EDUVINET HOME Some British contributions to the development of a common European civilisation

German translation, French translation, Spanish translation

By Mike Dickson of Park Lane College, Leeds, UNITED KINGDOM, 1997

Contribution to the EDUVINET "European Identity" subject

1. Some British contributions to the development of a common European civilisation

All fifteen nations of the European Union are committed to democratic forms of government, to liberal capitalism and to the values which underpin them. Each nation arrived at this outcome in its own particular way and as a result of its own unique history and development.

Britain, through its distinctive history, has made its own contribution to a free, democratic, capitalist western Europe, principally through the development of:

Closely associated with these are:

* * * * *

The main difference between the British - or perhaps more accurately the English - and their continental neighbours is 20 miles of water: the English Channel; La Manche.

Because of this geographical accident, which has made Britain an off-shore island of the European Continent, many mainland Europeans believe that the English are insular.

This is not true. The English Channel has served as a very efficient moat, so that the last successful military invasion of England was over 900 years ago. But the Channel has not been a barrier to cultural influences from other civilisations, with the result that English culture is the most eclectic in the world.

For example: the English language contains a vast number of words "borrowed" from other languages, expressions which the English use without inhibition. But in France they have l'Academie Francaise whose mission is to preserve the purity of the French language from outside, mainly Anglo-Saxon influences like "le weekend" and "le supermarche." So who are the more insular, the English or the French?

A recent survey has shown that the most popular food in England at the present time is not roast beef or fish and chips but curry, a dish from the Indian sub-continent!

So much for British insularity.

But the English Channel - that physical barrier that creates a space between Britain and continental Europe- has allowed English institutions to develop in their own unique way.

Charles Darwin, when he travelled in the South Atlantic and developed the theory of evolution which he later published as "The Origin of Species", noticed that species like finches developed along separate lines, in response to their own local environments, if the distances between the islands they inhabited prevented their mingling and inter-breeding.

In much the same way, the fact that England has not had an alien culture imposed upon it by force since 1066, has meant that English institutions and ways of doing things have developed without external interference for the best part of a thousand years. For example: unlike continental legal systems, which are based on Roman law, the English have developed a system of common law, based upon acquired rights, precedent and custom and practice, as a complement to statute law.

One negative effect of this separate development, and of constantly living in fear of invasion from continental powers, has been that the English have tended to define themselves by their perceived differences from their continental European neighbours. For example: from the time of Elisabeth I in the sixteenth century until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, after which it ceased to be a live issue, the English - never a very religious race - nevertheless asserted a robust Protestantism as the keystone of their national identity at a time when their main continental rivals, first Spain and then France, were equally assertive of their Catholic Christianity.

Even today, after centuries of engagement with mainland Europe, the English still see themselves as different to their continental neighbours, wanting to preserve a sense of separateness. This accounts for the difficulties of the British Conservative Party whose "Eurosceptic" wing wants nothing to do with either a single currency or further European integration.

But the British are part of Europe whether some of them like it or not, and the following articles seek to outline some of the ways in which the off-shore islanders have contributed to to the modern western European civilisation which we all enjoy today.

Different - possibly. Insular - never!

2. Some consequences for English civilisation of the Civil War (1642-48)

England has not been successfully invaded since 1066. But the mid-seventeenth century witnessed the Civil War between the King and Parliament, also referred to as the English Revolution.

The War ended with the defeat and execution of King Charles 1 and the establishment of a Republic under Oliver Cromwell from 1649-60.

The English Revolution was a defining event for English politics, religion and society, and, like a stone thrown into a pool of still water, its ripples spread across Europe and America, disseminating political and social ideas which are influential today. (It is still possible to find small groups of extreme left-wing political radicals in the English-speaking world, called Diggers and Levellers, after their seventeenth-century originals, and like them, living and preaching equality.)

But the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell which followed the Civil War was essentially conservative and when Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored under Charles II, most people preferred the real thing to the self-appointed kingship of the Lord Protector.

