Bastille Day: Et liberté pour tous?

Having turned 30 little more than a month ago I, like many of my contemporaries, cannot help but feel as though one stage of my life has passed and another has begun. For young adults of our generation, adolescence itself has in many ways been extended, with the big three-oh-my-God becoming the new right of passage into ‘proper’ adulthood.

Has it been quite like that? Well, I don’t feel all that much different, although I have to admit such a milestone has forced me take stock of my life, buck myself up, review the progress I’ve made and set long-term goals for the next ten years.

One area of my life which has changed profoundly over the previous ten years has been my political outlook. From being a lazy socialist in 2005, a general change in my attitude on life (it went from very pessimistic to very optimistic, in case you’re interested) led to me joining the Conservative Party in 2007 as an enthusiastic believer in capitalism and freedom freshly read up on Thatcher, Hayek and Friedman.

That was, and remains, the magnetic core guiding my political compass but I would not be a very well-rounded human being if my beliefs hadn’t adapted, evolved and progressed in line with life experience and world events. And the last five years have been most instructive in that area.

Watching the Arab Spring erupt at the end of 2010, I was a passionate and unquestioning believer not only in the right of peoples to violently overthrow their oppressors, but in the liberal interventionism which directed the West to support them with the use of air strikes. We watched, jubilant in the belief that Arabs had finally embraced liberal democracy and free market capitalism, and a new era was dawning in the region.

We were right about one thing. A new era had indeed dawned – one of instability, horrific violence, poverty, barbarism and civil war. As a result of our naïveté, Syria remains locked in a civil war in which our ‘bad guy’ suddenly seems to be the good guy against one of the barbarous regimes in history, Libya lies in utter ruins and Egypt – the great white hope for the revolution – now lives under essentially the same regime as before but is even more oppressed. We were surprised, yet history has consistently shown these to be the most common outcomes of revolution.

It was the Arab Spring which slowly worked my philosophical compass from liberalism to conservatism. While maintaining my belief in liberty, it taught me that order, stability and respect for authority are not things which should ever be taken for granted, and that the foundations of civilisation are terribly fragile. It also reminded me of the words of the late Lord Quinton which, while perhaps not fully understanding, I had written in my notebook in December 2006;

Conservatives generally insist that different social arrangements are appropriate to different times and places. They do not, like classical liberals, or later doctrinaires like the Fabian socialists, endorse a timeless ideal of civilised order which should be imposed, if necessary by force, on those communities whose historical experience has not led them to it.

There were many in Britain, too, who watched the storming of the Bastille in France 226 years ago and hailed it as a new epoch of liberty; only for their awe and ecstasy to turn to full-blooded revulsion and horror as the waves of massacres which sprang forth from that attack on authority in 1789 formalised themselves into the show trials and mass executions of the Terror by 1793. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,’ Wordsworth wrote, ‘But to be young was very heaven.’ Not if you were on the guillotine, it wasn’t.

The shock of the Revolution was a key factor in the growing conservatism of British politics, hitherto somewhat liberal under Pitt’s reforms, which reached its epoch in the Victorian century. As Lord David Cecil wrote in his 1939 biography of The Young Melbourne;

It is very difficult for us, hardened as we are by the daily spectacle of catastrophe far more appalling, to realise extraordinary shock given to out forefathers by the French Revolution. Just across the Channel they saw what seemed at first to be no more than a mild constitutional movement, change within four years as a bloody terror…these events undermined their root confidence in the stability of civilisation. If such things happened in France, why not in England? The idea that it might, began to obsess them.

And yet men like the great Charles James Fox, Pitt the Younger’s scourge for most of his life as Prime Minister, consistently supported the essential justice and inevitability of the Revolution and its aims while decrying its horrors and excesses. Often painted as a radical republican democrat, Fox actually condemned the execution of Louis XVI and, being very much of his time and class, maintained he was ‘equally the enemy of all absolute forms of government, whether an absolute monarchy, an absolute aristocracy, or an absolute democracy…averse to all extremes and a friend only to mixed government, like our own.’

With this in mind, it is worth remembering the original French revolutionaries sought to reform their truly feudal hodgepodge of privileges, local laws, corporatism and absolute monarchy into something more approximating the settlement in Britain; a monarch governing only with the consent of Lords and Commons, with a single system of law which was applied to all equally, and a system of free enterprise unencumbered by guilds, internal tariffs and archaic laws.

It is also worth remembering that the storming of the Bastille was itself spurred by the calling of the Estates-General (essentially the French Parliament) by Louis XIV for the first time since 1614 – a measure he resorted to only as a last resort after misgoverning his country to such an extent that it had been left utterly bankrupt. The irony is much of the crippling debt which Louis hoped the Estates could alleviate by raising taxation had been run up supporting the American Revolution – which the middle class lawyers constituting the Third Estate had followed very closely.

But the radicalism of the Revolution would come later. By September 1791 the Third Estate, reorganised as the National Assembly, had achieved its goals; it had abolished feudalism, reorganised the country into Départements operating under a single system of law with no internal tariffs, established the independence of the judiciary, checked the power of the king with an elected legislature (though not by universal manhood suffrage) while maintaining his position as a strong executive with veto powers (much like the American president).

Radicalism was only given a voice in the new Kingdom of the French, which had by that time grown weary of popular movements, through the threat of war by the reactionary crowned heads of Europe – who feared their own populations may demand such outrageous liberties for themselves if the still rather tame French Revolution was seen to succeed – and émigrés who longed for their privileges to be restored. This existential threat reached fever pitch to the point where it was actually the National Assembly which declared war on Austria first, in April 1792, and within six months France was a republic. A year later, the Terror began, and the Revolutionary (then Napoleonic) Wars would butcher their way through Europe for the next 22 years – largely under British instigation.

One of the more tedious things I’ve had to deal with on Facebook today is the automatic association with the storming of the Bastille with republicanism from both republicans and monarchists. Yet the early struggles of the French Revolution were borne of a sincere desire to reform a system, in a short space of time, with the kind of liberties this country had been fighting civil wars to establish and maintain for 500 years. As with anything else in history, there was no inevitability to the rise of republicanism in France, nor to the subsequent Terror and wars, even if Edmund Burke did predict them.

So do I celebrate Bastille Day today? Yes, I do. Because, despite everything, I still believe in the right – nay, duty – of a people to use the force of arms to coerce their rulers into governing properly and, if necessary, to overthrow them. As the greatest champion of the American Revolution in the House of Commons, surely even Edmund Burke could get on board with that.