Testing the High-Wage Economy (HWE) Hypothesis

Over the last week or so, I have been heavily involved in a twitterminar (yes, I am coining that portemanteau term to designate academic discussions on twitter – proof that some good can come out of social media) between myself, Judy Stephenson , Ben Schneider , Benjamin Guilbert, Mark Koyama, Pseudoerasmus,  Anton Howes (whose main flaw is that he is from King’s College London while I am from the LSE – nothing rational here), Alan Fernihough and  Lyman Stone. The topic? How suitable is the “high-wage economy” (HWE) explanation of the British industrial revolution (BIR).

Twitter debates are hard to follow and there is a need for summaries given the format of twitter. As a result, I am attempting such a summary here which is laced with my own comments regarding my skepticism and possible resolution venues.

An honest account of HWE

First of all, it is necessary to offer a proper enunciation of HWE’s role in explaining the industrial revolution as advanced by its main proponent, Robert Allen.  This is a necessary step because there is a literature attempting to use high-wages as an efficiency wage argument. A good example is Morris Altman’s Economic Growth and the High-Wage Economy  (see here too) Altman summarizes his “key message” as the idea that “improving the material well-being of workers, even prior to immediate increases in productivity can be expected to have positive effects on productivity through its impact on economic efficiency and technological change”. He also made the same argument with my native home province of Quebec relative to Ontario during the late 19th century. This is basically a multiple equilibria story. And its not exactly what Allen advances. Allen’s argument is that wages were high in England relative to energy. This factors price ratio stimulated the development of technologies and industries that spearheaded the BIR. This is basically a context-specific argument and not a “conventional” efficiency wage approach as that of Allen. There are similarities, but they are also considerable differences. Secondly, the HWE hypothesis is basically a meta-argument about the Industrial Revolution. It would be unfair to caricature it as an “overarching” explanation. Rather, the version of HWE advanced by Robert Allen (see his book here) is one where there are many factors at play but there is one – HWE – which had the strongest effects. Moreover, while it does not explain all, it was dependent on other factors that contributed independently.  The most common view is that this is mixed with Joel Mokyr’s supply of inventions story (which is what Nick Crafts has done). In the graph below, the “realistically multi-causal” explanation is how I see HWE. In Allen’s explanation, it holds the place that cause #1 does. According to other economists, HWE holds spot #2 or spot #3 and Mokyr’s explanations holds spot #1.


In pure theoretical terms (as an axiomatic statement), the Allen model is defensible. It is a logically consistent construct. It has some questionnable assumptions, but it has no self-contradictions. Basically, any criticism of HWE must question the validity of the theory based on empirical evidence (see my argument with Graham Brownlow here) regarding the necessary conditions. This is the hallmark of Allen’s work: logical consistency. His work cannot be simply brushed aside – it is well argued and there is supportive evidence. The logical construction of his argument requires a deep discussion and any criticism that will convince must encompass many factors.

Why not France? Or How to Test HWE

As a doubter of Allen’s theory (I am willing to be convinced, hence my categorization as doubter), the best way to phrase my criticism is to ask the mirror of his question. Rather than asking “Why was the Industrial Revolution British”, I ask “Why Wasn’t it French”. This is what Allen does in his work when he asks explicitly “Why not France?” (p.203 of his book). The answer proposed is that English wages were high enough to justify the adoption of labor-saving technologies. In France, they were not. This led to differing rates of technological adoptions, an example of which is the spinning jenny.

This argument hinges on some key conditions :

  1. Wages were higher in England than in France
  2. Unit labor costs were higher in England than in France (productivity-adjusted wages) (a point made by Kelly, Mokyr and Ó Gráda)
  3. Market size factors are not sufficiently important to overshadow the effects of lower wages in France (R&D costs over market size mean a low fixed cost relative to potential market size)
  4. The work year is equal in France as in England
  5. The cost of energy in France relative to labor is higher than in England
  6. Output remained constant while hours fell – a contention at odds with the Industrious Revolution which the same as saying that marginal productivity moves inversely with working hours

If most of these empirical statements hold, then the argument of Allen holds. I am pretty convinced by the evidence advanced by Allen (and E.A. Wrigley also) regarding the low relative of energy in England. Thus, I am pretty convinced that condition #5 holds. Moreover, given the increases in transport productivity within England (here and here), the limited barriers to internal trade (here), I would not be surprised that it was relatively easy to supply energy on the British market prior to 1800 (at least relative to France).

