The historical origins and modern psychology of Anglo-Saxon conservatism
By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)

"Law, language, literature-these are considerable factors. Common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern sentiment of impartial justice, and above all a love of personal freedom . these are the common conceptions on both sides of the ocean among the English-speaking peoples."

-- Winston Churchill's view of what characterizes people of British descent both at home and abroad

Historic Origins

It is a common claim that conservatism, as we now know it in the English-speaking world, originated with the Anglo/Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke (of whom more anon) at the time of the French revolution. What Burke (1790) himself said is the opposite of that, however. He saw what he was defending as stretching far back into English history -- and an updated version of that type of thinking is presented here.

My submission is that the modern-day conservatism of the English-speaking world is a survival into modern times of an ancient human tradition that the English inherited from their Germanic ancestors -- the invaders (Angles and Saxons) from coastal Germany who overran Romano-Celtic Britannia around 1500 years ago and made it into England. They brought with them a very decentralized, consultative, largely tribal system of government that was very different from the Oriental despotisms that had ruled the civilized world for most of human history up to that time. And they liked their decentralized, consultative system very much. So much so that the system just kept on keeping on in England, century after century, despite many vicissitudes. Only the 20th century really shook it. So conservatism in English-origin countries is simply Anglo-Saxon traditional values.

The curious thing, of course, is that similar values were also observable in ancient Greece and Rome and may even have been what underlay the city-states of the original human civilization in Mesopotamia. The affinity of the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic people for democracy is certainly very reminiscent of ancient Greek democracy and the early Roman republic and, in turn, the city-states that characterized ancient Greece and Rome are very reminiscent of ancient Mesopotamia. What appears to have happened is that the human race has a great tendency towards centralization of government -- seen vividly in the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, in the bureaucratic states of pre-modern China, in various Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Moghul and Ottoman empires, in the Kings of Mediaeval Europe and in the vast swathe of communist bureaucracies in the 20th century. And this centralizing tendency almost always seems to triumph over an even earlier tendency towards respect for the individual and a form of government that is directly responsive in some way to the popular will. And it is that very early tradition that only the Anglo-Saxons -- and their close relatives in Scandinavia and the Netherlands -- have carried forward into the modern world. Only among the Anglo-Saxons and their close relatives did the power of centralism never quite succeed in squashing human dreams for responsive, respectful and representative government. And it is this dream that conservatives of the English-speaking world carry forward today.

My thesis here is, of course, not exactly original. Montesquieu, De Tocqueville and even Thomas Jefferson all saw English exceptionalism and independence of spirit as tracing back to German roots and all harked back to Tacitus for their view of the early German character. If I was mischievous, I suppose I could have called this article "Jefferson Revisited", or some such. The work of Macfarlane (1978 & 2000) is however probably the best modern reference on the topic.


Germans in more recent times

Just where the English get their traditional dislike of unrestrained central power from is not the main point or even an essential point of the present account. Nonetheless, tracing that dislike to the ultimately German descent of most of the English population might seem colossally perverse in view of Germany's recent experience. Was not Hitler a German and was he not almost the ultimate despot and centralizer of power in his own hands?

A very easy way out of this dilemma might be to say that 1500 years of history can make a lot of difference in the evolution of a people. The English could well have retained their traditions of 1500 years ago while the incessant brutalizing wars of Europe could have caused modern-day Germans to have lost their traditions of 1500 years ago. And maybe that is the whole of the answer. I consider other answers here, however. In particular, I contend that the idea of the Hitler episode as being typical of Germans and German history is little more than a hangover of wartime propaganda.

Before I leave the topic, however, I might mention that there is a good argument to say that most of the tribes we generically refer to as the Anglo-Saxons came from a different branch of the early Germans than do most of the Germans of today. So some differences between them and the Germans of today are on that account to be expected. They would appear to have originally been the Baltic-coast branch of the Germans and in fact in some ways have more in common with the people from the other (Northern) side of the Baltic (the Norse) than with other Germans. Germans and the Norse are both of course Teutons but a splitting of the Teutons into just Germans and the Norse is undoubtedly too crude. The Anglo-Saxons (or at least the tribes among them who were in the end most influential) could well be seen as an intermediate group between the Norse and the more Southerly Germans. The chief evidence we have for this idea lies in language. There are many words in modern English which came via Anglo-Saxon but which have no good German equivalents -- but which do have close equivalents in coastal Teutonic languages. "Take" is a good example of such a word. It has close equivalents in Norse languages, in Dutch and, of course, in Frisian but the modern German equivalent -- "nehmen" -- is obviously completely unrelated. And this closer association of the Anglo-Saxons with the Norse rather than with other Germans in no way weakens what has been said so far about the consultative nature of early German government. The world's oldest parliament is in fact Norse -- the Althing of Iceland, established in 930 A.D.

