Historian Anton Howes on the push/pull dynamics between monarchs and parliaments, and the gradual building of state capacity in 16th century Britain.
It’s easy to imagine that governments were always as bureaucratic as they are today. Certain policies, like the widespread granting of monopolies in the seventeenth century, or the presence of a powerful landed aristocracy, seem like archaic products of a past that was simply more corrupt. The fact that governments rarely got involved with healthcare or education before the mid-nineteenth century seems the product of a lack of imagination, or perhaps yet another product of our ancestors’ venality – simply what happens when you put the war-hungry knights and nobles in charge.
In reality, rulers of the age had little central authority they could wield in building the state’s capacity. Sure they could will certain things into or out of law, but if they wanted to build a capability of the state to deliver goods or services, they were largely at the mercy of subjects.
In a world without bureaucracy, when state capacity was relatively lacking, it’s difficult to see what other options monarchs would have had. Suppose yourself transported to the throne of England in 1500, and crowned monarch. Once you bored of the novelty and luxuries of being head of state, you might become concerned about the lot of the common man and woman. Yet even if you wanted to create a healthcare system, or make education free and universal to all children, or even create a police force (London didn’t get one until 1829, and the rest of the country not til much later), there is absolutely no way you could succeed.
Gradually, convening parliaments (which weren’t always continuous, but called and dismissed on whims) was discovered to be a mediating function to delegate capacity needs like tax collection and other locale-specific functions.
It really is amazing how recent certain innovations are, that true state capacity in the modern sense isn’t more than a couple centuries old period, and really that capacity has expanded enormously even in the postwar era.