Written by Travis Aaroe
What forces drove Britain to vote to leave the European Union, and for American voters to elect the political outsider Donald Trump? The rhetoric used by both campaigns strongly echoes that of an earlier political tradition, known as the ‘Country Party’ or the ‘Country Persuasion’.
The Country Party began in England as an on and off, informal group of parliamentarians who were active in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the core of this group’s ideology was a suspicion towards the elites of the day, whom they viewed as corrupt, self-serving, power-hungry and out to subvert the English constitution of personal liberty and limited government.
One of the foremost figures of the Country Party was Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751). Bolingbroke, a Tory peer, denounced the new system of ‘patronage’ – whereby the government of the day doled out royal offices to MPs and peers in exchange for parliamentary support – as corrupt and oligarchical. Finding support amongst Tories and disaffected Whigs, Bolingbroke advocated for the Country Party to act as a permanent opposition: a check on the alleged power-grabbing, corruption and constitutional subversion of Britain’s various governments.
Aside from acting as a parliamentary faction, those of the Country Party persuasion began to develop a distinct political philosophy. For example, in Cato’s Letters, which were first published in 1720, the authors argue that the people were a source of liberty and virtue, and that government necessarily tended towards corruption and tyranny. Furthermore, in Bolingbroke’s 1738 work ‘The Patriot King’, it is argued that unless the growth of Britain’s bureaucratic fiscal-military state is reversed, then the country would slide towards autocracy.
The ideology of the Country Party would have profound effects on American politics as well, as the writings of Bolingbroke and his fellow travellers were extremely popular in the United States. In the pre-revolutionary years of deteriorating relations between the Thirteen Colonies and London, a Country Party rhetoric of a corrupt establishment clamping down on the liberties of the people was often invoked – for example the notorious Stamp Act of 1765 was interpreted by many Americans as part of an attempt by unscrupulous ministers to chip away at the old British constitution. The justifications for the 1776 secession from Britain were of a similar tone: the government in London had become irrevocably corrupt and oligarchical, and therefore only independence would safeguard ancient liberties. Thomas Jefferson later revived the ideology of the Country Party in the Anti-Federalist movement, which opposed the bureaucratic and centralising reforms of Alexander Hamilton.
The proponents of a Trump presidency and ‘Brexit’ have used arguments remarkably similar to that of the old Country Party. The narrative is an old one: a corrupt and self-serving elite are conspiring to subvert the old constitution and trample on the people’s rights. In the case of the EU referendum, prominent Leave supporters often spoke of peers and politicians in the pay of the EU and of a vast network of EU-sponsored NGOs, all working to erode Britain’s constitution in favour of remote bureaucratic government from Brussels. Meanwhile, during his campaign Mr Trump spoke of a ‘swamp’ in Washington DC of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists who were allegedly subverting the Constitution and American way of life.
Viewed in this light, the Brexit and Trump movements do not resemble a return to the politics of the 1930s – but a revival of an old Anglo-American political tradition.