Duncan Hallas

The Decisive Settlement

(October 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.113, October 1988, pp.17-20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

1688 marked an important turning point in the history of Britain. The victory of William of Orange over James II in what came to be known as the Glorious Revolution marked the consolidation of bourgeois rule.
Duncan Hallas looks back at the events and the forces involved.

ON THE 5th of November 1688 William of Orange landed at Torbay, with a substantial army of Dutch, German, Scandinavian and Scottish mercenaries. It was the beginning of what Whig historians and indeed, until quite recent times, virtually all bourgeois historians called the Glorious Revolution. This is the same William who is portrayed throughout Northern Ireland, on his horse, sword in hand, waving his hat at the Battle of the Boyne.

He became the symbol of the most backward, reactionary attitudes. The very word Orangeism comes from his title. Yet if you look realistically at events in 1688 you will find that this was the decisive culmination of the English bourgeois revolution.

Even though there were much more dramatic events in an earlier period, this was the decisive settlement. A settlement which lasted in form for 150 years and in practice for probably another fifty up to the 1880s. And that 150 years saw the establishment of maritime English supremacy around the world, the conquest of India, the conquest of North America, and the first British Empire.

But more than that, it was the period that saw the destruction of the English peasantry, to borrow Stalin’s phrase, their liquidation as a class.

It also saw, and this is still more important, the world’s first industrial revolution with all the rapid social transformations and upheaval that involved.

This was achieved by a ruling class whose framework and indeed whose personnel in family terms had been established in 1688.

But first it is necessary to look at the events of the preceding period, that is between 1640, the meeting of the Long Parliament, and 1660, the restoration of the Stuart monarchy.

Marx, writing about history says that it is made by classes, consciously, but nevertheless with a false consciousness. In previous class societies the ideas in people’s heads did indeed correspond to their class interests but they were expressed in veiled, concealed, ideological fashions. And in 17th century Britain the differing ideologies were expressed in religious terms. There were three main religious ideological forces in the country at the time.

First, there were the Roman Catholics or, to use the Protestant terminology of the day, the Papists. The Catholic Church was essentially, an ideological representative of feudal or quasi feudal reaction.

There were bits of the church where this was not so, Ireland being one, but essentially in English and Scottish terms it represented the extreme right and the most backward sections of the land-owning classes on which the monarchy sought to rest.

Secondly, there were the Presbyterians and Calvinists. At that time Calvinism was the ideology of the relatively successful bourgeoisie. They were substantial merchants, including some very rich men, and a whole layer beneath them of “progressive” landlords, who were innovative, who invested to produce for a market, and who were essentially capital accumulation oriented.

The ideology of Calvinism had been adapted from its original form into ways which suited the needs of capital accumulation and which provided a justification for political action.

Then there was the Anabaptist tradition. This stood well to the left representing basically the aspirations of small property owners. We are so used to a society in which the vast majority are wage earners we need to remind ourselves that at that time the majority, including many of the poorest, were small property owners.

Their aspirations differed considerably from that of the Presbyterians. They were called Independents. The categories were not rigid, many Independents were Calvinists as well, but events were to show that in the case of the Independents their ideal was a republic of small property owners. They represented the left in mass terms.

In addition to these three groups there was the forced compromise, “The Church of England as by law established” to give it its official title. The “as by law established” is the important thing. Before 1640 and again after 1660 there was no religious tolerance. Everyone was supposed to belong to the state church indeed there was legislation on the statute book making failure to attend religious service on Sunday punishable by a fine of up to one shilling.

Why? Because ideas expressed in religious terms were the essential ideological arm of the government.

The church of England was a battle ground precisely because it was the state church and different emphasis by different regimes led to different conflicts within it. It was not an homogeneous body, indeed it included near Papists on the one hand and people who were for all practical purposes dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists on the other, as well as a whole mass

AS THE events of 1640 unfolded this then was the balance of forces. Because of a series of preceding events, the English bourgeoisie, in other words the House of Commons, dominated. Most of the members sitting in the House of Commons were medium-sized property owners, but they were market oriented, embryonic capitalists who leant towards Calvinism.

