Part-5 NATIONALISM AND BRITISH DEMOCRATIC POLITICS

Gellner and Typology of  Nationalism

Gellner, writing exclusively about Europe, divided Europe into four zones travelling from west to east and formulated four different types  of nationalism applicable to each zone. Gellner understood nationalism in terms of a marriage between the states and a pervasive high-culture and saw four different patterns of this marriage  in the four European zones. Zone I, located on  the western belt consisting of England, France, Portugal and Spain witnessed a rather smooth and easy marriage of the two, because both the ingredients (state and high-culture for the defined territory) were present prior to the arrival of nationalism.

Zone II (present day Italy and Germany), situated on the territory of the erstwhile Holy Roman Empire, was different from zone 1 in the sense that the bride (high culture for the territory) was ready (among the Italians from the days of early Renaissance and among the Germans since the days of Luther) but there was no groom (state for  the  exclusive territory).

Here also, as in zone I, nationalism was benign, soft and relatively conflict-free. There were no claims and counter-claims for the territory. Culturally homogeneous territories did not have to be carved out; they already existed. The high-culture also existed; it only needed to reach  out  to  peasants  and workers.

It is in zone III (territories east of Germany and west of Russian Empire, areas  of  present  day Poland, Ukrane, Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania, Balkans etc.) that nationalism ceased to be benign and liberal and had to necessarily be nasty, violent and brutal. The horrors, generally associated with nationalism, were inevitable here as neither of the two preconditions (state and high-culture) existed in congruent fashion. Both   a national state and a national culture had to be

 

carved out. The nationalist imperative was kept ruthlessly under check by the Tsarist Empire, the marriage of state and culture followed the disintegration  without  causing  it  in  any way.

 

Nationalism and Indian Experience

Essence of Indian nationalism was rebellion against the state. Indian people acquired a modern state in the form of British imperialist state for the entire territory, but refused to live under it. The bulldozer of industrialization was not operative in India. The pre-existing socio religious identities were therefore not flattened  out.

India experienced four different kinds of nationalism. The major Indian nationalism was territorial, anti-colonial and led  to  the  creation of  a  nation-state  through  a  national movement.

It acquired not only one but three distinct high-cultures during the colonial period. Indian National movement remained, throughout its life, linguistically and culturally remarkably plural. Since cultural unity is the hallmark of all nationalist projects, Indian national movement evolved the unique slogan of ‘unity in diversity’ and remained committed to both. Paradoxically the plural and non-coercive elements of the Indian national movement became its greatest strength  and  weakness  at  the  same time.

The focus on cultural and linguistic plurality enabled the movement to maximized mobilization, but it also rendered Indian nationalism somewhat handicapped when confronted with a rival nationalism. The second major nationalism was a rival to Indian nationalism. This led to the creation of Pakistan. Pakistani nationalism was based on the famous two-nation theory, which implied that Indian Muslims were not a part of an Indian nation but were  a  nation  in themselves.

Pakistani nationalism was strangely based on religious unity and territorial disunity. The east and the west wing of the new nation-state were separated from each other by over 900  miles. The new state took religious unity for  granted and imposed linguistic and cultural unity without being  able  to  achieve  economic parity.

The result was the emergence of a breakaway nationalism in 1971. The fourth category is that

of aspirant nationalism- forces for Khalistan in Punjab, Azad Kashmir in the state of  Jammu and Kashmir and the Tamil demand for a separate state in Sri Lanka. These may be called potential nationalisms. The experience of potential nationalism (or nationalism which are not likely to ever culminate in the formation of new nation- states) is not specific to India but is a  world-  wide  phenomenon.

 

Modern State

In the 1750s, Britian’s political, social and economic life was dominated by the landed aristocracy and agriculture was the basis of the economy. Government had little active  role  in the lives of the people. But by the 1760s Britain became the first nation which brought about significant changes in her polity, society and economy, thus beginning the process of industrialization. New shades of political ideologies developed in Britain and became modern through a liberal and democratic transformation. Britain’s rising middle class and ruling aristocracy through reforms managed to restrict the working class movements within the broader  framework  of  parliamentary politics.

Politics refers to the struggle for power. Those who have power try to maintain it while those who are out of power may resist or try to capture it. In a sense, this tussle pervades all forms of social relations and institutions. Secondly, ideological conflicts also play a significant role in the  politics  which  centres  around  the state.

The rulers may seek to justify the existing system in terms of religious or secular ideals while those out of power may look forward to changes which may be radically new or reactionary in their aims. In general terms, such political impulses may be described as centrist, leftist and rightist respectively. But their content can vary according to context. And, it may be useful to view them as relative positions    only.

