In what probably won’t be called the ‘Battle of the Beards’, prickly politico Jeremy Paxman and flowery comedian Russell Brand met last week, to conduct a meta-analysis of our political system. The ensuing conversation would sound familiar to anyone brave enough to spend time in an undergraduate common room. However, one word caused me to prick up my ears: revolution.
Weren’t you inspired by Brand’s dream of a revolution that could achieve the well-meaning transformation he propounds? It’s not impossible. After all, Parisian students almost achieved a revolutionary comeback in 1968. Even if you would not venture as far as bloody revolt, at least some drastic action sounds appealing. If there is indeed a painful problem with our political system causing real suffering and injustice, don’t we need a correspondingly strong response?
No. Contrary to Russell Brand’s verbose thesis, revolution is not a good way to rework our politics. Tumultous change to a political system is always divisive. It is therefore dangerous and prone to violent reversal later on. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany all warn that such revolutions can cause unpredictable harm.
Political philosopher Roger Scruton is more fluent than I could be in making this point. Reflecting Edmund Burke, he argues, “Experiments on this scale are dangerous, since nobody knows how to predict or reverse the results of them … In each case they led to the collapse of legal order, to mass murder at home and to belligerence abroad.”
Therefore, says Scruton, we should tread carefully. “The wise policy is to accept the arrangements, however imperfect, that have evolved through custom and inheritance, to improve them by small adjustments, but not to jeopardise them by large-scale alterations the consequences of which nobody can really envisage.”
This is neither the most exciting response, nor the most reassuring when faced with harsh, tangible problems emanating from our political system. Nevertheless, it may be the most effective in achieving sustainable change. Where is my proof? The United Kingdom.
The UK has never hosted a successful revolution. This is rare in Europe. The major strength of its institutions, customs and conventions lies precisely in their gradual evolution. Our constitution and practices developed where political need coincided with widespread support. They are continuously being adjusted and improved. We limited the King’s power with Magna Carta, codified the rights of Parliament, guarded free speech and assured an independent legal system in the Bill of Rights, limited the unelected House of Lords with the Parliament Acts and so on through the Human Rights Act and to the present day where we are once again considering press freedom. None of this could have been fast-forwarded without jeopardising stability. Had the barons in 1215 pressed for representative democracy then the fields around Runnymede would have ended up a lot better fertilised and civil war would likely have continued. Graduated progress assures wide assent, each step secured as a firm but flexible foundation for the next improvement.
We often take the positive side-effects of stability for granted. While the French proletariat guillotined tens of thousands in Robespierre’s ‘Reign of Terror’, English and Scottish philosophers and scientists harnessed the peaceful benefits of Enlightenment progress. The general public followed on, becoming educated, widely-read and culturally-involved like never before. Some of that period’s British progeny are still household names today. Men like Isaac Newton, David Hume, and Adam Smith could all boast legacies which still improve our quality of life in the 21st century. Britain thrived as revolutionary havoc raged across the channel.
It’s not surprising that honest, revolutionary rhetoric like Russell Brand’s gains traction. When people are hurting, we all want change now. When it comes to the political system, though, tread carefully. Hasty moves harm generations yet unborn, and jeopardise the UK’s unique stability and flexibility which was engendered by centuries of progress. Keep calm everyone. There will be no revolution thank you very much, we’re British.