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.

John Brewer’s paean to the ‘fiscal-military state’ is the most impressive analysis of the way 18th-century Britain actually worked since Lewis Namier anatomised its parliamentary and electoral system in The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III sixty years ago. Brewer’s main target is the notion that because domestic government was sometimes more amateur and decentralised in much of Britain than in some of the other European polities, the British state was negligible overall. Properly to gauge state power in this society, he argues, we must focus on its record in war, which consumed in this period well over 60 per cent of government expenditure. This was an unprecedented rate of military activity. Although England had early established itself as one of the most unitary states in Europe, it had revealed scant capacity or concern to intervene decisively in Continental battlefields after the Hundred Years War. But 1688 proved a watershed. Of the 127 years which separated this subdued event from the blood-sodden plains of Waterloo in 1815, Britain was at war for more than seventy.

It was, in the main, exceptionally profitable war. Victories were won; invasions repelled; markets captured; and so many colonies seized that by the 1820s London controlled, at least in theory, one-quarter of the world’s population. Fully to explain so vast a development, we have to resort to global history. But in domestic terms, we can attribute this stunning martial success in part to geopolitics, to the fact that Britain enjoyed the security of insularity while her European rivals did not. Or, like A.T. Mahan in his classic The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), we might stress the derring-do of the Royal Navy, or – as Paul Kennedy did recently – the role of public finance. Brewer concentrates on organisational factors, and isolates three that were crucial. First and foremost, Britain’s army and navy trebled in size in the century after the Glorious Revolution. By the 1740s, the Royal Navy’s shipboard population totalled some forty thousand men, a greater concentration of humanity than existed in any contemporary British town with the exception of London. The Army sucked in not only its quota of Englishmen, volunteers and conscripts alike, but also large numbers of German and Dutch troops, and recruits from the Celtic fringe. Naturally they all had to be paid. And its ability to raise money for its warriors more effectually, and with less damage to the economy, than its rivals was the second reason why Britain was able to transform itself into a major military power.

Government expenditure increased fifteenfold in this period, primarily because Britain’s economy was the most varied and fastest-growing in Europe even before the Industrial Revolution, but also because new ways were found to tap this economy. Loans arranged through the emerging machinery of the City supplied over 30 per cent of wartime expenditure, almost 40 per cent during the war with America (1775-1783). But it was the taxpayers not the capitalists who contributed most. Anyone purchasing salt, starch, leather, beer, malt, cider, soap or candles in 18th-century Britain enhanced the war machine by way of excise taxes, indirect commodity taxes on domestically-produced goods. Like some economic historians such as Peter Mathias and Patrick O’Brien, Brewer suggests that the taxes may well have been heavier in Britain than in many other European states, and may also have fallen disproportionately hard on the middling and lower classes, rather than the landed and rich. Plus ça change ...

Fiscal inventiveness would have been of small value without the machinery to implement it successfully. Britain’s possession of such machinery was the third and final reason why it was able to become a great power with almost contemptuous rapidity. The Glorious Revolution, together with recurrent war, ensured that Parliament met for a substantial period of time each year. Before 1688, the provincial landed classes had often resisted the forays of central government. Now that their own institutional power base, Parliament, was available to monitor and regulate the incursions of the state, the landed classes became more relaxed about the increase in centralisation at home, and more willing to endorse an expensive, aggressive foreign policy.

Some peers and MPs, it is true, remained unhappy with Britain’s departure from prudent isolationism, particularly during the two great wars against Louis XIV (1689-97 and 1702-13). But since a French victory might have resulted in a restoration of the Stuart dynasty at home, the majority were prepared to grit their teeth. And they became even more reconciled to spending the nation’s money on war after 1714, when the weight of taxation began to shift markedly from land to commodities. To collect their taxes, Britain’s rulers, unlike many of their Continental counterparts, did not depend on private tax-farmers who creamed off for themselves as well as the state. Instead, they relied on well-trained and well-supervised salaried bureaucrats, particularly the excisemen, some five thousand of them by the 1780s. ‘Carrying their books, seven instruments, pen and special inkpot attached to their lapels’, these individuals scoured the countryside and the towns, prying into businesses, shops and workplaces, with all the zeal of a present-day VAT inspector.

Brewer challenges both the long-standing belief that the apparatus of central government in 18th-century Britain was minimalist, and the no less common if somewhat paradoxical assumption that this same apparatus was riddled with corruption and patronage, a mere ticket for patrician banditti to ride. But his revisionism is always subtle and balanced. Eighteenth-century Britain, like other great European states, possessed strong central government of a kind but – as Brewer realises – it was a distinctive kind of government that changed over time. The key was Parliament, which served both to concentrate power and as a unique means of legitimating that power in the nation at large. Despite the obvious inequities of the representative system, the fact that it existed at all, and that Parliament existed, convinced many Britons that their state was a peculiarly free one and that its exactions were consequently just.

