The end of three centuries of separation between press and state in the United Kingdom is not just a milestone in the individual political history of one particular country: it is yet another victory for those cultural and intellectual forces whose ultimate enemy – although few of them are coherently aware of it – is the network of concepts which constitute modernity itself.
The cumulative vicissitudes of British history from the Dark Ages to the Glorious Revolution led us to stumble across the most powerful social toolkit hitherto discovered by mankind. The nation, which had already spread to the Americas, emerged blinking and hung-over into the 1690s to find that we lived in an open society; that social hierarchies were more fluid and porous than they had ever been (class but not caste, de Tocqueville said); that the ideological obsession with individual liberty and private property had completely won the culture wars; that the Act of Settlement had made the judiciary independent; and that the expiry of the Licensing Act had added a free press so that this awkward, quarrelsome and restlessly ambitious people could bicker and insult each other to their hearts’ content.
To be sure, some of these tools had to be modernised and made more widely available in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but by the time John Wilkes wrote these words in October 1762 they were already as much ultra-conservative as they were radical:
“Government is a just execution of the laws, which were instituted by the people for their preservation: but if the people’s implements, to whom they have trusted the execution of those laws, or any power for their preservation, should convert such execution to their destruction, have they not a right to intermeddle? nay, have they not a right to resume the power they once delegated, and to punish their servants who have abused it?”
If this Whiggish concept of popular origins of legitimate political authority sounds modern, it is because the Georgians made it so: this social toolkit of theirs was so successful that they transformed the human experience, exporting not only the machines and textiles from the new factories which flourished in this new kind of society, but also their ideas – not to mention, of course, the millions of people created by the new affordability of births and avoidability of deaths.
It is precisely these tools, however, which have been under the most sustained political and intellectual assault throughout the Anglosphere, but especially in the United Kingdom, for most of the last century. The re-emergence of a government role in the press is only the latest example in a long process of erosion. Already in the 1920s and 1930s, assorted unsavoury radicals were openly asserting their contempt for what they saw as the old-fashioned or ‘bourgeois’ values of individualism, privacy and free-speech. Although progressive thinkers in our own period are generally mortified by any comparison of their ideas with the barmy totalitarians of the last century, they undoubtedly have a case to answer when accused of peddling the same concepts.
The vigorous and dynamic but unpredictable and uncontrollable processes of social and economic change which emerged in eighteenth century Britain are simply incompatible with the secular eschatology of the modern mind: just as there is no end or purpose to the Common Law, which must therefore be progressively abolished in favour of legal structures which direct rather than merely reflect social changes, so too must political and economic life be made the creature rather than the creator of public policy.
This intellectual culture is lethal to real civil society as we have come to understand it over the last few centuries: that network of voluntary networks between and among which individuals are free to move as they please; a dominant private sphere independent of the church, or guilds, the king and his officials, or their modern equivalents; an intellectual milieu in which spontaneous order can emerge and be accepted and recognised: Darwin, Hayek suggested, could have come from no other country because of the habit of thinking about outcomes as the cumulative result of innumerable and invisible processes – a cultural form which, according to TE Lawrence, remained distinctive well into the twentieth century: “Even in situations of poetry,” he famously wrote in Seven Pillars, “the French remained incorrigible prose-writers, seeing by the directly-thrown light of reason and understanding, not through the half-closed eye, mistily, by things’ essential radiance, in the manner of the imaginative British.”
Nothing lasts forever. Henry Fielding, in his famous Inquiry of 1751, was drawn to Dr Middleton’s observations in the preface to his life of Cicero:
“From the Railleries of the Romans on the Barbarity and Misery of our Island, one can not help reflecting on the surprising Fate and Revolutions of Kingdoms: how Rome, once the Mistress of the World, the Seat of Arts, Empire and Glory, now sunk in Sloth, Ignorance and Poverty; enslaved to the most cruel, as well as to the most contemptible of Tyrants, Superstition and Religious Imposture; while this remote Country, anciently the Jest and Contempt of the polite Romans, is become the happy Seat of Liberty, Plenty, and Letters; flourishing in all the Arts and Refinements of Civil Life; yet running perhaps the same Course, which Rome itself had run before it: from virtuous Industry to Wealth; from Wealth to Luxury; from Luxury to an Impatience of Discipline and Corruption of Morals; till by a total Degeneracy and Loss of Virtue, being grown ripe for Destruction, it falls a Prey at last to some hardy Oppressor, and, with the Loss of Liberty, loses every thing else, that is valuable, sinks gradually again into its original Barbarism.”
Like most historians of the period, he was still hung up on the freedom-virtue-prosperity-corruption-despotism model derived from too much classical education, but with some minor adjustments the fear is still relevant: social and economic success are functions of the prevailing culture, and if we allow sanctimonious pseudo-intellectuals and ambitious political hypocrites to monkey around with the culture and institutions which gave us our open society and dynamic economy, we should not be surprised if we lose them. All the subsidies in the world will not bring back bold entrepreneurship, and all the civics lessons will not bring back a strong civil society.
Once these are gone, Britain is just an unremarkable and damp archipelago in the North Atlantic, the wider Anglosphere is just a discontinuous series of geographical locations – and the tools which built the modern world are lost.