Conservative leadership hopefuls should listen to Hobbes regarding Scotland

Thomas Hobbes' thought is often regarded as a blueprint for authoritarianism. But his Leviathan gives prudent advice on the limitations of sovereign power. Ruairidh Brown argues this serves as a timely warning for the next Conservative leader on their approach to Scottish politics

The limits of sovereign power

Many people associate Thomas Hobbes with authoritarianism, teaching him as an apologist for the absolute unchecked power of political leaders.

A close reading of Leviathan, however, reveals that Hobbes warned against excessive exercises of power. He gives subtle, yet prudent, advice on how a ruler may avoid cultivating rebellion.

Avoid risking citizens’ lives

The most obvious way to prevent insurgency is to avoid enacting policies that put citizen lives in danger. The raison d'être of the State is to protect citizen life. Wantonly endangering citizen life undermines the purpose for which government was originally created.

Choosing to send citizens to war poses the greatest danger to citizen life of any political decision. Hobbes asserts that if ‘a man that is commanded as a soldier to fight against the enemy’ he may ‘refuse, without injustice’.

In signifying refusal to go to war as ‘just’, Hobbes places it outside the parameter of citizens’ political obligations. Political leaders thus do not have the moral right to expect citizens to risk their lives in war. Moreover, they could face rebellion if they insist upon it. A prudent ruler, in Hobbes' view, ought to avoid unnecessary wars.

Avoid telling citizens what to believe

Hobbes also asserts that a political ruler should not tell citizens what to think or believe internally.

This may at first appear like a simple recognition of the impossibility of policing thought; he remarks, in Leviathan, that ‘thought is free’. This advice, however, becomes particularly intriguing when we relate it back to Hobbes’ analysis of the causes of the English Civil War – which he locates, partially, in Scotland.

Hobbes asserts that a political ruler should not tell citizens what to think or believe internally – intriguing when considered next to his analysis of the Scottish roots of the English Civil War

In Behemoth, Hobbes remarks that the Civil War may never have occurred if not for the ‘unlucky business of imposing upon the Scots… our [the English] book of Common-prayer’. This imposition resulted in a Scottish rebellion against Charles I. It caused the King to call the English parliament and triggered a chain reaction that would lead to Civil War. Forcing the Scots to adopt the same religious practices and thoughts as the English was an imprudent move. It invited rebellion.

Beyond religious thought

The Scottish rebellions against Charles I are known as the Bishops' Wars. They were not, however, purely a religious matter. Historians stress that the Prayer Book incident was part of wider tensions between the King and his Scottish subjects.

Since the Union of the Crowns, Scots had found their King increasingly distant and Anglified. They felt that they no longer had the ability to participate in political decision making. The King’s English court manners insulted the Scottish leaders, who were accustomed to a lesser distance between them and power.

Since the Union of the Crowns, Scots had found their King increasingly distant and Anglified. They felt that they no longer had the ability to participate in political decision making

This gave the impression that Charles was attempting to force English customs and practices on to Scotland in a bid to turn it into ‘North England’. Rather than address these concerns, however, Charles doubled down on his Anglicising policies.

The Prayer book incident to which Hobbes refers was part of a wider attempt to enforce Anglicanism on a predominantly Presbyterian Scotland. This policy finally proved too much for the already strained relations between King and country, and sparked rebellion.

If Charles had not insisted on these policies, if he had sought to address Scottish grievances rather than enforce increasing Anglicisation upon them, he would likely have not faced rebellion in Scotland – nor indeed in England. His insistence on dictating to Scots that they practice their religious beliefs in a similar manner to the English was an imprudent policy. Ultimately, it resulted in Charles losing his crown, and his head.

Scotland and Britain

Today, Scots are again increasingly dissatisfied with their political decision-making ability. Scottish political sentiment is increasingly out of kilter with Westminster, causing flashpoint disputes on issues such as immigration. Scotland was also forced to leave the European Union, despite voting to remain.

The Conservative government, meanwhile, has endeavoured to strengthen ‘British’ identity and ideals north of the border. To cultivate a ‘collective understanding’, for instance, Westminster sent a ‘commemorative book’ on the Queen to Scottish schoolchildren. Education, however, is a policy area devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and distribution of the book therefore encountered resistance from some SNP Members of Parliament.

It was also decreed that every government building must fly a Union Jack. Scots ridiculed the policy as ‘Union Jack blitz’. But Westminster's response to Scottish concerns about decision making power and values has consistently been to double down on efforts to enforce ‘British’ beliefs and identity upon Scots. Such action is strikingly reminiscent of the imprudence of Charles I.


The prospect of a second independence referendum – 'Indyref2' – in 2023 will likely heighten these tensions. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon enjoyed a comfortable victory in the 2021 Holyrood elections. As a consequence, she has claimed a moral and democratic right to hold a second referendum.

Continuing a British cultural blitz while denying the Scots a choice about their future will alienate citizens north of the border yet further

The Conservative government, however, stubbornly refuses to consider allowing Indyref2 to go ahead. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, Conservative candidates currently vying to replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, have both ruled out a second vote on independence.

It may prove that the successful candidate has the legal right to deny such a vote. But it will not be prudent to do so. Hobbes' caution about forcing belief upon citizens is worthwhile advice for whoever wins the leadership race as they consider Scotland. Continuing a British cultural blitz while denying the Scots a choice about their future will alienate citizens north of the border yet further. For the next Conservative leader, this could be what the ‘unlucky business ... of the book of Common-prayer’ was to Charles I.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Ruairidh Brown
Ruairidh Brown
Head of Politics and International Relations, Forward College, Lisbon

Ruairidh currently teaches International Political Theory and International Relations at Forward’s Lisbon Campus.

Before teaching at Forward, Ruairidh taught International Studies in mainland China, where he received the University of Nottingham’s Lord Dearing Award for outstanding contributions to teaching and learning in 2019.

He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2017.

Ruairidh has researched and published on such topics as hermeneutics, political obligation, and the philosophy of friendship.

Political Encounters: A Hermeneutic Inquiry Into the Situation of Political Obligation
Springer, 2019

Covid-19 and International Political Theory by Ruairidh Brown

COVID-19 and International Political Theory: Assessing the Potential for Normative Shift
Springer, 2022

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