SUCH was the spectacle at the races on the Epsom Downs, wrote Daniel Defoe in the 1720s, that “I think no sight, except that of a victorious army, under the command of a Protestant king of Great Britain, could possibly exceed it.”
By David Scott
HarperPress, £26 *****
That fervent patriotism; that triumphalism; that unabashed militarism; that unselfconscious enlistment of religion in the imperialist cause: these were ideologically powerful, and wholly new. Britain wasn’t just on the march militarily: it was mobilised more generally behind the banner of “No Popery”, as avowedly and insistently Protestant as post-revolutionary Iran has been Islamic. But it was also highly centralised, Scott notes in an exhilaratingly readable reconsideration of Whig History which charts the rapid and inexorable growth of Leviathan – “this monster of the STATE”.
Democracy in Retreat
By Joshua Kurlantzick
Yale, £20 ****
Writers from Chesterton to Chomsky have drawn attention to the limitations of modern democracy; the narrowness of the menu from which we get to choose. For most of us, most of the time, though, it seems like the least worst option – a guarantee, if not of earthly paradise, of basic freedoms. But even this faint praise, says Joshua Kurlantzick, is increasingly being withheld. To Marx, the coming of democracy may have represented the “Bourgeois Revolution”, yet representative government is falling out of favour with the global middle class. The Arab Spring has yet to show any real sign of ushering in a democratic summer. Military governments have flourished far and wide, whilst the triumphs of leaders from Hugo Chávez to Vladimir Putin remind us that populism and democracy may be quite distinct. Can we – should we – fight this trend?
By TJ Gorton
Quartet, £25 ****
In 1613, Fakhr ad-Din, a Prince of the Druze who’d risen up against the Ottomans in Lebanon, took ship at Sidon to escape the Turks’ advancing army. He found refuge in Florence at the court of the Medici. East and West regarded one another in mutual bewilderment, the Italians agog to know what went on in tightly guarded privacy of the harem while their guests were astonished by the Florentines’ love of practical jokes, agreeably surprised by their hospitals, and bowled over by the new institutions called “banks”. A fascinating story in itself, Renaissance Emir also dramatises the situation of the Druze, poised precariously between West and East, between Christianity and Islam.