Ash Wednesday is a day for self-reflection and self-criticism, and Jacobites and Jacobitism are as deserving as any in this regard. The abiding vice of Jacobites from the inception of the Jacobite movement has been their tendency to slip into fantasy. Love of a lost cause is not, I believe, a bad thing, but political and constitutional fantasising certainly is. The nineteenth century revival of Jacobitism was particularly guilty of this, and it is worth reflecting that the roots of neo-Jacobitism were rather different from those of eighteenth century Jacobitism. In the eighteenth century, Jacobitism was an expression of dissatisfaction with the ‘polite and commercial’ regime and constitutional status quo of Hanoverian England; a regime that proclaimed the Enlightenment and the brotherhood of man but was based on more or less open corruption and a complete disregard for the rights and liberties of ordinary English people. The Hanoverian regime put the aristocracy in charge, and created a monarchy that was dependent on and indeed part of the aristocracy, thus severing the direct link that had existed under the Stuarts between the monarch and the people. The Stuarts, who ruled by Divine Right, did not rule by the permission of Britain’s elites. Eighteenth century Jacobitism was a rag-bag of opposition to the Hanoverians – notably Irish and Scottish nationalism, marginalised religious groups like the Scottish Episcopalians, and advocates of reform and Enlightenment, many of them Freemasons. The Jacobite movement was catholic, liberal and syncretistic.
The neo-Jacobite movement, by contrast, was inspired by the French and Spanish Legitimist movements of the nineteenth century. Whilst the term ‘legitimist’ can be accurately (albeit retrospectively) applied to Jacobitism, the idea of restoring a legitimate monarchy was never the sole preoccupation of Jacobites; the destruction of the Act of Union and religious toleration were just as important as the restoration of the Stuart heir. For French Legitimists, by contrast, the restoration of the heir of Charles X took on esoteric religious significance as a consequence of the extreme ultramontane clericalism of the last Bourbon regime. Likewise, Carlism in Spain became a rallying point for conservative Catholics. In the great wave of enthusiasm for ultramontane Catholicism that enveloped the Catholic community in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century, it must have seemed obvious that Jacobitism was cognate with French Legitimism and Spanish Carlism, and indeed some of the early neo-Jacobites went so far as to run guns to the Carlists. However, although James II lost his throne because he was a Catholic, Jacobitism was never a Catholic movement as such. Anglicans, Episcopalians and dissenters were also involved, and the most vocal English Jacobites were members of the Church of England. Pope Innocent XI supported William of Orange and betrayed James II, and many Jacobites were anti-Papal in the extreme. Yet these facts are almost universally ignored by contemporary Jacobites, who assume that one should be a Jacobite because one is a Catholic, and that loyalty to the Pope and loyalty to the legitimate monarch are somehow linked. This is the influence of Continental Legitimist movements and it does not, I think, reflect the true, liberal-minded and somewhat rebellious character of Jacobitism. Jacobitism was the parent of Irish nationalism, which still has more in common with the original spirit of Jacobitism than Bourbon monarchism.
If they are to be taken seriously, contemporary Jacobites cannot be fixated on a Stuart restoration that is unlikely to happen within the foreseeable future. The original Jacobites displayed a great deal of flexibility, retaining their ideals whilst being prepared to accept the political status quo for the purpose of advancing a political agenda not limited to the substitution of monarchs. Profound constitutional issues face the Three Kingdoms today that can only be understood properly if the constitutional conflicts of the past, including the Jacobite question, are appreciated. Jacobitism offers a fresh perspective on the British constitution radically different from the platitudes of ‘Whig history’ still trotted out by the present government. It offers a vision of an alternative Britain liberated from post-Colonial fantasies and held together not by legal bonds but by mutual affection, and a re-invigorated monarchy that can provide a genuine check on the power and privilege of the political establishment.