The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The New Regime

Category: 18th century

King William IIIWilliam III had to do much to secure his hold, not only upon England but upon Scotland and Ireland. In 1689 James II landed in Ireland, where he had an army ready to hand, and was easily able to stir up a national rising of the native Catholics against the Protestant “garrison”. In July 1690 Wil­liam defeated James at the battle of Boyne. This event has been celebrated since by Oran­gemen, as Protestants of North­ern Ireland belonging to the Orange Order call themselves.

In October 1691 the last Irish general surrendered at Limerick after a brilliant but hopeless struggle. As a condi­tion of surrender William pro­mised religious toleration for the Irish Catholics, a promise King William in that was immediately broken by the passing of severe Penal Laws which deprived them of all civil and religious rights. The new conquest of Ireland was followed by fresh confiscations of land, and henceforward the country was ruled more brutal­ly and openly than ever before as a colony existing for the exclusive benefit of the English.

In Scotland the new regime was accepted without much opposition. Protestants in Scotland welcomed the expulsion of James, and by 1692 William III’s sovereignty was undisputed throughout the British Isles.

After William of Orange and Mary had been de­clared king and queen, Parliament added to the laws of the constitution. The Triennial Act, 1694, obliged the king to summon Parliament at least every three years. The Act of Settlement, 1701, included rules which, had they not become a dead letter, would have made government chaotic and strangled cabinet gov­ernment, as the British were to know it, in its cradle. No person who had an office or place of profit under the king could serve as a member of the House of Commons. All matters relating to the governing of the kingdom which were the responsibility of the Privy Council were to be transacted there, and all resolu­tions taken thereupon were to be signed by the indi­vidual responsible. This would have involved a subor­dination of the administration to the legislature which would have made impossible the development of a cabinet system by which the servants of the king ex­ercise his prerogatives — the essential executive pow­ers on which the life of the state depends — because they are members of the House of Commons and are supported by a majority of it in the implementation of a policy approved by the country, if necessary at a general election.

The Septennial Act, 1715, increased the normal term of Parliament’s existence from three to seven years and made it possible for the government in office to nurse the constituencies on which its power depended. Looking back, we can see that in the eighteenth century Britain collaboration between the king’s min­isters and the representatives of his people was a bet­ter instrument of government than the uncontrolled power of a legislature or continuous friction between an independent royal executive and an irresponsible legislature.

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