Thursday, 19 May 2011

Was Victorian Britain a class society?

If it is legitimate to speak of a class only when a group is united in every conceivable way then the concept is rendered meaningless. Classes are not and never were monolithic blocks of identical individuals. The critical question is whether working people in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries consciously acted as members of a class as well as in other roles. Historians have interpreted class in different ways. At one extreme are those who argue that class and class action were abnormal and that individual interest was always more powerful than class loyalty. On the other, some historians see social developments in which class conflict played an integral and inevitable role. So what conclusions can be reached from this tendentious debate? By 1850 it is possible to identify a middle-class(es) with clearly defined ‘consciousness’ based on notions of respectability and self help and with a strong organisational base. That consciousness had percolated down and reinforced traditional, independent artisan values. There were important distinctions within the working population, for example between rural and urban, agricultural and industrial, skilled and unskilled and technologically obsolete and innovative occupations that helped to determine attitudes and perceptions. It is possible to identify different levels of class-consciousness within the working population that found itself in a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the more homogeneous middle-class ideology. Changes in social attitudes and values were the result of dialogue and conflict between the older notion of paternalism and the newer conceptions of class.

Class 7

The period between 1832 and 1914 can be viewed in terms of three broad phases of ‘class development’. The first, what Foster calls it the period of class consciousness’ and Perkin ‘an immature class system’, was over by the early 1850s. It was characterised by the confrontational politics of Chartism, a consequence in part of the depressed state of the economy from the mid-1830s through to the late 1840s and the emergence of middle-class pressure group politics as a means of challenging aristocratic control over government and policy-making. The second phase, corresponding to Perkin’s ‘mature class system’ and Foster’s ‘liberalised consciousness’ covers the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. Confrontational politics became less important though pressure groups, whether in the form of middle-class campaigns or working-class ‘new model unionism’, became increasingly effective. ‘Distress’ ceased to be a motive force for working-class action. Overall the economy was more prosperous, at least until the 1870s, and there were improvements in standards of living across most sections of society. The third phase began in the 1880s and led to the social ‘crises’ of the Edwardian era. There were cogent challenges to the existing system from socialism and Marxism and a growing awareness of the failure of Britain’s industrial economy to compete effectively against newly industrialised states such as Germany and the United States or to provide the necessary resources to resolve the twin problems of poverty and unemployment.

Mass or ‘new’ unionism led to the re-emergence of confrontational politics and to recognition by government, at local and national levels, that the issues raised by the embryonic Labour party could not be addressed successful through existing mechanisms. The Liberal reforms after 1906 can be seen as a belated attempt both to provide support for the existing system and to head off the threat from Labour. In both respects they failed. The 1830s began with the existing social and political system under concerted attack from those who were, by the partial nature of the voting system, excluded from what they saw as their right to participate in the system and benefit from that participation. By 1914, things had gone full circle.

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