Saturday, 17 November 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The Final Phase 3

The 1850s pose considerable difficulties for historians. The decade after 1848 saw both the principles and practice of Chartism undermined[1]. Radical protest was stifled by the increasing affluence of the economy, the growing importance of self-improvement among working people, especially the skilled artisan and the ineffectiveness of radical organisations largely because of the growing confidence of the middle classes. The move to liberalism, in this scenario, is seen, Taylor argues, “not as a political development but a retrograde step in class-consciousness”. Chartism in the 1850s was an after-thought. For the historians of Gladstonian Liberalism, radical politics of the 1850s has been largely ignored. John Vincent, for example, focuses on an analysis of the party between 1859 and 1874[2]. Studies of Palmerston’s governments in the 1850s and 1860s[3] see his approach as important because it anticipated Gladstone’s style of leadership. Both Angus Hawkins and E. D. Steele accept that there was a significant degree of discontinuity in British politics in the 1850s. Radicalism declined and liberalism emerged because the Anti-Corn Law League was successful in 1846 and Chartism failed in 1848.

Behind this widespread assumption is the Marxist belief that the fundamental feature of change in capitalist society is class struggle. The issue of working class liberalism is explained away as an interlude between the early socialism of the Chartists and the revival of socialism in the late nineteenth century. There has, however, been an alternative viewpoint stressing the continuity of radical politics across the 1850s. Frances Gillespie’s study of the influence of organised labour on the politics of parliamentary reform between 1850 and 1867 was published in 1927. Simon Maccoby recognises continuities in radicalism between the 1760s and 1914[4]. Historians have neglected both. More recently, however, they have recognised they have underestimated the extent of radical continuity between 1832 and 1867. This has occurred because of two major developments in the historiography of early Victorian politics.

Gareth Stedman Jones argues that there were strong links between Chartism and the older radical critique of the political system that can be traced back to the mid-eighteenth century[5]. The issue, he suggests was not the denial of democratic rights or the exploitation associated with industrialisation, but the corruption associated with uncontrolled executive power. This critique of the ‘Old Corruption’ sought to prevent the executive using its “public position for private gain”[6]. The best way to do this, reformers like John Wilkes and James Mill argued, was to extend popular control over the executive. This, it was maintained, would make it accountable to the electorate. Stedman Jones goes further than this and maintains that the success of Chartism in the 1830s lay in the ability of its leaders to extend this analysis to include the unequal tax burdens shouldered by the working population. This gave their cause considerable breadth and appeal. Peel’s reform of indirect taxation in his 1842 and 1845 budgets and major company and banking reforms led to this radical argument losing its attraction and so “the movement fizzled out”[7]. This conclusion, according to Taylor, has two important implications for an examination of the 1850s. First, it suggests that the success of Chartism and the radical movement in general did not depend on their class composition, or on their ability to express the interests of a single social group. Secondly, Stedman Jones has revived interest in a ‘radical tradition’ that remained largely unchanged between the mid-eighteenth century and the outbreak of war in 1914 despite changes in Britain’s economic and social structure. At the heart of this tradition were popular governance and public accountability and responsibility. Stedman Jones and subsequent historians have restored politics to the radical agenda and weakened some of the focus on class found in earlier work. It does not, however, go far enough in rethinking the chronology of mid-nineteenth century radicalism. Stedman Jones, however, still accepts that a major break occurred in radicalism in the 1840s after the critique of the ‘Old Corruption’[8] lost its relevance unlike historians such as Biagini, Joyce[9] and Vernon[10] who, though in different ways, recognise a unbroken continuity in popular politics across the Victorian period.

This tension, Taylor suggests, may be resolved by looking at a second area of historiographical development, new work on liberalism between 1820 and 1850[11]. This suggests that the modern Liberal party did not emerge overnight in the 1850s but developed gradually in the decades after the Reform Act. The amalgamation of Foxite Whig tradition with Peelite or liberal Toryism brought two important strands to liberalism. The Whigs brought a belief in popular government. Liberal Toryism provided a concern for “efficient, cheap government and moral reform”[12]. The 1832 Reform Act may not have greatly increased the electorate but it certainly increased the power of the House of Commons over the executive. The increase in the number of elections, especially in the 1830s, the growing number of contested constituencies, the expansion of parliamentary petitioning and the emergence of pressure groups like Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League raised people’s expectations of the reformed parliament. This understanding creates a broader context in which to place radicalism between 1830 and the 1860s. The driving force behind radical politics derived not just the radical critique of the state, as Stedman Jones suggests, but from the growing popularity of parliament and the popular desire to control the executive that through the House of Commons.

These two revisionist developments provide a different framework within which to consider the Chartist movement between the 1830s and the 1850s. It is clear that there were continuities in radical ideology. There was also continuity in personnel. The political activists who dominated the Chartist leadership in 1848 were in their early thirties or forties. Many carried their radical politics into the 1850s and 1860s. Pressure group politics also showed considerable continuity. Pressure groups in the 1850s built on the tactics of organisations like the Anti-Slavery Society and the early experience of many mid-century activists lay in campaigns of the 1830s like those for colonial reform and the repeal of the stamp duty. Where there was not continuity was in political strategy. The mass platform disintegrated in 1848. But this was merely one type of political strategy. Alternative strategies were available and perhaps historians need to address the issue of the continuities in strategy between the 1830s and 1850s. The focus on the mass platform and its vigorous defence by O’Connor, however justifiable, may, in some respects, make the break in 1848 appear far greater than in fact it was.


[1] For what follows I have relied heavily on M. Taylor The Decline of British Radicalism 1847-1860, Oxford, 1995, pages 2-9.

[2] John Vincent The Formation of the British Liberal Party 1857-1868, London, 1966.

[3] For example, E.D Steele Palmerston and Liberalism 1855-1865, Cambridge, 1991.

[4] S. Maccoby English Radicalism, six volumes, London, 1935-1961 and S. Maccoby (ed.) The Radical Tradition 1763-1914, London, 1952.

[5] Gareth Stedman Jones ‘Rethinking Chartism’ in his Languages of class: Studies in English working class history 1832-1982, Cambridge, 1983.

[6] Taylor The Decline of British Radicalism 1847-1860, page 5.

[7] Taylor The Decline of British Radicalism 1847-1860, page 5.

[8] W.D. Rubenstein ‘The End of the “Old Corruption” in Britain, c.1780-1860’, Past and Present, volume 101, (1983) is a useful survey of the break in the 1840s. It should be supplemented by Philip Harling The Waning of ‘Old Corruption’. The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain 1779-1846, Oxford, 1996.

[9] P. Joyce Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class 1840-1914, Cambridge, 1991 and P. Joyce Democratic subjects: The self and the social in nineteenth-century England, Cambridge, 1994.

[10] J. Vernon Politics and the People: a Study in English Political Culture 1815-1867, Cambridge, 1993 and J. Vernon (ed.) Re-reading the Constitution: New narratives in the political history of England’s long nineteenth century, Cambridge, 1996.

[11] P. Mandler Aristocratic Government in the Age of Reform: Whigs and Liberals 1830-1852, Oxford, 1990, J. Parry The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain, Yale, 1993 and T.A. Jenkins The Liberal Ascendancy 1830-1886, London, 1994 and Parliament, party and politics in Victorian Britain, Manchester, 1996 are valuable summaries of current thinking.

[12] Taylor The Decline of British Radicalism 1847-1860, page 7.

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