The dominance of the aristocracyThe enfranchisement of the great industrial centres was clearly a hugely important potential change, but in the short term the Reform Act did not transform politics. In particular, the aristocracy continued to play a dominant role and did so until the growth of mass politics at the end of the century. Although the three best-known Victorian prime ministers, Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, and William Ewart Gladstone were of middle class backgrounds, most of the others were aristocratics and sat in the Lords. (Disraeli was created Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876 by his admirer, Queen Victoria, and therefore sat in the Lords at the end of his premiership.)
The political partiesHowever, neither political party could ignore the implications of the Great Reform Act, and in the 1830s they reinvented themselves. The Victorian political division of Liberals and Conservatives came into being.
The Conservatives: the Tamworth Manifesto
|Sir Robert Peel|
The manifesto was addressed to
‘that great and intelligent class of society … which is far less interested in the contentions of party, than in the maintenance of order and the course of good government’.He accepted the Reform Act as a
‘final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question’and declared himself in favour not of
‘following every popular whim, promising instant redress of every alleged abuse, abandoning respect for ancient rights and prescriptive authority’,but of
‘a careful review of institutions, both civil and ecclesiastical’and
‘the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances’.
Peel therefore promised reform in order to conserve the essentials of the constitution. It was also designed to give the Tories, increasingly calling themselves Conservatives, a broader basis of support.
In 1838 Peel told his followers at a great Conservative party banquet in Merchant Taylors Hall: ‘
You are supported by the clergy, the magistracy, the yeomanry, and the gentry of the country, as well as by the great proportion of the trading community’.However this was too optimistic; the party remained an uneasy coalition of country squires who distrusted democracy and most forms of industrial change, and the moderate reformers who occupied positions of influence. Though Conservative strength grew very substantially between 1835 and 1841, far more of this support came from rural and small-town England than from the industrial North or the rest of the country.
The Liberals: the Lichfield House CompactThe Whigs actually won the election, but were seriously demoralised by the loss of seats. In February 1835 leaders of the Whig, radical, and Irish opposition groups met at Lichfield House in St James’s Square to concert their forces. This enabled them to use their parliamentary majority to get rid of Peel. In April, Melbourne’s government returned shakily to office, though it lost power in 1841.
The 'Lichfield House Compact marked the beginnings of a long-term alliance between the Whig aristocrats and the various pressure groups well to their left, such as the radicals and the Irish MPs. In retrospect it marks the beginnings of the Liberal party, which was always an uneasy coalition.
The ChartistsThe first truly working-class political movement sprang out of the sense of betrayal left by the Reform Act. The peaks of activity coincided with troughs in the economy.
In May 1838 the 'People's Charter' was published, an idea rooted in the myth of Magna Carta. It contained the Six Points, that were adopted at a rally in Birmingham:
- manhood suffrage
- annual parliaments
- the ballot
- payment of MPs
- equal electoral districts
- the abolition of property qualifications for parliament
|A rare early photograph of the|
Chartist demonstration on
There is a good short article on Chartism in the November 2013 edition of History Today. The following quotation highlights its cultural importance.
'Though its demands hinged upon universal male suffrage, the Charter attracted the support of hundreds of thousands of men and women. Chartism became for a time the structure within which a majority of industrial workers pursued their political and cultural activities. The new-born child of Chartist parents might be received into the movement at a ceremony prided over by one of its leaders and possibly given his name. They might attend a Chartist Sunday School, while parents might immerse themselves in the political and social life of the local branch of the National Charter Association: the father in an affiliated trades union and the mother in a Female Charter Association. In many towns she could shop at a Chartist co-operative store and her husband support Chartist candidates in local elections…The family's main source of national news would be a Chartist weekly paper, probably the Leeds-based Northern Star.'Following the failure of two petitions to parliament, a peaceful rally was planned for Kennington Common on 10 April 1848, followed by a procession to present the Petition to the Commons.
