Let the ancien regime beware]: France toppled its old order 200 years ago with the execution of Louis XVI. David Starkey reflects on how the currents of popular discontent then seem strangely similar to Britain's situation today

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Two hundred years ago today, on 21 January 1793, Louis XVI of France was executed. The vote in the Convention (the forerunner of the National Assembly) for his guilt had been overwhelming; that for the death sentence more evenly balanced, with 361 for and 319 against. But it was enough.

It was not, of course, the first time a king had been publicly tried and executed. Here, as in so much, the English led the way. They had been notorious since the Middle Ages for dethroning their kings; in 1649 they went the whole hog and executed Charles I.

The parallels were in everyone's minds in 1793. Malesherbes, Louis's principal lawyer, sought unsuccessfully to persuade him to adopt Charles I's tactic of denying the right of his judges to try him.

But the differences were greater. Charles was treated with punctilious respect to the end, stepping to the scaffold through the window of his own palace and being buried with dignity at Windsor. Louis was deliberately degraded into just another head. He was cropped, stripped and trussed for the guillotine and his body flung into a pit 10 feet deep, which was filled with quicklime.

The outcome was different, too. Eleven years after Charles's death the monarchy was restored and has lasted to the present. The French monarchy was restored as well, in 1814, but then survived only until 1830.

Most of these differences were already apparent to the great contemporary British commentator on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke. Like much of the political elite, Burke had been sympathetic to the beginnings of the revolution. Belatedly, it seemed, the French were catching up with British constitutional development; some French politicians even saw British government as a model for France. But they were soon swept aside by a greater radicalism in thought and action.

For Burke the turning point came not with the king's execution, but much earlier, with the march to Versailles on 5 October 1789. The royal bodyguard was massacred and, preceded by the heads of two of the guards impaled on pikes, the king and queen were driven back to Paris.

One of the English supporters of the revolution, Dr Richard Price, had hailed the march as the triumph of liberty over tyranny. For Burke it was a disgusting action of violence from which he foretold, with remarkable accuracy, much of the course of the revolution: the dethronement and (by implication) the death of the king, the terror, military dictatorship, the debasing of the currency, the decline of population and the stagnation of the economy.

But Burke's main concern was with Britain: 'Whenever our neighbour's house is on fire it cannot be amiss for the engines to play a little on our own.'

Burke accused Price and his like, who saw France as pointing the way forward for Britain, of making much noise, 'like half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern', while the mass of the people, like 'thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent'. But it was, Burke claimed, a silence that betokened consent in the institutions and practices of their own country.

Burke's summary of 'the British way' makes his Reflections on the Revolution in France one of the classics of Conservative thought. It is magnificently turbulent and discursive. But its essence can be reduced to a handful of propositions: an Englishman's freedom is a national inheritance, not a matter of abstract universal rights; it is a middle, not an extreme, and it is best secured by a government that balances democracy, aristocracy and monarchy in the trinity of King, Lords and Commons.

Change, he believed, would of course be necessary from time to time. But it should be minimal change, in which the new preserved as much as possible of the form and spirit of the old.

There is every reason to accept Burke's characterisation of the national mood, both for his own times and for most of the succeeding two centuries. There were moments when the consensus was challenged, such as the 1830s, and immediately before and after the First World War. But the centre held. The prime symbol of that continuity is the survival of the British monarchy - just as the current crisis in the Royal Family marks the moment when the Burkeian balance trembles anew.

Unthinkable though it would have appeared only a few months ago, we may be commemorating the execution of Louis XVI in the reign of Elizabeth the Last. And far from it being possible to enjoy a complacent sense of the differences between Britain now and France on the eve of revolution, it is the similarities that strike.

Burke picked out two things that had paved the way to the French Revolution. The first was the alienation of the intelligentsia. Louis XIV had controlled writers and artists by stick and carrot: patronising them on the one hand and dragooning them into royal academies on the other. After his death in 1715, the intellectuals took over the old academies and forged a new instrument in the Encyclopedie project. And, establishment though they were, they used their entrenched positions to propagate the anti-establishment values of the Enlightenment.

Burke's second solvent of the ancien regime was the tide of speculation that swept over France with the introduction of assignats, a quasi-currency supported by sales of confiscated church lands.

Here the parallel is even more exact. Thatcher's Britain took off - more Montgolfier hot-air balloon than South Sea Bubble - into a frenzied stock market and property boom, fed by the sale of council houses and privatisation. And as Burke insisted, speculation (and the inevitable bust that follows boom) destroys not only money values but values as such. 'But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophists, economists and calculators has succeeded,' wrote Burke. Replace 'sophists' with 'accountants', and it would be hard to think of better description of John Major's Britain.

Mr Major is a former banker; Norman Lamont is a former banker - and both are extraordinarily like the ministers of the last days of the absolute monarchy, presiding over governments riven by faction and scandal. As is, and was, the Royal Family itself. And its scandals focus, and focused, on a woman 'who wanted the privileges and indulgences of monarchy while being free to pretend that she was really a private individual'. For Queen Marie Antoinette read the Princess of Wales.

I do not necessarily predict a British revolution. But clearly all is not well in Burke's political pastoral: the 'insects of the hour' have become both noisier than ever and DDT-resistant; the 'British oak' is rotten and the 'thousands of great cattle', fed on a daily diet of tabloids, are showing alarming symptoms of mad- cow disease. The British political classes would do well to look to their fire insurance.

The author is a constitutional historian at the London School of Economics.

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