Britain’s three lionesses of liberty

There are three lions on England’s coat of arms, but three lionesses have defended this nation’s traditional liberties and demonstrated its enduring greatness: Margaret Thatcher, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I. One of these iconic female leaders has just been honoured with a ceremonial funeral. But we often forget – or choose to ignore – how important freedom was to the success of all three.

After the religious appropriations of Henry VIII and the persecutions of Queen Mary, the Elizabethan reign was a breath of fresh air, in which a private buccaneer like Sir Francis Drake could be trusted to save the nation, and a commercial enterprise like the Globe theatre would produce the greatest drama the world has ever seen.

The flourishing of the Elizabethan Renaissance was built, however, on a foundation of sound money, so essential in a free market. When Sir Thomas Gresham heard that Elizabeth was to be queen, he rushed to his desk. The merchant and scholar, who would later found the Royal Exchange and Gresham College, had advised Mary and Edward VI, but in Elizabeth he saw his chance to work with a leader as visionary as himself to save Britain’s economy.

The letter he wrote in 1558 outlined a concept now known as Gresham’s law: “good and bad coin cannot circulate together”. It explained why “all your fine gold was conveyed out of this your realm”. Gresham then laid out tactics that would allow Elizabeth to repair the debasements begun by Henry VIII.

The reign of Queen Victoria is often lazily associated with overbuttoned rectitude, but it relied for its inventiveness, its wealth and its philanthropic generosity on the relaxation of state economic control. Laws that had grown up like weeds to impede the freedom of commerce were cut back; protectionist dogma that favoured a wealthy elite at the expense of the poor was scrapped. Samuel Smiles upheld the doctrine of self help. Most iconically of all, the Great Exhibition of 1851 collected together all the world’s marvels of art, science and commerce with private funds. The great French liberal Frederic Bastiat marvelled, “the grandest and noblest of exhibitions, one which has been conceived in the most liberal and universal spirit… is the exhibition now preparing in London; the only one in which no government is taking any part, and which is being paid for by no tax.”

Thatcher understood and drew upon her predecessors’ achievements, associating herself with the liberal values that made both ages great, most explicitly the Victorian ideals of industry and philanthropy.

Yet last week Glenda Jackson, once famous for her screen portrayal of Elizabeth I, said Thatcher’s rejection of leftist orthodoxy meant she was not in fact a woman. All three lionesses knew better. Exchanging your status as a husband’s chattel merely to become the state’s ward is not liberation but regression. Liberty, this nation’s strongest ally, is the best friend of those at the mercy of entrenched power. Britain’s ladies of liberty prove the strength of freedom.

First published: City A.M., 19/4/13

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Filed under Economics, Freedom, History, Human nature, Politics

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