Condition #3 is harder to assess in terms of important. Market size, in a Smithian world, is not only about population (see scale effects literature). Market size is a function of transaction costs between individuals, a large share of which are determined by institutional arrangements. France has a much larger population than England so there could have been scale effects, but France also had more barriers to internal trade that could have limited market size. I will return to this below.

Condition #1,2,4 are basically empirical statements. They are also the main points of tactical assault on Allen’s theory.  I think condition #1 is the easiest to tackle. I am currently writing a piece derived from my dissertation showing that – at least with regards to Strasbourg – wages in France presented in Allen (his 2001 article) are heavily underestimated (by somewhere between 12% and 40% using winter workers in agriculture and as much as 70% using the average for laborers in agriculture). The work of Judy Stephenson, Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf has also thrown the level and trend of British wages into doubts. Bringing French wages upwards and British wages downwards could damage the Allen story. However, this would not be a sufficient theory. Industrialization was generally concentrated geographically. If labor markets in one country are not sufficiently integrated and the industrializing area (lets say the “textile” area of Lancashire or the French Manchester of Mulhouse or the Caën region in Normandy) has uniquely different wages, then Allen’s theory can hold since what matters is the local wage rate relative to energy. Pseudoerasmus has made this point but I can’t find any mention of that very plausible defense in Allen’s work.

Condition #2 is the weakest point and given Robert Fogel’s work on net nutrition in France and England, I have no problem in assuming that French workers were less productive. However, the best evidence would be to extract piece rates in textile-producing regions of France and England. This would eliminate any issue with wages and measuring national productivity differences. Piece rates would perfectly capture productivity and thus the argument could be measured in a very straightforward manner.

Condition #4 is harder to assess and more research would be needed. However, it is the most crucial piece of evidence required to settle the issue once and for all. Pre-industrial labor markets are not exactly like those of modern days. Search costs were high which works in a manner described (with reservations) by Alan Manning in his work on monopsony but with much more frictions. In such a market, workers may be willing to trade in lower wage rates for longer work years. In fact, its like a job security argument. Would you prefer 313 days of work guaranteed at 1 shilling per day or a 10% chance of working 313 days for 1.5 shillings a day (I’ve skewed the hypothetical numbers to make my point)? Now, if there are differences in the structure of labor markets in France and England during the 18th and 19th centuries, there might be differences in the extent of that trade-off in both countries. Different average discount on wages would affect production methods. If French workers were prone to sacrifice more on wages for steady employment, it may render one production method more profitable than in England. Assessing the extent of the discount of annual to daily wages on both markets would identify this issue.

The remaining condition (condition #6) is, in my opinion, dead on arrival. Allen’s model, in the case of the spinning jenny, assumed that labor hours moved in an opposite direction as marginal productivity. This is in direct opposition to the well-established industrious revolution. This point has been made convincingly by Gragnolati, Moschella and Pugliese in the Journal of Economic History. 

In terms of research strategy, getting piece rates, proper wage estimates and proper labor supplied estimates for England and France would resolve most of the issue. Condition #3 could then be assessed as a plausibility residual.  Once we know about working hours, actual productivity and real wages differences, we can test how big the difference in market size has to be to deter adoption in France. If the difference seems implausible (given the empirical limitations of measuring effective market size in the 18th century in both markets), then we can assess the presence of this condition.

My counter-argument : social networks and diffusion

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that all of the evidence favors the skeptics, then what? It is all well and good to tear down the edifice but we are left with a gaping hole and everything starts again. It would be great to propose a new edifice as the old one is being questioned. This is where I am very much enclined towards the rarely discussed work of Leonard Dudley (Mothers of Innovation). Simply put, Dudley’s argument is that social networks allowed the diffusion of technologies within England that fostered economic growth. He has an analogy from physics which gets the point across nicely. Matter has three states : solid, gas, liquid. Solids are stable but resist to change. Gas, matter are much more random and change frequently by interacting with other gas, but any relation is ephemeral. Liquids permit change through interaction, but they are stable enough to allow interactions to persist for some time. Technological innovation is like a liquid. It can “mix” things together in a somewhat stable form.

This is where one of my argument takes life. In a small article for Economic Affairs, I argued (expanding on Dudley) that social networks allowed this mixing (I am also expanding that argument in a working paper with Adam Martin of Texas Tech University). However, I added a twist to that argument which I imported from the work of Israel Kirzner (one of the most cited books in economics, but not by cliometricians – more than 7000 citations on google scholar). Economic growth, in Kirzner’s mind,  is the result of entrepreneurs discovering errors and arbitrage possibilities. In a way, growth is a process of discovering correcting errors. An analogy to make this point is that entrepreneurs look for profits where the light is while also trying to move the light to see where it is dark. What Kirzner dubs as “alertness” is in fact nothing else than repeated and frequent interactions. The more your interact with others, the easier it becomes for ideas to have sex. Thus, what matters is how easy it is for social networks to appear and generate cheap information and interactions for members without the problem of free riders. This is where the work of Anton Howes becomes very valuable. Howes, in his PhD thesis supervised by Adam Martin who is my co-author on the aforementioned project (summary here), showed that most innovators went in frequent with one another and they inspired themselves from each other. This is alertness ignited!