Questions and omissions remain, however. Some will argue that Brewer exaggerates the novelty of the developments he describes. Important changes in central government and fiscal organisation were already under way in Restoration England, just as a more aggressive attitude towards the French was evident among sections of the ruling class in the 1670s. I myself am unclear about the workings of the ‘official mind’ (if it existed) in Brewer’s state, the ideas behind the system. How far did the men at the top understand, control and reflect on what was happening? How can the processes he explores be integrated into the old political history and the old political language of monarchs, prime ministers, cabinets and political parties? And was the state – insofar as men and women at the time understood and used that word – invariably viewed in Brewer’s own secular and administrative terms? Post-Revolution Britain was not of course a confessional state. The Toleration Act of 1689 and the Act of Union of 1707 alone made sure of that. But in theory, though seldom in practice, Protestant Britons had to take Anglican communion in order to hold central or local office; and Dissenters, like Roman Catholics, were excluded from the two ancient English universities.

The prime duty of Oxford and Cambridge, as many politicians saw it, was to supply Anglican clerics and learned apologists for the established order; abstract intellectual and theological speculation came a poor second to this essential service to the state. Historians of the universities have usually assumed that this was indeed the case: that unreformed Oxbridge served an Anglican God, the civil authorities and itself, but adventurous scholarship barely at all. John Gascoigne’s intelligent, scrupulously-researched and elegantly-written monograph qualifies this view as far as Cambridge University is concerned, though not perhaps to the triumphant degree that he imagines. He argues that the English Enlightenment was ‘largely an ecclesiastical and academic phenomenon’, and that Cambridge was in its vanguard. Yet much of his own evidence throws doubt on this claim. No academic institution should be dismissed that gave rise, as Cambridge did, to Sir Isaac Newton. But Newton’s legacy proved an ambiguous one. It encouraged in Cambridge an obsessive concentration on mathematics which, together with its exclusion of Dissenters, increasingly divorced the university from scientific research in general. By the end of the 18th century, only 12 per cent of Britain’s scientists had been educated in Cambridge, only 8 per cent in Oxford. Nor in the century after the Restoration did the sons of the élite look in the main for their education here. In the eyes of polite society, Oxbridge was too clerical, too provincial, too smugly (or unhappily) celibate. As a result, many of the most vigorous and creative intellects – Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon and Newton himself after the Principia was published – left the universities for London in search of patronage, inspiration, new contacts and the throb of life. It was London indisputably, the centre of government, commerce, fashion, clubbery and the printing industry, that was the true beating heart of the English, even the British Enlightenment. To view that phenomenon through the lens of 18th-century Cambridge or Oxford is like trying to measure a town’s traffic flow by standing in one of its side-streets.

Far more cogent and significant is Gascoigne’s meticulous charting of the university’s political and religious service to the British state. Initially, Cambridge had seemed more Tory and High Church even than Oxford, producing 41 Non-Jurors after the Glorious Revolution in comparison with the latter’s 26. But it also produced an important array of latitudinarian clergymen who helped to reshape the post-Revolution Church. By 1730, the University was securely established as a bastion of Whiggism and consequently basking in government favour, a position further cemented when that arch-distributor of favours, the Duke of Newcastle, became its High Steward in 1737. Only with the accession of the more conventionally Anglican George III in 1760, was Cambridge’s place in the sun overshadowed. Oxford seemed both theologically and politically more attractive to the new king, and to his minister Lord North, who became its Chancellor in 1772. Cambridge meanwhile languished under a Whig, latitudinarian, and consequently out-of-favour aristocrat, Lord Grafton, who inconsiderately refused either to give up his Chancellorship or to die until 1811. Only when defeat in America and revolution in France made both universities’ ideological support more crucial than usual to the government were some singularly ruthless heads of houses able to transform Cambridge’s political image and restore it to full favour.

The wider value of this detailed account is that it enables us to gauge more accurately than before how far the English universities and the Church of England did in practice serve as auxiliaries to the state. Some historians have written as though these institutions were monolithic in terms of their politics and ideology, guaranteed bulwarks of authority. But Gascoigne reminds us that in the 18th century, as today, Anglican clergymen and Oxbridge dons held a miscellany of opinions. Under both George I and George II, the bulk of Oxonians (like the bulk of the lesser clergy) were Tory and consequendy not overly sympathetic to their masters in London. Cambridge, by contrast, was largely pro-government in this period, but – in the case of many of its fellows – out-of-step with the Court during the first half of George III’s reign. It required the French Revolution, which seemed to threaten the ecclesiastical order as well as the secular powers, before the state could rely with absolute confidence on an Anglican clerisy that was virtually unanimous in its support.

