Friday, 6 May 2011

Paternalism and patronage: a society of elites

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 pluralistic society in which different ‘values’ coexist with varying degrees of consensus or conflict. They have different names like ‘castes’ or ‘ranks’ or ‘classes’. British society in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century has been called a ‘class society’ but there are some differences between historians about its precise meaning or whether it is meaningful at all.[1] Were there two classes or three or five or any classes at all? Were there any common values? They do, however, agree that society in 1914 was different from the society that existed in the 1830s. It is important to have some understanding of the ‘wholeness’ of society, whether nationally or within a given locality because it was the overall structure of society that people were reacting against or attempting to preserve.[2] Individuals must be understood, given meaning and significance, not in isolation but within their web of social relationships.  The underlying basis of the elitism of the aristocracy in the 1830s was one of mutual and reciprocal obligation within a hierarchical framework. Harold Perkin wrote that

The old society, then was a finely graded hierarchy of great subtlety and discrimination, in which men were acutely aware of their exact relation to those immediately above and below them, but only vaguely conscious except at the very top of their connections with those on their own level....There was one horizontal cleavage of great import, that between the ‘gentleman’ and the ‘common people’, but it could scarcely be defined in economic terms.[3]

This view of society had two important dimensions. First, it was paternalistic. What mattered here was not what was later parodied as ‘forelock tugging’ but sympathetic involvement by the elites in the lives of the rest of society. There was an expectation of reciprocity, a common outlook and identification of interests and, if necessary, sheer coercion to maintain the civil stability of a hierarchical social structure. A Christian faith and moral code was a common possession of all of society and rank, station, duty and decorum were central social values.

Class 1

David Roberts provides a useful model of paternalism in early Victorian society.[4] A paternalist saw society in the following ways. First, it should be authoritarian, though tempered by adhesion to the common law and ancient ‘liberties’. Secondly, it should be hierarchical. Thirdly, it should be ‘organic’ with people knowing their appointed place. Finally, it should be ‘pluralistic’ consisting of different hierarchical ‘interests’ making up the organic whole. Within this structure paternalists had certain duties and held certain assumptions. First was the duty to rule, a direct result of wealth and power. Parallel to this was the obligation to help the poor, not merely passively but with active assistance. Paternalists also believed in the duty of ‘guidance’, a firm moral superintendence. Paternalism governed relationships at all levels of society and continued to play an important role even in innovative areas of the economy.[5] Apprenticeship, for example, was more than induction into craft particular skills; it was an immersion in the social experience or common wisdom of the community. Practices, norms and attitudes were, as a result, reproduced through successive generations within an accepted framework of traditional customs and rights grounded in the vaguely defined notion of ‘the moral economy’. [6]

Secondly, patronage was a key feature.[7] Patronage was central to the paternalist ethic and it retained its importance throughout the nineteenth century. It was characteristic of an unequal face-to-face society, crossing social barriers and bringing together potentially hostile groups. Patronage involved a ‘lopsided’ relationship between individuals, a patron and a client of unequal status, wealth and influence. It could be called a ‘package deal’ of reciprocal advantage to the individuals involved. It is true that by the 1830s much of the ‘politically useful’ forms of patronage such as jobs for electors and rewards for political supporters had declined but to assume that there was a general decline in patronage is to fundamentally misconceive the issue.[8] Patronage remained central to the Church of England with successive prime ministers exercising considerable influence over episcopal appointments[9] and in the Arts.[10] The nineteenth century is often seen as an age in which professionalism replaced patronage in British political and social life. The career was opened up to the talents as the upwardly-mobile middle-classes attacked and conquered the old preserves of the aristocracy and gentry; fewer and fewer places were marked ‘reserved’ just because they were within the gift and bequest of those with wealth and property. Elections and examinations made steady inroads into elitism; merit was substituted for manipulation and management.

