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Lecture 1

An introduction to Eighteenth century politics: contexts



The identity of Britain changed profoundly during this period and the changes had significant effects on the shape of British politics. At the beginning of the period ‘Britain’ existed only as a loose alliance of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Linda Colley’s influential book, Britons argues that the loyalty to a common British identity was cemented:

  • by the series of wars Britain undertook, mainly against France
  • the invention of the French other – Catholic, absolutist and aristocratic was countered by British propagandists
  • the supremacy of the Protestant religion after the Glorious Revolution;
  • the primacy of Parliament;
  • the development of a well-financed bureaucracy;
  • the re-invention of the monarchy during George III’s reign;
  • the importance of the landed aristocracy.

War and Empire

Main campaigns:

  • Glorious Revolution leads to war with France over Frances intervention in Ireland, 1689-1697;
  • war of Spanish succession 1702-1713;
  • war of Quadruple Alliance against Spain but with France as an ally;
  • war of Jenkin’s Ear (Anglo Spanish war), 1739-43;
  • War of Austrian succession 1740-48;
  • Seven Year’s War 1756-1763;
  • War of American Independence 1775-1783;
  • Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, 1793-1815.

Colonial possessions: three main areas:

  • North America including Canadian territories (From Virginia in 1606, New York 1664, Pennsylvania 1681, Newfoundland 1713, Quebec, 1763)
  • West Indies (St Kitts 1624, Jamaica 1655, Dominica, St Vincent, Greneda and Tobago 1763)
  • India (Bombay 1661, Madras Presidency 1753-63, Calcutta 1765)

Significance of this constant state of war:

  • Britain was able, unlike its continental neighbours to continue to remain solvent, mainly because of the establishment of what John Brewer has called the ‘fiscal-military’ state – the war effort was financed by a series of indirect taxes on the population and Britain had no need to maintain an expensive standing army, relying instead on press-gangs and ‘volunteers’
  • many of the wars were fought at sea and there was no invasion threat apart from a short-lived period durinh the Napoleonic wars
  • Britain’s colonies important for the influx of luxury goods which fuelled the consumer revolution in the 18th century were also achieved with the minimum of force and expense.


  • The debate has been re-focused in recent years by the publication of JCD Clark’s book English Society.
  • It is clear that even by the end of the century Britain was a land dominated society. Gregory King estimated that in 1688 almost 70% of the wealth of England and Wales was land based by the 1780s the figure was around 60%.
  • Often eighteenth century society is described (most famously by E P Thompson) as a clash between the ‘plebeians’ and the ‘patricians’, thus denying a place to perhaps the most influential group the ‘bourgeois’ or ‘middle class’. Contemporaries, indeed thought that the most striking change since 1688 was the growing wealth and importance of the middling orders of society - the merchants, moneyed men and farmers.
  • As far as the bulk of the population were concerned the eighteenth century was a time of struggle. In rural society, the small tenant farmers benefited from the enclosure movement and farmed the land of the aristocracy but this was at the expense of the landless agricultural labourers and small cottagers.


  • New economic historians who argue for a smoother graph of evolutionary change from 1760 rather than a series of cataclysmic changes.
  • Industrial growth took place over the whole century not just the last quarter of it.
  • Part of the revolution was a revolution in technology
  • Industry was highly regionalised and urbanisation sporadic - indeed some areas of the country declined while others experienced dramatic advances.


  • It is unclear if, at the parochial level, the Church-State enjoyed deference and respect.
  • The revolutionary settlement of 1689 introduced instability and strife into the field of religion especially in Scotland and Ireland.
  • Whilst recognising the enduring nature of the Anglican church it is important to note that religion and its relationship with the state was not one long constant throughout the eighteenth century.
  • The period from the 1740s tends to mark the decline of religion as a disruptive force in British politics but also the decline of the established church throughout the British Isles, which went hand in hand with demographic growth, urbanisation and industrialisation.
  • In the eighteenth century Church and State were regarded as interdependent - the church upheld the natural hierarchy of mutual obligations which were thought to provide social cohesion.
  • Evangelical revival began to make some headway in all parts of the British Isles from the 1730s.
  • Anti-Catholicism, though not as vigorous as in the seventeenth century, was still a potent disruptive force.


