Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Did the political establishment change after 1830?

The system of deference was apparent in the social backgrounds of the political rulers of the period. Reform in 1832 opened up the system a little, but elitist patterns 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. [1] 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. In the Parliament of 1833, there were 217 MPs who were sons of peers or who were themselves baronets. [2] By 1880, the number had only fallen slightly to 170. 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. 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 1841-1847 the total of 815 MPs in seats at some time included 234 non-peerage landowners. [3] 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 and 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. [4] Military participation was an important part of the experience of a large proportion of the landed class and was proportionately more important for the higher ranks of the peerage. The rival groups of Conservatives and Whigs competed for the support of the privileged classes. [5] 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. 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. [6] 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.

Patronage had always played a major role in enabling governments to manage their support. However, by the 1830s, the increasing emasculation of the ‘influence of the Crown’ and especially its capacity to use sinecure positions to garner support for its government made the management of Parliament and especially the House of Commons more problematic. The consequent absence of effective party discipline 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. [7] The resurgence of a Conservative Party during the 1850s and the final emergence of a Liberal Party by 1860 reflected a redefinition of ‘party’ as an effective electoral machine for achieving political power. This was reflected in the recognition by both parties that electoral politics was of increasing dominance within the political system and led to the creation of national Registration Associations by both parties to take over the more informal services provided by the political clubs. [8] The emergence of a national party system, in which party discipline played an increasingly important role, strengthened government control over parliament and restored a degree of political stability that had been lacking in the 1850s. With the increase in the franchise in 1867 and 1884, what became central for both parties was getting their supporters out to vote and, although the two political parties remained largely undemocratic in nature, this represented the beginnings of genuinely ‘popular’ politics. The creation of a National Liberal Federation in Birmingham in 1877 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. [9] The gradual build-up of electoral organisations, the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, the influence of the press and the advent of major political campaigns broke the old elitist system of representation and the period from the second and third Reform Acts saw alternating party governments under Disraeli and Gladstone. [10]

The emergence of electoral politics involved a change of the political system as political representation gradually reflected the changing balance of power among the privileged classes. [11] 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. [12] 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.[13] 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 from sections of the working-class.

The establishment dominated all aspects of the state. In the period after 1868, there was a greater representation of new wealth in parliament. In 1885, 16% of MPs were landowners, 12% from the military but 32% were from the law and other professions and 38% 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 the number of knights remained constant until 1918 when the numbers increased. Businessmen were increasingly given knighthoods and baronetcies rather than full peerage. [14] 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. [15]

The establishment 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 with seats in the Lords of whom only 30% were recruited from the landed classes. Half the bishops had wives who came from the landed classes and 90% of bishops were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. [16] Similarly, less than 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. [17] 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% of the new peerage at the beginning and 43% at the end. The annual rate of peerage creation increased rapidly from the 1860s with new entrants drawn from 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 evident in 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 formed 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 into adult life. In economic terms, however, the privileged classes remained relatively distinct and a unified propertied class had not been created by 1914.


[1] Laski, Harold, ‘The personnel of the English cabinet, 1801-1924’, American Political Science Review, Vol. 22, (1928), pp. 12-31.

[2] See Woolley, S. F., ‘The personnel of the parliament of 1833’, English Historical Review, Vol. 54, (1938), pp. 240-262.

[3] Aydelotte, W. O., ‘A statistical analysis of the Parliament of 1841: some problems of method’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol. 27, (1954), pp. 141-155, and ‘The business interests of the gentry in the parliament of 1841-7’, in ibid, Clark, G. Kitson, The making of Victorian England, pp. 290-305, McLean, Iain, ‘Interests and ideology in the United Kingdom Parliament of 1841-7: an analysis of roll call voting’, in Lovenduski, Joni, & Stanyer, Jeffrey, (eds.), Contemporary political studies 1995, 3 Vols., (Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom), 1995, Vol. 1, pp. 1-20, and Schonhardt-Bailey, Cheryl, ‘Ideology, Party and Interests in the British Parliament of 1841-47’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 33, (2003), pp. 581-605.

[4] Clayton, Anthony, The British officer: leading the army from 1660 to the present, (Pearson Longman), 2006, pp. 92-160.

[5] On the emergence of political parties see Evans, E. J., Political  Parties in Britain 1783-1867, (Methuen), 1985, O’Gorman, F., The Emergence of the British Two-Party System 1760-1832, (Edward Arnold), 1982, and Hill, B.W., British Parliamentary Parties 1742-1832, (Allen and Unwin), 1985. See, for the later period, Jenkins, T. A., Parliament, party and politics in Victorian Britain, (Manchester University Press), 1996, and Hawkins, Angus, British party politics, 1852-1886, (Macmillan), 1998.

[6] Jenkins, T. A., The liberal ascendancy, 1830-1886, (Macmillan), 1994.

[7] See, Jenkins, T. S., ‘The whips in the early-Victorian House of Commons’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 19, (2000), pp. 259-286, and Sainty, John Christopher, and Cox, Gary W., ‘The identification of government whips in the House of Commons, 1830-1905’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 16, (1997), 339-358.

[8] Jaggard, Edwin, ‘Managers and Agents: Conservative Party Organisation in the 1850s’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 27, (2008), pp. 7-18, and Rix, Kathryn, ‘Hidden workers of the party: The professional Liberal agents, 1885-1910’, Journal of Liberal History, Vol. 52, (2006), pp. 4-13.

[9] Watson, R. S., The National Liberal Federation: from its commencement to the general election of 1906, (T. Fisher Unwin), 1907, Herrick, Francis H., ‘The Origins of the National Liberal Federation’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 17, (2), (1945), pp. 116-129, and ibid, Hanham, H. J. Elections and Party Management: Politics in the time of Disraeli and Gladstone.

[10] Rix, Kathryn, ‘“The Elimination of Corrupt Practices in British Elections”? Reassessing the Impact of the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act’, English Historical Review, Vol. 123, (2008), pp. 65-97.

[11] Lawrence, Jon, Speaking for the people: party, language, and popular politics in England, 1867-1914, (Cambridge University Press), 1998, and Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair, (Oxford University Press), 2009.

[12] Shannon, Richard, History of the Conservative Party, Vol. 3: The age of Salisbury, 1881-1902, unionism and empire, (Longman), 1996, Ramsden, John, History of the Conservative Party, Vol. 4: The age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902-1940, (Longman), 1978, Green, E. H. H., The Crisis of Conservatism: The Politics, Economics and Ideology of the British Conservative Party, 1880-1914, (Routledge), 1996, and ibid, Smith, Jeremy, The taming of democracy: the Conservative Party, 1880-1924.

[13] See, for example, Roberts, Matthew, ‘“Villa toryism” and popular conservatism in Leeds, 1885-1902’, Historical Journal, Vol. 49, (2006), pp. 217-246, and Lynch, Patricia C., The Liberal Party in rural England 1885-1910: radicalism and community, (Oxford University Press), 2003.

[14] Smith, E. A., The House of Lords in British politics and society, 1815-1911, (Longman), 1992.

[15] Rush, Michael, The role of the Member of Parliament since 1868: from gentlemen to players, (Oxford University Press), 2001.

[16] Beeson, Trevor, The bishops, (SCM Press), 2002, provides a valuable collective biography since 1800.

[17] See, Duman, Daniel, ‘A social and occupational analysis of the English judiciary, 1770-1790 and 1855-1875’, American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 17, (1973), pp. 353-364.

No comments: