The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

From Limited Monarchy to Parliamentary Government

Category: 18th century

King George IThe first years of George I’s reign were marked by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 raised by followers of Queen Anne’s half-brother, James Edward Stuart. This prince is known as the Old Pretender because of his pretence to the throne.

James Edward had been taken to France and brought up there. His father, the exiled King James II of England and VII of Scotland, died in 1701, and after that the Jacobites supporting the king in exile, pro­claimed James Edward King James III of England and VIII of Scotland.

James Edward might call himself a king, but he had to struggle for his father’s domain. In 1708 he attempted to invade Scotland with French soldiers, but failed. He decided to try his chance again and landed in Britain after Queen Anne’s death, but was forced to flee soon.

Britain was actually entering two decades of relative peace and stabili­ty. Local government was left largely in the hands of country gentlemen owning large estates. As justices of the peace, they settled the majority of legal disputes.
They also administered roads, bridges, inns, and markets and supervised the local operation of the Poor Law aid to orphans, paupers, the very old, and those too ill to work. The Glorious Revolution was not really safe until the failure of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. It was clear then that the sentiments of the past need not shed blood in the present, nor imperil the political order on which the future wealth of the nation would depend. The fact that the counter-attack of the party of church and king had gone down in ruin in 1714 was even more important.

The party of Church and King was led by Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke may be called one of the most outstanding leaders any political party has ever had. He was only twenty-two when he became a member of Parliament and made himself the spokesman of the country gentry against the Whig settle­ment. Nine years later, in 1710, he became Secretary of State, determined to “break the body of the Whigs”. England had been at war with France, and it was Bolingbroke who took a leading part in the negotiations which led to the peace of Utrecht in 1713. The Tories hoped that France would support a Stuart resto­ration in England, and the Hanoverian succession was really in danger. But the Tories were divided between the Hanoverian Tories under Harley who saw the dan­gers of Jacobitism, and Bolingbroke, who was prepared to bring back a Stuart king. The Tories were not united when Queen Anne died and thus lost their opportunity. The Whigs were able to start the process of the transmutation of limited monarchy into parliamentary government.

The practice of limited monarchy could not be cod­ified. The system of government which the British em­pirically developed has never been completely ex­plained. The British constitution might be the envy of Europe because it allowed a hitherto unknown politi­cal freedom, but its theory was incomprehensible, and its working was not as simple as a machine.

The system was monarchical. When political deci­sions had to be made the king was the only person known to the law who could make them. William III secured royal prerogatives. It was the king who made peace and war, made bishops. He had the sole power to bestow titles and dignities. He named all offices both civil and military and the coin bore his effigy. Moreover, he possessed the superintendancy over all the laws to render them effectual, and justice was administered in his name. Using these prerogative powers reasonably, William III helped to secure for the Crown a perma­nent place in the British constitution. He was his own first minister. He had a much better knowledge of Euro­pe and European affairs than any English statesman. The Revolution of 1689 settlement, however, im­plied a European war. William III had accepted the English Crown the better to thwart Louis XIV of France. Moreover, the length and cost of this war caused both Houses of Parliament to be much more critical of his right to make war and peace, and by the end of his reign that part of the prerogative was being tacitly surrendered.

William had hardly recognized that he needed min­isters who enjoyed the confidence of a majority in the Commons, but the impeachments of 1701 showed that it would be dangerous to sign treaties without the agreement of ministers who had the support of the House. The House of Commons, on edge with the anx­ieties of war and fearful of the Jacobites, had asked William III for information and accounts which no king had given before.

The military campaigns in the reign of Queen Anne needed administrative innovations and financial expe­dients of a wholly new range and skill. Much of the expenditure was met by loans which had to be repaid. Public finance ceased to be royal finance and became parliamentary finance. Parliament became the judge of the country’s war effort. When George I came to the throne it was clear that the Crown must fall into dependence on Parliament in many ways which had nothing to do with written laws.

Before 1689, when parliamenets were transient things dependent on the will of the king, men had been reluctant to invest time and money in a seat in the House of Com­mons. When it was clear that it would meet every year and that it would decide the issues that would determine the course of foreign trade, the conditions of internal econom­ic life, and the distribution of the jobs and the honours, the competition for the seats began. The char­acter of the competition was determined by the very odd distribution of seats and of the right to vote and by the use which could be made of them.

Before the Union with Scotland, 1707, the House of Commons had 513 members. There were twenty-four Welsh members, eighty knights of the shire for the English counties, four university members, but the rest, the overwhelming majority, were returned by the boroughs. The southwest of England provided a quarter of the House. Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, and Wiltshire returned between them 142 members. East and West Looe, two halves of a tiny Cornish village, returned as many members as the City of London. Tiny settlements could send as many representatives to the law-making body as a whole country.

There was no universal right to vote in the country. One small group of boroughs had universal male suf­frage. In others the right to vote belonged either to the corporation or to those who paid poor rate or to the own­ers of particular bits of property. In one large group of about eighty boroughs the vote was the right of freemen of the town. Absolute control by a patron of the return of a borough member was rare. It was easiest when the right to vote was attached to a particular kind of property. The patron could buy the properties and fill them with men who would vote on his instructions.

Many people who had the right to vote used to trade their votes. A vote might cost from a few pounds to a few thousands. Voters were influenced by a great variety of motives, ranging from bribery to the tradi­tional claims of a landed family in the neighbourhood.

There was a core of landed aristocracy in the House, for the younger members of a landed family might have a connection of long standing with a neighbouring bor­oughs. Where there were deeply entrenched local inte­rests, loyalties, and passions, those who sought the seats might have to choose between a ruinous struggle and a compromise. Very few seats were contested during the first half of the 18th century, most county mem­bers getting their seats by an understanding between local factions.

Those who had seats in the House of Commons were expected to take an intelligent and financial in­terest in the provision of local amenities, such as a town hall, a grammar school, or a water supply. The membership of the Commons was varied. There were men of great distinction in the arts and sciences — John Dryden, Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, and Joseph Addison. There were great lawyers, great city merchants, as well as generals and admirals.

The House of Commons could distinguish between men who had ability and men who had estates. It had a wider cross-section of national activities and achievements and a smaller proportion of professional politicians than the Commons of the present day. It had begun in me­dieval times as an assembly of those who could voice the opinion and state the needs of local areas. By the 18th century it had acquired a collective personality.

With the coming of George I, the Whigs were giv­en preference over the Tories. It was quite natural, as many of them were sympathetic to the claims of the Stuart pretenders. Governmental stability and the au­thority of the House of Commons were promoted by the Septennial Act of 1716. Under the Septennial Act parliamentary elections were required every seven years rather than every three. This practice was kept on till 1911, when a parliament’s life was reduced to five years. Parliament was made up of 122 county members and 436 borough members. All counties and boroughs sent two members to Parliament, but each borough, whether a large city or a tiny village, had its own tradition of choosing its members of Parliament.

It should be mentioned that in the 18th century Ca­tholics were discriminated and full political privileges were granted only to members of the Anglican Church, but non-Anglican Protestants could legally hold office if they were willing to take Anglican communion once a year.

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