Essentially the monarchy represented a compromise that had been established much earlier, going right back to Henry VIII, between the old society and the new.

The monarchy had leaned on the bourgeoisie in the earlier period. Now the bourgeoisie had become strong enough to challenge it. Nevertheless, they did not start by saying – away with the monarchy. Rather their argument concerned the subject dearest of all to bourgeoisies everywhere, money!

In practice this meant that the House of Commons, in return for voting the King sums of money, wanted to effectively determine his policy. This led ultimately to the formation of two armed camps and civil war.

For the first years before that war the Presbyterian dominated leadership of the House of Commons was reluctant to press things to extremes. Therefore they fought in a very half hearted way.

This hesitation is expressed very well by an exchange between the general who the Presbyterian parliament had appointed as the supreme commander, the Earl of Manchester, and the man who was to replace him, Oliver Cromwell.

Manchester, when urged by the left to mount a resolute offensive, to destroy the royal armies said “though we are forced to fight against him, remember, in the eyes of God he is still our king”. Cromwell’s answer is beautifully brief, “if that be so my lord, we should never have taken up arms in the first place.”

The conflict between these forces led to the effective dissolution of Presbyterian control. This happened because for reasons of military necessity they were compelled to consent to the formation of the New Model Army.

The New Model Army was made up entirely of relatively poor men, in the main the small property owners. The army was, if you like, the political party of the Independents. It represented the most dynamic, the most forward looking people.

All sides were agreed that Charles had to go but what was to happen once he had gone? One side believed that young Charles, his son, would be King on their terms, whereas under pressure from the ranks the Independent leaders decided to make an issue of monarchy itself.

In Cromwell’s immortal words “that man of blood Charles Stuart must die”, Why? Mainly for ideological reasons.

The traditional notion was that the institution of the monarchy was divinely ordained and could not be altered. To break that view Charles was put on trial and had his head chopped off for treason.

NO SOONER was this done than new problems arose. The forces that had been relatively united in 1640 were much less so by 1644-5, and after 1649 they were profoundly divided. A coherent bourgeois force which could pull behind it the great majority did not emerge.

Consequently, a series of things occurred. The Long Parliament was purged. What was left was a parliament dominated by the Independents who had stayed. But they too proved too conservative and they also were dispersed. At the end of the day the regime was reduced to a military dictatorship through the generals.

The generals faced two problems, problems common to any bourgeois revolution. One was the process of establishing a regime, a set of institutions, a government and a legal system which facilitated the process of capital accumulation.

But, and this was the second problem, how could this be done without encouraging what the Royalist historian Clarendon called the “dirty people of no name” (meaning, not beggars, not proletarians but the mass of small property owners)?

We, with the benefit of hindsight, know what the fate of these people was to be. They were to be amongst the principle victims of the regime as it was subsequently established. Cromwell had been reduced to military rule, his role becoming that of a sort of proto-Bonaparte.

As long as Cromwell lived he was able, in spite of everything, to enjoy a very broad layer of support. He was an extremely able man who managed to keep the regime going

When he died it fell to pieces. The larger property owners, Presbyterians as well as Royalists, felt the need of a strong arm. So they brought back young Charles who had been in exile in and around various European courts since 1648, who now became Charles II.

It was the Presbyterians who invited Charles back, as they thought, on their terms. In fact there was an enormous shift in the balance of forces. The army was on one pretext or another disbanded. Then there was the return of the Royalist exiles and the upsurge of the most backward elements in the country particularly in the north.

Consequently, just as the Cromwellian regime had proved to be unstable, so the restoration proved to be an unstable compromise. It lasted a surprisingly long time, until 1688, enjoying the grudging support of the majority of the big property owners until 1683.

