The Political Drama



THE Industrial Revolution was the most basic process, the political struggle was the most exciting drama, of the second half of the eighteenth century in England. Now the giants of English oratory—Chatham, Burke, Fox, and Sheridan—made the House of Commons the stage of bitter and momentous conflicts between Parliament and the king, between Parliament and the people, between England and America, between the conscience of England and the English rulers of India, and between England and the French Revolution. The political structure was the frame and machinery of the play.

The government of Great Britain was a constitutional monarchy in the sense that the king implicitly agreed to rule according to existing laws and traditional usages, and to make no new laws without the consent of Parliament. The constitution was an accumulation of precedents, not a document, with two exceptions. One was the Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215. The other arose when the Westminster Convention in 1689, offering the crown of England to William of Orange and Mary his wife, accompanied the offer with an “Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, and Settling the Succession of the Crown.” This “Bill of Rights,” as brevity called it, asserted that the “power of suspending of laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal”; that “levying money for or to the use of the Crown, by pretense of prerogative, without grant of Parliament … is illegal”; and it added: “Having therefore an entire confidence that … the Prince of Orange will … preserve them [the Parliament] from the violation of their rights which they have here asserted, and from all other attempts upon their religion, rights and liberties, the … Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons … do resolve that William and Mary, Prince and Princess of Orange, be and be declared King and Queen of England, France and Ireland.” In accepting the throne William III and Mary II implicitly accepted the limitations which the proud and powerful aristocracy of England, by this declaration, placed upon the authority of the king. When, by a later “Act of Settlement” (1701), and on certain conditions, Parliament offered the throne to the Hanoverian “Princess Sophia and the heirs of her body being Protestants,” it assumed that she and those heirs, by accepting the crown, agreed to a Bill of Rights that took from them all power to make laws except by consent of Parliament. While nearly all other European states were, till 1789, ruled by absolute monarchs who made and unmade laws, England had a constitutional government that was praised by philosophers and envied by half the world.

The census of 18011 estimated the population of Great Britain at nine million souls, divided into the following classes:

1. At the top, 287 temporal (secular) peers and peeresses, as heads of families totaling some 7,175 persons. Within this class there were ranks in descending order: princes of the [royal] blood, dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons. These titles carried down generation after generation to the eldest son.

2. Twenty-six bishops—the “spiritual lords.” These, with the 287 temporal lords, were entitled to sit in the House of Lords. Together these 313 families constituted the nobility proper; to all of them except dukes and princes the appellation “lord” could be properly applied. A less formal and nontransmissible nobility could be acquired by appointment to the higher offices in the administration, the army or the navy; but usually these appointments went to persons already ennobled.

3. Some 540 baronets, and their wives, entitled to prefix “Sir” and “Lady” to their Christian names, and to transmit these titles.

4. Some 350 knights, and their wives, entitled to the same prefixes, but not to transmit them.

5. Some six thousand (e)squires—the “gentry,” or most numerous class of landowners. The baronets, knights, and squires, and their wives, constituted the “lesser nobility,” and were generally included with their superiors in the “aristocracy.”

6. Some twenty thousand “gentlemen” or “ladies” living on income without manual work, having a coat of arms, and assumed to be of “gentle” birth—i.e., born in the gens, or group of old and accepted families.

7. Below all these came the remainder of the population: the lower clergy, civil servants, businessmen, farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, laborers, soldiers, and sailors; also some 1,040,000 “paupers” receiving public relief, and about 222,000 “vagrants, gypsies, rogues, thieves, swindlers, counterfeiters of base money, in or out of prison, and common prostitutes.”2

The aristocracy, with only occasional resistance, dominated the government by its wealth (the 287 peers received twenty-nine per cent of the national income in 18013), by its prominence in high civil or military posts, by the prestige of ancient rank, and by its control of parliamentary elections and legislation. Electorally, England was divided into forty counties (rural districts) and 203 boroughs (townships). Excluded from the franchise were women, paupers, convicted criminals, Roman Catholics, Quakers, Jews, agnostics, and others who could not swear allegiance to the authority and doctrines of the Church of England. In the counties only those Protestant landowners who paid forty shillings annual tax were entitled to vote for Parliament; these totaled about 160,000. As voting was public, very few voters dared support any candidate other than the one nominated by the principal landlords of the county; hence relatively few voters bothered to vote, and many elections were decided by arrangement among the leaders without anyballoting at all. The major landowners thought it only just that, having so much at stake in the conduct of the government and the fate of the nation, their representation in Parliament should be proportionate to their property; and most of the lesser landlords agreed.

The boroughs displayed a confusing variety of electoral patterns. In the city of Westminster (now central London) there were about nine thousand voters; in the city of London as then constituted there were six thousand; in Bristol, five thousand; only twenty-two boroughs had more than a thousand.4 In twelve boroughs all adult males could vote; in most of the others only property holders; in several the candidates were chosen by the municipal “corporation”—which has been defined as “an urban oligarchy of attorneys, merchants, brokers, and brewers entrenched in a self-electing corporation which had by royal charter exclusive control over the town’s property.”5 Some of these corporations gave their vote to the candidate (s) whose sponsor(s) paid the highest price. In 1761 the borough of Sudbury openly advertised its vote for sale; and in the following election the corporation of Oxford formally offered to reelect its M.P.s if they would pay the corporation’s debts.6 In some boroughs the privilege of choosing the candidate belonged by custom to specific individuals or families not necessarily residing there; so Lord Camelford boasted that if he wished he could elect his Negro butler to Parliament.7 Such “pocket boroughs” were sometimes sold like merchandise; Lord Egremont bought Midhurst for £ 40,000.8 In some “rotten boroughs” a handful of voters could send one or more representatives to Parliament, while the city of London returned only four. Even when the franchise was almost universal the election was usually determined by bribery, by violence, or by keeping a refractory voter too intoxicated to vote.9 By various means 111 “patrons” controlled the elections in 205 boroughs.10 There were some 85,000 voters in the boroughs, 160,000 in the counties—245,000 in all.

