Parliamentary Reform under William III
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
.. continued from the previous article ...
The triumph of La Hogue was somewhat obscured by the failure to follow it up with effective blows and also by the defeat of William at Steinkirk. William was one of those commanders who rarely won a victory in the field, yet possessed a marvellous skill in preventing the enemy from turning a defeat to account. The French General Luxemburg gained little by Steinkirk, but English public opinion was irritated because the English troops which had borne the brunt of the fight were badly cut up, and for this some of William's Dutch officers were held to blame.
So when William returned to England for the winter he found a parliament ill content and murmuring of grievances. Nevertheless the necessity for continuing the war was paramount; the attacks on the government were defeated, and William obtained the required supplies. The two exceedingly important measures by which this end was achieved will be discussed in the ensuing chapter.
Here it will suffice to explain that the first was a new assessment of the Land tax, which became the principal source of revenue, and the second was the creation of the National Debt, a system of borrowing for national purposes, and (in the first instance) spreading the repayment over a term of years in the form of annuities to the lenders.
Again, in 1693, the war went unsatisfactorily. William was again defeated at Neerwinden or Landen, though again the French victory was barely won and was of little immediate service. England, however, suffered a serious blow. A great merchant fleet, English and Dutch, known as the Smyrna Fleet, assembled to sail for Smyrna and the Levant.
In spite of the great naval preponderance won at La Hogue, an insufficient escort was provided. Off the Spanish coast the Smyrna fleet was assailed by the French Navy, which had concentrated in the Mediterranean. The odds were so overwhelming that the escort had no choice but to take refuge in flight, and the entire merchant fleet of four hundred vessels was either captured or wrecked.
This disaster had a somewhat curious consequence. Hitherto William had held fast to his principle of employing ministers from both parties, being extremely anxious not to identify himself either with Whigs or with Tories, although in many respects the Whig interests were more closely allied with his own. He had been particularly anxious not to part with Nottingham, a Tory in whose honesty he had great confidence. Antagonism between Nottingham and Russell had made it impossible to retain both in the ministry, and Russell had been removed from the Admiralty.
The failure of the Admiralty produced an insistent demand for Russell's reinstatement, which necessitated the retirement of Nottingham; and William at last made up his mind to form a Whig ministry and thus to initiate the system of party government. This device is attributed to the counsels of Sunderland, who, although he had been excluded from the Act of Grace, had been allowed to return to England and had been received to some extent into William's favour, although not admitted to office.
The division of parliament into two great parties was, as we saw, a product of the latter years of Charles II, but it caused no immediate change in the old system by which the king chose his ministers as he thought fit, without reference to the Legislature. To no one was it obvious that if the administration and the parliament were to be in agreement the ministers themselves must be in harmony with the majority in the House of Commons, and must therefore be members of the party which held the majority in that Chamber.
For it was still the theory that policy was directed by the king and that the ministers were the men chosen by him to carry out not their ideas but his. They were counsellors no doubt by whose advice his ideas might be modified, but it was their business to do what the king wished them to do. If they disagreed they were none the less supposed not to resign but to obey; if they failed they were dismissed.
There was no collective responsibility; each man was directly responsible to the king for his own doings. It was only in the reign of Charles II, that it had been claimed that the minister was responsible not only to the king but to parliament. The fact that a Whig majority in one parliament gave way to a Tory majority in the next was no reason, on these principles, why the king should change his ministers, though he might find it necessary to modify his policy in order to avoid a deadlock.
Now at this early stage the rule of selecting ministers from one party presented itself merely as a matter of practical convenience, the outcome of the division of parliament on party lines which itself was hardly twenty years old. In course of time it came to mean that the policy of the Crown must be the policy advocated by ministers as a body, and that must be a policy supported by the party as a whole from which the ministerial body was selected; ministers became the medium for imposing upon the Crown the policy approved by the majority in parliament.
But at the outset ministers appeared to be the medium through which the majority in parliament was to be induced to support the policy of the Crown. So much was this felt to be the case that for a long time to come there was a strong sentiment in favour of excluding office-holders under the Crown from the House of Commons in order that the Crown might not exercise undue influence on that body. To this now antiquated sentiment is due the rule that a member of parliament being appointed to office under the Crown must seek re-election.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.