British Politics as a Continuation of the Battle of Hastings - by Other Means

who report on British politics - especially those visiting from abroad - often bemoan the hide-bound class warfare inherent in British politics, often accusing us of "tribal" allegiances. Little do they know it, but they're a lot closer to the truth than they realise.

In 1066, England was just another run-of-the-mill pre-feudal society. Some households were rich and powerful, some were poor and powerless, but allegiances largely depended on family ties, stretching to include servants, slaves, cattle and even wives. Similar social structures could be found all across Europe. The lowest serf would be expected to fight in his master's cause, but would expect his master's protection in return.

But when William of Normandy landed at Hastings to claim the English throne, his victory was more than just one in the eye for the Anglo-Saxon royals.

William landed with a band of eager followers, who expected reward for their support. So, as soon as he had the crown on his head, he set about consolidating his position and rewarding his supporters with grants of land and titles across his new realm.

In one fell swoop, the entire English ruling class was supplanted - by a French ruling class. In that one action, a tribal element was introduced into the relationship between rulers and ruled.

The dispossessed Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was either killed or fled abroad (some of them ended up serving in the Varangian Guard, protecting the Byzantine Roman Emperor).

The rest slipped down into a stratum just below the new aristocrats, where they joined up with those few Anglo-Saxons who had been upwardly-mobile, before their advancement was blocked by William's invasion.

This group of well-to-do Anglo-Saxon families would later merge into the "class", known as "the gentry".

The rest of the population didn't matter very much at this stage, but they included the dispossessed Anglo-Saxons, the dispossessed Celts - and those who had never had anything to be dispossessed of. For all the common causes these people might have shared, there were still divisions and resentments, festering.
Whatever resentments these Anglo-Saxon sub-aristocrats may have felt towards the French interlopers, there wasn't an awful lot they could do about it. William's mob were in control, and his successors kept that control. (For some notes on some of the instruments of that control, see King of the Castle.)

Even when the Normans fell out amongst themselves (about every other day), there was no chink of opportunity for the English to reclaim their position.

For many grand English families, the only positive response to their situation was to give the Normans their daughters (if you can't beat 'em, screw 'em). It might take a few generations, but this approach might produce a more Anglo-centric ruling class - a chromosome at a time. (They weren't to know that they were just as likely to produce something with all the arrogance of a Norman, with all the organisational abilities of an Anglo-Saxon.)

Over several generations, the gentry, especially the ambitious ones, discovered that they had rather more in common with the "Normans" than they had ever had with the oiks in the fields - especially when the oiks got above themselves, and decided they didn't want to be oiks anymore.

The gentry had relatives in high places, or they had managed to land good (i.e., corrupt) jobs as reeves or stewards to the great families of the land.

In fact, many of them became more Norman than the Normans - especially those who recognised that nobility had less to do with breeding than with wealth and power, and a willingness to use both, ruthlessly.

As for the rest - the poor bloody infantry of English history - didn't matter very much. They didn't even have decent names, having to make do with "Tom the Miller" or "Sam the Fuller", or "Margaret the Thatcher" - pretty feeble compared to some of the Norman names, some of them long enough to stretch back across the Channel.

Although there's very little evidence of any organised Anglo-Saxon resistance, the stories of Robin Hood (and others) suggested that there was some remnant of tribal pride - and resentment against their masters.

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As the feudalism of the Middles Ages began to be supplanted by more cash-based systems, it became possible to advance oneself and one's family, without being dependent on some greater power. In the same way, it became possible to be a man of consequence without necessarily being a Norman (or even a quasi-Norman).

As the wool trade brought great wealth to the English heartland, most of the old families did well out of it (they controlled the land on which the sheep grazed), but there was still enough to filter down to some fortunate Anglo-Saxons.

