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The English political scene of the17th and 18th centuries

This post aims to look at the historical processes through which the status of parliamentarianism emerged. These processes include; the principles of its organization, its correlation with the intellectual quests that were taking place during the same historical period, and the way in which power was exercised at that specific moment.

Historical events that contributed to the consolidation of parliamentarism

Should one aim to identify the historical events that played a significant role in the consolidation of parliamentarism in the UK, one would soon realise that a one-dimensional approach to this question is not to be suggested. On the contrary, a methodology that would include and encounter a multitude of political, economic and religious events, seems to be more appropriate in order to approach the historical context of the phenomenon at stake .

First of all, it seems safe to argue that the main cause of the rebellion against the royal absolute monarchy was coming from a religious place. Jacob the 1st after adopting the doctrine of the "empowered by God monarchy", he claimed that the questioning of the King's power was a kind of blasphemy, just as the questioning of the power of God. It seems that the radical Protestants were totally opposed to the royal practice of suppressing their religious sentiment, and as a result their opposition led to an outbreak that took the form of a civil war. In addition, the attempt to enforce the episcopal system of church administration in the Scottish Presbyterians - who were also radical Calvinists – led the insurgent insurrection of the northern nationals of Jacob the 1st, turned against him.

In addition to the political events just mentioned, it seemed that financial factors also contributed to the reinforcement of the parliament’s role in the English political scene of the 17th and 18th centuries. A move that comes to indicate this argument would be the parliament’s disapproval towards the extraordinary taxes that the King imposed in order to supplement his income. Having said that, one could also add the parliament’s interference in the free trade as done up to that moment, meaning; having the King granting monopolies and scandalous privileges to his favourable people. This move performed by the parliament inevitably led to the resentment of the rising bourgeoisie. Another important factor would be the reinforcement of the financial power of many members of the parliamentary opposition (due to Britain's overwhelming participation in the Commercial Revolution), which also reinforced their resistance against the royal absolute monarchy.

As far as politics is concerned, it seems that it also contributed to the complexity with which parliamentarianism in the UK of the 17th and 18th centuries emerged. One very important factor would be the failure to completely overturn the ideal of limited power as formulated in the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was of fundamental importance as it was a springboard of the institutionalized control over the king since the 13th century. Having said that, and in addition to the king’s provocative contempt of the parliament, led to a strong questioning of the monarchical practices.

Following all the above, one should also not omit the social conditions prevailing in England before the 17th century and the role that they played in the phenomenon which is at stake. The anointing of noblemen with the bourgeoisie, managed to create the space that would allow "glorious revolution" with no victims and whose final outcome would be a regime of a kind of parliamentarism, that Cromwell had failed to implement in the past.

Principles of organization of the English parliamentarianism

At the turn of the 16th to the 17th century, England was governed by principles that defined the liberties and rights of citizens through regulations appearing in the Magna Carta and the Charter of Rights of 1689. All the above seemed to be also reflected in the formulation of a certain kind of governmentality as indicated, for example, by the law which stipulated that the funds had to be firstly approved for limited amount of time. Another example would be the Tolerance Law, which basically granted religious freedom to all Christians except for the Catholics and Unia's followers (unionists). On 16th of December 1689 the Charter of Rights became lawful and from that moment on a jury trial was guaranteed that would forbid harsh punishments and excessive fines. The Charter of Rights also managed to deprive the King of the right to suspend laws or to impose taxes without the former approval of the Parliament. Most important, however, was that all these were now supported by a Parliament that had the power to impose their implementation.

The intellectual quests of the time and their relation with parliamentarism

Parliamentarism in England of the 17th and 18th centuries found devotees from the field of the intelligentsia. John Locke, following Thomas Hobbes's move on the granting of individual rights for the collective good, argued that people didn’t actually give up their individual rights to the King, but that it was the citizens who willingly decided to hand over the power to him. This idea seemed to be contradicting the idea of an absolute monarchy that is imposed rather than allowed to happen.

Also, Charles-Louis of Montesquieu move to lay the conceptual bases for the separation of the three powers of the State, legislative, judicial and executive, played a significant role as well. According to his opinion, the monarch and the Parliament ought to exercise the legislative power jointly and vice versa, and the executive power ought to be subject to controls and interventions by the legislative power.

The idea of a distinction and limitation of powers seemed thus to constitute the basis for further spiritual quests and contributed to the formation of the political views of #Voltaire, Thomas #Jefferson, and Thomas #Paine.

Ways of exercising power

As the kings of the Hanover dynasty (which expanded its sovereignty with the rise at the royal British throne, of King George the 1st in 1714), were not involved in English politics, England's government seemed to be left to the leader of the parliament member Sir Robert Walpole, who was essentially the first English Prime Minister. Walpole was the chief representative of the executive power and ruled through a new system invented by himself and which was later known as the "ministerial system", based on the principle of the parliamentary majority. The Cabinet thus managed to evolve into a government, in the contemporary sense of the word, Nevertheless, its political functions, initially being mainly aristocratic, were led by local governors who controlled the country through a clientelist system.

Walpole managed to remain England’s Prime Minister until 1742, while following a policy of cautious conservatism. He kept England away from war and supported the financial interests of the upper classes. Having said that, one might conclude that all Prime Ministers of England to follow, seemed to be continuing in a way this same type of governmentality, as indicated by Walpole and during the reign of King George the 2nd (which was for the period: 1727 - 1760).

#politics #england #history #conservatism #protestantistm #parliamentarism #primeminister #walpole #magnacarta #billofrights #thomashobbes #CharlesLouisdeMontesquieu

#Montesquieu #johnlocke #ThomasJefferson #ThoamsPaine.

Suggested reading:

Edward M. Burns, European History

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Europe 1450-1789

Konstantinos Raptis, General hisoty of Europe


This article is part of an academic essay, produced by Lamprini Repouliou.

You can bookmark or download the paper in the author's academia profile:

All rights reserved.


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