Strong Government

Linda Colley

  • The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1788 by John Brewer
    Unwin Hyman, 289 pp, £28.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 04 445292 6
  • Cambridge in the Age of the Enlightenment: Science, Religion and Politics from the Restoration to the French Revolution by John Gascoigne
    Cambridge, 358 pp, £32.50, June 1989, ISBN 0 521 35139 1
  • Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World by C.A. Bayly
    Longman, 295 pp, £16.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 582 04287 9

Anyone seeking to make sense of British history from the last quarter of the 17th century to the first quarter of the 19th must confront two closely-related questions. How did this small island, so sparsely-populated in comparison with its major rivals, manage to become the prime European and imperial power? And how was it able to remain fundamentally cohesive while it did so? Other polities succumbed to successful invasions from without or to major convulsions within: but Great Britain after 1688 did neither. Why not? Why was there no second wave of civil wars, no further shift in dynasty enforced by foreign troops, and no revolution from below?

Such questions are enduring. Answers and approaches to them, by contrast, have shifted markedly over time. Up to the 1960s, Britain’s exceptional achievements abroad in this period were often put down to the fact that it was also exceptionally fortunate at home. Fortunate, it was believed, because – in the midst of European absolutism – the Glorious Revolution had bestowed upon it, and it alone, sound parliamentary government, religious toleration, and an end to dynastic conflict. Fortunate, too, in that its dominant landed class was open to new ideas and new recruits, and understood how to concede its power gracefully and in time. And fortunate, finally, because its pioneering Industrial Revolution had furthered the already substantial prosperity and social mobility of its inhabitants. Upon these felicitous foundations had been built British domestic harmony and the empire on which the sun never set.

Except that by the 1960s that sun was in eclipse forever; so, emphatically, was British industry, and so too, perhaps, was enchanted confidence in Parliament. Interpretations of the past which stressed Britain’s global role and unique constitutional and economic blessings began, understandably, to lose some of their potency and contemporary appeal. What was the point of celebrating glories which had, apparently, fled? At the same time, Britain’s post-1688 freedom from revolution now seemed less an achievement to be trumpeted than an unfortunate omission compromising the inherent interest of its history. So while perceptive scholars continued to stress the unusual range and achievements of state power in 18th-century Britain (one thinks of J.H. Plumb’s The Growth of Political Stability in England or P.G.M. Dickson’s The Financial Revolution in England, both published in 1967), others became far more interested in exploring the cracks and complexities in this mighty façade. Party divisions within the ruling élite, and extra-Parliamentary protest, class-consciousness, riots and crime among the masses who were ruled, came to be among the most fashionable and richly-documented areas of study. Britain’s past military and imperial exploits were not of course negated, but they now took second place to interest in the conflicts and textures of its interior life.

If, in the Eighties, approaches to 18th-century Britain have shifted once again, this is – superficially – unsurprising. On the one hand, the passage of time since the Second World War and the loss of empire have allowed military and imperial history to recover its appeal for a new generation of scholars; on the other, the political mood has changed and is changing still. It was predictable that interest in the past history of political parties would recede when for much of this decade the two-party system has seemed to be in abeyance. It was predictable, too, that the heroes of the social history of the Sixties and Seventies – the freeborn Englishman and his protests, the class-conscious working man, the unruly Briton who could only be pushed so far – would lose some of their immediate appeal. For much of the Eighties, the British have not seemed a markedly disorderly people; nor have they seemed over-fond of trade unions and the Labour movement, or particularly adept at resisting a strong central government which large numbers of them actively dislike. In these circumstances, it is scarcely to be wondered at that many historians of Britain have become less interested in history from below.

So what are they interested in? Although Mrs Thatcher is an unabashed British (many would say English) nationalist, her political supremacy has not been accompanied by a new wave of patriotic histories stressing what was distinctive, cohesive and glorious about Great Britain’s past. Instead, historians from all parts of the political spectrum have responded to the encroaching embrace of the EEC by arguing that Britain in the past was not invariably all that different from the rest of Europe. By the same token, Mrs Thatcher may believe that Magna Carta secured liberty more effectively than did the French Revolution. But there has as yet been no revival of a British history emphasising native constitutional achievements. Indeed, some of the most unabashed Tory historians seem far more anxious to cast doubt on the importance of traditional constitutional landmarks. Nor have Thatcher’s paeans to ‘Victorian’ values received very much historiographical substantiation. To an intriguing degree, Thatcher is a politician with a Whig view of Britain’s past confronted by a historical profession that is in the main anti-Whig.

If Thatcherdom has influenced the drift of current British historical writing at all, it has done so less by its protestations than by its practice. A government that has publicly aspired to roll back the state has in fact only served to remind observers of just how aggressive and unconstrained centralised authority in Great Britain can be. All three of these books explore in different ways the powers and intrusions of the British state after the Glorious Revolution; and all three of them are tracts for the times in that they link its subsequent prominence and stability with Leviathan unbound rather than with an unusual degree of constitutional liberty.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in