Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850

By M. J. Daunton | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 19 Taxation and Public Finance

Britain in the eighteenth century was a nation at war, locked in a world-wide struggle with the French which ended with the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The clash of empires may be charted through military and naval campaigns; less stirring, though no less important, is the question of finance. Money provided the sinews of war, to provision and pay the army, to finance the fleets which straddled the world, and to operate the massive naval dockyards which built and maintained the ships. The navy was the largest business of the eighteenth century. A first-class naval vessel with a crew of 900 exceeded the work-force of the largest factory; it involved large fixed capital in dockyards; and demanded a massive provisioning system to supply food, munitions, ropes, sails, and myriad pieces of iron, brass, and copper. Britain in the eighteenth century was a 'fiscal-military state', 1 and governments were dominated by the needs of the army and, above all, the navy for money to wage war. The outcome was an efficient system of tax collection and public finance which allowed Britain to bear a heavier financial burden than France, yet without a political crisis threatening the state.


Land Taxes and the Excise Duties

When William accepted the throne in 1688, commented Benjamin Disraeli, he 'did not disguise his motives; he said "Nothing but such a constitution as you have in England can have the credit that is necessary to raise such sums as a great war requires". The prince came, and used our constitution for his purpose: he introduced into England the system of Dutch finance.' 2 William's need was above all for money to pursue his campaign against Louis XIV, and government expenditure tripled from less than £2 million a year before 1688 to £5-6 million between 1689 and 1702. The government faced difficulties in raising such large sums at a time when the power of the crown and its finances were under

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