If properly harnessed, the combination of the works of Howes and Dudley (and also James Dowey who was a PhD student at the LSE with me and whose work is *Trump voice* Amazing) can stand as a substitute to Allen’s HWE if invalidated.


If I came across as bashing on Allen in this post, then you have misread me. I admire Allen for the clarity of his reasoning and his expositions (given that I am working on a funded project to recalculate tax-based measures in the US used by Piketty to account for tax avoidance, I can appreciate the clarity in which Allen expresses himself). I also admire him for wanting to “Go big or go home” (which you can see in all his other work, especially on enclosures). My point is that I am willing to be convinced of HWE, but I find that the evidence leans towards rejecting it. But that is very limited and flawed evidence and asserting this clearly is hard (as some of the flaws can go his way). Nitpicking Allen’s HWE is a necessary step for clearly determining the cause of BIR. It is not sufficient as a logically consistent substitute must be presented to the research community. In any case, there is my long summary of the twitteminar (officially trademarked now!)

P.S. Inspired by Peter Bent’s INET research webinar on institutional responses to financial crises, I am trying to organize a similar (low-cost) venue for presenting research papers on HWE assessment. More news on this later.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XII, 16th Century England in relation to the Dutch Revolt, Germany & Spain

The idea of a very sovereign and separate England, which does not really fit with the highly French oriented Middle Ages as discussed in the last post, may look a bit more plausible after 1485 when the Tudor dynasty came to power, ending the Wars of the Roses between different Plantagenet claimants to the throne. Under the Tudors, the English (including Welsh) state system is consolidated, the English church passes from authority of the Pope in Rome to the monarchy, and the dynasty ends in the unification of England and Scotland. That is when Elizabeth I died in 1603, the throne passed to the Stuart King of Scotland, James VI, who became James I of England.

The break with the church in Rome was an accident which had nothing to do with the religious inclinations of Henry VIII, who took the national church under his control for marital reasons. In the mid-1520s, he wanted an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, in which the Pope would declare the marriage to have been invalid according to Canon law (in this case  because she had been married to Henry VIII’s late brother) . The Pope would have been willing to co-operate, but was under the control of Catherine’s uncle Charles V (German ‘Holy Roman’ Emperor and King of Spain), who regarded the proposed annulment as an insupportable insult to the imperial-royal family honour.

Conveniently for Henry, it was a good time for finding a religious base for a national church independent of Rome. The Reformation, that is revolution of new Protestant churches agains the Catholic church was underway, in a process normally dated back to Martin Luther posting 95 theses critical of the hierarchy on a church door in Wittenburg in 1517. Henry VIII did not break with Rome because of Protestant inclination and though there was a dissident religious tradition, the Lollards going back to the  fourteenth century, which anticipated Protestant thinking, it was a movement of strictly minority interest. Henry seized church lands and allied himself with Protestants. This accidental partial adoption of Protestantism was followed by swing towards more pure Protestantism under Edward VI then a swing back towards Catholicism under Mary Tudor followed by a final victory of Protestantism under Elizabeth I, though not a victory of the most radical Protestants, and not a result of majority sentiment in the nation, which would have favoured Catholicism before decades of state pressure and persecution made Protestantism the majority religion.

The struggle of the Protestant cause in England was associated with an intensified presence in Ireland through very bloody means, and an international struggle against Catholic Spain, associated with support for the Dutch Revolt against Spanish and Catholic control. Overall this might give the picture of England, as a proto-United kingdom fully incorporating Wales and partly incorporating Ireland, rising up as a free Protestant nation outside the control of the major trans-European institution of the time, the Catholic church. However, Protestantism was an import from Germany (Martin Luther) and Switzerland (John Calvin’s Geneva and Huldrych Zwingli), even if some tried to see it as the product of Lollardy.

