aristocratic than the Church of England. It only cares about the higher classes, but stands aloof from the common people to whom it does not even offer education. For three centuries now, it has used its immense wealth without any benefits for the English people and for their cause. Today it is too late for this position to be changed. The Church of England is becoming fragmented into ever more sects and becoming so weak that it cannot even properly support the aristocracy.

We have only touched upon the social question in England, but elaborating upon it would require a lengthy essay. These cursory remarks, however, can serve as an indication of the extent to which today’s social organisation in England is under threat, and what is being threatened is precisely its autonomy. It is no wonder that an increasing number of voices are demanding administrative reform as the proletariat grows and as there are more and more pretenders to offices who wish to provide to the nation this service that is being provided free of charge under self-government. In these social conditions, bureaucracy may look like a temporary saviour to many.

It appears that the large faction in England that supports the reform is gravitating, albeit not very clearly, in this direction. And this direction is an important aspect to judge the last election by. After what I have already said, it may now be easier to decipher the proper meaning of those “conservative” and “liberal” terms. These refer to the reform only, but if we look deeper, conservatists wish to maintain the English autonomy, i.e. self-government, while liberals in the ultimate analysis tend towards introducing a shift towards the idea of the state. Even the nomenclature used indicates the push by the latter towards integrating England with the continental system where liberalism did not lead to freedom at all.

The coalition that brought about the dissolution of the parliament was neither conservative nor liberal. It provided the evidence of the disintegration of the old parties and faithfully reflected the result of this disintegration. The coalition included both conservative and liberal members of the Parliament, of even the most extreme shades. The governmental faction was also composed of two different elements, albeit less blatantly incompatible. This combination of conservatives and liberals in a parliamentary coalition can be explained by their common desire to test the public opinion and obtain a stronger mandate from it rather than by their intention to replace the new Cabinet, since the elements that make up this coalition could not be sufficiently sure of succeeding in this enterprise. However, it was certain that if the government did not yield and appealed to the public opinion, which was in fact the case, then the elections would be decided by the attitude towards the reform, because since the social question was raised in England and resulted in the dissolution of the old parties, there can be no other area for electoral struggle any longer. Social questions are above all other matters, not only encompassing but also absorbing them.

The result of this test of public opinion was not favourable either to the conservative party or to ancient English institutions. The government, or rather Lord Palmerston, survived the election, but only owing to the majority gained by the liberal party, which was larger than anyone in England expected, and above all the head of the Cabinet himself, who is a liberal conservative. This election is insignificant in terms of England’s external politics, since it hardly changes it at all, but it is extremely important in terms of internal politics, not only because of this majority for the reform, but also because of the manner in which this result has been achieved.

This manner demonstrates a certain change in the attitude of the English society towards its institutions. Earlier, parties used their influence in order to win elections and this was done universally. This influence on the election in order to ensure that the candidate of the party in question won was not always exerted by legitimate means; it sometimes involved bribery and various abuses, and this was a universal phenomenon as well. It was one of the shortcomings of the English social organisation, which was imperfect like it is anywhere else in the world. However, Great Britain could afford this shortcoming, since self-government compensated for this imperfection even if it was unable to eliminate it. Abuses did not reach English institutions because they were contained in the parliamentary sphere, and they did not infringe on the freedoms and liberties enjoyed by the society. Today, it appears that the abuses have taken on a different nature, and a very dangerous one at that. Together with the advent of the proletariat and with the collapse of the middle class both in cities and in villages, i.e. together with the changes that occurred in the English society, the methods used during electoral campaigns had to change as well. This was evidenced by the bloody scenes witnessed during the recent hustings, i.e. electoral meetings, in many places. Since natural tools that enabled influencing the election of individual candidates have disappeared, new and much more dangerous ones have emerged. Bribery became a scandal when it started to involve the proletariat, and agitation became intimidation. The freedom of elections, i.e. the freedom of the electorate, has been threatened, and this already affects the institution itself due to the disharmony between it and the society. All of this favoured the reform. Electoral reform, i.e. extending the franchise and creating more electoral districts, is supposed to prevent similar scandals; secret vote is supposed to be the only cure for intimidation. These are two very important changes to which part of the public opinion now consents; the latter is especially completely incompatible with the feelings of Old England, and even with the national pride, character and individuality; to date, an Englishman could hardly imagine voting otherwise than by raising his hand, and blushed at the very thought of hiding his political opinions. And yet this reform to introduce the secret vote, of which once only the Chartists[13]  dreamed, and even radicals were repulsed by it, though it could have been very useful to them – this reform is to be presented together with the general electoral reform by the liberal majority, and supported by it in the future Parliament.

So conservatives have suffered not only numerical defeat in the recent election, but a moral one as well. What new concessions will the English aristocracy be forced to make? Or perhaps will it consider this moment an appropriate one to take the initiative? The electoral reform was also included in the English radicals’ former programme whose first two points (the Catholic Bill and the Grain Bill) were implemented by two Tories: Lord Wellington[14] and Sir Robert Peel. Struggle against the aristocracy – continually weakening it by strengthening the administration in favour of the crown, abolishing the national Church and introducing still new electoral reforms – this is the background of this programme. The fall of the aristocracy and general elections – this is its last word. When this comes to pass, England will have no self-government and there will be no difference between internal and external English politics. England will become exclusively a state.

