History of Great Britain

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The kingdom of Great Britain was formed by the Act of Union (1707) between England and Scotland. England (including the principality of Wales, annexed in the 14th century) and Scotland had been separate kingdoms since the early Middle Ages, but since 1603 the same monarch has ruled both lands. Only in 1707, however, did London become the capital of the entire island. Great Britain from then on had a single Parliament and a single system of national administration, taxation, and weights and measures. All tariff barriers within the island were ended. England and Scotland continued, however, to have separate traditions of law and separate established churchesthe Presbyterian in Scotland, the Anglican in England and Wales. For the history of the two countries before 1707, see Britain, Ancient; England; Scotland.

A Century of Conflicts

One of the chief purposes of the planners of the Act of Union had been to strengthen a land preoccupied with the War of the Spanish Succession. Under the leadership of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, Britain and its allies had won many battles against France, then the most populous and powerful European state, but by 1710 it seemed clear that not even Marlborough could prevent Louis XIV of France from installing a Bourbon relation on the Spanish throne. Marlborough and his political allies were replaced by members of the Tory Party, who in due course made peace with France. In the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Britain acknowledged the right of the Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish crown. At the same time, France ceded to Britain the North American areas of Hudson Bay, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. Spain ceded Gibraltar and the Mediterranean island of Minorca and granted to British merchants a limited right to trade with Spains American colonies; included in that (until 1750) was the asientothe right to import African slaves into Spanish America.

Because Queen Anne had no surviving children, she was succeeded, according to the Act of Settlement (1701), by her nearest Protestant relative, the elector of Hannover, who came from Germany in 1714 and was accepted as King George I of Great Britain. A new era of British history began.

Government in the 18th Century

Although the first years of George Is reign were marked by two major crisesthe Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 by followers of Queen Annes half brother, James Stuart, and the South Sea Bubble, a stock market crash of 1720Britain was actually entering two decades of relative peace and stability. Local government was left largely in the hands of country gentlemen owning large estates. As justices of the peace, they settled the majority of legal disputes. They also administered roads, bridges, inns, and markets and supervised the local operation of the Poor Lawaid to orphans, paupers, the very old, and those too ill to work. At the national level, many Britons came to take pride in their mixed government, which happily combined monarchical (the hereditary ruler), aristocratic (the hereditary House of Lords), and democratic (the elected House of Commons) elements and also provided for an independent judiciary. The reign of Queen Anne had been marked by parliamentary elections every three years and by keen rivalry between Whig and Tory factions. With the coming of George I, the Whigs were given preference over the Tories, many of whom were sympathetic to the claims of the Stuart pretenders. Under the Septennial Act of 1716, parliamentary elections were required every seven years rather than every three, and direct political participation declined. Parliament was made up of 122 county members and 436 borough members. Virtually all counties and boroughs sent two members to Parliament, but each borough, whether a large city or a tiny village, had its own tradition of choosing its members of Parliament. Even those Britons who lacked the right to vote could claim the rights of petition, jury trial, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. Full political privileges were granted only to members of the Anglican church, but non-Anglican Protestants could legally hold office if they were willing to take Anglican communion once a year.

The Era of Robert Walpole

Although the king could appoint whomever he wished to his government, he found it convenient to select members of Parliament, who could exercise influence there. Such was the case of Robert Walpole, who was appointed first lord of the Treasury (and came to be known as prime minister) in 1721 in the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble. The Bubble was sparked by the financial collapse of the giant South Sea Company. The crash slowed down the commercial boom of the previous three decades, a time when the Bank of England had been founded, the concept of a long-term national debt formulated, and many large joint-stock companies established. In part because George I could not speak English and in part because both he and his son, King George II, were often in Hannover, Germany, which they continued to rule, Walpole was able to build up and dominate a government machine. He presided over an informal group of ministers that came to be known as the cabinet, and he controlled Parliament by his personality, his policies, and his use of patronage. His influence, however, had limits. Hoping to curb smuggling, Walpole in 1732 and 1733 sought to replace a land tax and customs duties on imports with an excise tax on wine and tobacco collected from retailers, but parliamentary critics and popular rioters protested against the army of tax collectors that the bill would have created, and Walpole was ultimately forced to give up his plan. During his administration, Walpole kept Great Britain out of war, and even Anglo-French relations remained cordial. In the late 1730s, however, a war party emerged in Parliament. Its members sought revenge against Spain for the harassment by Spanish coast guards of British merchants who wished to trade with Spanish colonists in the Americas. In 1739, against Walpoles better judgment, Britain declared war on Spain, and two years later parliamentary pressure forced Walpole to resign.

: 14/02/2008