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Politics and Opinion in Crisis: 1678-81.

This book which is based on the author's Blair Worden-supervised Oxford thesis revises a number of orthodoxies concerning the politics of the Exclusion period. Most notably, the view that Mark Knights most persistently challenges is that associated with James Jones and Richard Ashcraft. According to this view, the period 1678-81 saw a political crisis in which the "(Whig) party formed itself around the single issue of exclusion, and placed itself under the leadership of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who used an unprecedented degree of party management and organisation" (p. 7). The author is, however, almost as emphatic in rejecting what might be described as the continuity" approach to seventeenth-century English political history most recently presented by Jonathan Scott. According to this view, the political crisis of the late seventies had a lot in common with those of the pre-Civil War period with respect to both the issues in dispute and the political structures in which they occurred. In Scott's view, the matters most strenuously disputed before and after the Civil War were popery, arbitrary government, and relations with France, and in both periods disputes took place between and among "competing factions," (p. 10) not political parties in the modem sense of the term.

Knights's study steers a careful and judicious path between these competing views and develops persuasively a re-interpretation of what has long been labelled the "Exclusion Crisis." In the first part of this book, Knights focuses on Parliament and the court and he argues that the crisis was about a range of issues surrounding the succession problem and not just about exclusion. The expedients considered by politicians between 1678 and 1681 included plans to limit the powers of a catholic king," (p. 53) a royal divorce, an association of Protestants, the legitimization of Monmouth or a regency, with Exclusion attracting broad support only late in 1680. While Knights does not reject out of hand the role of ideology in this period, he does see both parliamentary and court politics largely in terms of factions. The weakness of the court, the highly personal and factional nature of contemporary politics, the competing interests of the French and Dutch interests are all at least as important ideology in shaping the crisis. Furthermore, he argues, Shaftesbury's role as the party chief has been greatly exaggerated and even the term "Whig" itself should be "reserved for the ideological remnant of the opposition to the court in 1681" (p. 144). Neither of the term "Whig" or "Tory" were commonly used before 1681 and this language, he suggests, is better employed to "describe the outcome of the crisis" (p. 356) not its cause, or even its course.

The second part of Knights's study leaves the high politics of the centre and focuses instead on public opinion in the localities during the period of the crisis. Here he argues that "there was both a succession crisis and a crisis about popery and arbitrary government" (p. 53) but that exclusion, along with fear of both poper-y and arbitrary government were all intertwined and almost indistinguishable. The author has studied carefully the propaganda of the period that was aimed at broad public opinion and his analysis of it supports the conclusions he has drawn from his study of high politics. The issues that were at stake in the general elections and in the campaigns of petitions and addresses were about more than exclusion. It was in fact the blend of religious and constitutional issues that led to the emergence of party politics between 1679 and 1681 but in the end it was the "debate about the constitution that provided the crisis with much of its real depth and fire, and gave the period its radicalism" (p. 367).

This is a fine book which no student of the period can afford to ignore. This is not to say, however, that Dr. Knights has got it all right. Take, for instance, his insistence that politics in the early eighties are distinctly different from those of two generations before. It is hard not to see a fundamental continuity throughout the entire seventeenth century when we read the author's assertion that "in 1681 it became possible to characterize the Whigs in religious terms as Calvinists who believed that the Church of England was imperfectly reformed and still contained popish elements" (p. 356). If this is true, then just how different are the 1681 Whigs from Pym's followers forty years before? Then there is his reliance on "fear of popery" as a general, all-purpose category which ebbs and flows during the crisis months under close review -- as throughout the rest of the seventeenth century. Like many other historians, including this reviewer, Knights does not do much with antipopery except call on it to explain "fluctuations in the intensity of the crisis" without really subjecting it to much analysis. What exactly is fear of popery? Is it always the same? Was Pym's fear of popery different from Shaftesbury's? If so, what does this mean for the argument for continuity? If not, then bow exactly were they different?
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Author:Finlayson, Michael
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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