However, the clock was not put back to 1642 and both restored monarchy and people learnt the lessons of the ghastly experience of civil war. Three characteristics of English culture were embedded in the national consciousness at this time. They were:


The Civil War and its aftermath engendered a dread of standing armies and a hatred of military "swagger". Armies were always rapidly run down at the end of wars, with the result that the British usually found themselves ill-prepared for the next war. The civil, not the military power, has always been the state's first line of defence against civil unrest. There is no distinctive officer class - all British soldiers are civilians in uniform. There is no swagger, no goose - stepping in the British Army.

The civil and the military have always been kept entirely separate. The Armed Forces swear their oath of allegiance to the Queen who is above politics. Ever since Oliver Cromwell's time, it has never been possible for any military figure to gain enough power to threaten the state.

The victory parade at the end of the Falklands War in 1982 was not universally popular and was seen by many as triumphalist. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, preached a sermon of reconciliation which did not go down well with Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, whose political career had been saved by the Armed Forces' victory in the South Atlantic.

A hatred of "enthusiasm"

An aversion to what we in the twentieth century would call fanaticism or extremism was a reaction to the political and religious zeal of the Civil War. This feeling was explicit in the eighteenth century and was consonant with the neo-classicism of that period. After that, it became embedded subconsciously in the national psyche. The large-scale espousal and pursuit of ideological causes has never been a serious threat to the British state. Early support for the French Revolution fell away with the excesses of The Terror. Neither Communism nor Fascism brought people onto the streets in sufficient numbers to threaten revolution. The British will certainly organise and demonstrate but in pursuit of special interests and particular issues and causes, not for ideological reasons. Street demonstrations are nearly always peaceful, unless infiltrated by small, uninfluential extremist groups, and there is no separate corps of riot police.

Conservative governments have been in power for most of this century, mainly because people have seen them as the party of moderation and practical common sense, as opposed to the more ideological approach of their main, and less electorally successful rivals, the Labour Party. (Margaret Thatcher was an exception, being, for Britain, a very ideological Prime Minister. With John Major, the old tradition has been re-established. Tony Blair is the most anti-ideological leader of the Labour Party in its history.)

The British invariably deal with ideologues by laughing at them. Adolf Hitler caricatures are still stock figures of fun. Politicians of either political extreme are treated with great suspicion and win very few votes. For a right-wing politician to "wrap himself in the Union Jack" is to invite popular ridicule. In Britain at election times, the struggle between the major parties is usually for the centre ground.

The British are quite correctly regarded as a nation who regard theorists and intellectuals with deep suspicion.

Tolerance and inclusiveness

At least since the time of Elisabeth I in the sixteenth century, the best English rulers have defended the state at times of religious, political and social upheaval by including as many different interests and individuals in the STATUS QUO as possible. This has enlarged the centre at the expense of the extremes which have thereby become marginalised and less of a threat.

The attempt by Charles I to restore royal privileges and re-assert Catholicism threatened this tradition and led to the Civil War. Afterwards, everyone learnt the lesson (with the exception of James II - see the next article).

This principle operated in the religious settlement at the end of the seventeenth century when Catholics and Non-Conformist minorities were tolerated in the Protestant supremacy as far as public opinion would allow. The same approach prevailed in the nineteenth century when the ruling classes, increasingly unable to resist the clamour from the new industrial working and middle classes for enfranchisement, gradually conceded the demands for democratic reforms. (See the next article.)

Nowadays, this tradition in British public life is alive and well. So far, the British will have no truck with proportional systems of voting, fearing that this will give too much power to extreme minorities. The first-past-the-post system means that, in order to win power, a political party needs to be an all-embracing coalition to build up a sufficient mass of voter support to be able to win elections. Thus, the Conservative Party contains both members of Parliament who believe passionately in the Single European Currency and further political and economic integration and others who would, if they were able, pull Britain out of the European Union altogether!

The same tradition operates in non-political institutions. The Church of England has always been broad enough to permit a range of views on religious issues. But nowadays, priests who believe in God seem to co-exist amicably with those who do not, and women priests with those for whom the idea is anathema.