Yet, despite the ominous signs for the direction in which England appears to be moving following the last election, it is difficult to say in advance what the change will be and also when exactly this change will take place. This depends mainly on the social question, and its progress can neither be anticipated nor calculated. However, one may venture the opinion that it will not be speeded up by revolutions. England is protected from all violent shocks by its institutions, just as its freedom and transparency have always protected it from conspiracies and secret societies. And even the most ardent advocates of this radical programme do not want a revolution, even if its implementation were to take centuries. The victory over aristocracy is to be achieved in the manner that is peculiar to the English – by way of reforms. Social organisation in England is aristocratic by nature, and the attachment of the English to their autonomy is great, and therefore they can be weaned off it only gradually.“Let us strengthen the government”, said Lord Granville[15] in Pitt’s[16] time, “but let us never demand that it be everything and in everything”. This approach has so far been characteristic of English aristocracy. It supports the crown but preserves its autonomy, and this is its strength, which cannot be conquered quickly. The English Crown should not forget that only that which resists can be trusted upon to provide support.


[1] Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby (1799–1869) – British politician, leader of the Conservative Party (1846–1868), three-time Prime Minister (1852, 1858–1859, 1866–1868).

[2] See footnote 13 in this text.

[3] William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) – English politician, four-time Prime Minister of Great Britain (1868–1874, 1880–1885, 1886, 1892–1894), member of the Liberal Party. He supported granting autonomy to Ireland, which led to a split within his party; his proposals were also met with opposition in the House of Lords.

[4] Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston (1784–1865) – English politician, Prime Minister of Great Britain (1855–1858, 1859–1865), Minister of many departments (including Home and Foreign Affairs), originally associated with the Tories, and subsequently with the Whigs.

[5] In the constituency of Tiverton in the east of the Devon County, Lord Palmerston successfully stood for a seat in the House of Commons.

[6] John Arthur Roebuck (1802–1879) – British politician, member of the House of Commons (1832–1847, 1849–1868 and from 1874 until his death).

[7] John Bright (1811–1889) – British liberal politician, co-founder of the Anti-Corn Law League, Minister in William Gladstone’s government.

[8] Richard Cobden (1804–1865) – Manchester entrepreneur, advocate of free trade and co-founder of the Anti-Corn Law League.

[9] William III of England (William of Orange) (1650–1702) – Stadtholder of Holland (from 1672), King of England, Scotland and Ireland appointed to the throne in 1689 as a result of the Glorious Revolution (1668–1669) that overthrew James II.

[10] Isabella II of Spain (1830–1904) – Queen of Spain in the years 1833–1868 from the Bourbon dynasty; she inherited the throne under the Pragmatic Sanction rule following the decision by her father Ferdinand VII. At that time Don Carlos, his brother who had been passed over, and his supporters started the First Carlist War (1833–1839). Isabella, a child at the time, gained the support of conservative liberals and retained the throne. However, already in 1840, a coup d’état took place, as a result of which General Baldomero Espartero took over and he remained in power until 1843 when he was overthrown. Isabella’s reign finally ended in 1868 when she was dethroned and forced to leave Spain. She spent the rest of her life in France.

[11] Charles de Borbón, known as Don Carlos (1788–1855) – son of King Charles IV and brother of Ferdinand VII. He opposed Ferdinand’s decision to apply the Pragmatic Sanction and to make his daughter Isabella successor to the throne. However, he did not succeed in taking the throne as his followers lost the First Carlist War. In 1845, he renounced his rights to the throne. He emigrated to Trieste where he devoted himself to writing.

[12] Robert Peel (1788–1850) – British Conservative politician, Prime Minister of Great Britain in the years 1834–1835 and 1841–1846, he helped to lift restrictions on grain trade, which is considered a major breakthrough in the development of a free market economy in England.

[13] Chartism – leftist political movement calling for universal suffrage in Great Britain, which functioned from 1838 to 1848. The name is derived from the People’s Charter, which was proclaimed by its leaders in 1838.

[14] Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769–1852) – British soldier and politician who defeated Napoleon I at Waterloo, represented Great Britain at the Vienna Congress and was twice its Prime Minister (1828–1830, 1834). He advocated the emancipation of Catholics, which was introduced in 1829 under the Catholic Relief Act.

[15] Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Earl of Granville (1773–1846) – English aristocrat, diplomat, ambassador to Russia (1804–1805, 1806–1807) and to France (1824–1828, 1830–1835, 1835–1841).

[16] William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806) – British politician associated with the Tory party, member of the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Treasury and two-time Prime Minister (1783–1801, 1804–1806). He advanced Britain’s union with Ireland and actively supported the campaign against the revolutionary, and subsequently Napoleonic France. Due to the King’s lack of consent for the proposed Catholic emancipation, he resigned from the post of Prime Minister in 1801. In 1804, when England was faced with the threat of a French expedition, Pitt was re-appointed to the government and constructed the Third Coalition against Napoleon.

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