Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

This political system would not have developed nor lasted so long as it did, had it not had some virtue
and some relevance to its environment. In every country's development there is a stage in which

aristocracy is the best form of government. England had outgrown monarchical despotism, but it was not

yet fit for democracy. Political power depends upon education, and it would have been unreasonable to

expect intelligent votes from men who could not read or write, had small knowledge of politics, little

practical training in local administration, and none of the will to exercise control. Politics were still the

affair of the few, because only the few could comprehend them, or were conscious of the uses and

limitations of political power. The corrupt and misguided use of their votes by those who possessed them

was some reason for not extending the franchise to still more ignorant masses; and it was not entirely

irrational to leave the control of national affairs in the hands of that section of the nation which had

received some sort of political education.

The defects, however, of a political system, which restricts power to a limited class or classes, are that
each class tends to exercise it in its own interests and resents its extension to others, even when they are

qualified for its use. If all other historical records had disappeared, land laws, game laws, inclosure acts,

and corn laws - after the Revolution a bounty was actually placed on the export of corn, whereby the

community was taxed in order to deprive itself of food or make it dearer - alone would prove that

political power in the Georgian period was vested in a landed aristocracy, though England's commercial

policy, especially towards Ireland, would show that mercantile interests had also to be consulted.

Similarly, the journals of the House of Commons would prove it to have been a close corporation less

anxious for the reign of law than for its own supremacy over the law. It claimed authority to decide by its

own resolutions who had the right to vote for its members and who had the right to a seat. It expelled

members duly elected, and declared candidates elected who had been duly rejected. It repudiated

responsibility to public opinion as derogatory to its liberties and independence; it excluded strangers, and

punished the publication of debates and division-lists as high misdemeanours. It was a law unto itself,

and its notions of liberty sometimes sank to the level of those of a feudal baron.

Hence the comparative ease and success with which George III filled its sacred precincts with his paid
battalions of "king's friends." He would have been powerless against a really representative House; but

he could buy boroughs and votes as effectively as Whig or Tory dukes, and it was his intervention that

raised a doubt in the mind of the House whether it might not need some measure of reform. The

influence of the crown, it resolved in 1780, had increased, was increasing, and ought to be diminished.

But it could only be diminished by destroying that basis of corruption which supported the power of the

oligarchs no less than that of the crown. Reform would be a self-denying ordinance, if not an act of

political suicide, as well as a blow at George III. Privileged bodies do not reform themselves; proposals

by Burke and by Pitt and by others were rejected one after another; and then the French Revolution came

to stiffen the wavering ranks of reaction. Not till the Industrial Revolution had changed the face of

England did the old political forces acknowledge their defeat and surrender their claim to govern the

nation against its will.

 

CHAPTER VI. THE EXPANSION OF ENGLAND

1603-1815

In the reign of Elizabeth Englishmen had made themselves acquainted with the world. They had
surveyed it from Greenland's icy mountains to India's coral strand, and from the Orinoco to Japan, where

William Adams built the first Japanese navy; they had interfered in the politics of the Moluccas and had

 

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