In modern times, however, the notion of the ‘left’ has been associated more with egalitarian movements of / for the working classes while centrist politics has been mostly ascribed to the bourgeoisie which champion individual rights but not social equality. ‘Rightist’ politics has further assumed various forms in recent times ranging from different types of revivalist movements to secular  dictatorships  and  fascist states.

 

Political changes that occurred from 18th century onwards can be traced to the experiences in British Polity. Reason being that Britain was one of most important originating place of most far reaching changes in economic, social and political sphere. One should note that most of modern democratic procedural instruments were invented, practiced and sharpened over a considerable period of time and today are taken as granted. A study of British polity will make  one realize the importance of these procedural instruments.

 

Changes in British  Polity

In Britain, after the revolutions of the seventeenth century, the lower house (House of Commons) managed to introduce some important checks on the monarch’s political powers and acquired a crucial role in governance. For example, the crown’s finances, including its right to raise fresh taxes and spend on all state departments were controlled by the House of Commons through the mandatory annual budget. Similarly, all new laws had to be passed by parliament first and only then sent for royal assent.

The Monarch who was in practice compelled to appoint his ministers largely from those who had a following in the House of Commons. This significant convention opened the path to the future development of the modern ‘cabinet system’ in which the council of ministers is held collectively responsible to parliament and holds office as long as it can command a majority in    the  House  of Commons.

The Whigs and the Tories were the principal political groupings in British parliament since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Tories were political conservatives and firmly geared towards the ruling Anglican aristocracy while the Whigs supported the organized body of religious dissent in England as well as Scotland and were more open to middle class demands for greater political equality  and freedom.

Still, the electoral base of the Commons itself was extremely limited and the landed interest dominated both the houses. Some large centres like Westminster had several thousand voters while a few ghost towns like Old Sarum had as

few as seven. Narrow social base of parliament was actually defended by most ideologues of the eighteen century. Even reformers such as Edmund Burke had considerable contempt  for the poor and feared any mass action instead of viewing it as a resource for reform efforts.

While it is apparent that representative institutions played a unique role in Britain both  at the central and local levels in fixing taxes and regulating state expenditure as well as poor relief, it is also worth remembering that the dominance of the landed aristocracy at all levels. At the top, there was powerful group of some 350 families who owned huge landed estates, usually with titles of nobility.

Below this exclusive group of peers or nobles in Britain’s ruling elite, came the 4000 odd families constituting the gentry. They were again owners of substantial landed estates. A few amongst them had wealth comparable to those    of the lords but their title was that of a knight or  a baron and the offices they generally aspired to were those of the unpaid Justices of Peace or a seat in the House of Commons. Another feature  of the British aristocracy was its fairly compact character.

Parliamentary checks on the executive’s right to impose new taxes, the sanctity of private property, the independent tradition of the English common law and the force of legal provisions such as Habeus Corpus along with a relatively free press guaranteed some important rights to the upper and middle classes in Britain as a time when similar liberties were unknown elsewhere. At the same time it is important  to  remember that these freedoms could be enjoyed in practice only by the wealthy who could take recourse to the  lengthy  procedures  of law.

 

Demand for Reforms

Britain had tradition of liberal thought going back to the revolutionary decades when philosophers such as John Locke espoused a new theory of state bound to safeguard persons and property. The controversies generated centering on the freedom of press and protection against arbitrary arrest during 1760s and 1770s brought the issues of civic rights to the fore to British politics. The arrogance of George III, who ruled Britain  from  1760  to  1820,  the  fight  for  liberal

 

rights led during his rule by leaders such as Fox and Wilkes, and the issues raised by the liberation of British colonies in America after 1776 further stoked  the  embers  of  such discontent.

The most important concern of the liberal agenda was of high taxation and waste in public expenditure. The parliament as well as the press were important fora through which the demand for the ‘economical reforms’ against these ills was raised. In 1779, influential sections of the gentry led by Wywill gave further support to such demands. Consequently, Conservative leaders such as Edmund Burke as well as liberals such   as Pitt the Younger embarked upon a series of reforms which led to the abolition of crown patronage and the introduction of modern budgeting  in Britain.

The Doctrine of ‘utilitarianism’, was  coined by influential thinker Jeremy Bentham. According to this doctrine all laws and institutions of society were to be judged on the basis of their utility to the maximum number and not by their traditional sanctity  or  textual authority.

