Britain in the eighteenth century, it was sometimes suggested, had a 'Venetian constitution', with a small, closed group of landowners dominating the state like the élite of Venice. Britain, contended Benjamin Disraeli, suffered from a combination of 'Venetian politics, Dutch finance and French wars' 1 by which Whig aristocratic landowners controlled the state, raising loans in London to finance war on the lines established by Dutch financiers who had been introduced into England by William of Orange. The 'triumph of the Venetian oligarchy' has been linked, above all, to the political career of Robert Walpole who, according to his modern biographer, 'fused the interests of aristocracy, high finance, and executive government':
The Revolution of 1688 and all that followed were retrogressive from the point of view of the emergence of the middle class into political power. Socially and economically they continued to thrive, but not politically. The power of the land and of commerce fused to create a paradise for gentlemen, for the aristocracy of birth; it thus became much easier for England to adopt an imperial authority, to role alien peoples, and to train its ruling class for that purpose, rather than to adjust its institutions and its social system to the needs of an industrial society. 2
The outcome, so it is argued, was 'gentlemanly capitalism', an alliance between a prosperous agrarian capitalism and the power of commerce and finance in pursuit of empire, which subordinated industrial capitalism and excluded the industrial middle class from power and influence.
The proponents of 'Venetian oligarchy' or 'gentlemanly capitalism' can make a strong case. General elections became less frequent with the increase in the life of parliament from five to seven years in 1716; and only about a third of constituencies were contested when an election was called. The franchise was limited and became more restricted, and the distribution of seats was full of