Thursday, 14 August 2008

The aristocratic elite: Elites, elections and the establishment

It was in the field of politics that the new patterns of class alignment were to be found at their clearest. Between 1800 and 1850 the national political rulers were drawn exclusively from the landed classes and the City fraction of the commercial class, with the manufacturers and provincial merchants pursuing their interests in the towns and cities. From the middle of the centre this old patrician approach to national politics began to break down as the changing balance of power between the privileged classes led to changes in the composition of the political leadership.

The policy of the ruling Tory elite that dominated politics between the 1780s and 1830 was essentially a negative protection of the established social order: no parliamentary reform and no concessions to working-class or middle-class radicalism. However, the changing balance of power between the landed class and the manufacturing class meant that some economic reforms were eventually abandoned by government while attempts were also made to bolster agriculture. In 1813-1814 the state finally abandoned Elizabethan wage and apprenticeship regulations but in 1815 it introduced the Corn Laws. More economic controls were dismantled in the 1820s but the pace of economic change was not as rapid as many manufacturers demanded. It was not until the Whigs came to power in late 1830 that this changed.

The Whig government faced with the tension between maintaining the political hegemony of the landed class and satisfying the demands of their commercial and manufacturing supporters, speeded-up the move towards a laissez-faire, facilitative state and succeeded in forcing the 1832 Reform Act through Parliament. But the major area of political activity for the middle-classes was at the local level. Local politics was seen as more important that national politics and the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 more important than 1832.

The major line of division was not, however, between town and country but within towns. A county group of established merchants and manufacturers, generally Anglican and Tory, were oriented towards the local gentry. They competed with a metropolitan group of newer manufacturers, often Nonconformists and oriented towards the Whigs, for control of the council and the magistracy and to determine the choice of MPs. In Oldham, for example, there was a separation between the cotton dynasties who looked towards the merchant dynasties of Manchester and the older capitalists (especially colliery-owners) who looked towards the local landowners.

Elitism and electoralism

Until the 1860s the dominant form of political representation can be called ‘elitism’. This meant that the system of representation in which the interests of the privileged social class were mediated through their position as a dominant status group. In the first half of the century the notion of the gentleman was the means through which the landed class defined itself as the natural rulers of society. The patrician values of the landed class, the basis on which that class defined itself as an ‘elite’, justified their monopolisation of political power through personal participation in the apparatus of the state. Landowners regarded themselves as having the right, indeed the obligation, to exercise such power and to speak on behalf of those who were not entitled or competent to participate in the exercise of political power themselves. This ‘elitism’ was essentially a revamped version of the more parasitic, oligarchic representation of the eighteenth century and constituted a comprehensive system of political representation running from the level of national government, through county politics, to the level of the parish. The aristocratic elite were dominant at national level leaving the gentry to control local politics.

From the 1840s a rival principle of ‘electoralism’ became increasingly important. This involved a fundamentally different principle of political representation. Class interests were to be represented in the state not through a personalistic, elitist system but through those who were elected to decision-making positions by those whom wished to have their interests represented. Politics was to be based on an open and critical dialogue in the ‘public sphere’, where public opinion could be formed and decisions reached. Parliament and parliamentary elections were at the centre of this public sphere. Manufacturers may have been individualist in business but they introduced the idea of combination for political purposes. Pressure group politics, whether by ‘societies’, ‘leagues’ or ‘unions’ became the norm of metropolitan politics and the political interests of business were expressed in the Chambers of Commerce that were formed in the larger cities and spread more widely in the 1840s and 1850s. The move towards electoralism can be seen in the development of central headquarters for the Conservative and Whig parties at White’s Club and the Brooks’ Club and Reform Club respectively. These bodies acted as headquarters for the party activists and handled electoral registration, selection of candidates and liaison between local and national leadership and marked the first step towards party organisation.

