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We are humanity’s real revolutionaries

people in black shirts and black shorts sitting on bench during daytime
Written by Hugo de Burgh

Reformers and refugees have long looked to these islands for inspiration. Why? Because the offshore islanders went through a series of revolutions of the mind, which changed behaviour and installed institutions and habits more humane and just than the violent and bloody revolutions elsewhere.

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Revolutionary Nations: Britain through Chinese eyes

I was living with two students in an abandoned temple on a Shatin Hill[1]. We would walk down an earth track each day to the station and greet a guy about our age who lived under a corrugated iron roof as he cooked breakfast for a schoolgirl, in a neat white dress, over an open fire. He and his brother had swum from the mainland as teenagers, with their baby sister in a rubber ring. Xie and I came to know each other, and I learnt his take on China and Britain. He would say that it was not a revolution that had happened to his parents’ generation, just a power grab. We British had had many revolutions, he thought: ‘You had revolutions in thinking, we only had rotation of power, one gang after another’ ‘Yours is the only nation which has been made by ordinary people standing up.’

Once he got to Europe to study (his sister and brother went to the USA), although my friend Xie repeated these views to me again and again, it took me a long time to understand the import of what he said because I really had no idea of what life outside our islands was like, or that we constituted a magic world for people like Xie, who had grasped the essence of it much more readily than I.

Gradually it came to me that the history of the offshore islanders[2] is of their incubating certain ideas, many of which have, and are today, transforming the life chances of humankind, and of how those ideas were gradually realised in our institutions and customs. Perhaps we can trace them back to the England of Alfred the Great (848-899) but, it is certain, whatever the provenance, they were advanced by ordinary people in many struggles, particularly under the Norman and Stuart monarchies[3]. Centuries later they were stimulated, extended and given theoretical underpinnings by luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment. Another exponent was the Irishman, Edmund Burke.

These are the ideas: That the country is created by the people, not by kings, so that authority goes upwards from them rather than from king downwards. Law is an asset of the people, not a means of control, and all are equal before it; decision-makers and administrators are accountable to the people, power dispersed throughout society and restrained by law; citizens are free to participate in public affairs and organise against government; the welfare of the people is the principal concern of government.

What this means in practise astonishes many, even today. Italian, French, Turkish and Chinese associates of mine have all found it incredible that we think of ourselves as owning this country, as employers of politicians, able to make a citizen’s arrest and the person whose task it is to put things right, instead of demanding that ‘they’ do it. They find it difficult to believe that I can, and have, set up a community association, charitable ventures, a business enterprise, critical think tanks, a school and a college without ever asking permission to do so or being protected by some politician. But in our country, I am commonplace: ‘Almost the entire social order of the country arose from private initiatives’[4].

Schools, colleges and universities; municipalities, hospitals, theatres; festivals and even army regiments derive from ‘some public spirited amateur, raising funds, setting out principles, acquiring premises and then bequeathing the achievement to trustees ……..’ [5]

What are the institutions that came about to reflect and embody those key ideas and to provide the framework for the initiatives and innovations of ordinary people?  Not all were uniquely ours; some existed, for example, in Germany and Russia before totalitarianism intervened. What is unusual is that the combination of institutions survived here while disappearing elsewhere, until, after the 20th century triumph of Anglophone values, they became the norm, or expectation, over much of the world. Social media has enabled millions in closed societies to cascade them further.

Revolution 1: Equality before the law

Our greatest contribution to humanity has been the idea of law, as property of the people, before which all are subject. Only a minority of humankind enjoys this, even today; usually the Party in power or the ruler(s) and their police or military are above the law. The revolutionary idea that all might have equal rights was seditious in most countries until recently. Usually, people fear the law as being merely the rules made by the powerful to preserve their power; they dread the forces of law and order.

Insofar as it is possible for law to be ‘made by the people’, Common Law is that. Judicial decisions are based, not on legislation ordained by politicians, but on precedents from history, demotic ideas of right and wrong and the reasoning of judges. Part and parcel with Common Law has gone trial by jury, an ancient Anglo-Saxon practice, involving ordinary people in decision-making[6].

