Janet Daley’s article in The Sunday Telegraph is well worth reading. She makes a point missed by many overseas observers, namely that America’s Tea Partiers are quite as angry with the Republican old guard as with the wastrel Democrats.
It was widely understood in Europe that the American Left hated George Bush because of his military adventurism. What was less understood was that the Right disliked him almost as much for selling the pass over government spending, bailing out the banks and failing to keep faith with the fundamental Republican principle of containing the power of central government.
Quite so. It was against this background that I took the decision which, more than any other, enraged readers of this blog: to support Barack Obama in 2008 (though, two profligate later, I admitted I had been wrong). In the attached clip, you can listen as I try to explain myself to a wryly amused Peter Robinson.
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It is worth looking at something else Janet says. She writes that “this time the [Tea Partiers’] hated oppressor isn’t a foreign colonial government, but their own professional political class”. Most Americans and, indeed, most Britons recall the American Revolution in such terms. But almost no one saw it that way at the time.
The patriot leaders in the 1760s and early 1770s didn’t think of themselves as revolutionaries, but as conservatives: all they were asking for, in their own minds, were the rights they had always assumed to be theirs as freeborn Englishmen. The idea, in 1773, that Britain represented “a foreign colonial government” would have struck most Americans, loyalist or patriot, as preposterous. Indeed, one of the complaints they voiced most angrily in the Declaration of Independence was that George III had used “foreign” (ie, non-British) soldiers against them.
The Boston Tea Partiers, just like their successors today, were rising against “their own professional political class”, above all the luckless Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. They were doing so in the name of a series of liberties which they believed their ancestors had secured for all Englishmen: liberties which stretched back through the Bill of Rights, back even through the Great Charter, to the inherited folkright of Anglo-Saxon common law.
It is worth noting that public opinion in Great Britain, insofar as we can measure it, was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the colonists’ grievances. Extrapolating from the available data – newspaper circulation, election results, petitions to Parliament – historians reckon that only a third of the mother country’s population supported the policy of coercion; around the same as the proportion of Tories in the colonies (see here).
Many British officers ordered to serve in America refused their commissions; those who accepted tended to carry out their duties without enthusiasm. Sir William Howe assumed command of the government’s forces after three other generals had refused and, while he discharged his orders correctly, he felt no enthusiasm for a war against his own countrymen.
The American Revolution is best understood in the terms that its protagonists would have recognised: as a civil war within a common polity. Only when the rupture had become irreversible was it retrospectively interpreted as a national rising, a “War of Independence”.
This point is worth stressing because, to this day, some commentators on both sides of the Atlantic tend to see the existence of a popular anti-tax movement as a function of American exceptionalism, something that couldn’t happen elsewhere.
But Britain, too, has a long tradition of anti-tax movements, from the opposition to the Poll Tax in the 1380s to the opposition to the Poll Tax in the 1980s. It was a taxpayers’ revolt in eighteenth century Britain, not in the Thirteen Colonies, which sparked the American Revolution. The Seven Years’ War had pushed taxes up to twenty shillings for the average Briton, as against sixpence for the average colonist. It was the determination of Westminster MPs to spread that cost beyond their own constituents which led, in time, to the breakdown.
To this day, as far as I can tell, my constituents would prefer to pay less tax. Our enforced contributions to the state are, for most of us, overwhelmingly the single largest item of our household budgets. When I experimentally held a British Tea Party in the most Left-wing constituency in the country – Brighton Pavilion, now represented by my friend Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP – it was packed out: we needed to open up an adjoining room and, even then, there were people unable to get in.
No, the only reason that the Tea Party is a uniquely American phenomenon is that open primaries are a uniquely American phenomenon. Voters have a mechanism to crowbar their opinions into the legislature. Allow people in this country, too, to have a proper say over who their candidates should be, and all sorts of points of view might start being expressed in the House of Commons. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s time to repatriate our revolution.