The time of Elizabeth and the first Stuart James I was the time of colonialism in the Americas, which sovereigntist-Eurosceptic enthusiasts are inlined to see as part of Britain’s unique global role. This claim seems strange given the major colonial ventures of Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands at this time. Britain was not uniquely Protestant or uniquely colonial and trading. The consolidation of a national state at that time has equivalents in Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Russia. The ‘growth’ of Parliament under the Tudors absolute monarchs who conceded that taxes had to be raised by Act of Parliament, and that laws properly speaking were also from Acts of Parliament, but held onto complete control of government  and saw no need to.call Parliament except when new taxes or laws were needed, is paralleled by representative institutions in the new Dutch Republic, the continuation of German and Italian city republics along with self-governing Swiss cantons, the continuing role of regional assemblies in Spain and local courts ‘parlements’ in France which had the power to comment on new legislation, and the elective-representative structure of the Holy Roman Empire all provide parallels.

English state and national life was caught up in Europe most obviously through support for the Dutch, but also in the trade and diplomatic activities of the time. Mary Tudor, who attempted Catholic restoration, was married to Philip II of Spain while she was Queen, so placing England under heavy Spanish influence. Defeat of the Armada (Spanish invasion fleet) under Elizabeth became a symbol of English independence, but was itself strongly linked with English involvement in the Netherlands. So it was not a period of continuous English independence from European powers and was certainly not a period of isolated separation. The connections with the continent were reinforced during the reign of James I who had dynastic connections in Denmark and Germany.

More on Jacobean (from Jacobus, the Latin form of James) and seventeenth century England in the next post.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XI, Norman, Angevin and Plantagenet England

The last post was on Anglo-Saxon England, which came to an end in 1066, soon after the death of Edward the Confessor. Harold Godwinson, King of England, was faced with two major enemies on his accession in 1066: Harold Sigurdsson, usually known as Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy (de facto Norman king under the symbolic sovereignty of the French monarchy).

Both began invasions of England. Sigurdsson landed in the northeast of England with a Viking army and his ally, Tostig, brother of Harold Godwinson (married to a Danish princess), giving a good idea of how political power in England was entangled with European power politics and centres of sovereignty. Harold marched north and defeated the Viking army, marching south again to meet the threat from Normandy which came very soon.

Harold and the Saxon army did not survives this second blow, and England was changed for ever. William earned the name he is now generally known under, Conqueror, and imposed his will in a manner which destroyed the existing Anglo-Saxon elites in one of the great massacres of English history, the Harrowing of the North. It also led to the construction of new kinds of stone castles to create military state dominance and new grandiose church architecture to create religious state domination.

The Norman dominance later became known as the Norman Yoke, a rather emotive phrase but it is true that the Saxons had less rights than the Normans, that Norman French became the language of state and the ruling class, and that institutions were recast to suit the Normans, who continued to give priority to their homeland in northwestern France. There was an evolution from expanded Norman state to Angevin Anglo-French empire, when Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine (southwestern France). Before that the throne was in dispute between Stephen and Matilda, known as the Empress because she had been married to the German ‘Holy Roman’ Emperor.

The Aquitaine alliance gave the King of England more land in France under his control than the French king had under effective control. The combined control of all England and most of France is often known as the Angevin Empire.  The outcome of the Norman Conquest and the Angevin Empire is a very tangled period of centuries of a variable Anglo-Norman, then English Plantagenet presence in France.

The crusader king Richard I ‘Coeur de Lion’, son of Henry and Eleanor, died in France protecting his lands there. The next king, also a son of Henry and Eleanor, John, lost nearly all the French lands. The end of of John’s reign and the beginning of Henry III’s reign included a period when Louis XIII of France claimed the English crown in alliance with part of the aristocracy, and had effective control of a large part of England.

The endless back and forth of English involvement in France will be ended here except for these brief remarks. The two most famous English battles in medieval history were the loss to Normandy at Hastings in 1066 and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 near Calais. The latter battle was part of Henry V establishing a claim to the French monarchy, though this collapsed on his death. Calais remained English until 1588. The English monarchy kept up a symbolic claim to be monarchs of France until 1800.

There is no genuine history of medieval England which is not also a history of medieval France. The overall effect of the English monarchy failing to keep continuous control of France, leaving England as the undoubted core territory, was that over time the monarchy, state and aristocracy became more English. The language had changed considerably, partly under Norman influence, so that what the heirs of William the Conqueror and his Norman barons spoke was Middle English rather than Anglo-Saxon and unlike Anglo-Saxon is at least partly comprehensible to an educated native level speaker of modern English. There was a growth of English literature of a kind that is still read, linked with the growing tendency of the upper class to be primarily English.