This is the basis of the popular perception of the British as hypocritical. The British have learnt from the experience of their history that life is not black and white but numerous shades of grey. No one party has a monopoly of truth and everyone is entitled to their point of view. Living together in our tight little island requires give-and-take and compromise. Hypocrisy if you like, but far better than the alternative.

3. The development of parliamentary democracy in Great Britain

The starting point of this evolutionary process is usually taken to be 1688, when the last Catholic King of England fled the country, having attempted to reassert certain prerogatives of the monarchy the exercise of which had been disputed in the English Civil War forty years earlier and which had resulted in the defeat and execution of King Charles I.

The Civil War had been won by Parliament, principally the House of Commons, which represented the aspiring Protestant middle classes, and its upper-class allies in the House of Lords. The Commons jealously guarded the powers and privileges that they had been gradually acquiring. They regarded Charles I's attempt to claw back these powers as reactionary and threatening their position and also saw him as attempting to undermine the primacy of the Protestant Church of England.

James II was replaced by the Dutch Protestants, William and Mary, who were invited by the English ruling class to take the throne. These events were followed by the Act of Settlement which stated that henceforth all monarchs had to be Protestant, and the Bill of Rights, which constitutionally guaranteed subjects certain rights which it was felt could be threatened by the arbitrary exercise of the powers of the monarchy.

The two vital principles that were established at this time were, first, that of the rule of law which restricted the power of the monarch to act in an tyrannical way, so that the French system of "lettres de cachet" was not possible in England because the law of HABEAS CORPUS prevented arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. The second principle was that "the king in parliament is sovereign" which means that the monarch could only act with the consent of both Houses of Parliament, the Commons and the Lords. His power was thus subjected to the counterweight of the two bodies that represented the country's ruling classes.

This second principle became the foundation of the development of a system of parliamentary democracy in Britain, and to this day all acts of Parliament are prefaced with the formula:

"Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excllent Majesty, by and with the consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-"

The eighteenth century saw the development of the essential institutions of an embryonic parliamentary democracy and the relationships between them: for example:-

But of course the system was not democratic! Government was a game which was played solely by the ruling classes, a small number great landowners and rich merchants and their hangers-on, those who considered that they alone, by virtue of their wealth and power, had "a stake in the country." But it worked: the exercise of arbitrary power was checked, the rule of law prevailed, every man had his liberty and everyone could get a fair trial. The system delivered peace, order, low taxation (at least in peacetime) and steady economic growth to all sections of society.

This regime even had its philosopher: John Locke (1632-1704) asserted that the English constitution was built upon the triple pillars of every subject's right to "life, liberty and property". This produced strange outcomes: in the eighteenth century, a woman was effectively her husband's property and therefore he had a right to beat her if he wished, as long as - according to a famous judicial ruling of the time - the stick he used "was no thicker than a man's thumb". ( The origin of the "rule of thumb" expression.) But she could not be arbitrarily deprived of her liberty and if her husband beat her to death, he would certainly hang for it!

Pressure for reform of the narrow, restricted, corrupt and very unrepresentative electoral system began to grow in the later eighteenth century under the influence of democratic ideas from America and France and from the new middle classes which were coming into being with rising population, economic growth and industrialisation.

But efforts to reform the franchise were fiercely resisted by the ruling elite and it was not until 1832 that the principle was conceded with the passing of the Great Reform Act. In spite of its title, this measure only slightly extended the franchise and the small number of voters was just as open to bribery, corruption and manipulation at the hands of powerful vested interests as they had always been, especially as the secret ballot was still some years off.

But the dam had been breached. Under irresistible pressure first from the rising middle class and later from the new industrial working class, the franchise was further broadened in 1867, 1884 and 1918. Finally, in 1928 all men and women over 21 became eligible to vote in what were by then secret ballots.

The system of government that had been established in 1699-89 had been developed undemocratically for 150 years by the ruling classes for their own purpose. Paradoxically, from their point of view, the balances of power built into the constitution which were meant to protect their own interests and liberties, were instrumental in allowing it over the following 90 years to slip out of their control and into the hands of the democratically elected representatives of the people. The institutions of government which they which they inherited were those which began to evolve in entirely different conditions in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

4. Adam Smith and "The Wealth of Nations"

Adam Smith (1723-1790) laid the foundations for the modern science of economics with the publication of his book, "The Wealth of Nations," in 1776. He can be regarded as the founding father of modern liberal capitalism.

