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The Revolutionary Settlement in 17th Century England: Deploying a Political Settlements Analysis

01 November 2010

Current thinking around the concept of the ‘political settlement’ draws largely on the literature about the contemporary politics of development, conflict resolution, peace processes and state-building. But does the approach offer a framework for plausible explanatory accounts of historical and empirical ‘settlements? And do individual cases of ‘political settlements’ help to build a more robust conceptual framework for the comparative understanding of the conditions and prospects for political settlements in general? What policy lessons can be derived from such cases?

This paper offers a brief and preliminary account of how the political processes at work in the revolutionary settlement in late 17th century England can be interpreted through the conceptual framework of the political settlements approach. It suggests that many elements in the current understanding of political settlements were present in the politics of 17th century England in the period after the Civil War and especially in the events leading up to, and following, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689. Although there were key and critical moments, the ‘settlement’ of the late 17th century was not a single event, but a long and on-going process, involving a number of components along a variety of dimensions. It required close interaction and the alignment of key individual leaders and elite interests; it was both prompted and aided by contingent ‘triggers’ along the way which provided both the occasion and incentive to help establish and consolidate this coalition of interests; it indicates the pivotal role of military forces in either supporting or frustrating new political settlements; it shows the importance of popular support for broad components of the settlement; it illustrates that the informal agreements which constitute defining features of the political settlement process need to be institutionalized in more formal arrangements if they are to survive, and that agreeing the detail of such institutions can be very difficult and conflict-prone.

The paper begins by summarising briefly some of the key features of the political settlements approach and suggests ways in which that approach may be deployed as an analytical framework for understanding the English revolutionary settlement. It then lists the key actors in the revolutionary period – which were for the most part leaders, elite groups and coalitions – and their particular interests in either bringing about, or not actively resisting, ‘revolutionary’ change. The paper then discusses the institutional content of the new settlement established under William III, focusing on the Bill of Rights of 1689. Finally, some reflections are put forward as to why these new institutions were successful in maintaining the comparative stability and political viability of the new settlement, and some policy implications are drawn out of the analysis.

This account draws primarily on four key historical texts on the revolutionary period: Jones (1972), Plumb (1967), Schwoerer (1981), and Speck (1988). It deploys important recent conceptual discussions of political settlements in Brown & Gravingholt (2009), Parks & Cole (2010) and Whaites (2008).

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