Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Middle class protest

The emergence of the middle classes was a product of industrialisation and urbanisation and between 1780 and 1850 they established themselves as a challenge of the political hegemony of the landed interest[1]. Middle class radicalism was centred in the professional and manufacturing classes. The growth of new professions outside the traditional areas of the Church, law and medicine was one of the most important aspects of middle class development during the first half of the nineteenth century. These professions were imbued with the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and the Mills, father and son, in which value was determined not by tradition but by the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number’ and which provided an innovative way of critiquing contemporary society and its institutions. Manufacturers like Richard Bright and Henry Ashworth provided an alternative and extremely successful economic focus grounded not in landed but manufacturing wealth.

Ideologically and economically successful though the middle classes were, their transformation of the social and political structure was slow and uneven in the first half of the century. Though they had successes in specific areas they lacked both the power and the will to undermine effectively the political hegemony of the traditional landed interest. There was considerable diversity of economic status among the middle classes which meant that, though historians with some validity have emphasised their homogeneity in contrast to heterogeneity of the working population, they were not as united, or as class conscious or a radical as has frequently been made out. The pre-industrial commercial-financial interest was very conservative in outlook. The new professional classes were concerned with status and upward mobility and were often unsympathetic to radicalism. The northern manufacturing classes, which formed the mainstay of the Anti-Corn Law League (ACLL), proved erratic reformers in the 1850s once their economic grievances had been settled. Middle class radicals in the first half of the nineteenth century did not represent either the ‘nation’ or the middle classes as a whole but simply the ‘vanguard of the bourgeoisie’.

Like the Chartists, middle class radicals detested the ‘aristocratic ideal’ and its social, religious and political domination based on rank, prescription and tradition. They differed from the Chartists in their attack on the aristocracy by expressing that opposition not through the idealised Radical ‘tradition’ of abstract political principles but in terms of specific demands like the abolition of the Corn Laws. It was the ‘practical’ nature of its radicalism which marked the middle classes off from the millenarian working class tradition.

During the 1830s and 1840s the Radicals attempted to attack the aristocracy on two fronts: political and economic. The 1832 Reform Act was, in part, a recognition by the Whig leaders of the economic advances of the middle classes in the previous fifty years and an acceptance of their claim for political ‘respectability’. Grey argued in 1831 that concessions to ‘the rational public’ were essential if republicanism and the destruction of existing institutions were to be avoided. The Whigs aimed to strengthen rather than weaken aristocratic power by underpinning it with middle class support and linked the extended franchise with men of ‘property and intelligence’. This strategy successfully split the alliance between middle class Radicals and popular protest, isolating the working population and leaving them politically impotent.

The 1832 Act fell far short of the aspirations of those middle class Radicals who sought to produce a more democratic and just society by undermining the dominance of the aristocracy. From inside Parliament, they sought, to force Grey and Melbourne to introduce further ‘organic reform’ in government and administration. This objective did not seem remote when the reformed Parliament assembled in 1833. Out of the 500 ‘reformers’ who sat in the House of Commons in that year, the Radicals, including the Irish MPs led by O’Connell, formed a bloc of 100-120 MPs, regarded by the official Whigs as a separate and potentially hostile group. The English group consisted of 60-70 MPs but, though they were all Radicals, they differed widely in temperament, background and ideas and never formed a coherent group[2]. The most important representatives of middle class Radicalism were about twenty ‘Philosophic Radicals’: individuals like George Grote, the advocate of the secret ballot, J.A. Roebuck, who denounced all English shams, and Sir William Molesworth, a country gentleman. John Stuart Mill, the most important of these Radicals, was because of his work at the East India Company debarred from Parliament but provided theoretical focus and enthusiastic support from outside especially in his editorship of the London and Westminster Review. Mill hoped that a leader would emerge among the parliamentary Radicals who could weld the whole body of radical opinion into a coherent whole. He was to be disappointed.

The potential Radical strength of 1833 was quickly dissipated and there was a steady decline in their influence down to the 1835 General Election. The parliamentary events of 1834-5 with the resignation of Melbourne, Peel’s minority Conservative administration and the 1835 election led to a slump in the number of official Whigs but an increase in both Radical and Irish MPs. If all three groups worked together they could defeat the Conservatives and Melbourne would be returned to power. This is what happened in the Lichfield House Compact of March 1835 by which O’Connell, in return for Irish reforms, was prepared to support the Whig government. The real losers of this Compact were the English Radicals who were forced to accept an unpalatable Whig government or see the return of Peel. They had lost their capacity to act as a separate ‘party’ or to impose their ideas on the Whig leadership. It was O’Connell rather than the Radicals who controlled the direction of Whig policies.

Russell’s ‘Finality’ speech in late 1837 ruled out further organic reform, though Whig policies on the poor law, church and municipal reform reflected pressure from middle class and Dissenting interests in the country. The position of the parliamentary Radicals was further weakened by the 1837 General Election. The number of Radicals returned was about fifty and many soon drifted back to mainstream Whiggism. Joseph Hume and Arthur Roebuck lost their seats in Middlesex and Bath respectively to Conservatives. Attwood retired in 1839 and in 1841 Grote gave up his seat for the City of London. This marked the effective end of parliamentary Radicalism.

Why did Radicalism fail to alter the balance of political power or lead to further organic reform in the 1830s?  First, the temperament of individual Radicals, especially their inability to work together as a coherent group with a recognised leader, certainly provides part of the answer.  Secondly, they also underestimated the strength of the Conservative reaction and the unwillingness of the Whigs to push fundamental reform after 1832.  Finally, the Radicals have been called ‘amateurs in politics’ and this provides a third explanation for their failure to achieve anything concrete. As ‘amateurs’ they had no basis of support in the country. Few sat for popular constituencies and they had little knowledge of the people on whose behalf they claimed to speak.  Isolated in Parliament they were soon isolated by the political system they were trying to reform and effectively emasculated. The future of middle class Radicalism lay with the extra-parliamentary Anti-Corn Law League.


[1] Dror Wahrman Imagining the Middle Class. The Political Representation of Class in Britain c.1780-1840, CUP, 1995 is the most recent analysis of the emergence of middle class consciousness.

[2] William Thomas The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817-1841, Oxford University Press, 1979 remains the best examination of this amorphous and highly ambiguous political ‘party’. There is also an interesting discussion in Michael J. Turner Independent Radicalism in Early Victorian Britain, Praeger, 2004.

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