He laid the theoretical basis of nineteenth and early twentieth-century economic liberalism, which, with the gradual spread of the doctrine of free trade, was the cause of steady and sustained economic growth throughout the western world, at least until the Great Depression of the 1930's which called forth a radically different approach to that of the classical economics he helped to create.

Adam Smith's starting point was a conviction that the eighteenth century mercantilist system, with its protectionism, privileges and state regulation, was a barrier to economic growth and the general spread of prosperity throughout the population. Instead, he proposed that the self-interest of private individuals, directed only by an unfettered free market system - the "invisible hand" - would lead to private profit, public benefit and social harmony by producing the wealth of the nation in the most natural way. His theory of the division of labour - specialisation - was, he believed, the key to economic growth. Intervention by governments in the free operation of the market place could only do harm, not good.

Smith's account was comprehensive and integrated, although his ideas were not necessarily original. His analysis of what he considered were the economic ills of his age, and his synthesis of many of the economic arguments which were then circulating, made economics comprehensible to the opinion-formers and decision-makers of the time and inaugurated the age of classical economic theory. He in fact set the agenda for the next 75 years, and economic thinkers like Malthus, Ricardo and John Stuart Mill were inspired by him to take economic thinking a stage further. They addressed questions which he had raised but did not go on to try and answer, like:

Smith wrote when the industrial revolution had barely started and from an economic world of small-scale enterprises, artisans and shopkeepers. He would not have recognised the Britain of the 1850's and would have been amazed that his ideas, conceived in very different circumstances, had evolved into the economic orthodoxy of the age. He would have been still more astonished had he known that the laissez-faire economics of the nineteenth century, of which he was the unwitting progenitor, had inspired a reaction in the shape of the social and economic anti-thesis of Marx and Engels which was itself to develop into the secular anti-capitalist religion of Communism.

Since the demise of the classical economic order in the Great Crash of 1929 and its aftermath, Keynes and Monetarism, as well as Communism, have had their day. But as late as the 1980's, the spirit of Smith's free market radicalism flared up again with Thatcher, Reagan and their mentors, although in circumstances unimaginable to their originator.

But even in the more subdued '90's, Smith's influence lingers. Economic liberalism and free trade, in their American, British or continental European variants, whatever their social downside, have delivered more tangible benefits to more people than any other economic system in the history of the world. Thus, the war on protectionism and the drive to open up more and more markets to the benefits of free trade continues, both within the European Union and throughout the wider world.


Background Source Texts


The House of Commons:

An Elected Chamber

'Free elections are the essential basis of democracy.'
PROFESSOR A. MATHIOT: The British Political System


'Democracy,' writes George Bernard Shaw in Maxims for Revolutionists, 'substitutes election by the incompetent for appointment by the corrupt few.' Maybe there is an element of truth in his cynicism, but the remedy lies in endeavouring to make the electors less incompetent, for democracy cannot be said to be fully realised in a country until all adults enjoy the right to vote. Naturally this involves giving equal voting power to persons having unequal ability to think intelligently on matters of government, unequal willingness to equip themselves for exercising their political rights, and unequal responsibilities, both functional and financial, as citizens. But it ensures universal application of a principle which is fundamental to the rights of the individual ­ the opportunity to have a voice in determining how he shall be governed ­ and eliminates the possibility of political discrimination on account of income, language, nationality, colour, creed or sex.

Yet although the principle of representation has operated in Britain for over 700 years, universal adult suffrage was instituted only some fifty years ago. Nor did Britain lag far behind other countries, for only comparatively recently has the principle come to be recognised as an essential objective. Even in Ancient Greece, which cradled the political philosophy of democracy, only the freemen had the right to vote. Similarly in England, where a civil war was fought to decide the supremacy of Parliament, nothing was done to share the fruits of victory with the people. Indeed, when Colonel Rainsborough suggested that the new Parliament of 1647 should be based on adult suffrage, he was fiercely opposed by Cromwell, who thought that a franchise not based on property would lead to the majority confiscating the possessions of the minority. Cromwell's view prevailed, and for close on another 200 years only the landed interest was directly represented in Parliament, the vote being confined to approximately 3 adults out of every 100.