One other consequence of the Enclosures (which turfed the peasants off the land, to make way for more sheep), was that many of these peasants made their way into the growing towns. There they encountered a system of craft guilds, created to unite skilled artisans into powerful groups. In many cases, these guilds chased the newcomers out of town, but the prosperity of the late medieval period soon allowed the guilds to grow, swollen by resentful peasants, evicted from their sheep-ravaged cottages. Much, much later, this was to become extremely important.

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In England, the end of the Medieval period (and the beginning of the Modern era) is usually marked by the reign of Henry VII. His success at Bosworth Field brought the Wars of the Roses to an end - wars which were medieval-style struggles between extended families and their hangers-on.

As the first Tudor, Henry made a great play of his Welshness (largely spurious)- pretending that this returned England to its pre-Saxon roots. Nobody paid too much attention.

As the Tudor dynasty continued (through Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth), it did seem that some of the old family divides had subsided. But the language of the court was still French.

To complicate matters, it was this (16th) century which introduced the potent accelerator of religion into the political inferno.

For many families, an inconvenient faith could lead to ruin. For others, a judicious conversion could open up new opportunities (as long as they were prepared to be nimble, when the religious wind changed).

There really wasn't anything particularly new about this - any distinction between one group or other had always been used to advantage or disadvantage, depending on the luck or skill of the protagonists.

Much more interesting was the class divide which began to emerge during this time, and the way in which it became linked to religious faith.

In England, the aristocracy tended towards "High" Church rites - not least because that made it easier to switch between Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic profession when the prevailing wind shifted. They also liked the hierarchical structure - which accorded with their high-born view of the world.

By and large, their servants and staff were expected to follow in their faith - even if they were confined to the back pews.

On the other hand, there was a growing class of people who were neither aristocrats nor beholden to aristocrats. Their families had done well in trade, or as skilled artisans. Some had served as major functionaries in the households of the great, as reeves or stewards, and had prospered (often while their masters' backs were turned).

Their inclination was towards another form of Christianity - Lutheran, Calvinist, Quaker, Anabaptist - otherwise known as non-conformist Protestantism (so-called because these people refused to conform to laws imposing religious conformity and they also protested against the corruption of the church of Rome).

They liked the idea of direct communion with God, rather than via a priest. They didn't care for the show and flummery of the High Church, and they certainly didn't like the idea of a fixed hierarchy of rank; they knew, from their own experience, that the old, set patterns could be overturned.

There was a slight regional bias in this religious divide; the so-called Celtic fringe of Scotland and Wales (and the West Country) tended to cleave to non-conformism, rather more than the cosier parts of Middle England.

By the beginning of the 17th century, many of these families had turned their new wealth into a familiar form - land. These were the people who would become known as "the landed gentry".

And they mattered. A huge proportion of the nation's wealth passed through their hands, and, in an increasingly complex society, it was these people who managed the mills, the mines and the quarries which were already adding significantly to the wealth of the land.

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In the first half of the 17th century, they began to insist that their economic power should be reflected in political power - of which they had none. It all resided in the Crown - with a little bit managed by the aristocracy.

The English Civil War was fought behind a screen of high-sounding words - claims of "rights" on either side, claims of religious persecution, claims of God's will. But, in the end, the English Civil War was really about this emergent middle class, grabbing their share of the political action.

However, it is worth noting that some amongst the Parliamentarians (particularly the Levellers - a group of proto-democrats) regarded the Civil War as a war of liberation from the Norman invaders. It's also worth noting that none of the participants in this "Class Struggle" would have recognised the concept of "class". It was Karl Marx, in the 19th century, who re-analysed these events in class terms.

The King lost this particular fixture, but a victorious Oliver Cromwell dealt just as harshly with the Levellers as with the royal head. Democracy was not part of Cromwell's agenda. And, after Oliver's death, Charles II returned to the British throne.

Things had certainly changed; never again could a king ignore the demands of the "middle classes". Nonetheless, there was still a distinct Ruling Class. The personnel had shifted around a bit, but their manners and customs differed hugely from those of the English masses. Of course, whenever a family managed to scrabble their way into "Society", they would immediately ape the manners and customs of older "names".