Between 1840 and 1870 there was a period of confrontation between elitist and electoral politics. Prior to 1840 the elitist principle was largely undisputed. After this period formal party organisations were rapidly expanding, but the outcome was not simply the replacement of elitism by electoralism. Rather, the landed class had to come to a compromise with the manufacturing classes, and the structure of political representation reflected the nature of this compromise. At the heart of the elitist system of representation was the notion of deference. Walter Bagehot, a mid century commentator, saw the existence of the monarchy and the peerage was central to legitimation. They were the ‘dignified’ aspects of the state and their theatrical elements constituted a residue of tradition inherited from a long past. Although both performed real political functions, a peerage culminating in a royal family gave a ‘sacred’ quality to the laws and practices of the state. The landowners’ obligation to shoulder responsibilities for others was an integral part of this pattern, since deference was expected to be shown to those who carried out these obligations. But deference could not easily be transferred to an expanding urban context and so could not be relied on to provide an effective guarantee for the continuing political rule of the landed class. Elitism therefore came under increasing strain as urban influences grew.

This system of deference is apparent in the social backgrounds of the political rulers of the period. The 1832 reforms opened up the system a little, but the elitist pattern of representation remained largely unaltered. Of the 13 Cabinets formed between 1830 and 1868, peers and commoners were each dominant in six and the two Houses balanced in one. Those Cabinets in which the Lords had a majority tended to be relatively short-lived Conservative administrations and it might be assumed from this that the Commons was the more important institution. To some extent this is true, but those who entered the Commons were not substantially different from those in the Lords. Of the 103 men holding Cabinet office between 1830 and 1868, 68 were major landowners, 21 merchant bankers and 14 were from the legal and medical professions. In the Parliament of 1833 there were 217 MPs who were sons of peers or who were themselves baronets. By 1880 the number had only fallen slightly to 170. Not only were there close links between the Commons and Lords but the landowners who were active in parliament were drawn heavily from those who had diversified into other economic activities. In the period 1841-7 the total of 815 MPs in seats at some time included 234 non-peerage landowners. The 166 heads of landowning families in parliament included 26 who had active business interests and many more who held directorships in railways, insurance and joint-stock banks. Most of the 26 with active business interests were private bankers or merchant bankers and only 6 were manufacturers.

This elitist pattern of representation was not confined to Parliament or central government. It permeated local administration and played a central part in the military. The pattern of recruitment to the officer corps meant that the structure of authority in the army mirrored that in wider society and that the army constituted a pool of suitable recruits for political careers. Military participation was an important part of the experience of a large proportion of the landed class, with military participation being proportionately more important for the higher ranks of the peerage.

The rival groups of Conservatives and Whigs competed with one another for the support of the privileged classes. The Conservatives depended upon most landowners and farmers, together with the support of the colonial and shipping interest and those attached to the Established Church. They were, in Marx’s words, ‘the guardians of Old England’. The Whigs, or Liberals as they became in the late 1850s, were also drawn from the landed class, but attempted to articulate the interests of the manufacturing and commercial classes. The Liberals therefore consisted of the old Whigs, the manufacturers and the City faction. During the 1840s the Conservatives began to broaden the base of their support in the commercial and manufacturing classes but the eventual repeal of the Corn Laws led to this Peelite group splitting-off from the rest of the party.

Electoralism and elitism

Electoralism got under way in earnest in the early 1860s when the Conservative and Liberal parties set up national Registration Associations to take over the headquarters services provided by the political clubs. The reforms of the 1830s had finally freed many MPs from the webs of patronage and corruption through which government had managed them. The absence of party control until the 1860s often made it difficult for governments to control their supporters, though there is amply evidence to show that most MPs either supported one party or the other or voted accordingly.

The emergence of a national party system strengthened government in relation to parliament and began to integrate parliament into a formal system of electoral representation. The creation in Birmingham in 1877 of a National Liberal Federation by a caucus of local activists was an important step in furthering the process by which parties, as vote-getting machines, became the dominant feature of political representation. The gradual build-up of electoral organisations broke the old elitist system of representation and the period from the second Reform Act 1867 up to 1885 was essentially a period of alternating governments under Disraeli and Gladstone. The emergence of electoralism involved an important transformation of the political system as the mode of political representation gradually came to reflect the changing balance of power among the privileged classes. The old elitist pattern was modified not destroyed and the landed class remaining an important social and political force. The result, in the last third of the century, was the emergence of the ‘establishment’ as the newly prominent manufacturers and their party machines were admitted to the sphere of informality and personal connections that characterised the landed classes. In return for accepting the hegemony of the values and life-style of the landed class, the most prominent manufacturers were admitted as full members of the status group of ‘gentlemen’. The public schools, the professions and the church became essential supports for the establishment that now dominated British public life.

