Still Fighting the Civil Wars

The uneasy balance between rulers and counsellors has been a feature of British politics for centuries.

King and counsel: Aristotle and his Pupil Alexander, woodcut, by Otto Spamer, 1876 © akg-images.

The divisive, unpredictable nature of recent political events has shocked many of us, regardless of whether we were pleased with the results or not. Searching for answers, we justifiably look to the figures in the political spotlight. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this focus is part of the problem. We are surprised by recent political events because too little attention is paid to ‘the people who live in the dark’, as Andrew Blick, Professor of Politics at King’s College London, once put it. He was referring to political special advisers, who often work in the shadows of political transparency and observation. In order to understand politics, we have to understand political advising and, of course, its history.

Some of the earliest political writing in the Western tradition is about political advice. Homer’s Iliad marks out the carefully balanced and reciprocal relationship between power and persuasion in the figures of the martial Hector and the wise Polydamus: the former excellent with the spear, the latter superior in words. Medieval writers were enamoured by the image of the relationship between Aristotle and Alexander the Great, the wisest of philosophers advising the greatest of kings (never mind that Aristotle seems only to have tutored the young Alexander for a few years). In England, Richard II, known as ‘Richard the redeless’ or ‘adviceless’, was understood to have been overthrown and murdered for his unwillingness to take advice from the right sources. By the time of the Tudors, there was a rich tradition of writing about the political counsellor: who he should be, how he should be educated and how he ought to ‘lead’ or even ‘rule’ the king (and that ‘he’ should always be a ‘he’). In the lottery of hereditary monarchy, the only way to ensure good government was for the king to be governed by a wise and virtuous counsellor.

Others – predictably – disagreed: what if the counsellor was self-interested and tyrannised both monarch and realm? This question was especially worrying in late Tudor England, when a minor and two women each took the throne (Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I). Surely they would not be able to resist the control of counsellors out for their own gain? As such, advice should only come from formal, public sources: Parliament. A queen advised by her parliament would rule for the good of all, balancing the tyranny of an unrestrained monarch and that of a self-interested adviser.

It was an uneasy balance, however, and political advice was relegated to the shadows in the aftermath of the Civil Wars. The paradox of counsel is easily understood: if you give advice that the listener – say, the king – must follow, then you are really the one in charge. If the listener does not have to follow the advice, then what is really the point of it (especially if one has risked one’s life to give it)? This paradox was at the heart of the Civil Wars: parliamentarians held it their right to give advice to the king, who must act upon it. Charles I resisted; he could listen to advice from any corner he wished and he was not obliged to follow that of Parliament or anyone else. Resisting the power of political advice worked out for him about as well as it had for Richard II. Parliament’s obligatory advice became command and ‘counsel’ became less important than an overt fight for political sovereignty.

Political advice did not disappear when Parliament became directly sovereign, but is still at work in political events today, which are inexplicable without it. For instance, in September 2019 the UK Supreme Court found Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice to the Queen to suspend Parliament to be unlawful. This ‘advice’ was, essentially, obligatory. Had the Queen rejected it, she would have instigated a constitutional crisis and risked the monarchy. Her role, in turn, is largely limited to giving advice, which is not obligatory and frequently must be silenced or rejected.

The question of obligatory versus advisory counsel might also recall another important 2019 political discussion: the Brexit referendum. The referendum in 2016 was advisory and not legally binding, as many have pointed out. This does not, however, solve the problem: there is a broad spectrum when it comes to the obligatory nature of ‘advice’. The High Court ruled that Parliament, not the people, was sovereign and therefore the ‘advice’ of the referendum was not binding. Many still disagreed. Much of the division of the past three years over the Brexit question was articulated through opposing beliefs about the obligatory nature of the people’s political advice, in a fascinating echo of the debates of the Civil Wars. In the end, the view that the people’s referendum decision was obligatory won the day: counsel once again appears to have become command.

Behind all this grand rhetoric remain ‘the people who live in the dark’. Recently, light has been shone upon some of these figures and the powerful role they continue to play in government. Suspicion and uncertainty stem from the sometimes shadowy nature of their operations. In line with the parliamentarians who feared the influence of private advice on their king in the lead-up to the Civil Wars, there is concern about the effect of unelected figures on those chosen to be sovereigns on our behalf. Ironically (though in line with the arguments of the Civil Wars) this has led to a reticence to trust experts and the demand for fuller popular sovereignty. The language used to describe the situation has not changed in four centuries: talk of ‘poisoning’, ‘shadows’ and the ‘real’ power behind the throne (or Cabinet) fits just as well in 17th-century pamphlets as in today’s media commentaries.

We will continue to struggle to understand contemporary events if we do not understand the complexities and paradoxes of advice that underpin them. A journey to the past will not fully answer these questions, but it is a good place to start.

Joanne Paul is author of Counsel and Command in Early Modern Thought (Cambridge, 2020).