1688: elements of a new society

Mike Macnair reviews Tim Harris's 'Revolution: the great crisis of the British monarchy, 1688-1720' Penguin, 2007, pp622, �12.99

On November 5 1688, 320 years ago, a Dutch Calvinist invasion army headed by the stadtholder, William of Orange, landed at Torbay in Devon. Not much more than a month later, on December 11, the Catholic king, James VII (of Scotland) and II (of England), fled from London. On February 13 1689, an illegally elected ‘convention parliament’ offered the crown to William, while at the same time ‘declaring’ certain rights which it asserted Englishmen possessed and James had violated. The convention parliament now declared itself to be a regular parliament, and passed both the Bill of Rights and the Toleration Act 1689, which abandoned Stuart efforts to repress Protestant dissent.

On April 11 a similar convention parliament in Scotland offered the Scots crown to William, on condition of his acceptance of a ‘claim of right’. Military resistance from the Catholic highlanders in Scotland was finally crushed in May 1690. In Ireland, James’s supporters remained in control, basing themselves on the Catholic majority. After the battle of the Boyne (June 1690) James fled to France, but the war in Ireland continued until October 1691, when the Irish Jacobites surrendered Limerick.

This is the briefest possible summary of the events of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, which laid the foundations of the modern British state. It is in an important sense chronologically incomplete. The revolution brought Britain into a European war, on the side of the Dutch-led alliance against another headed by the Catholic kingdom of France, which lasted till 1697. (In spite of French king Louis XIV’s claims to be promoting Catholicism, in fact, the pope was allied to the Dutch: an early stage in the secularisation of international politics.) The Bourbon kings of France continued to support the restoration of James II and his Catholic Stuart descendants until 1763, in the meantime aiding two Scots armed rebellions (1715 and 1745) and fighting three more wars on a global scale whose aims included the Jacobite restoration (war of the Spanish succession, 1701-14; war of the Austrian succession, 1740-48; seven years war, 1756-63). It was only global French defeat in the last of these which led the French to abandon support for the Jacobite ‘pretender’.

The war of 1688-97, as much as the revolutionary moment of 1688-89, triggered a profound structural transformation of the British state and economy: the explosive growth of the London financial markets, the British arms industry and much else; regular meetings of parliament every year, and the ‘normalisation’ of party politics; the 1695 lapse of the Licensing Act, ending formal press censorship; major growth of the navy and of the civil state bureaucracy, as well as the maintenance of a small standing army, which could be expanded in wartime.

1688 was represented by the traditional ‘Whig historians’ as showing the true genius of the English: a peaceful revolution and a ‘revolution from above’ which made only minor modifications to the constitutional order. It could thus be celebrated and contrasted with the ‘extremist’ Puritan revolution of 1640-60, which ‘naturally’ ended in failure.

Marxist historians, led by Christopher Hill, by and large inverted the weight given to the two events in the arguments of the ‘Whig historians’.1

 The English bourgeois revolution in this view happened in 1640-60, and 1688 was merely a ‘political revolution’ which shifted power within the ruling agri-capitalist class. Robert Brenner in his Merchants and revolution (1993) tentatively suggested that 1688 might have been something more, but the main burden of his study remained the events of 1640-60.

‘Tory’ historians, in contrast, identified 1640-60 as a mere ‘rebellion’, and 1688 as nothing special: what was really happening was an instance of the growth of the strong state, which was also occurring all across Europe (‘absolutism’).2 This could be seen, they argued, by the failure of Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685: it took a foreign invasion by the Dutch regular army to overthrow James II, and the state that resulted from the war of 1688-97 was much stronger and took more in tax than the regime it replaced.

Tim Harris’s book sets out to reassert the revolutionary character of 1688. He does not write as a Marxist, but as a conventional political historian. But his version of the revolution of 1688 reminds us - as Hill’s account of the 17th century did - of Britain’s revolutionary past.

His book is organised in two parts. Part I discusses the reign of James VII and II (1685-88) in five chapters: the accession; the 1685 parliaments in England and Scotland and the defeat of the discoordinated Whig rebellions of Monmouth in the south-west and Argyll in Scotland; James’s regime in Scotland; in Ireland; and in England.

