Global Policy Watch — Storming Se Storming Tak: From 1642 To 2021
Here’s a short quiz to begin things.
What’s common to these dates (not an exhaustive list)?
4 January 1642: England
Feb 27, 1933: Germany
Feb 23, 1981: Spain
April 27, 2017: Macedonia
Here’s a clue. The latest entrant to this list
Jan 6, 2021: USA
These are select instances of attacks on parliament buildings in democracies over the years. Of course, this is different from attacks that happen within the parliament building where lawmakers have a go at each other using microphone stands, paper-weights and files as projectiles. That’s a rich and glorious tradition where Taiwan, South Korea and India are global leaders.
The attacks on parliament from the outside is a different phenomenon. It points to a fracture in the common belief among citizens about the power or legitimacy of the sovereign. This is not mere symbolism. Often the attacks are real attempts to disrupt or change the outcomes of a parliamentary process to elect the head of the government.
That’s what happened, say, in Spain on Feb 23, 1981 when Lt. Col Tejero and his small band of army men burst into the lower house of the Spanish legislature during the vote to elect a new Prime Minister. The attempt to overthrow the democratic regime came unstuck when King Juan Carlos denounced it in a televised address. The storming of the Macedonian parliament in 2017 was done in somewhat similar circumstances though without any section of army backing it. That brings us to Germany. The fire at Reichstag in 1933 right after the Hitler had been sworn in as the Chancellor was blamed on a communist conspiracy. It is almost certain now that this was engineered by the Nazis to demonise their opponents. This incident of arson was then used by the Nazis to issue a nationwide emergency and pursue the communists with a vengeance. The Communists MPs were arrested and the Nazis won the elections to those vacant seats as was expected. Within a year the Nazis had complete control over the German state. You know how that story ends.
The Original Storming
My interest, however, is in the first instance of the storming of a Parliament: Jan 4, 1642.
This was no ordinary rebel laying siege over the lawmakers in Westminster. It was Charles I, the king of England. He entered the Parliament with armed soldiers to arrest five MPs who he accused of treason. What had they done? Well, to the king and his loyalists, they were anti-nationals. Sounds familiar. They were accused of encouraging Scotland to invade England and a conspiracy to defame the king. Charles went into the parliament and called out the name of the five MPs seeking their arrest. He asked the House speaker, William Lenthall, about their whereabouts. Lenthall responded:
“May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.”
In a historic first of sorts, the speaker had sided with the parliament over the divine will of the king.
“All my birds have flown,” Charles I said as he scanned the member benches for the five MPs.
The storming of the parliament by Charles I was a seminal moment in the history of democracy. The tussle for sovereignty between the parliament and monarchy that had been simmering for over three decades had reached its flashpoint.
The English parliament in those days was a collection of landed gentry who controlled the exchequer through their power of collecting taxes. The king needed its approval to raise taxes. By the time Charles I ascended the throne in 1625, the Crown was deep in debt no thanks to the expensive wars of the Tudor and Stuart periods and the lavish lifestyles of the royalty. This apart Charles had other problems too. There was a deep suspicion among the aristocrats about the strength of his Protestant affiliation after he married the Catholic Bourbon princess Maria of France. His subsequent religious acts did nothing to dispel this impression. The desire of Charles I to go to war with Scotland meant he wanted the parliament to increase taxes and do his bidding. The parliament continued to resist and Charles dissolved it in 1629.
The next 11 years when he ruled without a sitting parliament is termed his ‘personal rule’. He introduced new taxes arbitrarily, supported Catholic religious policies and hounded the aristocrats who opposed him. The tyranny was going well but for a small hitch. He still needed the parliament to convene for collecting the tax revenues. He called a new parliament in 1640 in the hope he will be able to control it. Not quite. The parliament passed an act that forbade its own dissolution and went about rolling back the policies that Charles had set in motion. The stage was set for him to storm the parliament looking for the errant MPs.
The Post-Metaphysical Age
The storming of the parliament led to what is collectively called the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Charles I was tried and executed in 1649 (none of this namby-pamby impeachment business in those days). There were three key outcomes of the civil wars:
- The replacement of English monarch by the Commonwealth of England
- The consolidation of Protestant ascendancy and the defeat of Catholicism in England. The downstream impact of this was huge
- The precedent that the English monarch cannot rule without the Parliament’s approval. The seal of Parliamentary sovereignty and the establishment of individual rights, however, were legally established only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
There’s a subplot here.
A gifted English polymath who had fled England in 1640 to Paris watched all this unfold with interest and concern. A man of science who counted Galileo, Bacon and Mersenne among his friends, he was developing a theory of about people, nature and politics as he came to terms with the chaos in his country. He was also the tutor to Charles II, the young prince, who was in exile in Paris. By 1650, he was ready with his magnum opus that broke new ground on the relation between the state and its subjects. In 1651, he returned to England.
His name was Thomas Hobbes. The book was Leviathan.
Read the full edition here.
Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.