Many of the political, social and economic changes of the first half of the nineteenth century, however, greatly increased the amount of patronage that was available. There was a dramatic increase in the number of ‘administratively necessary’ offices.[11] The prison, factory, health and schools Inspectorate were all staffed, at least initially, through patronage. This was paralleled in local government where ‘efficient’ patronage was used by rival elites within communities as an extension of party politics. Finally, offices may have been filled by personal nomination but individuals had to possess some basic competence. This notion of ‘merit’ received wider application after the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854, though patronage comfortably withstood much of the onslaught of merit until the 1870s.[12] Only the urban middle-classes of the north were indifferent to patronage though it was still evident in, for example, the promotion of science.[13] The bulk of the middle-classes were located in the genteel world of the professions and of propertyless independent incomes, far less entrepreneurial and competitive than their industrial equivalents. As long as a common area of shared values existed patronage continued to have broad application and utility.


[1] On methodology see Burke, P., History and Social Theory, (Polity), 1992, Abrams, P., Historical Sociology, (Open Books), 1982 and two books by Lloyd, C., Explanation in Social History, (Basil Blackwell), 1986 and The Structures of History, (Basil Blackwell), 1993.

[2] What follows extends arguments developed initially in ibid, Brown, Richard, Change and Continuity in British Society 1800-1850, and ibid, Society and Economy in Modern Britain 1700-1850, (Routledge) 1991, especially pp. 342-367.

[3] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, p. 24.

[4] Roberts, David, Paternalism in Early Victorian England, (Croom Helm), 1979, pp. 2-10.

[5] Revill, George, ‘“Railway Derby”: occupational community, paternalism and corporate culture, 1850-90’, Urban History, Vol. 28, (2001), pp. 378-404 and ‘Liberalism and paternalism: politics and corporate culture in “Railway Derby”, 1865-75’. Social History, Vol. 24, (1999), pp. 196-214 provide a valuable case study.

[6] Thompson, E. P., ‘The Moral Economy of the Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present, Vol. 50, (1971), pp. 76-136, reprinted in his Customs in Common, (Merlin Press), 1991, pp. 185-259, with ‘The Moral Economy Reviewed’, pp. 259-351. There is now a considerable body of literature on the historical application of the model of moral economy including Charlesworth, Andrew and Randall, Adrian, (eds.), The Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Crowds, Conflict and Authority, (Croom Helm), 2000.

[7] Bourne, J.M., Patronage and Society in Nineteenth-Century England, (Edward Arnold), 1986 remains an essential study.

[8] Harling, Philip, The waning of ‘Old Corruption’: the politics of economical reform in Britain, 1779-1846, (Oxford University Press), 1996.

[9] See, for example, Gibson, William T., ‘“A Great Excitement”: Gladstone and church patronage, 1860-1894’, Anglican and Episcopal History, Vol. 68, (1999), pp. 372-396, Disraeli’s church patronage, 1868-1880’, Anglican and Episcopal History, Vol. 62, (1992), pp. 197-210 and ‘The Tories and church patronage: 1812-1830’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 41, (1990), pp. 266-274.

[10] See, Morrison, John, ‘Victorian municipal patronage: the foundation and management of Glasgow Corporation Galleries 1854-1888’, Journal of the History of Collections, Vol. 8, (1996), pp. 93-102 and Wolff, Janet and Arscott, Caroline, ‘“Cultivated Capital”: patronage and art in nineteenth-century Manchester and Leeds’, in ibid, Marsden, Gordon, (ed.), Victorian values: personalities and perspectives in nineteenth-century society, pp. 29-41.

[11] This is evident in Clifton, G.C., Professionalism, patronage and public service in Victorian London: the staff of the Metropolitan Board of Works, 1856-1889, 1992 and Porter, Dale H. and Clifton, G. C., ‘Patronage, professional values and Victorian public works: engineering and contracting the Thames embankment’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 31, (1988), pp. 319-349.

[12] This was particularly evident in the Indian Civil Service: Compton, J.M., ‘Open Competition and the Indian Civil Service, 1854-1876’, English Historical Review, Vol. 83, (1968), pp. 265-284 and Moore, R.J., ‘The abolition of patronage in the Indian Civil Service and the closure of Haileybury College’, Historical Journal, Vol. 7, (1964), pp. 246-257.

[13] Cardwell, D.S.L., ‘The patronage of science in nineteenth-century Manchester’, in Turner, Gerard L’Estrange, (ed.), The patronage of science in the nineteenth century, (Noordhoff), 1976, pp. 95-113.

No comments: