The Private Sector
What do you do when the country is under threat and government resources cannot cope? What do you do with monster nationalised businesses that are inefficient? In the case of the former, you enlist the private sector. With the latter, you return to the private sector, those enterprises that built the networks and utilities in the first place. Specifically in Elizabethan times when you have a long war with Spain and a small navy, you enlist the help of privateers like Sir Francis Drake. In the 1970s when trade unions have been hijacked by a few militants and the dead are dumped at the entrance to cemeteries, it is time to roll back the state.
The privateers paid for their licence or Letters of Marque and gave a portion of their plunder to the Queen. The £billions raised from the privatisation of the previously nationalised businesses, transformed state finances. The whole exercise was such a success that the Russians copied it.
Both exercises were started in the reign and government respectively of Queen Elizabeth I and Baroness Thatcher - two of the toughest leaders this country has ever had. The strategy eventually gave the UK an empire that still allows this country to punch above its weight in world politics – something that rattles President Obama, for example.
Though this upset those who (following in the footsteps of Sir Julian Corbett’s study of the 1890s), saw Drake as a hero and masterly naval strategist, Andrews was keen to underline that privateering played a significant role in helping to establish England’s “command of the seas”.
English adventurers such as Drake, Hawkins, Raleigh, and Frobisher were given letters of marque to prey on Spanish ships from the Channel to the Caribbean, off the coast of Spain and Portugal, and along the treasure and supply lanes of the Atlantic passages. Sailors preferred to serve on a privateer (where they shared in the prize money) rather than on a royal ship owned by the monarch (which paid poor or even no wages).
Some historians, concerned to emphasise the peaceful side of Elizabethan expansionism, had seen plunder as irrelevant or inimical to the true purposes of oceanic voyage, but Andrews saw the predatory features of the great voyages of men like Drake as an integral part of the enterprise. Andrews felt that both economic and naval historians had, from their different standpoints, “generally failed equally to see the connections between overseas trade and maritime warfare”. His work had been a “long uphill battle to bridge this gap”.
In the end, however, Andrews’s Drake’s Voyages (1967) had a huge impact on the way in which Drake has been seen by subsequent biographers.
In Andrews’s account, the quest for Iberian riches became a popular movement which involved not only the privateers themselves, but a cast of characters ranging from the leading London merchants and court gentry to merchant seamen (who often indulged in piracy to supplement their meagre earnings) and the people of the coasts and minor ports.
Andrews considered the impetus behind the Elizabethan adventurers to be the “social gunpowder” of a feudal society in dissolution and a capitalist society emergent but aggravated by economic distress. Without the safety valve of the sea, he suggested, England might have experienced the endemic plague of political disorder that virtually paralysed France during the same period.
The impact of privateers on Spanish shipping, Andrews argued, helped in the long run to undermine the powerful Iberian economy. Meanwhile the capital accumulated by the privateers and their investors played no small part in the launching of the East India Company and the financing of the Virginia Plantation, and thus, ultimately, in the development of the British Empire.