‘England’ in this context (and, inevitably, in this review) includes Wales. Harris’s scattered references to Wales indicate that the political dynamics of the country were broadly the same as those of England. Wales (unlike Scotland) almost entirely shared a legal system with England, though for some purposes it was separate; the revolution had one distinctive consequence for the country: the abolition in 1689 of the ‘King’s council in Wales and the Marches’. This was the Welsh equivalent of the notorious court of star chamber, abolished in 1641; it had been revived at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 in spite of the non-revival then of the English equivalent.3

Part II focuses on the revolution itself, with five chapters. Chapter 6, ‘Yielding an active obedience only according to law’, looks at the process by which the political support which allowed James’s regime to defeat the 1685 rebellions was undermined. Chapter 7, ‘The desertion’, discusses the crisis itself and James’s fall and exile. Chapter 8, ‘“The greatest revolution that was ever known”: the revolution settlement in England’, considers the settlement in England and the use of the word ‘revolution’ in this context. Chapters 9 and 10 deal respectively with the revolutions in Scotland and Ireland.

Nobody has ever doubted the ‘revolutionary’ character, in the sense of forcible overthrow of a political regime, of the events in Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland a Presbyterian and parliamentary movement overthrew an Episcopalian and Catholic monarchist regime; the defeated forces mounted a war to reverse the result and after initial success were suppressed. In Ireland, Irish Catholics attempted to use the opportunity provided by the crisis to overthrow English and Scots settler colonialism and the subordination of their country to England, but were defeated by the Anglo-Dutch army.

What is original in Harris’s account is therefore the bringing of these cases more closely together with the revolution in England - and in particular his analysis of the revolution in England.

The key, which Harris explains in his introduction (pp14-18), is that he offers “a social history of politics”. What he means by this is attention to what contemporaries called politics “out of doors”. They meant by this not just street events and disturbances, but all political life outside the narrow world of MPs, peers and courtiers and the county landed elites who tried to manage the localities. The Whig and Tory historians have largely assumed that this level of politics simply did not exist or did not matter: after all, only a narrow layer of people had the vote. But, Harris argues, when it came to enforcing laws which the king or parliament made, the bureaucratic state (soldiers and officials directly employed and paid by government) was extremely weak. Law enforcement and implementation of government policies therefore depended on the active cooperation of people much lower down in the social hierarchy. Equally, though these people had no formal voice in politics, they nonetheless had ways of making themselves heard.

The writings of the class-elite ‘political nation’ tell us, of course, a lot more about their own affairs than they do about the affairs of the subordinate classes; and traditional political historians have followed their lead. It is the ‘social historians’ (beginning with the rise of the workers’ movement, and including many Marxists) who have developed methods of teasing out of the sources the experiences of the ‘lower orders’. But, by and large, these methods have been directed to class, family and economic experience, not to politics as such. Hence the “social history of politics”.

Thus, when Harris comes in his first substantive chapter to consider the political climate at James’s accession, he digs up reported local demonstrations of loyal support (and the booze which was provided by loyalist local dignitaries to fuel these); ‘loyal addresses’ from cities and other bodies (and the extent to which these had already been purged in favour of loyalists); the hard evidence of the 1685 electoral results, which showed a major swing to the Tory loyalists from the elections of 1681 (again affected by purges), clergy sermons preaching loyalism (and the common sub-texts these had, of the king’s duty to uphold the laws); and the other side of the coin - prosecutions for seditious rhymes and treasonable words. He reaches the conclusion that loyalism was dominant, but subject to certain limitations.

In the second chapter, on the defeat of the rebellions of 1685, we see the same picture slightly shifted. James got backing against Monmouth and Argyll (and the London and Cheshire Whigs, who had agreed to rise at the same time, stayed quiet. But, as it became clear that James was promoting Catholics (contrary to the Test Act) and intended to carry on doing so, his loyalist backers began to draw back, to the point that he was driven to prorogue parliament (stop its meeting without calling a new election).

Chapter 5, ‘Catholic absolutism in England’, shifts the picture again. James tried to push through his pro-Catholic agenda by the use of royal prerogative powers. As he met with a lack of active cooperation and support from the majority of Tories, he attempted to form a new coalition with a section of Whigs and dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants) to pack a parliament which would agree to his pro-catholic measures out of hatred of the Tories. But the majority of Whigs and dissenters did not take the bait: response “out of doors” to the new turn was disappointing. By 1688 (chapter 6) sedition had reached high up the church hierarchy, leading to the trial of the seven bishops for preaching against James’s measures, and their acquittal.

The decisive element is the revolution itself. In the first place, James was clearly aware that his domestic, political support was not enough to stand off William of Orange’s invasion: in late September he made a radical U-turn in the hope of winning back Tory support. English merchant capitalists provided £200,000 to William’s funds in July and August (pp281-282). By the end of the third week of November William had recruited 12,000 soldiers in England (p283). A significant number of James’s army officers deserted to William in late November (p284). There were independent risings in support of William, led by the local nobility and gentry, in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Norfolk, and Worcester and Hereford (p285).

