The English Revolution transformed Britain into a capitalist economy engaging in geopolitical competition. Neil Faulkner looks at how Britain became the dominant global superpower of the 19th Century.
The English Revolution was one of the most decisive events in world history because it made Britain the launch-pad for a new capitalist economy with global reach. Once launched, it was unstoppable.
The dominant European power at the end of the 17th century was France. The population of France was three times that of Britain, and the output of the French economy was correspondingly greater.
Because of Britain’s dynamic capitalist economy, however, her population and output grew more rapidly than those of France over the following century.
France, moreover, as a continental power, had to maintain a large army to defend her land frontiers. Britain, by contrast, was a maritime power and an island-fortress, so the traditional policy of her rulers was to keep the army small and the navy strong.
The British state was also financially robust. Though the merchants and landowners who dominated Parliament favoured low-cost government and an avoidance of continental warfare, Britain’s growing capitalist economy meant that the resources were there to support military effort when vital interests were at stake.
The Bank of England, for example, was set up in 1694, quickly attracted funds, and provided the loan finance for a major rebuilding of the Royal Navy. Booming trade and modern banking conferred major advantages on Britain.
Conflict between Britain and France was a dominant global fracture-line between 1688 and 1815. At the beginning, it overlapped with the struggle against the English Revolution; at the end, with that against the French Revolution.
Europe’s geography makes is a continent of warring states (see A Marxist History of the World part 29: The peculiarity of Europe ). Its easy east-west communications and its seaways and navigable waterways facilitate movement. At the same time, its many peninsulas and distinct eco-zones have fostered a diversity of ethnicities and ‘nations’.
Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, no continent-spanning imperial project has succeeded in Europe. Charlemagne, Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler, and others have tried and failed. Would-be hegemons have invariably confronted too powerful a coalition of hostile forces.
Since the 16th century, traditional British policy has been to prevent any single power dominating Europe and, in particular, gaining control of the Channel ports and threatening the security of the island-fortress. This has been done by a combination of alliances, subsidies, and expeditionary forces.
Throughout the 18th century, the British took a leading role in building a succession of anti-French alliances, provided subsidies to the rulers of minor German states to pay for military contingents, and regularly dispatched small armies of ‘redcoats’ to fight alongside European allies.
At first, the British appeared weak. The destruction of the popular revolutionary movement between 1649 and 1660 had made possible a resurgence of Royalism after the Restoration. This was exploited by the French monarchy.
James II succeeded his brother Charles II in 1685. James was Catholic, pro-French, and committed to absolute monarchy. Supported by French subsidies, he was able to build up an Irish Catholic army as a potential instrument of Royalist counter-revolution.
At first, he retained the backing of England’s men of property. When the Duke of Monmouth landed in the West Country to claim the throne in 1685, Parliament and the Army backed James. They feared a revival of the popular revolutionary movement of 1641-1649 – and ‘the Good Old Cause’ went down to defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor.
But Royalism was a serious threat to the property, power, and religion of Protestant landowners and merchants. Once James’s intentions became clear – and with the danger of popular revolution reduced after Sedgemoor – leading Parliamentary and Army leaders planned a coup.
The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 was a reassertion of the victory of 1645 and the compromise of 1660. William of Orange, the ruler of Holland, and his wife Mary Stuart, daughter of James II, were invited to accept the throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland. The Army mutinied in William’s interest, and James fled to France.
The ‘Jacobites’ – as they came to be called – remained a threat until 1746. With French backing, they launched a series of attempts to overturn the Protestant succession to the throne of the ‘three kingdoms’ (England, Ireland, and Scotland) – notably in 1689-1691, in 1715, and in 1745-1746.
But the Jacobite revolts were part of a wider global conflict between Britain and France. These two states fought six major wars against each other between 1688 and 1815. They were formally at war for half of the entire period.
The struggle for supremacy between Britain and France was the dominant contradiction in all of the following conflicts: the Nine Years War (1688-1697), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the American Revolutionary War (in which the French were involved against the British from 1778 to 1783), and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (during which the British and the French were almost continually at war from 1793 to 1815).
The conflict was global. It was centred in Europe, but there were major struggles – on land and sea – in India, the West Indies, North America, and elsewhere.
Britain had three major advantages from the outset. First, a new army and a new way of war had been forged during the English Revolution. Under the absolute monarchy, the French Army fought slow, cautious, heavily defensive ‘wars of position’. By contrast, in the tradition of the New Model Army of 1645-1660, British military doctrine stressed movement, firepower, and aggression.
Second, Britain’s economic wealth and robust financial infrastructure enabled her to subsidise the military contributions of her continental allies.
Third, the British could devote far greater resources than the French to naval operations and colonial campaigns. The British were protected by the English Channel. The French had to prioritise the defence of long land frontiers.
These advantages, combined with the fact that Britain’s population and output were growing faster than those of France, meant that French power was contained on the Continent and the French empire overseas was lost.
Britain’s century of geopolitical triumph is bracketed by two decisive battles. The Duke of Marlborough’s victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 ended the continental hegemony of Louis XIV’s France. The Duke of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 ended that of Napoleon’s France.
Britain remained the dominant global superpower for most of the 19th century. She did not fight a major war in Europe between 1815 and 1914. This dominance was made possible by her geopolitical victory over France and her pioneering of the industrial revolution. Both achievements were rooted in the revolutionary transformation of British society in the mid 17th century.
Britain’s ascendancy contributed substantially to a second wave of bourgeois revolution. The absolutist and state-feudal monarchies of Europe were incapable of matching the achievements of Britain’s dynamic capitalist economy. The French were falling ever further behind. The pressure of geopolitical competition was a major factor in the explosion of 1789.
Before that, however, the Americans had performed a spectacular dress-rehearsal. The new age of revolution opened in 1775 with a blaze of musket-fire at Lexington and Bunker Hill in distant Massachusetts.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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