Here we have an accident of history, the rule of the great-man theory. Of course these events have to be analysed in terms of social forces, but that does not mean that individuals in particular situations do not play a significant role and in certain circumstances, for a time, a decisive role. Such a man was Cromwell, such a man curiously enough, although he was, in terms of personal character and all else the absolute opposite of Cromwell, was Charles II.

CHARLES II paradoxically, was the least enthusiastic of all the people on the Royalist side for the Royalist reaction. It was not that he didn’t favour it, he did. But he wanted it slowly. He believed a new civil war and a new exile was to be avoided at all costs.

The unstable compromise lasted as long as it did, only because of this policy. Charles II may have been a very idle and frivolous man but at the same time he was very clever.

When he was succeeded by a more convinced monarchist, his brother James, the compromise fell to pieces very quickly. But why? As already stated the great problem with the bourgeois revolution is that you can overthrow the regime, but what then? You’ve got to have a stable ruling class and a stable state.

It is not to domestic forces but to foreign affairs that we must look to see how the problem was resolved. Although 1688 was made in a sense by the people who subsequently became the Whig oligarchy, their instrument was a foreigner and a foreign army. How was this possible?

To answer this it is necessary to look at these affairs in terms of four countries – the United Netherlands, France, Scotland and Ireland.

The Dutch were the commercial rivals of the English bourgeoisie. But, at the same time, United Netherlands was a barrier to the expansion of France. A series of wars took place between the two.

Furthermore, the crushing of the Dutch republic, if it could be achieved, represented two things which were not at all to the tastes of the capitalist landlords and the merchants in Britain.

First was the expansion of the power of France, which was the dominant power in Europe and clearly England’s future rival. Secondly it would mean a victory, in religious terms and therefore in political terms, for the semi-feudal and quasi-feudal Catholic interests.

Consequently, the problem for the bourgeoisie was how to find a new Cromwell who would have some title of legitimacy, a very important consideration for quelling the masses. William of Orange became that man.

Again, the role of accident in history, or at least largely accident, played an important part. In the Netherlands, William was the equivalent of an American president – not an exact equivalent but he did not have an hereditary title, although the presidency so to speak had been in his family for some generations.

He was a Dutchman wholly committed to the struggle against France because the safety of the Dutch republic depended upon it. He was both able and flexible, and furthermore he had married, for diplomatic reasons, Mary the elder daughter of James II. Finally he was a convinced Calvinist.

Mary could claim, once Charles II was dead, to have a certain interest in the Stuart succession rights.

WILLIAM was therefore an excellent candidate. The problem was how to get him on the throne. This involved uniting all the major sections of the big property owners including those who had been Royalists.

Why? Because if they were divided and a new civil conflict were to emerge, the “mean and dirty people” might form a new model army again, and that they dreaded more than anything. Therefore, it involved conspiratorial connections by the Whig leaders with prominent Tory politicians, (the term Whig and Tory had come into use by then) including those who had held office under Charles II.

Finally, it needed actions by the government to convince the property-owning classes as a whole that they were not safe under James’ regime, that he would not accept the existing compromise, and in particular that he was determined to reestablish Popery, as they put it.

Indeed, he was determined to do so for reasons of ideology and interest. Absolute monarchy in France, absolute monarchy in Spain, these Catholic systems were the ones he aspired to.

In order to establish this he enforced measures against the Church of England and imposed Roman Catholics in important positions quite contrary to the law. At the same time he tried to raise an Irish army. For this he needed money, and therefore was compelled to trespass on what the bourgeoisie were most concerned about, the sacredness of property rights.

A prominent group, secretly and after many negotiations invited William to come with an army. That army had to be composed of foreigners, and it had to be mercenary. It had to fight for pay and nothing else so that it could be paid off as soon as the battles finished.

When William launched his attack James had, on paper, superior forces. Yet the whole thing ended without any fighting

As William advanced, not very rapidly in the direction of Oxford and the Thames Valley and then on into London, so James’ forces, assembled to oppose, started to disintegrate.