Between the 1880s and 1914 there was a fundamental restructuring of party politics as the Conservatives became the true party of the establishment. As the Liberals became more identified with intervention and reform, the Conservative party was a safe haven for those who feared the idea of the increasing political power of the working-classes. In 1886 the old Whigs and the Liberal Unionists split from the official Liberals over Ireland and made an electoral pact with the Conservatives and in 1912 the Unionists entered into full merger. The Conservatives became the Imperial party, the party of Queen and Empire, ‘social justice’ and ‘social reform’. The traditional landed and agrarian groups gravitated towards the Conservatives as did the commercial and financial interests and eventually the manufacturers. The establishment party drew support, not only from the privileged classes, but also from the middle stratum of clerks, shopkeepers and so on.

The establishment was an all-pervasive social and political force, dominating all aspects of the state. In the period after 1868 there was a greater representation of new wealth in parliament. In 1885 16 per cent of MPs were landowners, 12 per cent from the military but 32 per cent were from the law and other professions and 38 per cent from industry and commerce. Between 1868 and 1886 27 out of the 49 men holding Cabinet office were landowners, but between 1886 and 1914 the proportion fell to 49 out of 101. The fall in the representation of landowners was not simply a fall in the number of landowning MPs but also a fall in the average size of their estates. There was a fall in the number of hereditary titles represented in parliament but there was a constant number of knights until 1918 when the numbers increased. Businessmen were increasingly given knighthoods and baronetcies rather than full peerage. It was Queen Victoria who regarded the baronetcy as appropriate for the middle-classes who might find difficulty in coping with the expense and responsibility of a peerage. In 1895 there were 31 millionaire MPs and by 1906 only 22. This links to the decreasing importance of land as a source of millionaires at the end of the century.

The establishment, as a dominant status group, still monopolised the most important national and local political positions as well as recruitment to the army and to the important professions of the church and law. But even here there is evidence of change. By 1900 there were 60 bishops (26 had seats in the Lords) of whom only 30 per cent were recruited from the landed classes. Half the bishops had wives who came from the landed classes and 90 per cent of bishops were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. Similarly, just under three quarters of all judges between 1876 and 1920 came from the landed or business classes. Landed values were transmitted by the public schools and this ensured the continuing influence of this group.

At the heart of the establishment was the peerage. No longer allocated through political patronage, peerage gradually came to be seen as indicators of achievement in politics and public service. Thus, the accommodation between the landowners and the manufacturing and commercial classes was reflected in the awarding of peerage and other titles to non-landowners. Of the 463 people awarded peerage between 1837 and 1911, 125 were neither magnates nor gentry. These men made up 10 per cent of the new peerage at the beginning and 43 per cent at the end. The annual rate of peerage creation increased rapidly from the 1860s, the main new entrants being the politically active elements of the new commercial and manufacturing classes. Only after 1885, when the brewers Allsopp, Guinness and Bass and the railway contractor Brassey entered the Lords, did businessmen enter the peerage in any numbers. Between 1880 and 1914 200 new peers were created: a quarter from the land, a third from industry and a third from professions such as the army and the law. Between 1875 and 1904 162 peerage and 300 baronetcies were created but 2,659 knighthoods were granted in the same period. New orders of knighthoods were created for diplomatic and Indian services, the Royal Victorian Order was initiated for special public services and the grade of knight bachelor was expanded. The mixture of ‘old’ and ‘new’ in the establishment is brought out in the fact that between 1880 and 1914 more than a half of all knights had fathers who were peers, baronets, knights or landowners.

The ‘establishment’ was a tightly knit group of intermarried families that former the political rulers of Britain and that monopolised recruitment to all the major social positions. The new party organisations were a part of this establishment, with the party headquarters and parliamentary leadership being drawn into the pattern of exclusivity of the London gentleman’s club where the ethos and values of the public schools were carried forward into adult life. In economic terms, however, the privileged classes remained relatively distinct. A unified propertied class had not been created by 1914.

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