“It’s amazing how ideas start out isn’t it” said Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party. Little does he realise that the national sovereignty he strives so stubbornly to achieve stemmed from utter chaos in the eighteenth century in Paris, France. British democracy and the French Revolution of 1789 – two such unrelated topics could not possibly be linked to one another, yet the pandemonium that unravelled on the other side of the channel was crucial to Britain’s move towards what are today viewed to be democratic ideals.

This revolution was the result of political and social instability most of which are blamed on the structure of the ancien régime that imposed an absolute monarch on France. Eighteenth century French economy functioned on the basis of the three estates, whereby the third and poorest estate (the peasants) was burdened with the highest tax. Additionally French involvement in the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763) along with the monarchy’s decision to financially assist the American Revolutionary War (1775-1782) contributed to an already unstable economy and ultimately to a fundamentally unsustainable financial system that ultimately drove the nobility and aristocracy into debt and the country into economic ruin. Moreover the emergence of the bourgeoisie and class conflict that ensued are, according to Marxist historians, equally as important as the French financial situation in bringing about the French Revolution and the fall of the nobility – as the bourgeoisie represented a challenge to the aristocratic French elite.

The 1789 Revolution made important contributions to the development of the French and numerous other European political systems, markedly the British. The introduction of the universal rights of man bill in August of 1789 and the application of these civil liberties to French legislature was crucial to such advances. These included the initiation of universal male suffrage, a symbol of the abolishment of the old order. Prior to the upheaval, French and British governments shared the feature of a monarchy. However, they were also dissimilar to one another as Britain was under the ruling of a constitutional monarchy that had to abide by parliamentary legislature and France was under the rein of an absolute monarch. Consequently it is essential to note that comparable economic strains and political inequalities were approached differently within each country.

Emma V. Macleod (political historian and researcher) wrote a compelling paper entitled “The Crisis of the French Revolution” which approached the crisis of confidence in the British government that followed the French Revolution. She argues that events in France “provoked a crisis in Britain of constitutional, political, social, religious and strategic dimensions.”[1] She states that the overthrow of Louis XIV and the improvements that were then introduced to the French socio-political and economic system by revolutionaries and radicals offered an example of a successful revolution for radicals across the Channel.

Additionally, she argues that British institutions had been weakened by ideas and philosophies that had developed during the enlightenment. Intellectual expansion that had preceded the events of 1789 continued in Europe and only encouraged further scholarly reflection on the French Revolution. Debates erupted amongst intellectuals; most notable is one between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Burke expressed his hostility towards the French revolts in “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, which provoked a response from Thomas Paine in his “The Rights of Man”. Here, he condemns the concept of hereditary monarchy and calls for universal male suffrage. It can be argued that socio-political upheaval in France either inspired or appalled individuals, but it is undeniable that the revolution produced a reaction from the British public and more importantly from the British government.

The greatest impact of the French Revolution on British politics, and consequently on society itself, was the fear it instilled within parliament. Politicians decided to prevent the possibility of an uprising rather than to remedy one at a later time. Consequently they embarked on the path to constitutional reform. The Great Reform Acts of 1832 are a cornerstone in British democracy, as they abolished (as in France) the old order through the widening of the electorate and the alteration of property qualifications for voters (the nineteenth century British voting system only allowed propertied individuals to vote). Despite universal manhood suffrage only being achieved in 1884, the fear that events in France projected across the Channel certainly contributed to the parliamentary and the monarchial acceptance that constitutional change was now a necessity. The French Revolution was crucial in pushing Britain in the direction of democracy.

Was there ever a true risk of revolution in Britain itself? Despite what Macleod argues in her paper, the British public has had a tradition of a strong anti-French sentiment. Furthermore, when France declared war on the Great Empire and her Dutch ally in 1792, in the spirit of maintaining and spreading the revolution, anti-French feeling only increased as did patriotism and support for the government. Consequently, the British radical movement was somewhat undone by its attachment to the French Revolution. A revolution may have been avoided in the streets of London with the introduction of a reformed constitution. Thus if we return to Farage’s earlier statement, it is amazing that in Westminster’s attempt to bypass an upheaval similar to that in France, Britain was nudged in the direction of democracy.

 

Sources:

[1]Vincent Macleod, E. The Crisis of the French Revolution. A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain, p. 112