From such varied elections came the 558 members of the House of Commons in 1761. Scotland sent forty-five, the counties of England and Wales ninety-four, the boroughs 415, the two universities two each. The House of Lords then contained 224 peers, temporal or spiritual. “Parliamentary privilege” included the right of Parliament to pass on bills proposed for legislation; to levy taxes and thereby hold the “power of the purse”; to judge the credentials of persons claiming admission to it; to penalize—with imprisonment if it so wished—any injury to its members or any disobedience to its rules; and to enjoy full freedom of speech, including immunity from punishment for words uttered in Parliament.

The division of members into Tories or Whigs had by 1761 lost nearly all significance; the real division was between supporters and opponents of the current “government,” or ministry, or of the king. By and large the Tories protected the landed interest; the Whigs were willing now and then to consider the desires of the business class; otherwise both Tories and Whigs were equally conservative. Neither party legislated for the benefit of the masses.

No bill could become law unless approved by both houses of Parliament and signed by the king. He possessed the “royal prerogative”—i.e., powers, privileges, and immunities accorded him by English custom and law. He had military powers: he was supreme commander of the army and navy; he could declare war, but needed parliamentary appropriations to wage it; he could negotiate treaties and make peace. He had some legislative rights: he could withhold assent from a bill passed by Parliament—but it could bring him to terms by its power of the purse, and so he never exercised that right after 1714; he could add to the laws by proclamation or by orders in council, but he could not alter the common law, or create a new offense; for the colonies he could legislate as he pleased. He had executive powers: he alone could summon, prorogue, or dissolve Parliament; he appointed the ministers who directed policy and administration. Part of the furor in the first decades (1760-82) of George Ill’s sixty-year reign concerned the extent of the royal prerogative in choosing ministers and determining policy.

The right of the king to legislate was narrowly limited, and the measures proposed to Parliament by his ministers could be made into law only by persuading both houses of Parliament to accept them. This was done by political bargains, by the promise or withholding of posts or pensions, or by bribery. (In 1770 over 190 members of the House of Commons held appointive places in the administration.) The pounds and plums required for these operations were mostly supplied by the king’s “civil list”—an account of his expenses for himself and his family (the “privy purse”), for his houses and servants, for salaries paid by him, and for pensions awarded. Parliament allowed George III £ 800,000 annually for this civil list; he often exceeded this in his outlays; in 1769 Parliament added £513,511, and in 1777 £618,-340, to pay the royal debts. Part of the king’s money was used to buy votes in parliamentary elections;11 part was used to buy votes in Parliament itself. Funds voted by Parliament for secret service were in many cases remitted to Parliament in bribes. When we add to this royal traffic the money spent in elections or legislation by “nabobs” returning to England with wealth gleaned in India, or by businessmen seeking governmental contracts or escape from governmental interference, we get a picture of political corruption hardly rivaled west of the Oder, and unpleasantly instructive on the nature of man.

Some minor details of the British system should be noted. Taxes were levied upon all landowners, great or small; perhaps this entered into the respect that the commonalty paid to the peerage. No standing army—only a militia—was allowed by Parliament; this was a minor factor in England’s superior prosperity at a time when France was supporting a permanent army of 180,000 men, Prussia 190,000, Russia 224,000. In wartime, however, the armed forces were rigorously recruited by enlistment and impressment; the violations of personal liberty by this custom, and the brutalizing cruelties of army and navy life, were dark shadows on the English scene.

Blackstone felt (c. 1765) that the political structure of England was the best the nature and education of men permitted at that time. He quoted the classical opinion that the best form of government would be one that combined monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and he found all these “well and happily united” in the British constitution.

For as with us the executive power of the laws is lodged in a single person, they have all the advantages of strength and dispatch that are to be found in the most absolute monarchy; and as the legislature of the kingdom is entrusted to three distinct powers entirely independent of each other; first the king; secondly, the lords spiritual and temporal, which is an aristocratical assembly of persons selected for their piety, their birth, their wisdom, their valor, or their property; and thirdly, the House of Commons, freely chosen by the people among themselves, which makes it a kind of democracy; as this aggregate body, activated by different springs and attentive to different interests, … has the supreme disposal of everything, there can no inconvenience be attempted by either of the three branches but will be withstood by the other two; each branch being armed with a negative power sufficient to repel any innovation which it shall think inexpedient or dangerous. Here, then, is lodged the sovereignty of the British constitution, and lodged as beneficially as is possible for society.12

We may smile at the patriotic conservatism of an eminent jurist viewing the matter from a comfortable eminence; but very probably his judgment would have been ratified by ninety per cent of the English people under George III.

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