The process by which the Anglo-Norman state became England with an English speaking ruling class was gradual and roughly speaking came to an end by the fifteenth century. The re-emergence of an ‘English’ England might suit the advocates of a vision of English history as an island pageant of unique independence, separation and strength, and it is not very long since popular books of history used to be written on those lines. However, the Norman, Angevin and subsequent Plantagenet period just do not fit this unless a supposed endpoint of a pure English England is given priority over what seemed most important to historical actors earlier in their own time. Centuries of English history are Norman French or Anglo-French history.

Advocates of a Sovereigntist-Eurosceptic view of British history, if they acknowledge this (and it is difficult for them to do so as the period includes Magna Carta, a topic to which we will return) are inclined to at least see English history after 1400, and particularly after the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485, as the glorious path of an England, or Britain, separate from Europe. The next post will test that proposition.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, X. Anglo-Saxon England, the Scandinavian, Frankish and Norman connections

This long series of posts is now going through a survey of British history from the beginning that history to the point where the series started, that is the middle of the eighteenth century. The last post reached the Anglo-Saxon Conquest, which seems to have been more of an elite take over by chieftains and their retinues than a major displacement of population. Nevertheless the Anglo-Saxon conquest was a real cultural transformation in which the evolution of the English language retained almost no trace of the Celtic languages and dialects or even speech rhythms, leaving aside areas where the Celtic languages lingered longer and survived on a minority basis, so influencing English. The Saxon language was not just dominant in England, as it spread in Scotland outside the Gaelic ‘Irish’ speaking areas, displacing non-Celtic languages. So English became the dominant language in what is now the UK and also in what now the Republic or Ireland.

Having emphasised this linguistic transformation,  should emphasise that Irish has some distinctive speech patterns from Gaelic, that there is some modern Irish literature in Gaelic and that some Irish literature in English emphasises Gaelic Irish culture, most significantly the novels of James Joyce. Anglo-Saxon comes from the forms of Old German spoken in the areas the invaders came from in what is now the Netherlands, Denmark and intervening parts of Germany. One consequence is that the first great work of English literature Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, epic poem set in what is now Denmark and southern Sweden. So the literary culture of the English speaking British is rooted in a tale from Scandinavia, though written down in England centuries after the events related, which can be given a rough historical location.

Anglo-Saxon England never established complete predominance in Britain. Viking invasions in the eighth century preceded the formation of an English state at a time when there was still an independent Celtic kingdom in Cornwall, turned into conquests and the establishment of Viking kingdoms. Though the Anglo-Saxons become predominant as far back as the sixth century, the generally accepted narrative of the English state goes back only to the ninth century. In the last decades of that century, King Alfred of Wessex (the west Saxons) in his struggles against the Vikings. Alfred, given the label ‘Great’ in the nineteenth century, a very remarkable figure in various ways, was pushed back into the hinterland of Wessex, but was able to defeat the Vikings in battle and negotiate terms that established a strong kingdom of Wessex, which came to incorporate London.

Wessex was the nucleus of the Medieval English state and Alfred’s grandson Athelston was the first all-England king, also receiving tribute and symbolic recognition of overlordship from Welsh and Scottish rulers, who nevertheless remained completely independent in practice. Athelstan was certainly not isolated from Europe, marrying his family into continental dynasties. The sense of English culture goes back further than Alfred, but not much further.

The northeastern English historian and cleric Bede, is probably the first ‘great’ English figure in Britain, dying in the early eighth century after composing a history in Latin rather than Anglo-Saxon. At roughly the same time Alcuin of York, the cleric and scholar, became an adviser to the Frankish (Franco-German) Emperor Charlemagne who dominated western and central Europe, reviving the title of Roman Emperor, or had it pushed onto him by the Pope. He was referred to as ‘father of Europe’ in his court and was the model of English monarchs including Alfred.

The only Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred who could be said to have lingered in national memory was Offa of Mercia (the centre of England) in the late eighth century, who seems to have made some symbolic claim to kingship of England, but whose kingdom was lost to the Vikings. The rise of the Kingdom of England was not completely straightforward as Vikings remained in England with their own towns, laws, and customs, and with Scandinavian princes still making claims in England. The consequence was a Danish King of England, Cnut (also known as Canute) reigning in England in the early eleventh century, along with varying parts of Scandinavia.

A rather confused period followed his death of English and Danish claims to the English crown, with other Scandinavian dynasties expressing an interest. This ended when the Saxon Edward the Confessor became king in 1042. However, this was not the triumph of isolated English sovereignty. Edward was heavily under the influence, even tutelage of the Duchy of Normandy, territory given to Viking invaders by the French king, which led to the invading Danes becoming completely French in language and other respects.