These two fundamental features of our legal system, taken together with periodic restatements of right, such as Magna Carta, signed in 1215 on the site of the pre-Norman Parliament or Wittan, encouraged people to trust and believe in the law, which is thereby rendered effective. Here is a list of advantages which we take for granted and which many others around the world lack,

  1. People agree to use law rather than force to settle disputes
  2. People abide by legal decisions
  3. People feel protected by their laws
  4. A jury system where peers can witness accusations against them.
  5. A lay magistracy ensures that justice is local, decentralized and comprehensible
  6. If people feel law is in their interests, not made to change them and society, people will conform willingly, so the laws will be effective
  7. People feel they have rights AND responsibilities to uphold THEIR laws[7]

It should be underlined that, although unremarkable to Anglophones, these ideas are seditious in many countries. This makes their retention in the offshore islands all the more vital, if those resisting tyranny around the world are not to give up hope.

Revolution 2: Restraint on government

As early as King Alfred (849-899) decisions were subject to discussion. Subsequently, over the early Norman period, various agreements, versions of Magna Carta, reasserted constraints on the monarch. The struggles of the 1260s have been understood as marking the rebirth of a common English political community[8]. During the next three centuries the English revived pre-Norman culture, resisted a foreign church and asserted their rights vis a vis their monarchs.

There were popular movements against the Normans in both Scotland and England: William Wallace (1270-1305) had his English equivalent in Watt Tyler (1341-81); they both sought to revive traditional freedoms, supposedly usurped by foreign despots.

In the 1640s, Parliamentarians in England and Scotland rose up in revolt against a king who wanted to reassert the ‘divine right’ autocracy at which many had bridled for centuries. Charles 1st was executed as a traitor, yet this was not a revolution as much as an affirmation of traditional rights in the face of ‘Catholic’, i.e. foreign-style, despotism.

The experiment with a republic, the Commonwealth, came to an end with the restoration of the monarchy, albeit a limited monarchy, in 1660. Antagonism between Catholics and Protestants did not.  In 1688 Parliament invited a Protestant couple to take the throne in preference to James 2nd and 7th,

who was also scheming to re-impose the Roman church and faith-based government. By the late 17th century, Parliament had established itself indisputably as the sovereign power.  The beginnings of what, in the 20th century, has been described as ‘the Welfare Monarchy’ came about. In 2022, the accession formalities of Charles 3rd reaffirmed the monarch’s subordinate status.

Revolution 3: Dispersal of power

What happened at the apex of the state was only part of politics, for

another very important feature of our governance was – until recently – the dispersal of power. A paradox of early England was that it combined an efficient central government, competent in tax raising, with local decision-making. 13th century England was a network of self-governing communities and, although the roles and personnel changed and responsibilities were extended, this continued to be so right up until World War 1.

The consequences were phenomenal. Britain’s enterprise revolution happened almost everywhere, creating great cities of wealth and power from Glasgow to Birmingham, Newcastle and Liverpool. Their decline since WW1 has not been due only to the decline of heavy industry but to the leeching away of local decision-making by London and the turning of local governments into agents of Whitehall rather than originators and drivers of their own economies. Reform of local government in 1974 subjected localities to remote control, and arguably eliminated the parochial pride and initiative which had driven development. Ironically, that centralisation, a hangover of admiration for Soviet concentration of power, was enacted in the very year that Small is Beautiful was published[9].

Revolution 4: Participation

The 1381 Peasants’ Revolt was intended to restore traditional rights, as were later uprisings. Despite its apparent failure, its purposes were realised in the decades thereafter[10]. It was also an expression of ordinary people’s belief that they, too, had parts to play.

In the same, 14th, century, Wycliffe and his Lollards, who stood for independence and egalitarianism, wanted the bible translated into English because this would free the people from dependence upon the ideological commissars of the church. This can be seen as an expression of English individualism, or the belief that it is, by exerting our independence, that we are fully mature[11]. Nearly 2 centuries later, during the Civil War, the Diggers and Levellers went a stage further, with democratising plans.

The elite was reminded of the popular will during the glorious revolution of 1688, when numerous meetings and demonstrations of (sometimes armed) citizens made demands[12].

Although agitation for representation was constant, it was not until the 19th century that democratic mechanisms for elections to Parliament were introduced, and they too were forced on Parliament by popular tumult. The Great Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 increased male participation, although excluding women for the first time. Australia had the secret ballot and manhood suffrage in 1861, much earlier than the mother country[13] and New Zealand enfranchised women in 1893.

When all women were allowed to vote in the UK, in 1928 and partly the result of popular agitation, it was the culminating moment in a long process by which participation in politics has been made possible for more and more people, in large measure because of their protests.