Crowds from all over London assembled behind banners and marched to Kennington. It was claimed, with great exaggeration, that 5.7 million signatures had been appended to the Petition. (However, the actual figure, of c. 2m. was very impressive.) The petition was loaded into three cabs and taken to Parliament. But by 2pm the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, was able to inform the Queen (who was at Osborne) that the crisis was safely over. Faced with 4,000 police and 85,000 volunteer special constables the demonstrators dispersed. Chartism was not finished, but the movement had been wrong-footed and, as the economy improved in the 1850s, working-class agitation died down for a decade.
|Victoria in her coronation robes|
There was no question of Victoria's remaining single, like Elizabeth I. Her male Hanoverian predecessors had married German princesses, and Victoria chose as her husband her cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg, a minor German prince. This immediately raised the problem of his status, and the historical precedents were not happy. Philip of Spain, the husband of Mary I, had been deeply unpopular, and Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne's husband, had been a nonentity. Albert was given no title on his marriage, though in 1857 he was made Prince Consort.
|Victoria and Albert in 1854|
Albert proved a highly interventionist consort. Victoria's many pregnancies gave him the opportunity to take on many of her duties. The two of them worked together at their despatches at adjoining desks. Albert's open support for Sir Robert Peel placed him in the potentially dangerous role of political partisan.
Albert’s last action, taken only two weeks before his death, was to avert a major diplomatic crisis between Britain and the United States. In April 1861 a Federal warship intercepted a British packed, the Trent, and removed two agencies from the Confederacy. Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, and Lord John Russell, the Foreign Secretary, declared this a gross breach of international law. On 1 December Albert rewrote the British ultimatum to make the wording more conciliatory, and a crisis was averted.
This was a sensible move on Albert's part - but was it constitutional?
Walter Bagehot on the monarchyThe English Constitution by the journalist and businessman, Walter Bagehot, was published from 1865 in the Fortnightly Review over eighteen months and published in book form in 1867. It has always been viewed as the classic statement on the role of the monarch in the British political system.
Bagehot believed that monarchy was a better form of government than a republic because it had more appeal.
- Monarchy is ‘an intelligible government’.
- Monarchy presents the nation with a family.
- ‘Royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting actions.’
The keynote of Bagehot’s book is the ‘efficient secret’. He divided the constitution into the 'dignified' and 'efficient parts'. Parliament is the efficient part, monarchy the dignified. The role of the monarch is
‘the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn’.
The ‘secret' lies in the fact that the British people are not aware of what is happening. They see the grandeur and panoply of monarchy and are deluded into believing that the queen has real power. The people are incapable of governing themselves and therefore it is right to deny them a share in the government. Because they are enormously deferential, they welcome the monarch and its apparent powers.
It is important for the monarchy to be visible. Bagehot was well aware that at the time of writing, its future lay with ‘a retired widow and an unemployed youth’.
Liberal dominanceIn the mid-Victorian period, the Liberals, under their prime minister, Lord Palmerston, were the dominant party. This was because in 1846 the Conservatives tore themselves apart over the prime minister Sir Robert's Peel's decision to repeal the Corn Laws.
The Corn Laws, which put up tariff barriers against imported grain, provided protection to farmers, who were the bulwark of Conservative support. But they raised the price of bread and were hugely unpopular in the manufacturing areas. In 1839 the Anti-Corn Law League had been formed to campaign of their repeal.
|Meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League|
in Exeter Hall, London, 1846
By the early 1840s, Peel, an instinctive free-trader, had moved towards abolishing the Corn Laws, but when he announced his intention to the Commons in January 1846, he was met with praise from the Liberal benches and relentless vituperation from his own side. The repeal was passed with Liberal support, but the Conservatives lost power in June and never formed a majority government until 1874.
The debate on the Corn Laws exposed a fault-line within the Conservatives: were they the party of 'old England' and the 'agricultural interest' or were they the party of free trade and market forces?
The Second Reform Act, 1867Following the death of Palmerston in 1865 the pressure for reform grew. Both the Liberals and Conservatives were divided on the desirability of reform. The party leaders came to believe reform was inevitable - the problem was to secure a Commons majority. The Second Reform Act was finally passed in 1867 by the minority Conservative government of the Earl of Derby, the bill being piloted through the Commons by the Leader of the House, Benjamin Disraeli. For the complicated politics, see my earlier blog here.
The Act ended up more radical than anyone had expected. It extended the vote to householders in the boroughs, adding just short of a million voters — including many working men — and doubling the electorate to almost two million in England and Wales. Lord Derby called it 'a leap in the dark', rightly recognising its potential to transform politics.
The general election of 1868 saw the Liberals return to power under Gladstone. For the first time two working men were elected to parliament, the miners, Thomas Burt and Alexander Macdonald, who stood as Liberals.
One of the most important reforms passed by the Gladstone government was the Ballot Act of 1872, which brought in the secret ballot. Politics was changing, and with the growth of a working-class electorate, the dominance of the upper classes was now challenged.