Edward was the son of Aethelred the Unready and Emma of Normany. Aethelred who was responsible both for gratuitous massacres of English Danes and losing the kingdom to the Danes, had fled to Normandy beginning an important connection. Edward died in 1066 childless, with the Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway both believing they had claims to the English throne that they fully intended to enforce through military might. The throne went in the first place to Edward’s most powerful subject, Harold Godwinson, because of the support of the Witan, the council of the king’s leading subjects, rather than inheritance or the wishes of Edward the Confessor. If there was ever a moment of isolated English sovereignty that might be it, but it was not to last more than a few months.

Next post, how England became part of a Norman and the Angevin French speaking empire

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, III: British Superiority?

Continuing from my last post, before getting on to the pre-Waterloo history of Britain, some remarks on Britain as an exceptional and model state from the Hanoverian period (rule of the German Hanoverian dynasty who continued to be sovereign princes in Germany, 1714-1837) onwards. Isolating any one period as the one in which modern Britain emerges is inevitably hazardous, but there are precedents for selecting this period such as Linda Colley’s influential book, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (Yale University Press, 1992).

The defeat of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 provides a good moment for the formation of modern British state, or perhaps better the moment at which a process of formation ends. The Jacobite Uprising was an attempt to restore the Catholic Stuart Dynasty, which had its starting point in the Scottish Highlands. It reached into the Lowlands and then England before being beaten back and then decisively defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 by forces loyal to the Hanoverian dynasty, which was Protestant and was reigning in Britain because it was the closest in line after Catholics were excluded from inheriting the throne.

Not only was it confirmed that Britain would continue to be an officially Protestant country, with a German royal family, harsh and violent measures were taken to crush the social base of Jacobitism in the Highlands. The autonomy of traditional clan chieftains (hereditary local landlord rulers), who were operating a kind of confederal state of often conflicting clans within Britain, was abolished. Soldiers were stationed in the Highlands to enforce an assimilationist state policy in which the Gaelic language was repressed, as was traditional dress and customary laws. The violence and forcible assimilation faded away once British sovereignty in the region was assured, but that does not detract from the way that the British state was stabilised through force and military occupation, not through consent and building on ‘traditional’ liberties. The idea of a British state uniquely founded on consent to institutions in a context of laws and liberties emerging from ‘tradition’ rather than state action is essential to the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic view of Britain and its history under examination here.

The forcible full incorporation of the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles into the British state system comes out of the attempts of the British monarchy to create an integrated Britain out of of the union of English and Scottish dynasties, which goes back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England as James I. James wanted a unified, integrated Britain from the beginning, and his wish was granted, if more than one hundred years after his death and the overthrow of his dynasty. The attempts of his son Charles I to impose religious uniformity on Scotland led to a war which was the prelude to the English Civil War. The two wars, and others, are sometimes grouped as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The powerful man of state to emerge from these wars was Oliver Cromwell, who incorporated the third kingdom, Ireland, into the British state, in a culmination of a history of war and colonisation going back to the Twelfth Century. This was also a process of forcible land transfer creating a Protestant English landowning class dominating a Gaelic Catholic peasantry. As in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, assimilation into the British state led to the decline of the Gaelic-Celtic languages into very small minority status, so to large degree an old culture was lost.

The forcible incorporation of Ireland into the British state system culminated in 1800 with the Act of Union, which created the United Kingdom, in abolishing the Irish parliament (not much of a loss, it only represented Protestant landlords) so that the Westminster Parliament (or crown in Parliament) had unlimited sovereignty through the islands of Britain and Ireland. The process did not bring clear benefits to the Irish before of after the Act of Union. The Great Famine of 1845 to 1852, when the British imposed a landholding system in Ireland and the whole British state system failed to prevent hunger and starvation for a large part of the Irish population and could be held to be at least in some measure responsible for the famine, is well known. Less well known is the Irish Famine of 1740 to 1741, which led to the deaths of an even higher proportion of the population than the Great Famine. I do not think that the Irish peasants of the eighteenth and nineteenth century felt lucky to be part of the British state system, or would have recognised it as some unique force for good in the Europe and the world.