And this was only one aspect of a much wider consolidation of power by the state. Taking the long view, indeed, we can see very clearly that the British state at this time passed through two particularly hectic periods of construction. The first, which supplied it with unprecedented administrative and military bite, lasted from the 1680s to the end of the War of Spanish Succession; the second occurred almost a century later, stretching from the 1780s to the 1820s. In this latter period, the British state refurbished its image rather than its internal government: and a crucial part of that refurbishment was a new concentration on imperial aggrandisement and imperial ideology. C.A. Bayly’s Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780-1830 is the first detailed study of how the British reconstructed their empire after the loss of the American colonies since Vincent Harlow’s much longer, yet less ambitious, The Founding of the Second British Empire, 1763-1793 (two volumes, 1952 and 1964). And whereas most books could profitably be reduced to half their size, or compressed into an article, or even not written at all, this is one of those rare volumes which, for proper clarity, ideally need to be twice their actual length. It is densely packed with more ideas and a wider range of knowledge than most scholars manage to accumulate in a lifetime; and for purists its stature may sometimes seem compromised by Dr Bayly’s imaginative way with dates. But foibles apart, this is a brilliantly original book which will be required reading for anyone interested in world, imperial and military history during this period, and for British and Indian historians wanting to rid themselves of their own parochialism.

For the historian of Britain, some of the most intriguing parts of Bayly’s book are the connections he demonstrates between the imperial experience of this small island and the fate of the Muslim empires, the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal dynasties which together dominated a huge stretch of territory from Algeria to the borders of Burma. At different times in the 18th century, all of these empires began to experience broadly similar challenges. In Asia, as in Britain, developing commerce made society more complex and sophisticated, and in some respects more difficult to control; at the same time, the wealth of these societies attracted the greed of alien invaders. And all of these empires had trouble with their peripheral peoples. In Asia, these problems proved lethal. Various tribal groups on the fringes of the empires mutinied; warrior princes set themselves up as provincial magnates in defiance of any central authority; and the Europeans moved in. The British, in particular, used the disintegration of the Asian empires to forestall the dissolution of their own. For they, too, faced challenges at the periphery. The Americans rebelled and were lost. The Protestant Irish won legislative independence in the 1780s. And in Scotland and the North of England, population grew at a much faster rate in this period than it did in the pampered and conventionally dominant South. Aggressive British imperialism in India and elsewhere helped to relax these tensions. Scottish and Irish magnates were given their pick of remunerative colonial jobs, while excess Celtic manpower went for cannon fodder. By 1815, Scots made up 20 per cent of the British Army; fifteen years later, Irishmen constituted over 40 per cent of the Crown’s forces in all.

But it was not just a case of Celts being used by the Second British Empire: they also helped to forge it in their own image. The Anglo-Irish and Highland Scots who made up so many of the new breed of proconsuls were often arrogant men (think of the Wellesley clan!), accustomed to far more deference and feudal social organisation than were their fellow patricians in England, Wales or Lowland Scotland. They treated their Asian or African or Maltese subjects very much as they treated the peasants on their own landed estates. And in general, Bayly argues, British imperial rule became in this period far more authoritarian and self-conscious, just as Britain’s rulers took care to increase their practical and ideological control at home. Both in Great Britain and in its colonies, hundreds of new Army barracks were established between the 1790s and 1820. In both cases, there was a new emphasis on ritual and pageantry: royal ritual and pageantry at home, vice-regal pageantry abroad. In both cases, too, authority was shored up by bricks, mortar and a heightened sense of caste. George III and the Prince Regent built themselves expensive new palaces in Britain, while Richard Wellesley co-opted native revenues to create a new Palladian-style Government House in Calcutta, and a college at Fort William where members of the master race could be trained in colonial administration free from contact with any men and women who were not white.

Bayly’s interpretation of British imperialism in this period, then, is a stark one, too stark perhaps for some readers. Yet to a substantial degree he proves his case. He demonstrates that the ‘Second British Empire’ is far more than a piece of historian’s shorthand, that the frenzied spate of colonial acquisition indulged in by the British between 1780 and 1830 marks a distinct phase in the saga of empire. The First British Empire had been based on America, on colonies of settlement which were valued primarily for commerce. In the half-century after Yorktown, British imperialism became more Asiatic in concentration, and more racist, arbitrary and patrician in ethos.

Yet as Bayly also recognises, by the 1830s the mood and even the moral acceptability of British imperialism had changed once more. To my mind, the most striking evidence for this is David Wilkie’s painting in 1838 of the Scottish general, Sir David Baird, discovering the corpse of Tipu Sultan of Mysore after the battle of Seringapatam. Back in the 1790s Tipu, as Bayly notes, had been the Indian ruler the British most loved to hate, and his destruction at Seringapatam in 1799 had been massively and raucously celebrated. So Wilkie’s huge painting, which hangs now in the National Gallery of Scotland, might have been expected to become a patriotic icon, a vivid and unabashed testament to imperial triumph.

But it did not. The men and women who went to view it, we are told, found the boastful figure of Baird crowing over his victim unattractive and displeasing; what they admired instead was the fallen figure of Tipu, whom Wilkie had striven, and successfully striven, to render with dignity. It was a small incident, but part of a much wider change in the 1830s in attitudes towards empire. And it serves to remind us of a more general point: that however strong and successful states and empires may be, they are still prone to acute and unexpected shifts in opinion at all social levels. British historians who have become so recently, and in these cases so productively, preoccupied with charting the contours of their own state need perhaps to give more thought to the nature of mass consent and its volatility. And if for much of the 1980s they have had cause to forget the fragility of consent, the 1990s may well remind them of it.