Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty by Peter Kellner

Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty by Peter Kellner
Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty
by Peter Kellner
Mainstream Publishing, 544 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

Reflections on the Revolution in Britain

Peter Kellner’s Democracy provides a fascinating collection of excerpts from the documents which, according to the book’s subtitle, represent 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty. From the laws of the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan in about 930 CE, to Paul Dacre’s speech on press freedom to the Society of Editors in 2008, the book ranges over topics such as the divine right (or otherwise) of kings, slavery, censorship and parliamentary government which Kellner suggests have defined and developed liberty.

The book is unashamedly teleological, even faintly Whiggish: Kellner clearly believes that “liberty” can be approached as an abstract principle working its way through British history, and the Magna Carta, the Civil War and the Reform Act are represented here as milestones on a journey towards an end. Whatever doubts one might harbour about the technical basis of this assumption, it is hard not to be inspired by the story he lays out, or thrilled by the range of oratory presented between these covers. There are the famous declarations, such as Milton’s “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself”; poetic visions, such as Shelley’s “Let a great assembly be/ Of the fearless and the free” and some startling turns of wit, such as John Wilkes’ riposte to the Earl of Sandwich:

“Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox.”
“That, sir, depends on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress.”

As the last two examples suggest, the principles of selection for Democracy go beyond traditional “political” documents, and take excerpts from some slightly unexpected material, such as Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’, Dickens’ The Pickwick Paper, ‘O when degree is shaked’ from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and a scene from the political sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. This proves useful in both directions: the language of the more orthodox documents is thrown into relief against more entertaining forms, and the literary pieces are enriched as the reader is forced to understand them as expressing specific ideas within a moment in history, and not as timeless works which have been liberated from their context by a transcendent literary “value.”

Beyond the interest in reading the actual words in which the political events were couched, Democracy provides a chance to interrogate the forces which drove these events. As Kellner remarks, “our story contains few unsullied heroes” and questions of personal integrity apart, our “liberty” often has its origin in historical struggles which seem to have had little to do with the way we understand freedom now. Magna Carta, that legendary document which is so frequently referred to in discussions of freedom, and which permeates our cultural history from Rudyard Kipling (“What say the reeds at Runnymede?”) to Tony Hancock (“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?! Brave Hungarian peasant girl…”) was produced by a power struggle between the military aristocracy and the monarchy. Any resulting “liberty” for ordinary people was a waste product of the medieval warlord industry.

The notes point up these issues, and Kellner takes it a step further by including a number of excerpts from the other side of the debate. Thus alongside Edward Coke’s speech on the constraints of monarchical power, there is King James’ speech to Parliament arguing for the king’s divine right; immediately after Harriet Taylor Mill’s ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ comes Sir James Easte Willes’ ruling denying women the vote; and Roy Jenkins’ speech on racial integration rubs shoulders with Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech. This balance provides a mainly academic interest in the early part of the volume: though it is interesting to see how the divine right was defended, or the Reform Act opposed, the majority of readers who have picked up a book entitled Democracy will know which way the dice are loaded on these questions. (Kellner lets himself down occasionally by using the notes to take cheap shots at easy targets like Sir Thomas More.) However, later on it begins to demonstrate the dialectic of what we regard as our freedoms, and makes the reader pause to unpack the ways in which terms like “freedom” are thrown around.

These questions of dialectic and development are balanced by lighter moments. Kellner’s speculations on what conditions might have enabled the thousand-year quest he documents lead him to make a brilliant, if admittedly unsupported suggestion. “By a process of social evolution”, he ponders, “we have discovered that temperate behaviour is the best way to deal with a temperate climate, that the often unpredictable problems we face require practical skills rather than distant theories…” To be fair, Kellner admits whilst advancing this idea that “now I can feel the ice creaking under my feet”, which is only to be expected since he has just pointed out that the Gulf Stream mitigates the harshness of British winters. American readers might be tempted to refer this theory to Toby Ziegler’s Department of Metaphor and Undersecretary of Whimsy, but I’m sure it can be traced to a larger cultural project. After all, recent years have seen Jeremy Paxman suggest the weather as the cause of England’s creativity in popular music, and Bridget Jones blame it for our post-Imperial sense of angst. Kellner’s meteorological theory of the constitution should surely be assessed as part of a general attempt by British intellectuals to work out why we spend so much time talking about the weather.

Democracy is more than a readable source-book of speeches and documents, it is an engrossing archive of vivid rhetoric, furious polemic and passionate argument. Picking it up is a risky business: beginning one bite-sized excerpt is likely to land the reader in several hours of browsing. Even skimming down the contents pages, with their succinct quotations, is enough to get the pulse going. “Either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote” – “The civil service is for the unambitious, and the indolent or incapable” – “From this moment the yeomary lost all command of temper” – “Have his privy parts cut off and burnt before his face” – “Have you shook this nation like an earthquake to produce no more than this?”…

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