John Bull s’en va t’en guerre

John Brewer

  • Wars and Revolutions: Britain 1760-1815 by Ian Christie
    Arnold, 359 pp, £17.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 7131 6157 4
  • Augustan England: Professions, State and Society 1680-1730 by Geoffrey Holmes
    Allen and Unwin, 323 pp, £18.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 04 942178 6

Eighteenth-century states were built for war. Their largest organisations were armies and navies, the bulk of their taxes funded the armed forces, and their heroes were the leading soldiers and sailors whose valiant deeds attested to the power of the armigerous nation. War was the norm, peace an aberration – a pause when the great and little powers drew breath and prepared to continue the fight. Thus the period from the Glorious Revolution to the end of the Napoleonic wars was one of almost unmitigated hostility between England and France. Both nations mobilised an ever-growing war machine in the struggle for European supremacy and hegemony on three continents.

Though the subjects of 18th-century state-building and warfare have attracted French and German historians, they have been viewed much more uneasily by those who study Britain. This ambivalence is largely attributable to the long-standing assumption, enshrined in English liberalism, that though the nasty Continentals built big bureaucracies, taxed their subjects prohibitively, and eclipsed liberty in the name of raison d’état, the benign Brits, relying on their citizen squirearchy, successfully resisted the pressures to bureaucratise, taxed their subjects lightly, and preserved liberty in the name of the British constitution. On this view, British military success is not explained by anything so vulgar as an efficient state apparatus. Rather it is a consequence of individual ability and personal valour – of inspired leadership, such as that of the elder Pitt, of superior fighting skills, such as those of Jack Tar, and of tactical brilliance, such as that of Marlborough, Wellington and Nelson.

This reluctance to institutionalise war also helps explain why so little has been written on the domestic impact of Britain’s involvement in international hostilities. War, it is assumed, was something that happened below the horizon. Much of this is true. Apart from the two Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745 and the struggles in Ireland in the 1690s and 1790s, British soil was not a theatre of operations. British blood was not spilt at home but on the fields of Flanders and Brabant, the heights of Quebec, the shores of the Coromandel, and the quarterdecks of ships in three oceans. But this foreignness of English wars should not allow historians of the 18th-century domestic polity to forget the extraordinary impact of hostilities on society. Nor should it enable the military and diplomatic historian to treat his subject in vacuo. It is the great strength of both Ian Christie’s Wars and Revolutions and Geoffrey Holmes’s discussion of the Augustan professions that they each, in their different ways, avoid any such insularity of approach. Christie’s book is a sophisticated, wide-ranging and lucidly written text, one of the best in the ‘New History of England’ series. Certainly it looks well with the other volumes already on the shelf: less self-referential than the work of Elton and Gash, broader in scope than Speck, more cogent than J.R. Jones, the book consummates a lifetime’s labour in the field of late Georgian British history. Christie’s approach is of a piece with the series as a whole: the emphasis is on politics and policy-making, on the actions of the governors rather than the governed, and the material is presented in narrative rather than analytic form. The book is a synthesis that tells a well-known story: but it is a story well told. It is that of a prosperous and flourishing nation which, by the end of the Seven Years War (1763), had acquired the largest occidental empire since the fall of Rome. Yet imperial grandeur created intractable problems for a series of administrations whose concentration on imperial and international affairs was frequently diverted by the internecine political squabbles that attended the succession of George III. The history of 1763 to 1784, as described by Christie, is essentially that of the London government’s successive attempts to get a grip on its enormous empire, and of its failure in the face of a well-nigh insolvent East India Company and a singularly refractory bunch of North American colonists. His account of these events is excellent. The description of the crisis unfolds elegantly as Christie deftly weaves his way through the intricacies of imperial intrigue. The links between the East Indies and North America, and between North America and Ireland, are neatly set out for all to see. By the end of the American War, as Christie shows, Britain’s prognosis could hardly have looked worse. Diplomatically isolated, militarily discomforted and in the throes of domestic turmoil, the nation had also to face clamorous demands for political and economic reform from Ireland as well as the disarray of John Company in the Indian sub-continent. The victory of 1763 had been robbed of most of the, spoils.

The theme of the next stage of Christie’s story is that of recovery, a recuperation largely explained by the resilience of the British economy and the political and administrative brilliance of the younger Pitt. So well healed were the wounds of the 1780s that John Bull was robust enough to challenge the expansionist designs of Revolutionary France and to shake off the malady of domestic disaffection. Not even the total warfare, strategic and economic, waged by Napoleon could overwhelm the perdurable English state. By 1815 the Brits were back on top.

Christie’s account of these eventful years is very much a history of the men at the helm. It is clear where his sympathies lie. He reconstructs, with great sensitivity and understanding, the political, administrative and strategic aims of Grenville, North, Pitt and Portland. He shows much less feeling for the critics and opponents of government, siding with the captain of the ship of state, and usually regarding any dissent from the commander’s position as at best foolish and factious, at worst tantamount to treason. Oppositions are persistently dismissed as self-interested, unscrupulous and unrealistic, while radicals and reformers receive even shorter shrift for such ‘wild speculations’ as the advocacy of universal male suffrage. There were, of course, some self-seeking machiavels in the Parliamentary opposition and more than a few eccentric radicals, but they hardly justify the assumption that the government and its supporters enjoyed a monopoly of both sagacity and political virtue. Christie’s discussion of the conflict engendered by industrialisation and the French Revolution is the least satisfactory part of the book. Though he makes a number of effective points about popular support for the Pittite suppression of radical activity, his view of the current Marxist and post-Marxist interpretation of the period is caricature. It is no wonder that he castigates any analysis of conflict ‘which ignores not only the external pressures of international events, but also the propensity of people at that time to worsen their own condition by breeding too fast.’