The troubles of the Gaelic peasants of the Scottish Highlands did not end with the state reaction to the Jacobite Uprising. The disruption of traditional customs and restraints enabled the clan chieftains to forcibly remove peasants from land that had been theirs for centuries, starting a process of emigration to other parts of the British Empire. A situation in which the British state had abolished the power of chieftains to resist it while taking away traditional restraints on their power over the peasantry, led to an intensified period (“Highland Clearances”) in which peasants were sometimes taken straight from their customary homes to boats leaving Scotland for the Empire. In the later Nineteenth century, legal reforms were undertaken to improve the rights of Scottish and Irish peasants, but any discussion of the merits and otherwise of the British state system in relation to the rest of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, must take into account horrors of calculated state violence combined with laws and property rights biased towards a landowning class close to the state, that led to sufferings as great as any encountered in any European state of that era.

Next post, Britain as a supposed model European state after Waterloo, comparisons

Milton on Freedom of Printing: Areopagitica


A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644).

(For my general introduction to Milton, click here)

‘We turn for a short time from the topics of the day, to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and martyr of English liberty’, Thomas Babington Macaulay (Whig-Liberal historian, writer and government minister), 1825.

The digitised text of Areopagitica can be found at the Online Library of Liberty here.

The strange sounding title is a reference to one of the key institutions of ancient republican and democratic Athens, the court of Areopagus. Appropriately, as we are looking at an essay on politics by a great poet, the Areopagus and its mythical foundation was celebrated as the core of Athenian justice in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia. The Areopagus was itself an aristocratic institution preceding democracy in Athens and as such can be seen as what balanced the changeable majorities of the citizens’ assembly with enduring standards of justice, which have meaning in all ways of constituting political institutions.

What Milton looks for in this great institution of early experiments in constituting liberty is a standard for freedom of publication and finds that it offered a very tolerant standard, at least in the context of the seventeenth century. Milton suggests that the only restrictions the Areopagus placed on books of the time (all handwritten manuscripts of course) was with regard to atheism and libel. We are not going to look back at Milton or the Areopagus now as the most advanced instances of liberty when they prohibit expressions of atheism, but these are times when the idea that a good and rational person could not be an atheist were all pervasive and the assumption can still be found later in the seventeenth century in John Locke, one of the general heroes of modern thinking about liberty.

The restraint on libel applies in all societies and all political thinking I am aware of, but one should never discount the possibility of an interesting exception. Leaving aside possible interesting radical alternatives, there is nothing repressive by the standards of general thinking about liberty in restraining libel. Milton’s interest in the standards of pagan Greece is itself a tribute to a spirit of pluralism and open mindedness in someone generally inclined to take moral and political guidance from the religious traditions of Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels, along with the writings of early Christians, and the Protestant thinkers of the sixteenth century Reformation.

The Reformation, as Milton himself emphasises, relied on the printed word, and it is no coincidence that Protestantism emerged soon after Europe discovered printing (after the Chinese of course), as a weapon against the institutional authority of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. The structure of the Catholic Church was not just a matter of church offering a choice to people seeking a faith-based life, it was connected with state power and pushed onto societies as the only allowable life philosophy. The politics of religion comes up in Milton’s essay, including the issue of the relation of the state to the church hierarchy.

While England had a Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century (England including Wales, but excluding Scotland which had its own distinct Reformation before union with England), it had retained a state church, the Church of England, with Bishops. Milton, like many on the side of Parliament in the Civil War, was against Bishops, referred to as prelates, as part of the old Catholic hierarchy in which the ‘truth’ was given from above to the mass of believers.

Inspired by the pamphlets of and books of Protestant reformers, Milton argues that truth can have many forms and that while Christianity may require acceptance of central truths, they can be expressed in more ways than the Catholic hierarchical state-backed tradition allows. State backing, of course, included the imprisonment, torture, and burning to death of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition.

Milton refers to the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian ‘the Apostate’ (reigned 361-363) with regard to his policy of banning Christians from pagan education. Milton argues that this was the biggest possible blow to Christianity, because it deprived believers of the intellectual capacity and credibility to influence pagan inhabitants of the Empire. Christian truth could only be convincingly understood, communicated, and taught if it drew on all areas of learning including what had been produced by pagans.

Truth benefits from being tested in argument and contestation, something undermined by state-enforced church power as well as by the monarchical institution of courts full of sycophants and yes-sayers. Political liberty requires republican representative institutions and truth, including the truths of religion, require testing in conditions of liberty.

Unfortunately, Milton supported legal discrimination against Catholics, but as with prohibitions on expressions of atheism, this was part of the general understanding of a just state at the time, and Milton was more tolerant than many on the Protestant as well as Catholic sides. His arguments make up a part of the general movement to tolerance and freedom of speech, making very powerful points on behalf of liberty, enabling us to take them beyond the limits within which he constrained them.

