Saturday, 20 August 2011

Elitist or electoral politics?

It was in 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 faction of the commercial class, with the manufacturers and provincial merchants pursuing their interests in the towns and cities.[1] From the middle of the century, this 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.[2]

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The policy of the ruling Tory elite that dominated politics between the 1780s and 1830 was grounded in 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 and manufacturing classes 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 freeing up the labour market but in 1815, it introduced the Corn Laws to support arable farmers. [3] More economic controls were dismantled in the 1820s but the pace of economic change was not as rapid as many manufacturers demanded.[4] 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 if regulatory state and succeeded in passing a conservative measure of parliamentary reform in 1832. 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.[5] 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.[6] In Oldham, for example, there was a separation between the cotton manufacturers who looked towards the merchant dynasties of Manchester and the older capitalists, especially colliery-owners who looked towards the local landowners.[7]

The dominant elitist form of political representation was by the landed class that saw itself as the natural rulers of society. Landowners regarded themselves as having the right 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 oligarchic representation ran 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. This hegemony was challenged from the 1840s by the emergence of ‘electoral’ politics in which class interests were represented through those who were elected to decision-making positions by those whom wished to have their interests represented 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 and led to 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. In addition, pressure group politics, whether by ‘societies’, ‘leagues’ or ‘unions’ became central in metropolitan and provincial 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.[8] At the heart of the elitist system of representation was the notion of deference. The landowners’ obligation to shoulder responsibilities for others was an integral part of this, since deference was expected to be shown to those who carried out these obligations. Deference, however, 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. Elitist politics therefore came under increasing strain as urban influences grew. Between 1840 and 1870, there was a period of confrontation between elitist and electoral politics.[9] However, the outcome was not simply the replacement of elitist by electoral politics but a compromise between the landed class and the manufacturing classes and the structure of political representation reflected the nature of this compromise.

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House of Lords, 1893


[1] Boyd Hilton, R., A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846, (Oxford University Press), 2006 and Derry J.W., Politics in the Age of Fox, Pitt and Liverpool: Continuity and Transformation,   (Macmillan), 1990 provides an overview.

[2] Hoppen, K. Theodore, The mid-Victorian generation, 1846-1886, (Oxford University Press), 1998 and Searle, G.R., A new England?: peace and war 1886-1918, (Oxford University Press), 2004.

[3] Fay, C.R., The Corn Law and Social England, (Cambridge University Press), 1932 remains the most valuable discussion of the nature of the Corn Laws while Barnes, Donald Grove, A History of The English Corn Laws from 1660-1846, (George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.), 1930 takes a broader approach. See also, Kadish, Alan, (ed.), The Corn Laws: the formation of popular economics in Britain, 6 Vols. (William Pickering), 1996.

[4] Boyd Hilton, R., Corn, Cash, Commerce: the economic policies of the Tory governments 1815-1830, (Oxford University Press), 1977.

[5] Roberts, Matthew, Political movements in urban England, 1832-1914, (Palgrave), 2009 and Miskell, Louise, ‘Urban Power, Industrialisation and Political Reform: Swansea Elites in the Town and Region, 1780-1850’, in Roth, Ralf and Beachy, Robert, (eds.), Who ran the cities?: city elites and urban power structures in Europe and North America, 1750-1940, (Ashgate), 2007, pp, 21-36.

[6] See, for example, Garrard, John Adrian, ‘The middle classes and nineteenth century national and local politics’, in ibid, Garrard, John Adrian, Jary, David, Goldsmith, Michael and Oldfield, Adrian, (eds.), The middle class in politics, pp. 35-66, Taylor, Peter, ‘A divided middle class: Bolton, 1790-1850’, Manchester Region History Review, Vol. 6, (1992), pp. 3-15 and ibid, Morris, R.J., Class, sect and party: the making of the British middle class: Leeds, 1820-1850.

[7] Price, Sarah, ‘Governing the community: the rise of popular radicalism in Oldham, Lancashire, 1790-1837’, Family & Community History, Vol. 4, (2001), pp. 125-137, Winstanley, Michael J., ‘Oldham radicalism and the origins of popular Liberalism, 1830-1852’, Historical Journal, Vol. 36, (1993), pp. 619-643 and Gadian, D.S., ‘Class consciousness in Oldham and other north-west industrial towns’, Historical Journal, Vol. 21, (1978), pp. 161-172.

[8] Taylor, Miles, ‘Interests, parties and the state: the urban electorate in England, c.1820-72’ and Lawrence, Jon, ‘The dynamics of urban politics, 1867-1914’ in Lawrence, Jon and Taylor, Miles, (eds.), Party, state and society: electoral behaviour in Britain since 1820, (Scolar), 1997, pp. 50-78, 79-105. See also, Mitchell, Jeremy C., The organization of opinion: open voting in England, 1832-68, (Palgrave), 2008 and Machin, Ian, The rise of democracy in Britain, 1830-1918, (Macmillan), 2001.

[9] Hoppen, K. Theodore, ‘The franchise and electoral politics in England and Ireland 1832-1885’, History, Vol. 70, (1985), pp. 202-217.

1 comment:

mensajes claro said...

Thanks Richard Brown , This is a great post , I always love your blog.