Let us begin with a digression; a highly relevant digression
There was once a country which suffered from very deep seated divisions and a huge range of problems.
Within living memory, there had been a lengthy debilitating Civil War which cast a long shadow of bitterness, distrust and economic depression throughout the defeated territories, lasting many decades.
It also suffered serious ecological catastrophe, devastating thousands of square miles of the most fertile regions with drought and soil erosion which forced farmers off the land and into poverty. There was no comprehensive road network, so the refugees struggled to escape. They hated those they deemed responsible for compounding their problems as they congregated in refugee camps, where their children died of malnutrition and disease. In these, and indeed in many parts of the country, there was widespread malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, yellow fever, and hookworm.
Millions lived in shacks or shanty towns in insanitary conditions which took its toll. There was a huge disparity between the wealth of the “haves” and the needs of the “have nots”. Vigilantes ruled many communities where the officials were frequently corrupt and elections rigged. Many were simply disenfranchised.
50 years after this miserable state of affairs, the country in question put a man on the moon, for Brother Ivo has been describing none other than the United States of America in the 1930’s.
This is a useful starting point whenever one begins to think about institutions, their values, and their destruction and on many occasions, Brother Ivo has posed the question ” If the USA can do this – why not Africa?”
Africa has no lack of people, talent, resource, and potential, so where is the problem?
It seems to Brother Ivo that the explanation can only be in the value of Institutions.
Countries that have sound Institutions prosper. Those that do not suffer. It is easier to tear down Institutions than to build ones that function with integrity, an many nations have learnt to their cost.
Whatever its failings and practical deficiencies, the USA had one major feature in its favour. It had a full set of institutions within which, the answers to its difficulties lay. It had a Constitution which had been written by men of intelligence and wisdom. There was a balanced distribution between the various holders of power, so that it was best for everyone if they worked in co-operation rather than rivalry.
There was significant and widespread knowledge of that Constitution and a high degree of commitment to it.
People knew and valued their faith whose precepts were shared; where they had drifted from its principles, they had the capacity to be guided back into its ways.
As people’s continued to arrive, they did so to share in the vision, and to take refuge in a a country that had stood as one of the few successful examples of successful escape from the autocracy.
When Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, in a low key manner, to an underwhelmed initial audience, he did not make a single reference to slavery, which most people will tell you that Civil War was about. Abolitionism may have been the Casus Belli, but it was not his principle concern, which was rather to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Context is everything, and the context here is that, as Lincoln spoke, the USA was only one of two Republics remaining in the world. The French Republic had failed and fallen back into Empire and Monarchy. The ancient Venetian Republic had been overthrown by Napoleon, the enfant terrible of the French Revolution. He was an Emperor who grew out of revolution as di Mao, Stalin, Idi Amin and many others.
Lincoln understood that attempts to establish similar fresh initiatives had failed in over 50 countries throughout Europe and Latin America in the year of Revolution 1848. There was a real risk that the fragile democratic balance embodied in the Republic could indeed perish from the face of the earth.
Lincoln knew that the roots of democracy needed to grow deep to be secure and was ready to fight a terrible war rather than see them weakened. He made plain that if the continuance of slavery were the price to preserve the American Constitutional Settlement, that terrible price was one he was prepared to pay.
An appreciation of this is not only useful to one seeking to understanding that particular conflict. It should inform all who trivialise the importance of institutions in the promotion of public welfare.
Africa, indeed, perhaps a majority of members of the United Nations, lack the solid democratic institutional bases which enabled the USA to rise out of the legacy of Civil War and Depression: they still lack the strength of the reconstituted democracies which brought Europe out of the ruins of its 20th century wars.
This context is important to understand, as we hear a US President declaring his intention to remake America, which partly involves ruling by ” Executive Order” rather than the more established method of working in a bi-partisan manner to draw agreement.
On the day we remember the tragically necessary execution of King Charles I, we may remind ourselves that that conflict also began because Constitutionalists opposed an attempt by a ruler to break the balance of the established Order and gain supremacy of his will.
One may learn two things from the English Civil War.
First, that a usurpation of rights by an imprudent ruler leads to disaster.
Second, that any attempt to overthrow established institutions too quickly also leads to unhappy consequences.
It was from those English Civil War experiences that the British preference for evolution and compromise evolved. The radical puritan experiment failed, and only when a balanced settlement was established did Britain regain its constitutional equilibrium.
Few today appreciate that that Civil War had a higher per capita death rate than The American Civil War or either of our 20th century wars. It was a hard learned lesson though apparently the lesson is fading in our history classes.
Whenever Brother Ivo hears shallow populist calls for root and branch reform, the tyranny of the 51%, or root and branch destruction of Institutions which have served us well, he has to respond – whether they come from from populist politicians or from shallow ill informed “celebrities” like Russell Brand.
Brother Ivo was prompted into these thoughts as he contemplated the State of the Union broadcast on the anniversary of Charles I’s demise. He did so having recently come across a quote from the excellent Roger Scruton.
” The true default position of mankind- the position to which all communities revert when Institutions crumble – is tyranny “.
This is a good day upon which to mention this to our exuberantly over – radical friends.