Monday
Jul022012

Did War create the English State?  

Our last three posts (here, here and here) focused on the process of state formation and using data from the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (SCCS) suggested that the generally-emphasized association between inter-polity warfare and political centralization is not so strong. No doubt there are problems with the SCCS and the measurement of the relevant variables. But the lack of correlations in the state is set is not the only problem of Charles Tilly’s dominant paradigm maintaining that “states made war and war made states” (see here for a discussion of this paradigm).

James Robinson’s recent research with Yale historian Steve Pincus shows that inter-state warfare does not provide a good explanation of the process of political centralization in the canonical case of the development of the English state. The first modern state is often argued to have been created by warfare. But the literature which argues that inter-state warfare created the English state seems to be seriously divorced from the facts. Years of war did not in fact correlate with several measures of state involvement in English society. For example, the number of laws passed by Parliament declined during the Restoration (after 1660) despite Charles II’s two wars against the Dutch. After the Glorious Revolution, legislative activity did pick up, but it was still higher in-between than during wars and this pattern was maintained for most of the 18th century. Members of Parliament were more likely to pass new laws during years of peace rather than the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-1720), the War of the Austrian Succession (1739-1748), or the Seven Years War (1757-1763). Reflecting this, private sector investments in roads and rivers boomed right after the Nine Years War (1688-97), declined sharply during the War of the Spanish Succession, and then boomed again after the peace of Utrecht (1713). The number of days per year that the House of Commons met also declined during the wars of Charles II, only to jump up to a new level after 1688. After this it was little influenced by whether or not the country was at war.

Stepping back to examine the larger contours of the development of the English state over the early modern period, the correlation with inter-state warfare is obscure, to say the least. In the century and a half after the 1540s, English monarchs largely gave up attempting to expand territorially in Europe nor did they play a major role in European power politics. Henry VIII did make some unsuccessful attempts at invading France, but thereafter English kings abandoned their expansionist aspirations. In the middle of the 17th century, European states fought one another in the costly and devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in which England played a peripheral role. Yet during this period, distinguished from the previous and subsequent periods by the relative absence of warfare, key innovations in the state took place. These included Henry VII’s move towards controlling the independent military forces of the aristocracies.

By 1558 these had vanished and were incorporated into the local militias under the control of the centrally appointed lord lieutenants. This was a critical phase in the final establishment of a monopoly of violence by the central state. At the same time Thomas Cromwell’s reforms of the central government, separating its functions from that of the King’s household, took place in the 1530s in the absence of warfare.

Perhaps most striking is that it was the decade of the 1640s, the decade of the English Civil War, that saw some of the most important institutional innovations – a period of internal conflict, not international warfare. Parliament introduced the excise tax in 1643 not to fight France but to raise money to fight King Charles I. In 1649 the Rump Parliament instituted important military reforms, including centralizing control over the construction of warships. After the Restoration in 1660, further important state building reforms took place in the absence of warfare, including James II’s abolition of tax farming.

Finally it was another internal conflict, the Glorious Revolution, that led to profound changes in the state. It is true that after 1688 the English — then British — state embarked on an ambitious project of empire building and engaged in a series of inter-state wars on a very intensified scale. Yet even this experience does not fit the version of events that dominates the warfare-centric literature on the state. The English state after 1688 was not forced to develop in order to survive according to some Darwinian logic of winnowing out weak states. Rather, even to the extent that it developed the tax base to fund a large navy and army, it did so because this was part of the implementation of an aggressive and intended policy of imperial and commercial expansion. It could have chosen not to do this had it wanted.

Overall, the British state development was not brought on willy-nilly by inter-state conflict. Instead English and then British politicians initiated state-building projects for political purposes, including partly to be more effective in inter-state conflict to achieve their commercial objectives.

Political aspirations rather than the logic of warfare generated state formation.

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