Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Politics and Religion

How did Britain’s political system work?
The United Kingdom, based on a single Parliament at Westminster, was quite new in the 1780s. Wales was united with England by legislation in 1536 and 1542. The Act of Union with Scotland was in 1707. However, Ireland did not lose its independence in 1801. The British Constitution of monarchy, House of Commons and House of Lords was held up, particularly by continental writers, as a model of how a country should be run. The American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the outbreak of revolution in France in 1789 led to increasing radical demands for reform of the system.

The electorate.

In the 1780s about 435,000 people in England and Wales could vote out of a population of nine millions, or just over five per cent. In Scotland and Ireland it was less than one per cent of the total population of ten millions. The Septennial Act 1715 established seven-year parliaments though general elections were also held on the death of the monarch, a practice finally ended in 1867.
The House of Commons was made up of MPs from the boroughs or towns and the counties. Both counties and boroughs sent two MPs each to Parliament. In the counties, all forty-shilling freeholders were entitled to vote and some of the counties had a considerable number of voters. Yorkshire, for example, had about 20,000 in the 1780s. Bedfordshire had nearly 4,000 just before the Reform Act, which was average for English counties. In the boroughs, the situation was much more confused. In some towns, the vote was given to the corporation or town council. In others, it was restricted to 'freemen' or to all who owned or occupied certain types of property, who paid local taxes ['scot and lot'] or who were not getting alms or charity ['potwallopers'].

Counties were more democratic than boroughs because the size of the electorate was important in determining the level of corruption. There were 'rotten boroughs', like Dunwich in Suffolk where thirty-two electors chose the two MPs. Where there were a small number of voters, elections allowed them to sell their votes. When William Cobbett stood, unsuccessfully, for parliament in 1806 on a non-corruption ticket he was accused of talking the bread from the mouths of voters. The price varied. Some electors accepted straightforward bribes. Others preferred to negotiate benefits for the town or corporation. Successful candidates were expected to show their gratitude and 'treating' was widespread. An elector had two votes, but could give both their votes or ‘plump’ for one candidate. When it is recalled that more than 40 per cent of the English boroughs had electorates of less than 100 and that two-thirds had electorates below 500, the importance of influence through corruption or 'management' is more understandable. Some boroughs were under the control of a particular family or patron: they were known as 'pocket boroughs' or 'nomination boroughs'. Although control by patrons was accepted, it could not be taken for granted and once achieved it had to be cultivated carefully. Since elections were expensive great efforts were made to avoid a contest whenever possible. Local Whigs and Tories might agree to share the representation rather than incur the cost of disputing it. When the ambitions of two families clashed, it was cheaper for them to take with one seat each rather than embark on the costly and uncertain procedures necessary to win both.

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century elections were noisy, rough and held in public. Drunkenness and rioting were normal events and through the days on which polling took place, the mob revelled in the exhilarating diversions that accompanied the poll. Voting took place over several days on an open husting and unpopular preferences were greeted with catcalls, whistles or over-ripe fruit. Opponents were lured into taverns where they were got drunk and locked up until voting was completed. A memorial tablet in Leeds Parish Church reads "Roger Holt Leigh severely injured by an excited populace when engaged in the exercise of his franchise as Burgess of Wigan that he subsequently died." Since there was no voting register documents were often forged to give people the vote that did not have it. Dead men were impersonated, votes were cast twice and the returning officer often embarrassed his opponents by transferring the hustings to some inaccessible and unadvertised spot. Known enemies were disqualified on trumped up charges. Once all the votes had been cast, there could still be disputes over whether individuals had the right to vote.

Before 1832, working out election results was complicated by the vagueness of party lines, the number of uncontested elections and the presence of 'independent' candidates. National political parties, like those we have today, offering distinctive political programmes and with an organised national and local party machine, did not begin to emerge until after the 1832 Reform Act. However, from the 1780s the number of MPs consistently supporting Tory or Whig positions in divisions in the House of Commons did increase. To talk about the 'Whig' and 'Tory' parties is deceptive. In neither case did the term mean a tightly knit political group, although they both came from the aristocratic landed elite, and it is necessary to give both words a very loose meaning. Lord Liverpool led a broadly Tory government between 1812 and 1827 but his cabinet was not united on fundamental issues. Liverpool remained in office not because he had a united and disciplined party behind him but because he could manage a majority in the Commons and Lords, on most occasions, and because he had the support of George, as Regent before 1820 and then as king. His long period in office demonstrated two particular things. First, as Prime Minister, he had at his disposal large amounts of political patronage, which he used to maintain his authority and 'manage' Parliament. Secondly, the pursuit of planned policies was difficult and through the period successive Prime Ministers tended to react to situations rather than determine them. Changes in direction were only possible when they had widespread support across the political establishment or if the policies were uncontroversial.

Organised religion in the 1780s played a dominant role in people’s lives. Christian principles formed the bedrock of society and its system of morality. Baptism, marriage and burial were key events for individuals. The pulpit was an important means of communication. The churches provided education, especially for the poor, in the form of day and Sunday schools. People often learned to read from the Bible. The language, images and messages of religious belief permeated throughout society.
The fundamental religious division was between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, the religion of the state throughout Great Britain. The Church of England or Anglican Church was the Established Church except in Scotland where the Presbyterian Church had the same role. It was created by Parliament in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its archbishops and bishops, a conservative body largely unwilling to contemplate reform, sat in the House of Lords. The strength of the Church of England lay in rural England and was based on the bond between the squire and the parson. By the 1780s, this cosy relationship was threatened by a weakening of social ties and widespread criticisms of clerical abuses. It was, however, weak in the growing towns. It failed to accommodate growing congregations leaving a religious vacuum among the working population that Nonconformity or Dissent filled from the 1760s and 1770s. Anti-Popery ran deep in British society and Roman Catholics were, until 1829, denied the same civil rights as Protestants. Catholicism in Ireland, the religion of the majority, was seen as a means of expressing nationalist aspirations and consequently as subversive. In Wales Calvinist Methodism increasingly took a similar stance. Chapel and Church were at the heart of many communities providing a focus for spiritual and practical support.


Friday, 24 February 2017

How was British society structured?

All societies are, to some degree, stratified or divided into different social groups. These groups may be in competition with each other for social control or wealth. They may be functional, defined by their contribution to society as a whole. They may share common 'values', have a common 'national identity' or they may form part of a society in which different 'values' coexist with varying degrees of success or conflict. What was British society like in 1780?
The working population
The labouring population made up the bulk of society consisting of those who earned their wages largely through manual work. There were, however, important differences within the working population. People worked in rural or urban environments. Their employment was agricultural, manufacturing or in the growing service sector. Some were skilled, others semi-skilled or unskilled. They were male or female. Agricultural labourers formed a major part of the workforce in rural Britain. There was, however, a distinction between the low waged southern English counties where little alternative employment was available and the higher waged northern counties where farmers had to compete for labour with expanding urban manufacturing industries. Within rural communities there was an important hierarchy based upon levels of skills that paralleled levels of income. Bird-scarers, generally children, were at the base of the hierarchy while ploughmen were at the top. Only the better-educated shepherds had greater status.
The same hierarchy of skill existed in industrial Britain and the distinction between skilled and unskilled or general labourers was one of enduring importance. Artisans formed the 'aristocracy of labour', highly paid and relatively secure in traditional trades largely unchanged by the industrial revolution. They guarded their skills, developed through the process of apprenticeship, against 'dilution' by semi-skilled workers who were paid less. Skilled factory workers, like the fine-cotton spinners and weavers of Lancashire, benefited from new technology. Others like handloom weavers and framework knitters became redundant. The creation of new skills during the industrial revolution led to the gradual creation of new skilled elites: foremen, overseers, mechanics and technicians as well as managers. Semi-skilled and unskilled manual labour was more vulnerable to economic fluctuations and to unemployment or under-employment. Men were generally able to push women to the lower-paid margins of manufacturing. In the textile industries, for example, men dominated new technology like the self-acting spinning 'mule' perfected in the early 1820s. The 'sweated trades' or the growing demands for domestic servants, low skill, low pay, long hours, was the destination for many women.
The diversity of experience is at its starkest in the debate over whether working class standards of living rose or fell between the 1780s and 1840s. Some workers, like navvies, experienced rising wages while others, for example handloom weavers, saw their income decline. This should not be surprising. There were always winners and losers of economic change especially when new technology made particular skills redundant. Even within the same occupation wages varied. In the 1810s printers earned 12-19 shillings in Scotland, 18-22 shillings in northern England, 18-24 shillings in the south east and as much as 25 shillings in London. The difference between the skilled London artisan and a Scottish crofter was, in many respects, as great as that between a member of the aristocracy and a prosperous shopkeeper. Yet, both often shared a common sense of resentment and disillusion at the inequalities in society.
The middle classes
The middle classes were increasingly defined as a 'class' in the late eighteenth century. They were distinguished from the aristocratic elite by the need to earn a living and from the labouring population by their property, however small, represented by stock in trade, tools or by educational investment in skills or expertise. As a class, they benefited from the changes in the economy and, though not exclusively urban, were increasingly found in the growing towns of the provinces. Their homogeneity as a class came from their growing acceptance of a common social and political ideology. This had three strands. First, evangelicalism, whether Anglican or Nonconformist, provided a firm religious foundation grounded in a 'call to seriousness'. This contrasted with the immoral behaviour of the aristocracy. It emphasised the virtues of hard work, plain and moral living, respectable family life and above all conscience. This converted middle class occupations like the law, medicine, the Church and the armed forces into 'callings' or vocations. Secondly, the ideas of Jeremy Bentham allowed attacks on the inefficiency of the aristocratic conception of society. Tradition, restriction and 'influence', the values particular to landed society, were compared, generally unfavourably, with middle class virtues of order, discipline, merit and application. Finally, Political Economy provided an economic justification for their growing power with its focus on the freedom of the market and the virtue of enterprise. The middle classes promoted their ideology with missionary zeal.