Christie performs an admirable service by placing war and international affairs at the centre of his account. None of his readers can avoid learning that London was the nodal point of an intercontinental empire and that imperial affairs lay at the heart of domestic politics. But they will gain much less insight into the broader impact of war. Though he alludes to some of the fiscal measures forced on governments straitened by the exorbitant cost of hostilities, and though he discusses in an abstract way the impact of war on economic development, we get little sense of how wars affected either the organisation of the state or the circumstances of everyday life.

Most 18th-century Englishmen, whether rich or poor, would have found such an omission incomprehensible, for they were acutely aware of how the outbreak of war or the suspension of hostilities affected the fate of the nation. They knew that war usually meant higher prices, higher wages – because of the increased demand for labour – higher business costs – since insurance premiums rose – and much higher taxes. Indeed there is no greater myth than that of the lenity of the English state as a tax-gatherer. For most of the 18th century the government appropriated about 20 per cent of its citizens’ per capita income, and by the era of the Napoleonic wars this had risen to an astonishing 36 per cent. War also made money harder to borrow, because private debtors had to compete with the state, and while some industries, especially those associated with armaments and provisioning, were stimulated by hostilities, others, such as building and construction, suffered because of tight credit. Overall, war was a time of greater risks but potentially greater profit. It might be fought below the horizon, but it affected everyone at home – hence that fascination with diplomacy, strategy and tactics displayed by Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby and by the humblest English citizen.

Geoffrey Holmes’s book on the professions sees both war and the state as vital components in the transformation of Augustan society. Of course this rich and subtle book says much more. It is not merely a learned disquisition on the rise of the bureaucrat and the martial classes but a study that seeks to rehabilitate the Augustan schoolmaster and cleric and to illuminate the careers of doctors and lawyers. Holmes argues that there were two explanations for the rise of the professions between 1680 and 1730. The first was Britain’s prosperity – the expansion of domestic spending power – the second the growth of the state as a result of war. Professional men, Holmes maintains, became more numerous, more affluent, and acquired greater social standing Enhanced pecuniary rewards together with an increased demand for skilled services, whether cutting for the stone, negotiating a mortgage, or navigating a frigate, had two main effects. The sons of gentleman deigned – positively wanted – to join the ranks of the professions, while the lowly-born doctor, schoolmaster or architect was emboldened to assume an air of gentility. Though there were those, like the Royal College of Physicians, who sought to narrow the avenues of advancement, and though there was more and more emphasis on right and proper qualifications, neither the oligarchs nor examinations stemmed the tide. By the 1730s, Holmes estimates, there were between 55,000 and 60,000 professional jobs. The burgeoning professions, Holmes concludes, were an important source of social mobility – one of the factors which made Augustan society both fluid and stable. They benefited from the richness of Augustan culture and enhanced its cultural riches.

Holmes’s emphasis on prosperity as an explanation for the rise of the professions has its problems. On the evidence he presents, it is not at all clear how and why the period between 1680 and 1730 was so much more affluent than the eras it followed and preceded. Moreover, if we are to avoid the economic reductionism that haunts Holmes’s account, we need to know much more about the attitudes of the other ranks of society towards individual professions. Our willingness to visit the doctor, hire a lawyer or attend a particular type of school is contingent, not only upon our capacity to pay the professionals’ fees, but upon our cultural assumptions about the value of the services they provide. I suspect that if Holmes had devoted more attention to how the professions were viewed and less to their material circumstances he would have had to assign them an altogether more ambiguous place in the social order.

Holmes is on firmer ground in his excellent discussion of the extraordinary proliferation of civil servants and military personnel. Some twenty years of unremitting warfare after the Glorious Revolution produced the most substantial re-ordering of the English state since the 16th century. Numerous tax-gatherers in the Customs and Excise fleeced the pockets of the citizenry; Whitehall bureaucrats in the Treasury spawned vast numbers of warrants, orders and memoranda; the ordnance, naval and provisioning offices grew apace with a rapidly expanding army and navy. It is important to appreciate both the novelty and the scale of this development. When Samuel Pepys began his career as a naval administrator he was one of a handful of men dedicated to administrative efficiency and bureaucratic order. By the time of his death in 1703 the Navy Office was training hundreds of public servants, thousands of Customs and Excise officers, and the English Parliament was funding nearly 150,000 men in the Armed Forces. By the mid-18th century the shipboard population of the British Navy was larger than that of any English town outside London. In the course of a generation the scale of military operations and the scope of the state bureaucracy had reached a new order of magnitude. The overall effect of this development, though Holmes says little of this, was to tie more and more Englishmen to the purse-strings of the state. This was true not only of civil servants and military men but of two other important groups: the big businessmen who contracted to supply the forces with everything from beer to buttons, and the large number of public creditors – nearly sixty thousand in 1750 who lent money to the state by buying government securities. The balance between state and society shifted radically, and it shifted, not because of changes in domestic politics, but because of events that had taken place ‘below the horizon’.

The work of both Holmes and Christie points to a major lacuna in the writing on 18th-century Britain. There is as yet no adequate study of that most natural of 18th-century conditions – namely, war. Nor is there a monograph that seeks to examine a particular conflict not only for its military and diplomatic significance but for its impact on the workings of the domestic polity. Such an interdisciplinary endeavour will have to recognise British military success for what it was: a consequence, not of the inspired amateurism of chaps muddling through, but of what, by 18th-century standards, was a remarkably efficient state apparatus.