History Class with Cheta Nwanze: Is Nigeria undergoing its own Glorious Revolution?

In 1688, the James II of England and Ireland, who was also James VII of Scotland was overthrown by what became known as The Glorious Revolution. In #HistoryClass today, we look at the Glorious Revolution, and discuss its cause, and implications, and wonder whether Nigeria’s current elite struggles qualify

Sources for today include Dale Hoak’s The Anglo-Dutch Revolution, Clyve Jones, John Western, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

Having come to the throne in 1685, James II, a Catholic, became directly involved in the political battles between Catholicism and Protestantism. He was also involved in the battle between those who supported the Divine Right of Kings, and those who supported the political rights of the Parliament of England.

The Divine Right of Kings asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. At the time, Parliament in England, was under the control of a new elite of Tories, mainly traders and businessmen who had their base in and around Lloyd’s Coffee House.

When James II ascended the throne upon the death of his brother, Charles II, he gained so much support in the ‘Loyal Parliament’ composed mostly of influential leaders of Tories. The Tories relaxed their support when the King attempted to relax the Penal Laws, a move the Tories viewed as a first step to the disestablishment of the Church of England.

You see, under Elizabeth I almost a century earlier, the English traders had grown rich, and with wealth comes power. And they were independent of Rome. Abandoning the Tories, James looked to form a ‘King’s party’ as a counterweight to the Anglican Tories, so in 1687 James supported the policy of religious toleration and issued the Declaration of Indulgence. Most Irish backed James II because of this, but by allying himself with the Catholics, Dissenters, and Nonconformists, what had become the Establishment became very worried. In 1686, James dismissed the Solicitor General, and then forced the courts to rule that he could dispense with Acts of Parliament.

Following that, he pushed for a ban of John Sharp, the Archbishop of York, for preaching anti-Catholic sermons. The Bishop of London refused to ban Sharp, so James had him removed. After that, James turned on the educational institutions, and ordered the University of Oxford to elect Anthony Farmer, a Catholic, as its president. By the next year, James had turned his attention to forcefully replacing members of Parliament with his supporters, who were almost always Catholic. His love for Catholicsm was worrying to many, but the fact that he had no heir (son) to the throne, and his daughters were Protestant, was a “saving grace”.

By the end of 1687, James had began purging town councils using agents given wide discretionary powers in an attempt to create a permanent royal electoral machine. By August of 1688, the King felt confident enough of his purges, to call for a general election. Two months earlier, he had had a son. This was a game changer.

The King’s daughter, Mary, was a protestant, and as long as the King had no son, his opponents were prepared to wait him out. When his son James was born, their calculations changed. With the prospect of the boy, James, being raised Catholic, and forming a dynasty in England, Ireland and Scotland now real, the King’s opponents decided to act. Mary’s husband, her cousin William Henry of Orange were both Protestants and grandchildren of Charles I of England. Before the birth of James’s son on 10 June, William had been third in the line to the throne. William, a Dutchman, and at the time, involved in a war against Catholic France, was seen as a champion of the Protestant cause, and an alliance between James and France was a no-no for him.

In late 1687, William had written an open letter to the English people in which he decried the King’s direct involvement in religious affairs. Given the toxic relationship between the King and William, his nephew and son-in-law, the Tories united with the Whigs and sent out an offer of the throne to William.

On 16 October, 1688, William invaded England to claim “his throne”, and was inadvertently aided by James’s refusal of a French offer of support, because the King was scared of further alienating his subjects. After the successful invasion, King James II was replaced by his Protestant elder daughter, Mary and her husband William of Orange. William ascended the English throne as William III of England jointly with his wife Mary II of England. The documentation of the Bill of Rights in 1689 made the establishment of a Catholic dynasty in Britain unlikely.

James II made one serious attempt to recover his crown when he landed in Ireland in 1689. After the defeat of the Jacobite forces by the Williamites at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, James returned to France. He lived out the rest of his life as a pretender at a court sponsored by his cousin and ally, the French King, Louis XIV. After James II was overthrown, new policies enacted by William III and his political circle became very detrimental to the interests of British Catholics. They were exempted politically, denied the right to vote and sit in the Westminster Parliament for over a century; they were also denied commissions in the army. The monarch was forbidden to be Catholic or to marry a Catholic, this latter prohibition remaining in force until the UK’s Succession to the Crown Act 2013 removed it in 2015.

What are the lessons for Nigeria? First, the prelude to the Glorious Revolution was a century in the making, going as far back as Henry VIII, who broke from the Catholic Church. Prior to Henry VIII, it was the Pope, who really called the shots in Europe, and that was the elite of the elite, for example, the Pope had given all of the New World to Spain and Portugal. Under Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, English (and other Protestant) merchants and privateers disregarded the Pope, and became wealthy in the process. With their wealth, they were able to buy power. This power grew even more under Elizabeth’s successors, James I and Charles I. Their power was such that they were able to back Oliver Cromwell to fight, remove, and execute Charles I. A King executed for High Treason had been unheard of prior.

When the monarchy was restored, and Charles I’s grandson, James II came to the throne, his Catholicism was a threat to the economic interests of this wealthy class. Eventually, they took action and removed him. But, the alliance of the Tories and the Whigs to remove James II, brought some complications.

First, not one group in that alliance was much more powerful than the other, and in the Bill of Rights which they made sure that William III and his wife signed, the monarchy was no longer domineering. This meant that power in England became more broad-based and inclusive of a greater number of the people. A situation that Nigeria has a lot to learn from.

It took a few more centuries for England to become a genuine democracy, but an elite squabble, the Glorious Revolution, was the start.

Nigeria, is not a genuine democracy. There are people in this country that are above the law, and most Nigerians cannot aspire to the highest offices, or to wealth. However, in Nigeria today, there is an elite squabble. It represents a window of opportunity, but the question is this: will the right forces align?

Only time will tell.

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