Trivia question: Who was the last serious revolutionary leader in Great Britain?
I don’t mean someone like Col. Edward Despard, who fomented short-lived plans to seize the Tower of London and murder King George III in 1802, before authorities uncovered his plot and, following a trial, hanged and beheaded him. I also don’t mean someone like Arthur Thistlewood, who was executed for an extravagant but improbable conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and his entire Cabinet as they dined in 1820 — an event which, in Thistlewood’s imagination, would automatically trigger a national revolution.
I mean someone who took overt actions (and did not just make covert plans) to topple and replace British political leaders by armed force — and who had a serious, realistic chance of success. The answer will be provided momentarily.
On Monday I talked about why the United States does not face any serious threat of coup d’état. These comments stem from my recently published book, “Vanishing Coup: The Pattern of World History since 1310.”
Obviously, the United States is not the world’s only “coup-free state.” Britain is another one, and, as I argue, we essentially inherited our stable governance from the British. It matters that Britain has gone a long time without any serious attempts at coup d’état or revolution, and it is helpful to understand just when this period got under way. So, the trivia question posed above is not entirely trivial.
The answer: Britain’s last serious revolutionary leader was Charles Edward Louis Philip Casimir Stuart, a.k.a. “Bonnie Prince Charlie” and “the Young Pretender.” Charles was the grandson of King James II, who had lost his crown during the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. For decades, the Stuarts, from their base of exile in Rome, plotted a British restoration.
At age 24, in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie decided to launch a British revolution. His strategy was to land in the Scottish Highlands — a traditional bastion of Stuart loyalty — and get the clan chiefs behind him. The chiefs would assemble their men into an army, Charles calculated, which would snowball as supporters joined. Seeing his success, the French would send an army to help topple the British government, and Charles could steamroll his way to London. It was an outlandish plan, and it almost worked.
After landing in the Highlands, Charles won over the chieftains, one by one. In a stealth operation at dawn, his small army captured Edinburgh. Two months after arriving with no army, no arsenal, and none of the clans behind him, Bonnie Prince Charlie reclaimed the Kingdom of Scotland through bluff and confidence.
Soon afterwards, Charles led 5,000 men into England. His Highland army had a frightening aura of invincibility, and Londoners began to panic. Shops closed, newspapers issued hysterical warnings, there was a run on the Bank of England, and King George II prepared to flee. But some of Charles’ officers were losing confidence. Feeling exposed, they retreated back to Scotland. Because of their retreat, the French decided not to invade after all, and British government troops destroyed Charles’ army at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746.
Charles fled the battlefield, and embarked on a five-month odyssey of hair-breadth escapes from government troops, sometimes dressing as a woman named Betty Burke. In September, he reached a French ship and sailed away. On his return to Paris, he basked in celebrity, as Europe had buzzed with tales of his adventures for over a year.
This rebellion, known as the “Forty-Five,” was the last serious attempt by Britons to displace their political leaders by armed force. Since then, Britain has seen two and a half centuries of legal and orderly transitions from one governing ministry to the next. This was new. From the days of the Roman Empire through the 17th century, Britain saw continuous political turbulence.
So, in my terms, Britain has been “coup-free” since April 1746, when the Forty-Five was crushed. I define “coup-free state” as a state that has persisted through at least 50 years of independent existence without a single coup or serious coup attempt, so technically, Britain became a coup-free state in 1796.
To find out how coup-free states work — in other words, to find out why Britain hasn’t had any coups or coup attempts for 268 years — see my earlier post or, for a more developed discussion, a pdf of the first chapter of “Vanishing Coup,” which is available here.
Interestingly, while Britain was among the earliest coup-free states, it was by no means the first. That honor belongs to the Republic of Venice, which entered a 486-year stretch of stability beginning in June 1310, before ultimately being conquered by Napoleon in 1797.
In Wednesday’s post, we will find out exactly which states comprise the contemporary “coup-free zone.”
Slight hint: There are now 23 coup-free states. Can you guess what they are?