Revolution 5: Diversity

When Elizabeth 1st came to the throne in 1558 and decided that she would ‘not make windows into men’s souls’, she inaugurated the relegation of religious practices to the private sphere. Given that Catholic inspired revanchism was the biggest threat to the offshore islands, and would continue to be until 1745, this was far sighted and courageous. Our society – with the sad exception of parts of Ireland – slowly but surely became outliers in inclusivity and tolerance of diversity[14]. Even today, every EU country except Malta is more racist than Britain[15].


The germs of equality before laws made by the people rather than imposed by the elite, the possibility of unanimity in diversity, the dispersal of power and the idea of decision-making through discussion and consensus, may well have been present as early as the 9th century. The putting into legal and political practise of those ideas took over a thousand years. It is not surprising that other countries have found it difficult to introduce them with speed[16]. Nevertheless, the offshore islanders can aptly be characterised as revolutionary nations because of their ability to rethink, to adapt in response to people’s needs and to temper authoritarian government with respect. So far, we have not yet suffered a violent insurgency with the kind of reactionary repercussions that have so disrupted France, Russia and China, the revolutions in each of which were retreats into barbarism.

Xie fled from a supposedly revolutionary China, in which he and his family had been persecuted, to the colony where they had rights which had been denied them. Britain, the colonial power, had undergone a series of revolutions that Xie would call ‘real revolutions’, those of the mind, which changed behaviour and installed institutions and habits making life rather preferable to that under the faith-based despotism called Communist. With unprecedented challenges before us now, it is to be seen whether we still have the revolutionary potential of our forebears.


Hugo ‘Huge’ de Burgh is a Professor of Journalism and author of China’s Media in the Emerging World Order (2nd edition UBP 2020) and Investigative Journalism (3rd edition, Routledge 2021).

[1] After graduation, I worked in the PRC for 6 months, then lived briefly in (British) Shatin, part of the New Territories, the mainland section of the British colony of Hong Kong.

[2] Being Irish, I want some of the credit for Ireland, so rather than say ‘British’ I refer to the ‘offshore islands.

[3] Pre-Norman society was also a cruel place in which to be at the bottom: there were slavery, serfdom and (by our standards) horrific punishment for minor infractions. The point is not that the early Anglos were less barbaric, but that, despite this, they germinated the ideas that made us more humane and, eventually, but quicker than anybody else, practised them.

[4] Scruton, Roger (2017 ) Where we are London : Bloomsbury p28

[5] Ibid p29

[6] Tombs, Robert (2014) The English and their History London: Penguin, passim. Not being a historian, I have checked my assertions against others works, in particular Tombs, to whose magnificent history I am greatly indebted. My own interpretations should not, though, be ascribed to him.

[7] List adapted from Alan MacFarlane, personal communication. MacFarlane is the author of the influential Origins of English Individualism (Oxford: Blackwell 1978) as well as many other works.

[8] Tombs, (2014) p76

[9] Schumacher, Ernst (1973/2010) Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered

London: Harper Collins is an economist’s analysis of the advantages of small units and has been called ‘one of the 100 most influential books’. A current application of some of his ideas can be found in Skelton, David (2019?) Little Platoons London: Biteback

[10] See Tombs, (2014) pp119-22.

[11] Few Anglos realise how very specific to them is this idea and how weird it is to other cultures. MacFarlane and Hsu both identified how our culture extols independence and reinforces individualism, comparing us with East Asia. MacFarlane, Alan (2015) A Modern Education Cambridge: Cambridge Rivers Press; Hsu, Francis (1986) Americans & Chinese, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

[12] Tombs, Robert (2021) This sovereign isle: Britain in and out of Europe, London: Penguin, p100

[13] Roberts Andrew (2006) A history of the English speaking peoples since 1900 London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson p43

[14] For example, following the failure of the Reformation in Italy, state repression of the Protestants was severe and only lessened with the extension of the rule of the Kings of Piedmont-Sardinia from 1848. In Italy, particularly under the Popes, some of whom were truly savage in their inhumanity, jews were subjected to persecution and violence until the collapse of Papal rule in the 19th century.

[15] European Agency for Fundamental Human Rights (2019) Being Black in the EU accessed 141222

[16] Except, possibly, in Germany after the massive shock of 1945. Germany’s governance was redesigned with advice from British ‘experts’.

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Hugo de Burgh