The Sinews of Power; & War and Economy in the Age of William III and Marlborough
Two publications on the English State around the turn of the 18th century
The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783
John Brewer - Unwin Hyman, 1989 - xxii + 289pp.
War and Economy in the Age of William III and Marlborough
D.W. Jones - Basil Blackwell, 1988 - xviii + 351 pp
The invasion of Ireland by James II in 1689 committed Great Britain to a century of involvement in major European wars. Assisted by a buoyant and flexible economy, she rapidly expanded her financial and governmental organisation to create a 'fiscal-military' state strong enough to challenge and then to dominate her European neighbours. The question of how Britain was able to effect this rapid transformation forms the subject of these two important, but different books.
Dr Brewer's essay decides that Britain possessed some unique features which distinguished her from France and Prussia, her principal rivals for the hegemony of eighteenth-century Europe. Before 1688, the English state had enjoyed an early centralisation and although her politicians bought and sold offices, the system lacked the corrosive venality which was present in France. Because of her absence from continental conflicts during the majority of the seventeenth century, Dr Brewer argues that England's 'Military Revolution' occurred in the eighteenth century, 100 years later than in most other European nations. In other words, the expansion and development of the British standing army occurred within the framework of an established state in contrast to France or Prussia where the rise of the standing army had coincided with the formative stages in the process of national centralisation. England's 'Military Revolution' was always firmly under the control of the civilian authorities. This seems a rather dubious proposition in the light of the experiences of the English Civil Wars and the militarised policies of Charles II and James II in the 1680s. Parliament took over control of the military in 1688-89 because of the danger that the alliance of a growing army with a personal monarchy might have dragged England towards a continental style of government. The second strand of Dr Brewer's argument concerns the expansion of Britain's fiscal base to meet the huge costs incurred by eighteenth-century wars. England was undertaxed in the seventeenth century and there was considerable slack for the Treasury to exploit. Parliament, by granting consent to taxation from its basis of elected representation, gave government access to those resources. Parliament also assumed the role of watchdog and auditor of both the collection and expenditure of the revenues. Another safeguard against the necessary but unpopular 'fiscal-military state' was the prevalence of 'country' attitudes throughout British political life. Although not yet an industrial economy, eighteenth- century England was a commercial economy – a nation of shopkeepers – relying heavily on the machinery of credit, a system which gave the excise men the opportunity to tax deeply and widely. It was the Excise, with its width and flexibility which provided the lion's share of government revenue rather than the less adaptable Land Tax. Although it boasted of a professional administration 'every bit as rigorous as that of any body of officers in Europe', Britain did not tumble towards absolutism. Parliament was the safeguard. Through its functions as a representative assembly, as the controller of the public purse and as the auditor of government and its expenditure, it acted as a force for national unity and denied provincialism and personal monarchy. Parliament both personified the differences between England and her continental neighbours and was one of the major reasons for that difference. In resurrecting a pre-Clark view of eighteenth-century England, Dr Brewer brings together, mostly from secondary and printed sources, a great deal of information on government administration and revenue collection.
Whereas Dr Brewer's concentration is upon the middle and later years of the eighteenth century, Dr Jones sets his sights upon the Nine Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession, the stuttering beginnings of the fiscal-military state. 'Albion was extremely lucky, as well as perfidious', concludes Dr Jones. England's double forward commitment in fighting with both a large army and a substantial navy as well as paying the wages of thousands of Germanic mercenaries neatly brought the country to its knees. Every economic and fiscal sinew was strained to snapping-point in order to heave the country from a century of near-peace into a massive military and economic mobilisation. Far from the fiscal devices of the 1690s confirming the political revolution of 1688-9, the economic dislocation and the resultant instability added to the political uncertainty. A clipped coinage, or rather the clippings from the coins, kept England's economy afloat during the Nine Years War and helped to provide the enormous sums needed to make the remittances for the army in the Low Countries. After 1698, the 'silver mountain' in India made its contribution. During the War of the Spanish Succession, England survived by creating a trade surplus derived from the accidental damage wrought upon the industries of England's rivals in textile production by the campaigns of Marlborough, Peter the Great and Charles XII of Sweden. Whether expert economic historians will find all the arguments and supporting data convincing remains to be seen, but on a military-cum-political historian Dr Jones' wide ranging research has made a considerable impression, particularly in the field of the mechanics of war finance and remittance.
Dr Jones' monograph comes complete with a booklet of errata. Apparently, Blackwells either lost or did not receive the corrected page proofs and so printed the uncorrected proofs. Despite this and the fact that they have spoiled an author's first book, Blackwell will still take the full £35 from your pocket. The decent thing would have been to withdraw all copies and reprint the book at the publisher's expense.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology