The Silk Interest and the Fiscal-Military State William Farrell

From the 1680s to the 1780s the textile industries in Britain received an unprecedented level of state protection and incentives. Producers of woollens, worsteds, linens and silks all won legislation that banned competing foreign imports from entering the domestic market, favourable duties on raw material imports, bounties to encourage exports and measures to prevent tools and artisans from leaving the country.1 Indeed Ralph Davis argued that such was the extent of this support that the linen and silk industries in Britain were largely the creation of the protectionism introduced between 1680 and 1720.2 The textile industries stand out as the only manufacturing sector to receive this kind of sustained protection and attention.3 Raymond Sickinger sees the policy objectives and their rationalisation as revealing a classic ‘mercantilist’ framework. Legislation was designed to protect Britain’s manufacturing base from foreign competition, and to stop any technical advantages the country had from falling into the hands of rivals. A recurring justification was the need to provide full employment for the national good.4 Recent work by historians has focused on the wider construction of economic regulation in Britain in the period before the Industrial Revolution. For Philip Stern and Carl Wennerlind this has been part of an attempt to rehabilitate the concept of ‘mercantilism’ as

a way of looking at early modern political economy.5 For others, such as Perry Gauci and Julian Hoppit, the focus has been on examining how the regulatory system was put in place and operated, and where its influence fell (or did not fall) on Britain’s economy. In this view, regulation when it did occur was not driven by an overarching government policy or ideology. It was Parliament, responding to the demands of interest groups, which constructed this system. This was a period of increasing legislative activity in Westminster, the majority of which responded to ‘particular’ or local issues.6 Instead of establishing bodies supervising particular sectors, most legislation focused on using Customs and Excise duties to better protect and encourage domestic production.7