Their officer corps, drawn from the propertied classes, shared the concerns of those classes. This can be illustrated by one well known example. John Churchill, founder of that family’s fortune, had a very varied career, making his way by, as the historian Macaulay puts it “a series of well timed treasons”.

At this stage he was most important, first of all in convincing James that the army was thoroughly reliable and secondly that James was surrounded by traitors, therefore that he should follow Churchill’s advice.

Churchill managed for a period of time to introduce complete confusion into the royal army until the scale of desertion became such that James was convinced it would be fatal to fight and so he fled, first to London and then ultimately over to Europe.

When James had fled, the Royalists controlling London sent a deputation to William at Oxford saying please come quickly. These were the people he was supposed to be fighting against. But again the coincidence of class interests, the need to establish a stable compromise mattered most to them.

VICTORY for William resulted in a number of important changes taking place. First, the monarchy, in the sense that James I and Charles I had understood monarchy, had gone. William owed his title to a vote in the House of Commons, that, and the fact that they needed him.

In Macaulay’s famous History of England there is a quote from the French ambassador to London saying “although the form of monarchy subsists, in truth this is a republic” and he was in essence right. He was much shrewder than some modern historians.

William’s position in England was essentially not different from that in the Netherlands. He had to rule in collaboration with the existing ruling classes, he could not rule against them, he had no other base of support. In this peculiar way the bourgeoisie was established as the ruling class in a coherent sense. But the vast majority of MP’s in the parliaments under William and right through to the first half of the nineteenth century were landowners.

Only a minority were merchants, bankers or traders. It’s important to realise what that represented. As E.P. Thompson very forcefully and correctly argued about these landowners they were a land-owning class but in no sense a feudal land-owning class. Rather they were an anti-feudal, capitalist land-owning class.

Thompson asks how did the 18th century land-owning classes measure their worth with respect to one another? By their titles? No, although titles mattered. In fact by the size of their rent rolls.

In other words, in all essentials it was a thoroughly bourgeois regime, although the majority of people who ruled were not technically members of the bourgeoisie.

The second big change concerned the guarantee of property rights, the so called Bill of Rights. That involved changing the judiciary who until that time had been appointed by the king.

Thirdly there was the question of personal safety. In the whole period between 1640 and 1688 leading opposition people were apt to end up on the scaffold convicted of high treason.

This involved the automatic confiscation of all property so the families of those convicted lost as well. That had to be got rid of. The personal safety of the members of the ruling class had to be assured.

The fourth major change saw the domination of the rest of Britain by England and the establishment of the United Kingdom (although it did not become technically the UK until 1708) taking place at the expense of Scotland and Ireland.

Scotland was a very poor, backward and turbulent country. Its poverty can be measured as follows. In the last years of Charles II the crown’s income from customs dues and customary taxes from England alone was one and a quarter million pounds.

From the entire kingdom of Scotland, which was legally separate, £60,000. As one of their historians said it was ruled by an aristocracy which was “the poorest, the proudest, the most unscrupulous and the most mercenary in Europe”. Consequently power in England meant domination of Scotland. Scotland was easy, it did not require thorough going transformation. Money was sufficient and the Scottish aristocracy was bribed.

Ireland was different. James had tried to upset the settlement of Protestants in Ireland. Not because he loved the Irish – he was as bigoted and anti-Irish as any – but because the course of the reformation had left the mass of the peasantry in Ireland Catholic, and therefore potentially an army for counter revolution which he had tried to create.

When he had fled from England, he ultimately made his way with a French fleet on to Ireland. There was a war for a period, the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 where he met king Billy on his horse. The outcome was the destruction of the old order in Ireland.

Of course, it had already been heavily eroded. The Elizabethan settlements and Cromwell’s conquests had had their effect. Nevertheless the old order was still vital in 1688 – now it was destroyed.

Finally, in terms of Europe, a regime was created which could be guaranteed to be anti-French.

Thus 1688 represented the final completion of the stabilisation of the English revolution and it represented it in the most conservative form possible, consistent with the establishment of a stable bourgeois administration.


Last updated on 20.12.2004