26 January 2006
France and Britain: why did one revolution succeed and the other fail?

A recent Samizdata piece by Johnathan Pierce on the dreadfulness of the French Revolution got me thinking.

In the French Revolution you had an absolute monarchy, a cash crisis, the recall of an (apparently) defunct parliament, radical politics, regicide, terror and restoration; all of which elements were present in the English Civil War.  What I find curious is what happened next.  While Britain entered a period of (by most standards) internal stability, France went through the most amazing internal political chaos, with republic after empire after republic after monarchy.

So, why after their respective convulsions, did things go so well for Britain and so badly for France?

Was it geography?  Being a continental power is never easy - as the late Findlay Dunachie pointed out it means you need a large army and all the knock-on effects that entails.  But how would that explain France’s instability?

Was it something in the French character?  I don’t much care for explanations like this and, anyway, if true, where did it come from?

Was it, perhaps, nothing to do with the Revolution, as such, but bound up in the simple fact that France lost the Napoleonic Wars?  Could repeated failure on the battlefield explain repeated attempts at getting the politics right; in much the same way that unsuccessful football teams keep changing manager?  Perhaps, but how does that explain the events of 1830, 1848 - occasions where defeat was not present?

Could it have been the absence of a proper all-out Civil War - the theory being that such things resolve issues?  I could believe that if the English Civil War had actually resolved anything but it didn’t. 

Any ideas?

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