My Weekly Reader 16 May 2022.

            The rise of strong states forms one of the three key features of European history in the Seventeenth Century.[1]  There were, however, two rival forms of the strong state.  By far the most popular took the form of royal absolutism.  Here, France provided the very model of a modern centralized bureaucracy.  Less common was the “constitutional” government.  Here, Britain led the way through monarchs governing in cooperation with the elected representatives of the rich and powerful.  Between 1688 and 1815 the two countries and systems fought it out.  Britain won. 

            What did the British do with their victory in the century that followed?  First, Britain enjoyed the “free security”[2] that came from the absence of any real rival until late in the Nineteenth Century.  Pre-occupied with the problem of nationalism, Continental Europeans had neither the interest or the power to fight Britain.  Elsewhere, once-great states like China, India, and the Ottoman Empire were rapidly decaying.  Britain built a vast over-seas empire while pursuing a policy of “splendid isolation” in Europe.  Second, it led the world economy as the “first industrial nation.”  This generated vast new wealth, albeit very unevenly distributed.  Third, and perhaps most impressively, Britain both achieved this world leadership and economic transformation without suffering immense domestic convulsions.[3] 

            How did the British achieve these remarkable successes?  Plausible answers would include, science, prosperity, two-party representative government, and bourgeois values.  Advances in biology, chemistry, medicine, and engineering offered authoritative explanations for and solutions to pressing problems.  Truth bent the Liberal political ideology of limited government into new form.  Public health, sanitation, education, and labor regulations all advanced.  By the dawn of the Twentieth Century, the welfare state had begun to appear.  The increased wealth from trade and industry paid for these reforms that ameliorated, rather than exacerbated, social tensions.  Political competition between Liberals and Conservatives expanded the electorate, which forced social problems onto Parliament’s agenda.  The bourgeois values of hard work, self-restraint in almost everything, patriotism, and education made the broadening middle class an effective storm anchor. 

            Why did this century of triumph come to an end?  Again, the answers are multiple and complex.  Essentially, all of the conditions that had favored British success in the Nineteenth Century turned against Britain in the Twentieth Century.  The century of free security gave way to a century of wars—hot and cold–against powerful enemies around the globe.  Britain lost its economic primacy as many other countries followed the British path to industrialization and prosperity.  The easy amelioration of social tensions gave way eventually to fights over shares of the pie.  The Liberal Party changed as much as it could without changing as much as it needed to in order to remain viable.  A more polarized set of choices faced the British people as they faced decades of challenges.  . 

            Still, if Britain has declined, it would be hard to argue that the British people have declined.  Health, wealth, and freedom have found a new equilibrium at a much higher level. 

[1] The others were the emergence of a global capitalist economy, and the triumph of human reason over tradition. 

[2] I borrow the term from the Nineteenth Century American experience of having two vast oceans as buffers against foreign intrusion and no serious continental rivals. 

[3] David Cannadine, Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (2017). 

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