The Origins of Political Stability: England, 1675-1725
Historical research, like research in any other field, whether scientific or humanistic, moves in jerks. A man of unusual imagination and talent produces a model, a working hypothesis of how and why things happened the way they did. This model then serves for a generation or so as a focus for plodding historical inquiry. Its foundations are examined, and ultimately undermined; its structure is pulled about, and eventually found unsafe; its roof is inspected, and at last found leaky. Finally the building is condemned, and the profession then moves out and occupies a new model, erected by another talented architect of another generation, using such parts of the old structure as are still serviceable and have been proved and tested by time. This book by Dr. Plumb provides just such a model, around which historical research will be constructed for a long time to come.
The book appears at just the right moment. For a generation now some of the best minds working in English history have been focused on the problems of the causes and processes of the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. The debate is far from over, but the main lines are now becoming clear, and the dust is beginning to settle. A whole new set of problems will undoubtedly emerge again as a new generation of historians begins a fresh look at the problem; but for the time being the origins of the English Revolution is a rather jaded subject. It is time to move on.
In this brilliant sketch of how things may have worked out, Professor Plumb sets himself a hard question, which has never been satisfactorily answered, and indeed, had hardly ever been asked, for reasons which will become apparent in a moment. The question is this: For the whole of the seventeenth century, England was the supreme example in Europe of political instability. Ministers of the Crown were impeached, executed, or exiled; kings were killed or driven out. Religious fanaticism, political hatreds, profound social conflicts divided the upper classes into rival groups each dedicated to the persecution and, if possible, the extermination of the other. After about 1720, however, a long era of political peace and institutional stability set in, consensus politics was the rule, and England became the admiration of Europe for its success in achieving strength without tyranny, liberty without anarchy.
Montesquieu, Voltaire, and other continental philosophers tried to puzzle it out. Burke argued that it was the result of a long tradition going deep into the roots of the English past, and subsequent Whig historians like Macaulay and later Trevelyan took the same line, playing down the brutality and instability of English society and politics in the seventeenth century and swallowing whole the myth of Magna Carta and ancestral English liberties, the continuity of Parliamentary development, the lengthy evolution of checks and balances, all of which eventually caused the emergence of a constitutional monarchy. The stress was on continuity, on the slow majestic development from precedent to precedent down the ages; attention was focused on the legislative body, especially one section of it, the House of Commons, while the executive branch of government was regarded as a tiresome necessity, only important in the story as a potential threat to constitutional growth. Although this “Whig Interpretation of History” was subjected to severe criticism by Professor Herbert Butterfield many years ago, it still remains the standard model.
Professor Plumb will have none of it. With superb arrogance and panache, he summarily tosses it out of the window, and with it a whole century of patient work by English constitutional historians—the pride and joy of Oxford historiography from Stubbs to 1967. He wholly rejects the theory of continuity and slow evolution, and postulates instead a sharp, dramatic break around 1720, when the potentialities for stable government were at last appreciated and exploited by a political manager of genius, Sir Robert Walpole. He also rejects the stress on the House of Commons, on political liberty, on popular consent as the central pivots of English political stability in the eighteenth century. Instead he sees the key in the strength of the central government, and its powers for manipulating votes and for attracting loyalty by crude appeals to human ambition for power and profit. He regards the seventeenth century, not without reason, as a period of anarchy, in which the Tudor government machinery broke down as the upper classes became hopelessly split over the issues of religion (Anglicanism versus Puritanism), the nature and powers of the state (Court versus Country), the size of the ruling elite (aristocracy versus gentry versus freeholders; urban oligarchy versus lesser traders versus rate-paying householders), and the weight and distribution of taxation (land tax, or customs dues, or poll tax, or monopolies, etc.). Parliament during this period he sees as irresponsible when in opposition, and immoderate and ineffective when in power.
The solution lay in the recovery by the executive of the means to control this body of suspicious, xenophobic, narrow-minded country gentry whose main ambition was to make England safe for their own class: safe from kings, royal servants, armies, taxes, excisemen, foreigners, Papists, Dissenters, merchants, financiers, and the lower classes. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 made things worse, if anything, since it reinforced the authority of the legislative over the executive and blasted the modest experiments in political control evolved, in his spare time, by Charles II. It was 1715-25 which saw the turn of the tide. The last-ditch Tories were tarred with the brush of Jacobitism, and thus isolated from more moderate opinion, while at the same time Walpole evolved a really efficient Tammany Hall political machine for the judicious distribution of loaves and fishes. The virulence of party conflict, which had raged with ferocious intensity for forty years, finally died away, and was replaced by those factional intrigues for jobs and offices within a single party which Namier describes as characteristic of the 1760s. At the same time, popular participation in politics, which had risen markedly after 1660, again subsided. Professor Plumb believes that between 1660 and 1720 the frequency of general elections, the proportion of contested seats in these elections, and the size of the electorate, all increased dramatically, only to decline again thereafter as consensus politics revived, as borough franchises were restricted again, and as the cost of elections anyway became prohibitive for all but the very rich.