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The turn of the 18th century saw the first glimmerings of a political party system. There were no party machines or whips or banners, but politicians began to be identified as Tories and Whigs (both names derived from terms of abuse, hurled at them by opponents). The Tories (largely speaking) represented Country interests, whilst the Whigs represented Town interests.

At this time, there was no suggestion of "Right" and "Left" or conservative and radical. However, the Tories tended to represent old money (which tended to be conservative) while the Whigs represented new money (which tended to be slightly more open to new ideas).

The Tories also tended to be High Church, while the Whigs tended to be Non-Conformists.

The 18th century also saw the fiercest heat of the Industrial Revolution. The cities boomed with new enterprises, drawing population away from the countryside - except for those areas of the countryside which developed their own industrial resources - like the coal mines.

The craft guilds were overwhelmed by this tide of people. Indeed, the new people often replaced old skills using machines needing little training. However, some of these guilds survived and adapted to accommodate the new workers.

At the same time, habits of deference to the Lord of the Manor were being broken. Livelihoods no longer depended on loyalty to the great family of the neighbourhood, and any remaining vestiges of a "tribal" link were severed. In some cases, these old tribal allegiances were replaced by a reliance on each other.

In the agricultural countryside, however, many such habits still remained - not least because many agricultural workers depended on the owners of the estate for their homes.

The prosperity brought by the Industrial Revolution, and by the growth of Empire, meant that all of these differing groups in society could be maintained, without very much internal strife. While revolutions wracked the Americas and France, England (and Britain) remained relatively stable - perhaps because they had had their revolutions in a previous century.

But in the nineteenth century things changed. The aristocracy and the landed gentry had merged into a new "Upper Class" (even if the aristos would have turned up their noses at any suggestion of equality with these "new" families). Within a few generations, new money absorbed the values and mores of the old.

Meanwhile, wealth was flowing into Britain from its new Empire - and it didn't necessarily flow into the hands of those who relied on country estates for their wealth and status. Once again, a new middle class was emerging. That, in itself, wasn't all that important (in the terms of this discussion). The process of conversion from new money to old money was already well established - it only took time.

More important was the emergence of a new, urbanised, working class - which included a vanguard of skilled tradesmen - without which the industrial structure of society would not survive.

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Party political organisation developed to cope with some of the new developments (the money, mostly) but not them all.

During the nineteenth century, the old Whig and Tory divisions crystallised into a Liberal Party and a Conservative Party. The Conservatives developed a "One Nation" philosophy - in which they were the natural leaders of this One Nation. The Liberals were economic liberals - they believed in laissez faire capitalism. So neither party made much effort to represent the classes beneath, even though the franchise was gradually expanding to include more and more of them.

The organisations which picked up this role were the Trades Unions - successors to the traditions of the mediæval Craftsmen's Guilds. Throughout the century, and with much hardship, they extended their scope to represent their members' interests.

But, by the beginning of this century, it was clear that they would have to form their own political party, to represent this class in Parliament. This was, initially, the Independent Labour Party - later, The Labour Party.

By now, the Liberals were beginning to cotton on to the potential strength of this social grouping, but it was too late. British workers could see no appreciable difference between the Tories and the Liberals - neither offered them much. Shortly after the First World War, Liberal support collapsed, almost entirely replaced by the Labour Party.

For most of the twentieth century, the Tories retained a position as the "natural" party of government - with some of the natural arrogance of their Norman forebears - managing to muster the support of many people whose economic interests probably lay elsewhere. It's hard to avoid ascribing some degree of tribal loyalty at work here.

The Labour Party have represented the disgruntled outsiders who did most of the work, and knew they were never going to get the full reward for their efforts. Most of these are concentrated in the cities. Like true Anglo-Saxons, they spend much of their energy squabbling with each other.

The rump of the Liberal party (now the Liberal Democrat Party) represents (largely) the Celtic fringe of Scotland, Wales and the West Country - often with a druidic disdain for the barbarian interlopers.

Nothing much changes.

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