At any event, in 1066, William of Normandy disrupted the traditional decentralized and competitive power structure of Germanic England to some degree but by the time of King John and Magna Carta it was back with a vengeance. And the ascendancy of Simon de Montfort not long after that also displayed the traditional English belief in the limited nature of central government power.


A Conservative Revolution

"Conservatism and tradition rather than innovation is the keynote of the attitude of most of the principal opponents of royal policies in the 1630s and 1640s. The fact that the same is not true of all of them is, of course, important, but not the least significant of the effects of this was to confirm and heighten the conservatism of the majority. From their point of view it was the Crown - influenced by its evil advisers -- which was the innovator" - Robert Ashton on p. 17 of "The English Civil War: Conservatism and Revolution 1603-1649". (2nd. Ed.; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

The English parliamentarians who were responsible for beheading King Charles I in 1649 were perfectly articulate about why. They felt that Charles had attempted to destroy the ancient English governmental system or "constitution" and that he had tried to take away important rights and individual liberties that the English had always enjoyed -- liberty from the arbitrary power of Kings, a right to representation in important decisions and a system of counterbalanced and competing powers rather than an all-powerful central government. It is to them that we can look for the first systematic statements of conservative ideals -- ideals that persevere to this day. And they were both conservatives (wishing to conserve traditional rights and arrangements) and revolutionaries!

So right back in the 17th century we had the apparent paradox of "conservatives" (the parliamentary leaders -- later to be referred to as "Whigs") being prepared to undertake most radical change (deposing monarchy) in order to restore treasured traditional rights and liberties and to rein in overweening governmental power. So Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were not at all breakaways from the conservatism of the past. They had very early and even more determined predecessors. Nobody who knew history should have been surprised by the Reagan/Thatcher "revolution".

And it was in deliberate tribute to the parliamentarians of Cromwell's day and their immediate successors that two of the most influential conservative theorists prior to Reagan and Thatcher both described themselves as "Old Whigs" -- Burke (1790) and Hayek (1944). Hayek described Whig ideals as "the only set of ideals that has consistently opposed all arbitrary power" (Hayek, 1960).


The "Germanic" USA

My thesis tracing both conservatism and Protestantism to an originally Germanic spirit of independence and dislike of centralized power or authority is of course well exemplified in the early history of the USA. At the time of independence, the USA was not only "Germanic" (in the sense of having a large Anglo-Saxon population) but it was also literally German in that German ancestry was nearly as common among Americans at that time as was British ancestry. And what was the American revolution if not a rebellion against the centralized and remote authority of King George III? And what did the architects of the new American constitution set up if it was not a decentralized system -- with the Federal government at that time being little more than an appendage to the various State governments? And what was the American revolution fought in the name of if not in the name of individual rights and liberties?

American Isolationism

US conservatives do of course differ from British conservatives in various ways that reflect their different history and different national situations. And attitude to monarchy is not the only difference. Another major difference is isolationism. American conservatives would like to tell the rest of the world to go hang if they could. And, even in the post 9/11 world, this attitude is not dead yet. Some US conservatives (sometimes called "paleoconservatives") such as Patrick Buchanan still express it. And Buchanan knows his history. He uses a knowledge of history to support his isolationist views. For instance, he points out (as I have done here) that Mussolini was initially anti-Nazi and with some justice blames the Western Allies for Mussolini's eventual defection to Hitler. He omits to mention that Hitler would probably have been a lot better off if Mussolini had stayed neutral. Mussolini's alliance with Germany gave Germany so many additional problems that it is probably the best thing that Mussolini could have done for the Allied cause!

But Buchanan's conclusion -- that Britain and the USA should have stayed out of the war with Hitler -- I have to disagree with. England could not afford to let Hitler grab the whole of Europe unopposed. Once Hitler had wrapped up Europe, the world would have been his oyster. The American intervention in World War I, however, is a much more arguable matter.

And it is a tribute to what a hardly plant American isolationism is that it survives even today when the world is a global village and the US has been savagely attacked by Islamic terrorists from half a world away.


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