In 1830 the House of Commons consisted of 658 members, representing 40 English counties, 179 boroughs, 24 cities, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, 12 Welsh counties and 12 Welsh boroughs, and the Scottish and Irish constituencies.

The most stable element was the counties, for they had changed little since the Model Parliament. But by the end of the eighteenth century the counties had fallen almost completely under various

Fig. 1. Number of persons having right to vote per 100 adults.

'influences'. Sussex, for instance, provided two of eleven seats which were virtually controlled by the Duke of Newcastle. Often such seats were regarded as hereditary, and elections were rare because arrangements could be made to avoid the cost of fighting them.

It was the boroughs, however, returning two­thirds of the House of Commons, which really determined its political composition. Most of them had obtained the right to send two members to Parliament some 300 years previously, but in the meantime their size had changed considerably, in some cases almost beyond recognition. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution had resulted in a shift of population to the Midlands and north of England and in the growth of large towns, while the boroughs were concentrated in the south. Thus Cornwall, with a population in 1831 of 300,000 returned 42 members, whereas Lancashire, having 1,300,000, returned only 14. Such large towns as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield, returned no MPs.

The franchise was equally out of date. In the counties, the uniform qualification established in 1430 still remained. It was simply the ownership of free land or tenement to the value of 40s. a year. Elections took place at the county court and often extended over many days. No list was prepared. Those claiming the right to vote attended in person and merely swore on oath to the effect that they were qualified. Often this qualification had been obtained by the device of carving off a small portion of land, a 'faggot', from a larger freehold. Since there was no secret ballot, electors could be intimidated or bribed by rich patrons.

The borough franchise, unlike the county, was irregular, depending largely on local custom. Some boroughs were fairly democratic. Thus, in the 'scot and lot boroughs', a liability to pay the local poor rate was accepted as the qualification to vote, while in the 'potwalloper' boroughs, all persons having a single room with a hearth in it were deemed to be able to 'boil their own pot' and so were enfranchised. The majority of boroughs, however, contained only a limited number of electors. Sometimes the franchise was enjoyed by all the hereditary freemen; in others, the 'close boroughs', it was restricted by charter to members of the municipal corporation, usually self­elected, often nonresident, and existing solely to receive bribes from a prospective MP. But the greatest anomalies occurred in the 'burgage boroughs', where the right to vote was frequently based on common law and vested by custom in the occupation or ownership of an ancient tenement or parcel of land. At both Old Sarum in Wiltshire and Midhurst in Sussex, small plots of land on which nobody resided were sufficient to return two members, while Gatton in Surrey, although turned over to parkland, enjoyed a similar right.

Two significant consequences stand out from this irrational system of franchise. First, the right to vote was severely limited. In 1831 only about 435,000 of the total population of some 20 million people could vote. The ratio of voters to population also varied from place to place. Winchester, with a population of 9,000, had 60 voters, while Scotland, with a population of 2 million, had only 3,000. Secondly, seats came under the control of powerful patrons, often great landowners, who either actually owned the 'pocket' or 'rotten, boroughs, or were in a position to bribe or intimidate the electors. These patrons could either sell the seats to the highest bidder or look to their nominees for support in Parliament when they sought office or honours. No wonder the Younger Pitt exclaimed: 'This House is not representative of the people of Great Britain; it is the representative of nominal boroughs, of ruined and exterminated towns, of noble families, of wealthy individuals, of foreign potentates.'

