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The difference between England and Europe

In The Origins of English Individualism, Alan Macfarlane explains that Montesquieu visited England in 1729 and plunged into a study of its political and social institutions which he clearly found alien -

'I am here in a country which hardly resembles the rest of Europe.'

In his work on The Spirit of the Laws, he noted that the social, economic and religious situation, connected to law and politics, was different in England. The English were wealthy, enjoying a 'solid luxury'; England was a trading nation as a result of its freedom from restrictive laws and 'pernicious prejudices'.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries English travellers noticed with shock and horror that France's rural populations had a miserable diet and pathetic clothing. The French were oppressed by heavy taxes and by royal troops that regularly pillaged and beggared villages.

The husbandman in France, 'scraped to the bones, and . . .dressed in hemp', 'never goeth to the market, to sell anything: but he payeth a toll, almost the half of that he selleth'.

In contrast, travellers in England, among them the Venetian Embassy, noted with amazement -

. . .the absence of heavy taxation, of billeted soldiers, and of internal taxes. This meant that 'every inhabiter of that realm useth and enjoyeth at his pleasure all the fruits that his land or cattle. . .or travail gaineth'.

Yeomen ate plentifully of fish and flesh, drank beer or wine, wore fine wool, had a great store of tools, and often sent their children to university.

'. . .the riches of England are greater than those of any other country in Europe. . .there is no small innkeeper, however poor and humble he may be, who does not serve his table with silver dishes and drinking cups. . .'

The reasons for the difference?

Some observers believed that Common Law, trial by jury and a limited monarchy obliged to observe the law created the difference between England and Europe.

But as Macfarlane observes, Montesquieu thought there were other reasons -

Above all it was the liberty, the independence and the individualism of the English which Montesquieu noticed. There were a 'free people'. As opposed to other nations, he wrote, 'this nation is passionately fond of liberty'; every individual is independent'. . .

De Tocqueville also looked at English prosperity and wondered at the reasons for it. 'Is there any single country in Europe, in which the national wealth is greater, private property is more extensive, more secure, more varied in character, society more settled and more wealthy?'

He believed that English prosperity was due to -

'The spirit which animates the complete body of English legislation' and because 'The nobles and the middle classes in England followed together the same courses of business, entered the same professions, and what is much more significant, intermarried. . . .'

It may surprise Socialists today to learn that foreign observers in England were amazed by the people's social mobility.

In Europe, peasant families stayed peasant families for centuries and noble families remained powerful and the middle classes remained small. In England, wrote De Tocqueville, you will find -

'classes which overlap, nobility of birth set on one side, aristocracy thrown open, wealth as the source of power, equality before the law, office open to all, liberty of the press, publicity of debate' (L' Ancien Regime).

Naturally we have our views of these differences, which may interest or irritate you -

Today, Socialists and redistributors share a weird mental delusion. They take a snapshot of the poor, the middle class and the upper class and they freeze it in time. In their vision, those who are poor will always be poor - unless the government intervenes. Those who are rich will always be rich - unless, again, the government intervenes.

This is like taking a picture of your children and thinking they are always going to be seven years old.

It is certainly true that there will probably always be individuals who are poorer than others, but over a period of years they will not be the same individuals. Socialists and redistributors do not see this because they do not see individuals. They see classes.

If people are free, many individuals who are poor will become wealthy due to their own hard work and intelligence and many rich individuals will become poor due to sloth or ignorance.

The picture we snap today is going to be different in a year and even more different in ten years unless the heavy hand of government freezes people in place by taking too much of their hard-earned wages, by hiring too many people to work for government so private enterprise withers and by issuing too many regulations so private enterprise, which creates jobs, dries up.

Socialism sees inequalities - 'in birth, wealth, and station'. These exist. What they fail to see is that in a free country the inequalities experienced by free individuals change as free individuals transform their lives. What they refuse to admit is that free individuals are the navigators of their lives.

Does this mean that we make no attempt to help individuals in need? Of course not! The English responded personally and individually and they responded with team spirit. That is, balancing their individualism they formed parishes, monasteries and trusts and helped each other. They built grammar schools, hospitals, universities and friendly societies. Government did not do this. Individuals did this. The assistance was powerful because it was individual and accountable.

Socialists bring in the heavy hand of government to transform life, but government has not eliminated and will not eliminate inequality, which, anyway, is in the eye of the beholder. Government interventions, which sometimes begin well, often, though not always, become poisonous. Working with the EU, the British Government has created an oppressive regime that is sinking the British people.

The latest Bruges Group report on EU rules and regulations - Euro Creep Bulletin No. 13 - is the 21st century face of the 17th century European economy. It appears to give people the best of all worlds. But with its excessive taxes, tolls, rules and regulations it has intimidated individual enterprise. It has created a welfare system that rewards failure. Ironically it has established a class system that will pit the retired on government pensions against the fewer young people in private enterprise who must pay for those retirements.

It is not sustainable, but it demands British freedom and vast amounts of British money to keep it going.

And when it fails, the government will tell you it needs even more of your money and freedom to solve the problem with a "New World Order'.

Nuts, eh?

What would our ancestors have said? And, an even more interesting question, what would they have done?

Comments (2)

A Betts:

Freedom, individuality, criticism & patriotism are now treated by the EU as antisocial & consequently, are be eliminated.

Not only is this an apt re-telling of the past, it illustrates a potential blueprint for the future.

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