The Age of Liberty, Sweden 1719-1772
Jeremy Black reviews a new book on Swedish history by Michael Roberts.
The Age of Liberty. Sweden 1719-1772. Michael Roberts - Cambridge University Press, 1986 – 233pp - £25
Though better known as a historian of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Sweden, Michael Roberts has over the last few years concentrated on the eighteenth century, producing first a detailed work, British Diplomacy and Swedish Politics, 1758-1773 (1981) and now a more general survey. His new book is essentially a political history and there is relatively little social or economic coverage in it. The work begins with an excellent account of Sweden's international position, entitled 'the predicament of a minor power'. Most work on early-modern European history concentrates on the activities of the major powers, treating the lesser states either as inconsequential or as victims, the targets for coercion or bribery. The interests of these states are regarded as petty and their frequent refusal to subordinate them- selves to the views of major powers as 'selfish.'
Roberts' treatment of Swedish foreign policy represents a saIutary rejection of this approach that could be profitably developed for other second-rank powers. The difficulties created by the experience of defeat in the Great Northern War and the rise of Russian power are considered sensitively. Poor relations with Denmark defeated the prospect of a Scandinavian bIoc, and the willingness of the two principal political groups, the Hats and the Caps, to intrigue with foreign powers was both cause and effect of the country's need to respond to pressure from Britain, France and Russia. In this section Roberts provides both the best brief account of Baltic affairs in this period and a skilful study of the reIationship between foreign policy and domestic politics.
Roberts does not idealise the 'Age of Liberty', the period of weak monarchy between Charles XII and Gustavus III. Describing, for example, the Hat victory at the Diet of 1738-9 he presents the political reality that underlay the constitution of the period:
Based on a constitutional juggle, forced through by moral blackmail and by violence, inspired by a thirst for revenge which the wiser Hats deplored as injudicious, they established a pattern of tyranny which the Hats would follow (when they could) for nearly twenty years; and they tainted the struggle of Swedish parties from its earliest days with a spirit of persecution.
It is his awareness of the reality of party political activity in Sweden that makes Roberts' discussion of the period so valuable. The impact of party activity on government and the extent to which Swedish society was divided on partisan grounds are probed with care. In many towns parties in the national sense did not exist and where they did party feeling at the constituency level went to sleep between elections, and even at election time lacked the emotive appeal and rabble-rousing slogans of English party politics.
Few subjects are identified so closely with one man as English-language scholarship on early-modern Sweden and Michael Roberts. This handsomely produced work can be recommended with one significant qualification. Though over twice as long, his last book cost £5 less. Cambridge University Press have brought out several of his earlier works in paperback. Potential purchasers of this new study may be advised to wait for a similar development.
JEREMY BLACK is author of British Foreign Policy in the Age of Walpole (John Donald, 1985).
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