Estates-General

In which we discuss differences between Britain and France


Politics seems to have become a bit of a grind at the moment. The same stories, over and over, over and over until all the details get confused; the government pushing on grim-faced against public opinion, and the Tories trying to jump onto the election-calling bandwagon on the grounds that they expect to win the election and want it to come along ASAP. It might be the sort of politics that needs doing; but it’s not the sort of politics that stirs the imagination. It’s hardly another revolution.

Jeremy Paxman announced on Newsnight tonight that the Prime Minister had announced a National Convention on Democratic Renewal. Either Paxman made a slight mistake or my ears did, because elsewhere on the Internet it’s described as a National Council on the subject. I was slightly disappointed. I liked the sound of a National Convention, possibly because I’ve been reading about the French Revolution a lot lately. By the time the French called elections for a National Convention, to create a French Republic, the Revolution had already been revolving for three years or so, through a succession of failed democratic structures one after the other.

Those democratic structures had different names, over the years, and differences in detail; but at heart they all derived from one concept: that the nation’s elected representatives are a sovereign body, because they represent the will of the people. They became France’s de facto sovereign body in June 1789, a few weeks before the Bastille fell; and its de jure sovereign body over the following months as they created that country’s first written constitution.* The National Council on Democratic Renewal, though, doesn’t sound like any of these French assemblies. Rather, it sounds like an earlier French assembly from 1788: the Assembly of Notables, a handpicked crew gathered to debate ways to save the country from ruin. In one sense, they failed, because their recommendation was for a democratic and representative body to meet in their place. I doubt whether the National Council on Democratic Renewal will come up with any recommendation quite so revolutionary.

Then again, that’s probably a good thing. You’ve probably heard about the actress and TV presenter Lynda Bellingham, who, a couple of months back, called for a revolution along French lines. I’m not sure if she realises quite what the French Revolution involved: that it wasn’t just a quick riot followed by a bit of workaday guillotining of the king and some aristocrats. Indeed, the king stayed on his throne for the first three years; the mass guillotining of “counter-revolutionaries” started a year after that, by which time France had provoked a major European war. All in all, revolutionary government lasted for about 12 years in total; think back from today to the election of Tony Blair. That’s how serious a revolution is.

* After the fashion of the American one which, ironically, had partly led to the French Revolution. It was the French who saved America in the American Revolutionary War; and it was the American Revolutionary War which bankrupted the French royal government.

** which the British were heavily involved in, even capturing one of France’s main naval ports at one point.

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