Nevertheless, although the House of Commons was undemocratic, it cannot be completely condemned. Democracy was not then accepted as an ideal and indeed was often regarded with suspicion as being close to mob rule; even Burke considered that Parliament should not represent the people but rather 'property and intelligence'. Some people have defended the system on the grounds that such talented young men as the Younger Pitt and Charles James Fox were able to enter Parliament from rotten boroughs. It may be fairly said that Parliament did, to a large extent, succeed in governing according to the wishes of the people. The men who sat for the extinct boroughs had defied the Pope, stood up to a despotic King, and successfully fought wars against the Dutch in the seventeenth century and the French in the eighteenth century. And, when the demand grew strong, it sanctioned its own reform.

Towards the end of the century, however, various factors were beginning to undermine the structure of Parliament. George III, by using patronage against the Whigs, had united them in demanding the reform of the out­of­date electoral system which made this possible. Moreover, the House of Commons was becoming inefficient, manifest in the loss of the American colonies, and was falling out of touch with the wishes of the people, as the popular support for John Wilkes bore testimony. Above all, the old House of Commons had been successful only because, as an assembly of great landowners, it conformed to the general structure of an agrarian society. When the Industrial Revolution caused that society to pass away, its collapse was certain. The middle classes became increasingly dissatisfied with their exclusion from political power; the workers, suffering from the wretched conditions of both employment and home, began to realise that the reform of Parliament was a necessary step towards legislation for improving their lot. The growth of the popular Press, the repressions following the Napoleonic Wars and the weak and unstable governments of the 1820s, all encouraged them to intensify their demands.


The first attempts at reform in the eighteenth century failed to gather momentum through lack of organisation. They had the support of no political party, and merely represented the spontaneous and isolated efforts of a number of individuals. Although The Gentlemen's Magazine had reported parliamentary debates regularly since 1736, the first political society was not formed until 1769. This was 'The Society of the Supporters of the Bill of Rights' and it was founded to uphold John Wilkes and to press for parliamentary reform. In 1776, Wilkes moved in Parliament for a 'just and equal representation of the people in Parliament' and demands were made to limit bribery and corrupt practices at elections. However, further progress was halted by the excesses of the French Revolution and by the demands of the ensuing wars with France.

With the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, people once more began to take an interest in parliamentary affairs. In 1830 Attwood founded the Birmingham Political Union, a peaceful political alliance of the town's middle and lower classes. The liaison produced mutual benefits: the middle classes provided the movement with organisation and direction, the workers gave it weight.

Although 1830 was a year of revolution throughout Europe, there was no violence on any appreciable scale in Britain. Instead, the people's attention was focused on parliamentary reform, and this became the dominant issue in the election which followed upon the death of George IV in July of that year. The Duke of Wellington's Government continued until November, when it was defeated, and Lord Grey, the Leader of the Whigs committed to reform, became Prime Minister. But it took eighteen months of political crises and the threat of revolution before his Reform Bill was passed into law.

The Reform Act, 1832, contained three main provisions. First, it redistributed seats. 56 rotten boroughs were completely disenfranchised and 31 lost one member, thus allowing the transfer of 143 seats to the large towns in the north of England. Second, it widened the franchise. In the counties, to the traditional 40s. freeholders, it added £10 copyholders and £10 long leaseholders, and £50 short leaseholders and tenants at will occupying land or tenement at a minimum rental of £50 per annum. In the boroughs, the various customary rights to vote were abolished and replaced by a uniform requirement ­ the occupation of any premises of an annual value of £10. Last, the Act provided for the registration of qualified electors. Only if a person's name was on the electoral register could he vote; and that is still the position today.

Judged by its immediate effects, the Act may seem rather insignificant. It did not achieve a democratic franchise; to an already small electorate, 217,000 voters were added, a 50% increase. Indeed, the decrease in the value of money in the middle of the century, whereby the annual value of many houses was raised to £10, had a far greater effect. (This, together with the growth in the population, produced an electorate in 1866 of about a million.) Nor did it bring about complete equality in the geographical distribution of voting power. Many small boroughs in the south of England still retained at least one member and there 1 in 4 voted, whereas in the large manufacturing towns the proportion was only 1 in 45. Moreover, the old corruption continued, for while the electorate ceased to be in the pockets of borough­mongers, it was yet small enough to be bought. Elections were still marked by intoxication and violence.