Whig Historians
  • Whig interpretation concentrates on the role of ideas in history - most particularly ideas of freedom, religious toleration and representative government.
  • Inherent in each of these ideas is a logic of development and of progress.
  • Whig political histories of the eighteenth century emphasise a constitutional monarch whose power is steadily restricted by an emerging cabinet and party system or as an era of decadence and corruption or depict the Glorious Revolution as an event ahead of its time into which English society has to grow and adapt whence it can continue its triumphal march towards the present.
  • The most famous Whig historian was Thomas Babcock Macaulay whose book, A History of England, was published in 5 volumes between 1849 and 1861.
  • Sir Herbert Butterfield has written the definitive guide to The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) but although it illustrates its shortcomings it also admits a certain inevitability in that all historians are creatures of their age and shaped by present circumstances.

1929 published The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III and in 1930, England in the Age of the American Revolution. He was also the originator and a volume editor of the History of Parliament - a massive undertaking which seeks to examine the structure of Parliament, MPs and individual constituencies from the Tudor Parliaments to 1832. .

Central features

  • monarch at centre of political stage in an age which knew little of party except myths from an earlier conflict. Sovereign’s power to appoint and dismiss ministers at will meant that he/she was pivotal
  • ministries were hard to form and harder to maintain. Opposition barely existed except as various fluctuating political factions.
  • stability was only achieved by those who knew how to work the system rather than a steady inexorable rise to a more liberal system
  • the problems of making the ‘constitution’ work in practice meant that politicians had to be expedient rather than principled. Thus ideology was kept firmly in its place
  • Namierism involved precise micro analyses of the interests of politicians, the composition of parliament and the workings of patronage but was not interested in the purposes of men in politics.
  • Namier’s work introduced different techniques to the study of history.
  • Namier’s work was applied to the middle of the eighteenth century and still to some extent represents an orthodoxy however Namier himself and his followers certainly did apply some of his thesis to the whole of the 18th century arguing that the 18th century was part of a long transition period between the system of monarchical govt to a system of 2 party parliamentary govt.

Namier was first attacked on his methodology and emphasis on ‘the trifles of politics’, notably by Sir Herbert Butterfield in George III and the Historians published in 1958 but it was not until the 1960s that a concerted attack was launched on several fronts.

  • Namierism is irrelevant to periods earlier or later than mid century
  • even within the Namierite period itself there are major questions about the powers of the monarchy, the nature of the electorate and the role of public opinion.
  • was the king central? could appoint ministers but not control policy - often had to follow the advice of his ministers even when against his better judgement and when the decision was made without consultation e.g. Pitt’s Economic reforms in the 1780s
  • Namier’s view that party had no place in politics can also be challenged
  • Namier has also been attacked at the level of popular, extra parliamentary politics.
  • As far as those outside the formal political community goes, Namier sought to exclude them from analysis.

It is also important to include the more radical scholars associated with E P Thompson, who are associated with the Whiggish political historians, who wrote on the largely rural, unenfranchsied masses and produced a vibrant social history of the eighteenth century that recognised the political, social and economic power of these groups. e.g. Making of the English Working Class and Whigs and Hunters. The Marxist historians emphasise social and economic structures excluding much else. As with the Whig historians the eighteenth century seems strangely out of place.

The New Right

The Thatcher Revolution brought with it a new breed of right wing historians who attacked the new Whig orthodoxy which had been gaining ground since the late 1960s and now dominated British universities. The emphasis was on continuity rather than change; on the importance of religion rather than that of ideology and from a concentration on the power of the people to the power of the aristocracy - Monarchy, church and state are their watchwords.

  • The study of eighteenth century politics has today lost its central theme and thus appears as a disparate mass of conflicting interpretations
  • Studies over the last ten years have stressed the cultural context of eighteenth century politics.
  • The urban setting has been re-examined as a crucial context of popular politics
  • There have been studies of British and English identities
  • There have also been further analyses of the representations of class throughout the century and discussions of the notion of ‘the people’ and ‘popular in the eighteenth century.