The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783

By John Brewer | Go to book overview

6

The parameters of war: policy and economy

In seeking to understand how eighteenth-century wars affected the British economy—and, indeed, how the British economy affected the state’s capacity to wage war—we inevitably confront questions about the character of those wars and the distinctive nature of economic arrangements in Britain. We need, in other words, to understand the aims and policies that drove England into a period of almost continuous warfare with France as well as the course and outcome of those conflicts. We also have to engage—however unwillingly—in the complex debate about the evolution and character of the British economy in the Georgian era. For it was the interplay between the making of policy, the conduct of war and course of the economy which coloured contemporary understanding of what struggles with France meant.


War and policy

It was a truth universally acknowledged in the era before Adam Smith that the government had both the right and obligation to regulate the economy for the public good. Such intervention was usually concerned to achieve one or more of three aims. First, the protection and enhancement of national wealth by securing what was termed ‘a favourable balance of trade’. To this end, the government took measures to promote exports, to limit imports, especially of finished goods, and to encourage import-substitute manufactures. Second, the support of industries and activities that enhanced England’s military power: the manufacture of iron, copper, brass and gunpowder, the provision of such naval stores as masts, tar and hemp, the building of a strong merchant marine and the ‘nursing’ of a substantial body of skilled seaman. Finally, the maintenance of good order and social harmony through the regulation of the market, the alleviation of poverty and the protection of employment.

The first two of these aims were those most directly connected with the diplomatic and military activities of the eighteenth-century state. Indeed, it is tempting to argue, in the manner first associated with Adam Smith, that the pursuit of a favourable balance of trade, together with the protection and

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