In the 1780s the middle classes embraced at one end city bankers and large industrialists with incomes from investment and profits of over £500 per year and at the other extreme small shopkeepers and clerks with annual earnings of only £50. The provincial elites were a small group of men and families who controlled growing industrial complexes. In London, there were the merchant bankers. This elite, on familiar and sometimes marrying terms with the aristocracy, was not representative of the middle class as a whole. The lower middle class was composed of smaller manufacturers, shopkeepers, milliners, tailors, local brewers as well as the rapidly growing number of clerks in both business and government, schoolteachers, an emerging managerial class, accountants, pharmacists and engineers. Aware of their status they maintained an important distinction between themselves as salaried or fee-earning employees and wage-earning manual workers.
The landed classes
In the 1780s, power, economic and political, still lay in the possession and exploitation of land. Landowners did not simply farm their own land or rent it out to tenant farmers. They exploited mineral deposits on their estates providing stone, slate, sand, brick-clay, timber and coal for growing industries. They rented their urban properties in response to a growing housing shortage. They invested in government stocks, the Bank of England, in industry and transport. The Duke of Bridgewater funded the first canal in the 1760s. Landowners benefited from the profits of political office since they monopolised the offices of state, their patronage and revenues. They were adaptable, if conservative, in outlook. A peerage of three hundred wealthy families dominated the landed classes. The estate and the country house were at the heart of their power providing authority and status. They controlled patronage rewarding the loyalty of friends, family and clients openly and without moral scruple to maintain their political power. Beneath of great landowners were the gentry who dominated the counties as squires, Justices of the Peace, poor law officials, churchwardens and backbench MPs. Below the gentry, landed society forked. There was a hierarchy of owner-occupiers or freeholders with incomes ranging from £700 down to as little as £30 per year; and tenant farmers who found their profits threatened by falling food prices and were the most vocal proponents of the Corn Laws.
The basis of landed society was mutual obligations within a hierarchical framework. Deferential attitudes were due to those above and paternalistic attitudes to those below. This was acceptable to most people in rural England and Scotland where the landlord was normally of the same nationality and culture. This was less the case in Wales and Ireland where landlords were often both from an alien culture and religion. However, the 'bond of dependency' between landlord, tenant farmer and labourer was beginning to break down by the 1780s. There had always be popular disturbances like food riots when people reminded those with power of their responsibilities and of the need for 'just wages' and 'just prices'. Food riots in the 1790s, the rural slump after 1815, the riots in the Fens in 1816, in Norfolk and Suffolk in 1822, and particularly the 'Captain Swing' riots across southern England in 1830 challenged established values. Each was largely unsuccessful and harshly repressed. This indicated of a breakdown in the dependency system, what Carlyle called "the abdication on the part of the governors". The market, not appeals to custom and established practice, increasingly determined the social behaviour of the landed classes.
A diverse society
Society in the 1780s was multifaceted. Attitudes were a result of particular circumstances, opportunities and fears created by an economy in which there were elements of continuity as well as change. Social attitudes, behaviour and work patterns were closely linked to support for the social hierarchy. Power was converted into moral authority and ensured the stability of a social hierarchy threatened by change. Deference, whether in urban or rural settings, remained strong because family, work patterns and communities did much to promote it. No one criterion, whether class or paternalism or dependency, can explain the complexities of society in the 1780s.