One of the remarkable continuities of British history is the absence of fanaticism. There is no equivalent of the continental tradition of anti-Semitism (the occasional Plantagenet pogroms being debt repudiation schemes rather than ethnic crusades). There is surprisingly little Protestant-Catholic violence, despite the Tudor burnings, as most of the country seemed happy to change with fashion (the French massacres of the Huguenots stand in contrast to the English preference for punishment by denial of access to Oxford, Cambridge and Parliament). The one exception to this tradition is the reign of Cromwell whose combination of martial brilliance and religious fanaticism was as alien to England as it was effective.
The failure of the Commonwealth shortly after Cromwell’s death marked the end of absolute rule in England. The democratic institutions, which had existed in some form and accessible only to the elite since the fourteenth century, were already at that time sufficiently robust, sufficiently entrenched that their suspension and direct rule have proved beyond any prospective potentate ever since. The English conceptualisation of liberty as something expressed in a negative sense (freedom from authority, rather than the continental sense of national greatness arising through concentrated authority) could now be seen as a meaningful political force. It was to go on to have a significant influence on world affairs – one of the significant reasons for which those parts of the Empire populated by expatriates proved so head-strong and independent was that this government model proved to be equally durable on foreign soil as at home.
2. 1688 – The Glorious Revolution
A very English revolution in that it began at an Oxford college and escalated over a disagreement an arcane procedural point, the Glorious Revolution finalised English religious identity and constitutional structure at what was comparatively a very early stage in national life. When Parliament, resentful of the religious tolerance which James II had associated himself with, invited William of Orange to take the throne with his wife Mary, it cemented the notion that survives to the current day that the monarch rules with the consent of the nation, not through divine right. Moreover, it locked in the aggressively Protestant style of national administration that built the colonial empire, and in removing James ensured the enmity of France, an enmity which lasted until the late 19th century.
3. 1707 – The Act of Union
No one single moment brought the current constitutional arrangements uniting the constituent parts of the United Kingdom into being. England formalised its de facto union with Wales in two early sixteenth century Laws in Wales Acts, which both extended the English justice system to cover Wales and provided for Welsh representation at Westminster. Likewise, the Union of the Crowns, which came in 1603 with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English and Irish thrones, provided for a personal dynastic union but not a political or institutional union with Scotland.