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Limited Government, the Forerunner of Democracy

It would be wrong to assume that the Glorious Revolution introduced democracy to Britain,  at least  as we know it. Nor for that matter did the American Revolution. The suffrage in England and Scotland was limited, with the aristocracy and the Sovereign enjoying special rights. But even as Sovereign, William never enjoyed the rights over other Britons which many of the American Founding Fathers had over those of their fellows whom they owned as their slaves.

The essential point is that the Glorious Revolution introduced conditions essential for good, limited government, something which the American Revolution affirmed.

This was a liberal constitution which came to provide both stable limited government with adequate checks and balances against the abuse of power. Those checks and balances comply with Acton’s subsequent warning that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

That a liberal constitution requires that government to be limited is something which socialists have never appreciated. Because much of Western political philosophy in the nineteenth and twentieth century was dominated by socialist thought, ( and still is under the guise of , for example, militant environmentalism) this means that little attention has been given to a  feature absolutely essential to any society which is governed under a liberal constitution.

 Queen Mary
[Queen Mary]

This is that the right to private property be protected under the law.

Indeed, Hernando De Soto has demonstrated that the protection of property rights in a formal property system, and one with adequate records, is crucial to economic development, and indeed, that its absence in many third world countries explains many of their barriers to development.

In the context of the debate over the Bush administration’s policy to impose democracy across the world, Fareed Zakaria has most notably advanced the argument that democracy works best in societies when it is preceded by "constitutional liberalism."

This is of course the essence of the British and American experience.

Constitutional liberalism, with the people enjoying basic freedoms, including the protection of their property, stable limited government with adequate checks and balances, came before democracy.

This point was not fully appreciated in the occupation of Iraq. I do not speak here on the invasion, which can be argued to be a continuation of the war which Saddam Hussein that began with the invasion of Kuwait.

It was in the attempt to introduce democracy to Iraq that the lessons of history were not fully appreciated. This, I suspect, was the point made by Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, when he said there were "occasions when people in the U.K. would wish that those in responsible positions in the U.S. might listen and learn from our experiences."  

Prince Andrew was undoubtedly referring to Britain’s long experience in government at home and in the empire. This teaches that good limited government requires not only the rule of law but also panoply of checks and balances, sufficient to prevent abuse, but not so great as to cause instability or paralysis in government. As Zakaria argues, democracy can really only come when a liberal constitution is well and truly in place.

If we return to the British experience, not only did they transmit the benefits of the Glorious Revolution to their first empire in the Americas. They repeated this with their subsequent empire, and first to the settled colonies. To these they transmitted their evolved constitutional monarchy now under the Westminster system. (It can be argued, and I shall advance this below, that this model is on balance superior to that which the Americans adopted.)

The Australian Canadian and New Zealand colonies were soon given the same free institutions, allowed to run themselves, to federate if they wished, and in the case of Australia they were even given the golden key to their constitution the right to amend this.

No other colonies in other empire ever had these, quite often because the imperial power –did not enjoy them at home. The English speaking world enjoyed a benefit in advance of others.

According to Andrew Roberts, this is the reason why the English speaking countries today account for more than one third of global GDP, despite their combined population being only 7.5% of the world’s population. 

Living under a liberal constitutional system is reflected in the political judgement of the English speaking world. Once again, it is not that the English speaking people are more intelligent. It is that accustomed to a liberal constitutional system, the electorate becomes capable of sophisticated judgement and is suspicious of those who challenge the constitution.  These electorates typically reject extremes at either end of the political spectrum. The electors can of course be misled, but they are less inclined than others to render heroic status to their leaders or to be swayed by adventurism.

Accordingly it is no co-incidence that the communist and fascist parties never attracted any significant support in English speaking countries, in contradiction to many of the apparently sophisticated European continental countries.  By maintaining a liberal constitution, the result is that the electorate becomes a guardian of that system.

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