Next post, Milton on political institutions

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): Second of Two Parts

Oceana is a long piece of ‘utopian’ political fiction writing, which does not really work as an exercise in literary fiction as far as I can see and barely keeps up the pretence. Oceana refers to a thinly disguised version of Britain and a lightly fictionalised account of its history, as a means for expounding Harrington’s thoughts about the best political system. A System of Politics is a more concise and economical account of Harrington’s thought than Oceana though its list form tells you something about Harrington’s limits as a writer.

Harrington is in a friendly dialogue with a major sixteenth century writer, the Florentine republican Niccoló Machiavelli and sometimes in the  earlier part of Oceana in a critical dialogue with a major English writer, Thomas Hobbes, from his own time. The idea that sometimes still circulates of a liberal England/Britain versus an absolutist continental Europe is rather challenged by this. One of the most influential advocates of liberty in British history was inspired by an Italian against an English writer. Though Harrington does refer favourably to Hobbes’ own mentor, Francis Bacon, philosopher, chief minister to the monarchy, jurist, and writer of utopian political fiction. Harrington does not mention the Hobbes-Bacon relation, and his his use of Bacon’s thought suggests a fascination with the kind of monarchism advocated by Bacon which mixes legalism with the application of scientific method to the prudential art of government. Harrington, it appears, wanted republicanism to incorporate such aspects, creating some distance from ancient republicanism in which law comes from tradition and wise individuals rather than the kind of centralised accumulation of new laws and a judicial apparatus to apply them which is what Bacon was dealing with and which also influenced Hobbes. Harrington’s interest in what well run monarchies with some respect for law can teach republics also expresses itself in remarks on the Ottoman Empire and on the famous chief minister of the French monarchy, Cardinal Richelieu, one of the key figures in the development of the modern state and modern statecraft. Harrington regrets lack of knowledge of the principles underlying Richelieu’s formidable achievements in promoting peace within France and taking France above Spain as the leading European power of the time.

When Harrington is focused on republics strictly speaking, he has two main concerns: land distribution, formation of the right kind of aristocracy. These concerns overlap as questions of concentration of land are also questions of what kind of aristocracy might exist. Harrington resists what he regards as the too extreme devotion of the Ancient Athenians to democracy, which did not allow an effective aristocracy to form. As with early modern attitudes to Plato, his preference for Sparta is rather against modern sensibility. However, that preference ran up to the American Revolution and the Constitution of the United States which was deliberately designed to prevent the ‘excesses’ of Athenian democracy and promote a ‘balanced’ republic like those of Rome or Sparta which had a long life based on reserving some powers for the aristocratic parts of the political system.

Harrington’s thoughts about aristocracy are directed towards forming a changing open class of people who provide political leadership and resist the wilder extremes and instability of popular opinion. This is more or less a project for the formation of an effective version of what is now generally referred to as a political class or a political elite. Harrington’s belief that the aristocracy should change in composition and exist in balance with the preferences of the common people lead him to oppose land distribution of a kind which created a rigid permanent oligarchy aristocracy of the richest landowners. Laws to prevent this are referred to by Harrington as ‘the agrarian’, with consideration of examples from antiquity and from his own time. He argues against primogeniture (land going to the eldest son) and in favour of equal division of land between the children of landowners which he suggests as well as having political benefits will reduce loveless marriages designed to get propertyless daughters of the aristocracy married to a major landowner. In a rather more general way, he seems sympathetic to schemes to prevent concentrations of landed property. Such apparent interference with property rights may look at odds with how ideas of liberty develop in the classical liberal and libertarian tradition, but Harrington was living at a time when it was very difficult to disassociate land ownership and political power, and more generally difficult to disassociate economic status and political rights.

It takes the continuous  greater development of commercial society which Locke reacts to at the end of the seventeenth century to see that property ownership should be seen in terms of transferable rights and the public benefits of land owned by whoever being part of a commercial system in which its products are traded to everyone’s benefit. The other side of Harrington’s assumption, highly normal for the time, that political power comes from land ownership, is that servants and the economically dependent cannot have full political rights and are not part of the democratic political system. The democratic system that elects an open changing aristocracy in some form of senate along with a a very complex series of other elections of public officials advocated by Harrington. This was enough to make Harrington seem like a fanatic for extreme democracy until democracy did begin to appear in the British political system, with the extension of the franchise in the late nineteenth century following on (but not immediately at all) from earlier agitation on the part of the new industrial working class. His writing is bit frustrating and can seem a bit remote from current ideas of liberty, but in historical context he made a major contribution to the growth of law and liberty in Britain. He deserves to be read by anyone who wishes for a really deep understanding of the development of ideas of government constrained by law and liberty.