Others causes of public concern during this period were: the issues of public health and education, crime and morality, the treatment of prisoners, condition of the poor in sprawling industrial slums and the rights of dissenting religious groups. The demand for electoral and parliamentary reforms was also gaining momentum amongst sections of the middle class as well as artisans and working classes. The writings of radicals like Tom Paine and Major Cartwright acted as powerful catalysts in this respect.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 also had a positive impact on the radical movement in Britain. During this period, the British state not only used nationalist sentiment to buttress its authority but also unleashed unprecedented repression against the radicals as well as the nascent working class movement. This included the suspension of  the Habeus Corpus in 1794, the introduction of anti-combination laws in 1799 as also a series of treason trials and bloody  suppression  of  all  radical organizations.

Meanwhile the working class movement was also maturing in Britain. The initial phase of industrialization was full of misery for the proletariat which worked and lived in  extremely

hostile conditions for long hours on meager wages and with few rights or social security. It is hardly surprising that in the face of these brutal conditions, in several places, the workers responded by systematically breaking the machines which symbolized the new order to them. These early machine breakers have been nicknamed Luddites after their mythical leader Nedd Ludd. Socialists such as Robert Owen (1771-1858) further argued that all wealth is created through labour and therefore the laboring classes should claim the full fruit of their work. Owen himself emphasized workers’ cooperative and self help rather than a direct confrontation with  the  state.

Most brutal state action was visible in 1819    at Peterloo Park, in Manchester, where a crowd   of 60,000 had gathered to listen to Orator Hunt on Democratic reforms. It was indiscri- minately fired at. Eleven persons lost their lives and more than four hundred were injured in this bloodbath. Peterloo has been remembered as the domestic Waterloo of the old guard which became panicky and passed the infamous Six Acts putting fresh  restrictions  on the press and political assemblies    etc.

 

Reform Act

The passage of the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 was one of the most crucial events in Britain’s transition to modern politics as it ensured a prominent place to the rising middle classes in British polity and a stake in its stability. However, aim of the Act was to preserve the existing Constitution of Britain; not to change it. It tried   to introduce some reforms in the election of the House of Commons. While providing for a redistribution of 143 seats of the lower House to accord with the new demographic pattern of industrial Britain, the Act also abolished a number of ‘rotten’ boroughs (parliamentary constituencies with few members) and extended the franchise marginally. The few electorates still consisted of less than six lakh men or a mere 3%  of  the  total  population  of  Britain then.

Thus, the Act ensured that the rule of property would continue in Britain. But, alongside the established aristocracy, it granted representation to the rising middle classes in the country’s parliamentary government.  This went  a long way towards forging a compromise between  the  bourgeoisie  and  the  landed   elite,

 

thus enabling a peaceful transition to a modern liberal  polity  in Britain.

First, the very manner of its passage enhanced the significance of the House of Commons in relation to the upper House and also set an important precedent of extra parliamentary pressure on legislators. Second, the reformist agenda within parliament became extremely strong after 1832 as more radicals entered parliament from the industrial centers which  had  gained  representation.

The emergence of modern political parties geared for electoral competition and the mobilization of public opinion also had an important bearing on politics. Liberal polity matured.  e.g.  resolution  of  corn controversy.

The Corn Laws had been passed in 1815 to ensure good returns to the landed classes of Britain on their staple produce with the help of high tariffs on cheaper grain coming from overseas. This was hurting the interest of all who had to purchase grain from the market, including the workers and the middle classes. The industrialists also viewed them as a serious burden since they compelled them to pay higher subsistence wages to workers. In 1839, the middle classes, led by Richard Cobden, founded the Anti- Corn Law League and launched a nation-wide campaign for the abolition of the hated  laws. The campaign was a remarkable illustration of a political movement employing modern means of propaganda for a well defined objective to be achieved through parliamentary legislation. The abolition of the laws was actually  carried  out, not by a liberal, but by a pro-landlord Tory government in 1846. This again established the spirit  of accommodation.

 

Emergence of Modern state

Britain was among the first countries to emerge as a nation-state in the early modern period. Under the Tudors and Hanoverian dynasty, it acquired political stability (cessation  of wars amongst feudal factions, a strong defence against external invasions and  pride  regarding its ‘mixed constitution’). The relative decline of widespread political violence, whether in the form of factional wars within the ruling classes, large scale popular disturbances, or brutal state suppression  (or  even  organized  crime)  in  the

century after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was a significant feature of the British  polity. This was accompanied by the growth of the sovereign authority of the ‘King in Parliament’ and the subjugation of church, lords and autonomous communities within Britain. The growth of a nationalist identity amongst its citizens (outside Ireland) was of great significance.

Various measures were also required to establish a ‘free market’ (another major concern  of an emerging modern state). It began with a series of abolitions from the closing years of eighteenth century, of price and wage controls,   of state-supported monopolies, and of subsidies and restrictions on business. It  also  demanded the unification of the internal market and the tariff reforms of 1786 and 1820s culminating in  the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846. The New Poor Law of 1834 played a critical role in establishing a free labour by making conditions for local welfare for the poor very strict.

