- Britain’s Political Economies: Parliament and Economic Life, 1660–1800 by Julian Hoppit
This book explores the role that parliamentary legislation played in shaping the British economy from the Restoration to the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Although legislation on economic affairs began to increase from the middle of the seventeenth century, not until the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9 and the subsequent establishment of political stability and parliamentary sovereignty did the floodgates open. Between 1689 and 1800, Parliament passed 7,545 economic acts, which was more than half of its total legislative output; it also considered a [End Page 145] further 3,365 bills that failed. Whereas prior to 1714, fewer than 30 percent of all acts were economic, after 1760, the figure was 64 percent. Few, if any, other European states were so prolific.
Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, famously styled this form of economic regulation the “mercantile system.” Later economic historians called it “mercantilism.” Yet as Hoppit shows, there was no system here. Britain had different political economies, regionally and nationally, throughout the period under consideration. Economic policy was neither consistent nor coherent. The state paid little attention to some areas of the economy (notably manufacturing, labor relations, or mining), and there was a lack of coordination in law making. Rather than shape its own policy, the central government often responded to pressures from private interest groups and passed acts intended to address problems or deficiencies with previous legislation. Moreover, the state lacked the resources to enforce its legislative initiatives consistently.
Hoppit divides his study into two parts. Part I provides an overview of the legislative dimensions of Britain’s economy, documenting, in turn, the revolution in economic legislation, the types of legislation enacted (regarding local, national, and imperial affairs), the groups that were pushing for certain types of legislation (whether via petitioning or through the media), and the ways in which interest politics played itself out. Part II moves from prescription to practice, offering a series of case studies about the political economies of the fens, of wool, of bounties (payments to incentivize certain types of ecomonic behavior), and of public finance. Many revealing conclusions emerge, all pointing toward variety and heterogeneity—and, indeed, a lack of coherence—in the government’s economic policy. In the fens, for instance, Hoppit finds that proposed legislation relating to roads and enclosure was much more likely to be successful than that involving water. The ban on the export of wool throughout the period, normally seen as “a cornerstone of the mercantile system,” in fact highlights the “experimental or aspirational nature” of that supposed system; “the complexity and costs of effectively enforcing the ban” were often “too great” for the government, “in monetary, administrative, and political terms” (216–217). Bounties, which grew in scope over the eighteenth century, were more important than usually recognized, although they were sometimes directed at noneconomic ends. London bore the brunt of public finance, whereas Scotland, by contrast, experienced relatively light taxation.
Assessing the overall impact of Britain’s economic legislation is not easy. Although Britain’s economic performance in the eighteenth century was “internationally exceptional,” this success may have been a coincidence. Yet the sheer volume of economic legislation testifies to how much contemporaries valued it. Parliament “was highly responsive to economic needs, large and small” and “played an important role in the generation, debate, and promulgation of views about ways of improving the economic life,” even though it might “not always have generated effective laws as a consequence” (320). [End Page 146]
Hoppit’s study is interdisciplinary in the sense that it deals with the intersection of politics, ideas, and economics. Yet it is really a history of legislation, and involves a great deal of counting and breaking down into types. It is not quite economic history, though the book has many interesting things to say about economic regulation in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Nor is it classic political history: It offers little insight into the machinations of parliamentary politics at the...