Crowds as well as gentry and their armed recruits participated (pp290-302). There were large-scale crowd attacks on Catholic chapels in London, Northampton, Norwich, York, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Gloucester, Hereford, Ipswich, Newcastle, Shrewsbury, Stafford, Sudbury, Wolverhampton and Worcester; in London, the houses of prominent supporters of James’s government had their windows smashed. James’s flight on November 11 was immediately followed by more mass attacks against Catholic chapels and property in London, Hertfordshire, Cambridge, Bury and Caernarvon. Rumours that the Irish Catholic soldiers of James’s army, now disbanded, were attacking Protestants, produced more mass mobilisations - including in parts of the country they were most unlikely to have reached. Harris argues that close attention to these mobilisations shows that they were not an outbreak of wanton looting, as some historians have argued, but “a rejection of the men and measures of James II” (pp300-01).

James VII and II fell, in other words, not because he was militarily defeated by the invading Dutch army, but because he was faced with overwhelming domestic mass opposition - not just from the elites, but also from the ‘lower orders’ - to his Catholic policy. William’s invasion set this opposition free by offering the possibility of an alternative regime.4

Harris’s Chapter 8 looks at the revolution settlement in England: the immediate results of the revolution. There was a very widespread print debate on what should be done, going well beyond the debate in parliament. The outcome, however, was a compromise between Whig and Tory parties in parliament. The Declaration of Rights devised by parliament was not a condition of the offer of the crown to William and Mary, but asserted that the rights had always been law: James had merely been breaking the law. This too was a formal compromise, but in practice it very substantially changed the constitution.

Looking back at the end of the book, Harris imagines (pp513-514) that “an Englishman of moderate Whig leanings” who died in the 1630s was miraculously brought back in the 1680s. Such a person, he says, would not have imagined that any revolution had taken place: the restoration regime as it developed by the 1680s had evolved most of the objectionable features of Charles I’s regime of the 1630s and added some more (the standing army). In contrast, if a similar person who died shortly before the revolution of 1688 was equally miraculously brought back in 1720, it would be perfectly clear that a revolution had happened in between: limited monarchy and Protestantism had been secured.

For a Marxist, the same is true, as I indicated at the outset, and in a stronger sense. Looking back from 1688 to 1638, it is not obvious that the class character of the English state had changed - though it may well be the case that the ‘gentry’ was already living mainly on rents derived from the exploitation of free labour. But looking back from 1720 to 1688, it is perfectly clear that what had been created in the latter year was a capitalist state with a central bank and stock market at its financial heart and the ‘rule of law’ as its governing ideology: a state of the sort which has been directly or indirectly copied everywhere in the world.

In The civil war in France, Marx famously wrote that the workers “have no ideals to realise, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old, collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant”.5 For a Marxist, the revolution of 1688 in Harris’s interpretation - that it was a genuine revolution - is just such an event. By overthrowing the state form of developing monarchical absolutism, it “set free the elements of the new society” - which emerged, with extraordinary rapidity, in the two decades following the revolution.

There is a lesson here for British revolutionaries today. Capitalism rules through the state form of the corrupt duopoly of professional politicians (and its offshoot in the labour bureaucracy), the central bank and financial markets, the ‘rule of law’ ideology and the international state system. Through this form the state holds back the dynamic towards cooperative and needs-based self-organisation.

Like our bourgeois predecessors, a really revolutionary policy will target the state system. Because if we succeed in overthrowing the state and creating a state answerable to the working class, we will “set free the elements of the new society”.


1. Hill’s analysis follows brief remarks by Trotsky in Where is Britain going? (1925), though of course Hill could not acknowledge this source.
2. Eg, JR Western Monarchy and revolution Worcester 1972; JR Jones The revolution of 1688 in England New York 1973; most clearly and explicitly Tory is JCD Clark English society 1688-1832 Cambridge 1985.
3. See TG Watkin The legal history of Wales Cardiff 2007, p153.
4. Stephen Baxter’s biography (William III and the defence of European liberty 1650-1702 New York 1966) indicates that the intelligence assessments William received in 1688 pointed to the revolution taking place even if he had not intervened, and if so leading to a republic. The sources will obviously have been ‘spinning’ in favour of William intervening, but the idea cannot be wholly discounted.
5. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/index.htm