The beginning of a public education system was made with the Act of 1833 when grants-in- aid and school inspection were also started. But disputes between religious groups slowed the pace of change on this major issue. Similarly, a public health policy evolved after Chadwick’s energetic but controversial efforts at enforcing sanitation schemes through the Public Health Board established in 1848. The development of public utilities were assigned to local bodies by the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 but it gathered momentum only from the late nineteenth century when ‘gas and water socialism’ was championed by  leaders  like Chamberlain.

Early industrial state was slow to grant even basic workers’ rights to form unions or to strike peacefully. The Anti-Combination Act against unionization was passed in 1799 and early labour movements were suppressed violently. The existing system of poor relief was also considered wasteful and scaled down by the New Poor Law of 1834. The growing misery of the  proletariat and pressures from humanitarian groups  and the labour movement itself forced the state  to take limited ameliorative measures subsequently. The anti-combination laws were repealed in 1834. The first Factory Act was passed in 1833 only to provide  some  protection  to  children  under  the

 

pressure of the Evangelicals (one of the reforming religious groups). Further reforms came in small doses, e.g. Mines Act (1842), Ten hours working day (1847), legalization of union (1870’s) and of peaceful  picketing  (1876).

Apart from labour, other social groups which demanded reforms were religious minorities and women. Despite the advocacy of women’s rights by Mary Wollstonecraft and some liberals like John Stuart Mill, female franchise was conceded only  after  the  First  World War.

 

Working class and Chartist  movement

There were radical movements led jointly by artisans and some middle class activists at the turn of the nineteenth century. The British state adopted repressive measures against them which culminated in the Peterloo massacre of 1819. The first attempts to link all laboring men together in general trade union and also to forge unity for a General Strike acquired momentum during the 1820s and 30s. In 1834, the Grand National confederation of Trade Unions or the GNCTU was formed to give concrete shape to a broad working class movement to demand better wages and working conditions, including a ten hour working day. Some of the members also looked forward to an Owenite millennium in which workers would enjoy the full product of their labour by organizing industries under their own cooperatives.

State also swung into action and widespread arrests were ordered against all unions. For example, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Workers was disbanded and six of its organizers convicted for seven years transportation simply on the ground of ‘taking secret oaths’. These became famous as the Tolpuddle martyrs and only after a prolonged agitation by workers they were repatriated in 1839. Workers  were  badly  hit all over Britain. Some working class leaders were beginning to question  the  Owenite  stress on self help and cooperatives and demanding political  rights  for  workers instead.

In 1836, the London Working Men’s Association was founded by men like Lovett to demand universal suffrage. Radicals like William Morris and Smith O’ Brien also called for a new awakening  amongst  workers.

The Chartist Movement was the most significant  outcome  of  the  growing  focus  on

 

political power which the British workers evinced in 1830s and 40s. It derives its name from the six point Charter, it presented before the parliament demanding universal manhood suffrage, secret ballot, annual parliaments, equal electoral districts, abolition of property qualification for the members of House of Commons and payment of regular salaries to them. In 1839, the first Chartist Convention met in London but despite the collection of a million signatures for its petition it was rejected outright by the parliament.

Economic recovery of the mid forties again turned the attention of most workers away from radical politics and towards wage improvement through trade union activity. The last flicker of Chartism glew again in 1848-which was the year of revolutions all over Europe. A demonstration of five lakh Chartists was called at Kennington commons in the heart of London to present a mammoth petition of six million signatures  to the  parliament.

Overall, in Britain, Liberal rather than revolutionary politics remained the preponderant concern of workers. The growth of the Labour Party committed to parliamentary politics at the turn of the present century further ensured this pattern. Term ‘labour aristocracy’ is used to refer to men whose specialized skills in the expanding industrial economy coupled with the growing benefits of Britain’s large empire enabled them    to maintain a comfortable standard of living. As   a result, the ‘labour aristocracy’ put faith in ‘improvement’ within the Capitalist order rather than  its  overthrow.

Reform Act of 1867 which granted voting right for urban workers was a product not of a radical mass movement but of party politics. The urban working class was further accommodated within the liberal polity with further enactments to recognize their right to form trade unions (1870)  and  to  go  on  strike (1876).

The principal factors which led to such a political resolution in the first industrial nation were: the unity displayed by its upper classes vis-à-vis workers, the economic benefits of the expanding British Empire, the relative weakness of revolutionary politics in nineteenth century Britain and the subsequent growth of welfare legislation  in  the country

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