Revolution 1685-1720 by Tim Harris

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The Independent Culture

What is a revolution? The word has been used to characterise mere changes of ruling personnel or "palace revolutions", as in Latin America, described by one wag as "the world of the long playing revolution" (331/3 revolutions per minute) as well as the most profound social transformations, as in Soviet Russia or Mao's China. There are also straitlaced historians who shelter behind the ancient definition of a revolution as a clock-like movement which comes full-cycle and thus returns to the status quo ante, as in the case of the Restoration of 1660.

In strict usage, the word "revolution" should be restricted to those outbreaks of civil unrest where profound changes in socio-economic structure or property relations are at least attempted, even if not achieved. It thus makes perfect sense to speak of the French Revolution, the English Revolution of the 1640s, the Mexican Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Cuban Revolution and so on. As a corollary, there should be a self-denying ordinance forbidding the word in the case of mere coups d'etat, change of management in a capitalist economy or simple replacement of one ruling dynasty by another; by this yardstick neither the "American Revolution" nor the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 should be regarded as revolutions at all.

This is a conclusion that does not please Tim Harris and in his long, erudite book he makes a valiant attempt to claim that William of Orange's accession to the English throne in 1689 was truly revolutionary. If he fails with this argument, as he does, it cannot be denied that he is a master of the political history of the years 1685-90, just as he proved to be for the period 1660-85 in his earlier volume, Restoration. If pure scholarship or archival filleting were the only issue to be discussed, we could acknowledge Harris as a master. The problem is that he is driven by some historical imp of the perverse, possibly a desire to establish a distinctive "Harris thesis", and to this end claims much greater significance for the "revolution" of 1688 than the facts warrant.

Let us grant Harris his good points. He is able to nail James II as a "bad king", a stupid man who made just about every mistake in the book and to point to significant consequences of the Williamite accession. In England the establishment of the National Debt in 1692-93 and the Bank of England in 1694 put financial capitalism on a sounder basis and revolutionised attitudes to credit. In Scotland, episcopacy was overthrown in favour of presbyterianism, and the logic of political events drove Scotland into the controversial Act of Union in 1707. In Ireland the military defeat of James II led to a mass exodus of population, particularly Irish soldiery - the famous "Wild Geese" and the ascendancy of Protestant Ireland. But he cannot get round the fact that in political terms the events of 1688-89 represented conflict within the regime not about the regime and therefore do not merit the epithet "revolutionary".

Let us unpick Harris's arguments more closely. He has established that 1688 had important consequences, but it cannot be said too often that profound political consequences are not the same thing as revolution. The lot of the ordinary and even middling people changed not at all as a result of the "Glorious Revolution". Even at the political level the transformation was not as solidly based as Harris would have us believe, and in this regard it is significant that the title of his book is a misnomer. Although the years 1685-90 are dealt with exhaustively, the following 30 years his book claims to cover are dismissed in a few pages; nobody reading this book would be aware of the ferocious Jacobite backlash engineered by James's exiled supporters during 1695-1720.

Harris further claims, absurdly, that the Williamite accession was more revolutionary than the era of the English Civil War in the 1640s. He works up a few scrimmages into a general thesis that the transfer of power in 1688 was not non-violent, as is usually claimed. Seeing the obvious weakness of this argument, he is keen to move over to Ireland and to point up the 25,000 killed in William's Jacobite war there in 1690-91. But this is not remotely in the same league as the bloodshed in Ireland in the 1640s, where an absolute minimum of 192,000 died and, by the best estimates, more than half a million. In desperation, Harris comes up with an argument from consequences. He asks us to imagine someone dying in 1685 and coming back from the grave in the 1720s to perceive profound changes in British society and in the relations between king and Parliament and contrasts this with someone dying in the 1630s and coming back in 1685 to find Stuart despotism still intact.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that more was achieved by 1688 than by the Civil War of the 1640s. What Harris neglects to say is that far more was attempted in the 1640s: the Levellers and the Diggers took the Puritan party to the brink of real social revolution before Cromwell pulled the plug. The absurdity of Harris's "back from the grave" argument emerges if you cash it for other eras. A man who died in 1788 in France and returned in 1818 would find reactionary Bourbons still on the throne, but the entire story of Jacobin revolution, to say nothing of Napoleon, would have been lost. The sober conclusion about Harris's scholarly book is that he tries to push his evidence beyond credibility point and in the process goes several bridges too far.