Republicanism and Responsible Government: The Shaping of Democracy in Australia and Canada.
"There is no such thing as society," Mrs Thatcher famously expostulated with a distillation of the essence of the liberal creed, "There are individual men and women, and there are families." It is the contention of this work that such a liberal emphasis on the individual was much less influential in changing the political culture of the Victorian British world than is commonly believed. Rather, it contends, the creed that did most to shape the reforming energies which brought about responsible government was energized by a strain of thought which it characterizes as civic republicanism. Where liberals focussed on the individual and freedom from interference, civic republicanism was communally-minded and was actuated by fear of domination. Its classical roots are well captured in a quotation from Cicero's De re publica: "a people is not any group of humans ... but a multitude of people who ... agree to serve the common good of the society" (p. 217)--a very different view of society to the atomistic form of liberalism underlying Thatcher's pronouncement.
Civic republicanism, it is argued here on the basis of Canadian and Australian case studies, provided a creed which could prompt change without sparking revolution. Importantly for citizens of the British world, it allowed for the retention of the monarchy while at the same time accommodating responsible government at the local level. The great architect of such constitutional dexterity was Lord Durham who proposed forms of colonial government which allowed for multiple centres of power within the British Empire while retaining the monarchy as a common core of sentiment and identity. It was a formula which, if followed by George III, might have kept Canada's southern neighbour within the British Empire. Hence civic republicanism avoided the disruptive and centrifugal forces of the separatist republicanism associated with the American and French Revolution.
It meant, however, that the advocates of that communal political ideology which the author terms "civic republicanism" were cautious about the r-word with all its connotations of regicide in the case of the French and English Revolutions and fratricidal strife in the American. This means that often the presence of civic republicanism has to be inferred by its goals rather than by an explicit appeal to the term itself. The classical origins of civic republicanism mean, too, some difficulties in charting its transmission to the nineteenth century debates on constitutional government. A merit of the book is its opening overview of the origins and character of the term, but the line of the descent to the constitutional debates of the nineteenth century is not always apparent. Classical elite culture and its Renaissance equivalents did not always marry well with democratic ideals. Both abhorred corruption but classical ideals of the cultivation of republican virtue were often focussed on the elite. They also were frequently associated with a suspicion of commerce which was alien to the outlook of the Nonconformists who, as the book shows, were often at the vanguard of nineteenth-century reform. Indeed, though the book acknowledges the significance of religious impulses in giving momentum and a mass following to movements for constitutional change, the link between the classically-derived ideals of civic republicanism and Christianity is not always apparent. Another mass movement, Chartism, receives brief attention but the extent to which it can be linked with civic republicanism needs further attention.
Such questioning highlights, however, the ambitious nature of this work which seeks to go beyond current explanation of the reforming creed of the nineteenth century. Refusing to be boxed into either a Tory paternalist or a liberal individualist framework of reference, the concept of civic republicanism offers a middle path that does justice to both the demand for democratic civil rights and an (often religiously-derived) sense of the need to safeguard the common good--even if the contemporary usage of the concept remains a little elusive. Another considerable merit of the work is that it provides a way of understanding the political dynamics of the wider British world. All too few books deal with diverse elements of the British Empire such as Canada and Australia even though, as this work shows convincingly, a common political culture ran throughout the settler colonies. One of its major themes is the wide extent of the notion of Britishness. Indeed, the constitutional changes of the nineteenth century were framed by the desire to retain this imperial connection while accommodating the democratic impulse within particular colonies. Such conclusions are given substance by closely researched episodes from both Canadian and Australian history--even if, on occasions, the detail can obscure the broader themes of the work. This is a work, then, that uses effectively the demanding discipline of comparative history to illuminate a wide imperial stage. In doing so it achieves the difficult feat of melding together the local and the global.
John Gascoigne, University of New South Wales
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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