The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Constitutional Monarchy

Category: 18th century

By the beginning of the 18th century the conditions were ripe in Britain for the development of capitalism. The basic production of the country was still agricultural, but manufacture especially of textiles was wide-spread and prosperous. British markets extended all over the world and all aspects of production connected with shipping and foreign trade were expanding. Woods were being cut down not only for shipbuilding, but also for iron-smelting, as well as to expand agricultural land. Capital was accumulating in the country, and it was being invested in manufacture, commerce, agriculture and in direct colonial expansion.

The great wealth and power of England was in the hands of the landed aristocracy and the big financial bourgeoisie. These classes shared their power by means of the so-called two party system, whereby government alternated between the party of the Tories — representing landowning interests, and the party of the Whigs — representing the growing power of capital, both industrial and agricultural, the party which had carried through the Glorious revolution — the compromise of 1688. These two parties contended for the majority in Parliament, the consequent right to form the government and the opportunity to control the monarch. In the 18th century the Whigs were mainly in power because they defended more capably the vested interests of the bourgeoisie by encouraging English trade and commerce, whereas the Tories were unpopular since they were constantly trying to restore the Stuarts hated and dreaded by the bourgeoisie.

Parliament in no sense represented the people and by the end of the century it dit not even represent the growing numbers of smaller capitalist manufacturers, since the new industrial towns were sometimes not represented at all. Since 1717 only 250 thousand could vote in England out of a population of about five million. People with an annual income of no less than 600 pounds in real estate or 200 pounds from trade and financial transactions were liable to vote. Elections were exceedingly corrupt. The voting was open, not secret, so any landlord could see which way his tenants voted. In the towns, too, .voters were controlled by their masters, who were usually the local bourgeoisie. A place where most of the voters were controlled by one rich man was called a ‘pocket’ borough. That is, the voters were in the rich man’s pocket. A place where only a few people had the right to vote was called a ‘rotten’ borough. Elections in rotten boroughs were easily controlled.

Working conditions in the growing industries were extremely hard: the working day lasted no less than 14 hours and most of the operations were done by hand. The best positions were in government offices. They were the prizes promised at election time by politicians to their friends, families and supporters. Many important government positions included responsibility for handling public money, and some of them gave splendid opportunities for putting it to private use. Few of the rich respected honesty, although most pretended to be shocked at the lack of it. They believed one thing, and said another. This is a fault in the character of English bourgeoisie which is called humbug.

The 18th century was the time of the agrarian revolution. The country landlord was interested in extending his land as much as possible, for land could bring in either large money profits, or money rents. Again it was the poor peasant who suffered most in the process. A new stage of the enclosure movement, which took place in the 14th — 15th centuries and led to the replacement of serf labour by wage labour, occurred in the 18th century. The enclosure movement of this period was designed to wipe out the remaining open fields and waste lands and to put them into cultivation. Parliament expressing the interests of the squires passed special acts allowing the landowners to enclose the lands. By the middle of the century there was no more common land in England and there were no more yeomen. The peasants were driven off their lands. Many of the country dwellers whose main source of income had been weaving were now unable to supplement the meagre sums paid by the middlemen for their work by the food gained from common lands, and were forced to migrate to the new manufacturing towns and there formed the basis of the proletariat. The village communities broke up, the poor peasants either became a pauper or migrated to the towns. The towns rapidly became overcrowded and living conditions for the poor became horrid. This development is described in detail by Karl Marx in the first part of Das Kapital. By the eighties of the 18th century historians no longer refer to the peasantry as to a class in England. A numerous army of agricultural labourers was emerging. These proletarians in the countryside were ready to take up any job available. Capitalist farming based on exploitation of agricultural labourers was developing in England on an accelerated scale because of the growing demands of the expanding towns in agricultural produce. Free labour was also vitally important for the development of capitalism in industry. This process associated with many important technical inventions took place in the latter half of the 18th century and is known as the Industrial. Revolution.

In 1702 William III died and according to the Bill of Rights (1689) and other ensuing acts he was succeeded by his wife’s sister and younger daughter of James II, Anne (1702—14). She was a simple-minded woman, depending almost entirely on her advisers. This in fact was most convenient for the ruling oligarchy which needed a submissive and obedient monarch. It was within the first half of the 18th century that the main features of constitutional monarchy became shaped in England.

William III inaugurated the origins of cabinet government. The cabinet government system, thus started, was rapidly developing as a working arrangement which took over the executive power from the monarch. Anne helped develop the cabinet in several ways. She waited for the approval of Parliament before changing cabinets, and was the last English sovereign to use the royal veto.

In the 18th century the Whig peers dominated, the English political scene and they were careful to promote the interests of the industrial and trade bourgeoisie, as well as of the new aristocracy. It was they who initiated the speedy invitation of the Hanoverians to the English throne when Anne died in 1714. The Act of Settlement (1701) had provided that if Anne should die without heirs, the crown of England should go to the Electress Sophia of Hanover, or her heirs. This eventually occurred, but with the hasty participation of the Whigs who outplayed the Tories in their attempt to restore the Stuarts to the English throne. Hence George of Hanover, Sophia’s oldest son, became king. George I (1714 — 27) was 54 years old, and he spoke no English. Moreover, he was more interested in the affairs of Hanover, leaving to the Whig ministers the task of governing England. It was then that England became fully shaped as a constitutional monarchy. A number of acts were passed which consolidated the whole political system: the dependence of the cabinet on Parliament, the formal independence of the courts, the safety of the subject and his property against arbitrary action, etc.

The whole parliament, .’y system was a product of the concerted efforts of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, who needed each other as they depended on one another.

As has been noted, the Whigs were in power from 1714 to 1760. Sir Robert Walpole became England’s first prime minister. He stayed in office from 1721 to 1742, managing to be popular with the financiers and merchants. ‘Money talks’ is an old English saying. Walpole developed the system of buying support for government policies with bribes. Moreover, the government had a special fund of money to be spent in buying votes and bribing the members of Parliament. Voting became a shameful business associated with bribery and corruption. Thus Parliament itself was turned into an obedient tool in the hands of the ruling oligarchy.

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