Constitutionally, however, the effects of the Reform Act were fundamental and far­reaching. The system of nomination was replaced by the principle of election. Members of Parliament remained aristocratic, with land and trade interests predominating, but they were no longer independent of the views of their constituents. Since ultimate sovereignty now rested with the electorate, parties were extended from Parliament to the country. On the other hand, the Sovereign lost the controlling voice in the composition of his ministry; within two years William IV was to discover this, for he was unable to retain Peel, a Tory, as his Prime Minister because the electorate had returned a Whig majority to the House of Commons. Instead, the Cabinet had to be chosen from the party having the support of the Commons and thus it became directly linked with the extended party system. Lastly, the vesting of political power in the electorate increased the importance of the representative body, the Commons, at the expense of the Lords.

While it took time for the main effects of the Reform Act to become evident, the immediate legislation which followed continued the spirit of reform. The Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834, and the Municipal Corporations Act, 1835, both proved that the Government and not the private member had become the mainspring of legislation.

Harvey, J. and Bather, L.: "The British Constitution and Politics", Fifth Edition, published by Macmillan Educational 1982, pages 44-52.


Adam Smith 1723­1790

Adam Smith is regarded as the founding father of the science of economics. Smith was born in Scotland, the son of a comptroller of Customs in Fife, Scotland. In 1737 he went to Glasgow University to study moral philosophy. Three years later he entered Balliol College Oxford, however, he did not stay at Oxford too long because it did not provide the type of education he was looking for.
Adam Smith returned to Scotland and in 1752 took the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow University. Over the years he began to turn his attention to the study of the political economy. His life long work culminated with the publication of his book The Wealth of Nations in 1771. The Wealth of Nations became the basis for the study of the subject of economics and consequently the development of the classical school of economics. It inspired politicians and statesmen to envision a new and more liberal society.



Adam Smith recognised that the economic growth of a country depends upon a continous increase in the productivity of labour. The key to raising the productivity of labour was the division and specialization of labour. For if a worker does a specific job day after day he will become in time an expert at his job and therefore his work rate will increase over time.


As regards wages, then the wages of workers would remain at a subsistence level if the economy was not growing. However, in a country like Britain which was experiencing an industrial revolution then the wages of the working classes would rise above the subsistence level.
Adam Smith stressed that when it came to wage bargaining between employer and worker, then the employer always had the upper hand and this sort of situation tended to depress the level of wages.


According to Adam Smith economic man is motivated by profit. Therefore, the owners of economic resources such as land, labour and capital will direct these resources to those areas of the economy where the profits are greatest. On this basis, a free market economy based on the operation of the forces of supply and demand, will regulate economic activity in the country, in the best possible way. Therefore, State intervention in the economy should be negligible, because State interference destroys the forces of a free market economy. This is why Adam Smith emphasized so strongly the removal of all tariffs, thus making Britain a free trade nation.
The promotion of the free market system was a direct attack upon the mercantalist system, with its restrictive regulations, monopolistic institutions, practices and privileges.


The Wealth of Nations rests on the premise that the individual's self­interest is of paramount importance. By allowing the individual the freedom and choice to pursue his own self­interest, only then could society reap the greatest benefit.


Adam Smith dealt in his book with the role of the State. Smith confined the activities of the State to three basic functions:

  1. Defence
  2. Justice and Civil Government
  3. The provision of public works and public institutions. Under public works, Adam Smith meant the construction of large scale projects such as roads, canals, bridges and harbours.


Adam Smith had very progressive views on taxation, for he suggests in The Wealth of Nations that proportional taxation was very unfair because the rich were capable of paying a far greater proportion of their income in income tax. Therefore, Smith favoured progressive taxation (based upon the ability to pay) rather than proportional taxation.
The Wealth of Nations was the first book to give an insight into the working of an economy, it provided a framework for the future development of the science of economics; and it gave politicians and statesmen the vision of a new and more liberal political economy.

Korzeniewicz, Richard: "Adam Smith 1723-1790", in British Economic and Social History, Regency Press 1985.

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