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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The British retreat: 1760-1770 Norris, John MacKenzie

Abstract

In the years between 1760 and 1770 the British nation and empire underwent a profound change in structure and function. Some of the change was made necessary by the survival of old institutions and of old forms of still vital institutions beyond the point of obsolescence, while some came as a result of contemporary disruption in the life of the nation. Obsolescence was particularily apparent in the administrative structure of the Empire, the so-called mercantilist system. The beliefs of mercantilism were largely inherited from the ecclesiastical society of the Middle Ages. Thus, while individualism and nationalism triumphed over Church in the sixteenth century, the idea of regulation, now adopted by the national state, continued to suppress economic individualism for two centuries longer. Imperial self-sufficiency was the ideal of the mercantilist theorists, and in an attempt to achieve this end, direct control by the mother country of the political and economic activities of all parts of the Empire was instituted. As the Empire expanded, however, it became increasingly more difficult to maintain this control. Special local complications, particularily in the cases of Ireland and India, aggravated the problem. Finally, the challenge of political and economic independence in America was successful in fringing to an end the old imperial system. In the mother country public life was dominated by the Revolution Settlement of 1688, and needed reforms were neglected. Parliament was unrepresentative of the majority of the nation and local government and local interests were far too powerful in relation to national government and national interests. In politics, party differences had been dissolved in 1688 as a result of the nation’s need for tranquility, political life became a struggle, not for principles, but for patronage and place, between factions of the now-predominant Whig Party. The corruption in politics at this juncture was without precedent in English history. In addition to these factors of obsolescence and decay, there were a number of disruptive influences which prevented the tranquil reform and change of institutions. A determined monarch was successful for a time in subverting the new institution of responsible government through cabinet. Out of the confusion thus caused, the political parties of the nineteenth century were simultaneously being developed. New classes were arising to seize political power, as a result of the economic revolution of the eighteenth century. In addition, the exhaustion of the nation, resulting from the Seven Years' War, aggravated the disruption. The economic organization of the nation was also in a state of dynamic change. In agriculture, the expansion of markets and the increase of population forced the adoption of new techniques and a new economic structure for farming on a large scale. This expansion, in turn, made necessary new marketing and price systems and an improved communication system. The chief economic phenomenon of the era, however, was the industrial revolution. The old domestic system of industry had been disintegrating since the beginning of the century, and, in any case, expanded markets demanded a larger scale of production than the old system could achieve. By 1770, the two principal phenomena of industrialism, capitalism and the factory system were widespread in the nation. Power machinery was applied to industry, and with this application the location of industry was shifted northwards. Moreover, a new individualist economic philosophy was developing, which rejected not only control by the state, but also the responsibility of the individual to the community as a whole. The new influence was reflected in such various aspects of the life of the times as taxation policy, parliamentary reform, the law, trade unionism, the factory system and the poor law. .Its most alarming result was the profound social schism created in the nation. In her empire, in her public life and in her economy, Britain was at a crossroads in the first decade of the reign of George III. If the transition was to be successful she needed peace, prosperity and order. The decade, however, was one of struggle, depression and disruption. The result was a retreat in British public life.

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