IS THIS NEW MODEL of Dr. Plumb a plausible one, which fits the known facts and provides a framework for new thinking and research? I think it is, although my own perspective is not the same as his, and I would place the emphasis rather differently. My doubts and reservations are confined to a limited number of points. I find it impossible to believe in the “great man theory of history,” to which Professor Plumb seems at times to subscribe. I very much doubt whether Walpole was the only begetter of political stability in England in the early eighteenth century, any more than Thomas Cromwell was the only begetter of the administrative revolution of the early sixteenth century (in so far as there was one).
Masterly and wholly convincing in his handling of political developments, Professor Plumb is on less firm ground when it comes to analyzing the underlying social and economic developments that laid the foundations for the stability of the future. He is at his most perceptive in his appreciation of the paradox of the Revolution of 1688. It was designed to achieve, and in the eyes of constitutional historians it did achieve, the victory of property over prerogative, of the landed gentry over the Crown. But it also did something else, of equal or greater significance. It plunged England into a protracted land war with France under the leadership of a Dutch king, the most important consequence of which was an enormous extension of government activity and the creation of hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of new jobs in the Treasury, the Navy, and the Army. England acquired an army of bureaucrats and officeholders, and so at last began to resemble the other anciens régimes of Europe. As Bolingbroke saw at the time, and as Professor Plumb demonstrates with overwhelming clarity and conviction, the long-term administrative revolution of 1689-1714 counterbalanced and ultimately outweighed the short-term political revolution of 1688-89. It gave the ministers of the Crown a vast apparatus of patronage, which could be used to tame the recalcitrant gentry and aristocracy and to bind together the political nation in a cosy share-out of jobs, annuities, fees, and other good things. The eighteenth-century political system was stable and secure, since it satisfied the aspirations of most of the political nation.
But I suspect there is far more to the story than either this new potentiality for patronage or its skillful exploitation by Walpole. One of the most important features of the new stability—as Dr. Plumb frequently points out—was the revival of the territorial power, economic resources, and political influence of the great aristocratic grandees. This is a story which has yet to be told, and the field is crying out for modern quantitative research. Secondly there is the problem of how the enormous floods of new wealth generated by booming colonial trade and government finance were successfully integrated into the land-based political system. Precisely how was “the monied interest” satisfied in its economic, political, religious, and social aspirations by the Venetian oligarchy of the eighteenth century? Here again we know virtually nothing, and Professor Plumb can tell us little. Thirdly, what happened to that enlarged electorate the significance of which Professor Plumb is the first to reveal: How and why was it tamed, reduced, and finally eliminated once more from English politics until 1832?
All these are new questions raised by an imaginative piece of historical model-building rather than criticisms of the model itself. Only on one issue am I myself in total disagreement with Professor Plumb. Ideological passion is almost wholly missing from his picture. In spite of his well-justified criticisms of the Namierite school he too seems to see politics mainly as the pork barrel and its distribution. But no one can study politics in the seventeenth century, or even in the reign of Queen Anne, without becoming aware of the force of hatred—passionate and deep-seated. Anglicans, Catholics, and Dissenters did not merely disagree in the 1660s and 1670s; they were out to destroy each other. Shaftesbury and the Whigs did not merely oppose the Junta; they planned to impeach, exile, or even execute them. The feelings and objectives of the Tories were equally extreme. A missing key to the growth of stability is the decline of ideological passion, a change in the moral climate so dramatic that by 1730 any form of enthusiasm, even anti-Catholicism, had become bad taste. England passed a psychological watershed somewhere between 1680 and 1720, a supremely important aspect of the problem which is largely ignored by Professor Plumb. The question therefore remains: Why before 1680 did one half of the English upper classes wish at worst to kill the other half and at best to deprive it of all power and profit and influence, and why by 1720 were they all willing to live and let live, and to share the spoils? I do not know the answer, and I find no satisfactory explanation advanced by Professor Plumb.
In spite of these queries and reservations, this book must be regarded as a landmark in English historiography. The problems it poses and the solutions it offers will form for the next forty years the starting point of all research on a critical problem in the evolution of England into a stable political society, which was thought even at the time to set a shining example to the rest of Europe. It is a remarkably intelligent book, bubbling with provocative ideas on every page, many highly original and suggestive, some dubious, just one plain silly (the alleged link between political stability and population growth). Some suggestions have worrying modern overtones to them: it was the credibility gap generated by the deviousness of the Stuarts which helped to undermine monarchy; it was the rising cost of elections which helped to destroy democracy and create rule by oligarchy. Professor Plumb’s main theme is a very important one. As he rightly says, political stability is at least as interesting, and as difficult to explain, and a good deal rarer to achieve, than political revolution. It is time historians paid as much attention to the former as to the latter, and Professor Plumb has now pioneered the trail for them.