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About this book

A critical introduction to the mass political movements that came of age in urban England between the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the start of World War One. Roberts provides a guide to the new approaches to topics such as Chartism, parliamentary reform, Gladstonian Liberalism, popular Conservatism and the independent Labour movement.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
This book is a study of the mass political movements that came of age in England between the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and explores the evolving relationship between these political movements and their popular supporters in urban England. Although there was nothing exclusively ‘urban’ about many of these political movements, their epicentres were usually to be found in the burgeoning towns and cities of Victorian and Edwardian England, hence the focus in this book on the urban dimensions of political mobilization.
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 1. Citizenship, the Franchise and Electoral Culture

Abstract
In a letter to The Times, published on 30 July 1884, the trades unionist George Potter asked: ‘If fitness is a matter of citizenship, are we not all Britons?’ Potter went on to demonstrate that, in his opinion, many allegedly ‘fit’ Britons were, in fact, being denied citizenship (by which he meant the vote). Debates about citizenship, and who was deemed ‘fit’ to have that status conferred upon them, were central to the politics of Victorian Britain. The concept of citizenship might appear somewhat anachronistic in relation to nineteenth-century Britain — or even altogether alien. This is because citizenship has all too often been defined narrowly as a legal category that denotes membership of a national community, the acme of which is seen to be the possession of a passport. Yet, as new studies have made clear, citizenship needs to be defined more expansively as a status that mediates the relationship between individuals and the political community.1 Citizenship can be understood in a British context as the mechanism whereby formal limits are placed on subjecthood (that is, the sovereign power of the state over its subjects) by allowing people to play a part in government. Hence the importance attached to the vote, especially by those who did not enjoy the privilege.2 As the radical Joseph Chamberlain tellingly observed in the debates on the Third Reform Act of 1884–85, voting was ‘the first political right of citizenship’.3
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 2. Radicalism in the Age of the Chartists

Abstract
One of the most remarkable political developments during the first half of the nineteenth century was the rise of a more coherent, articulate and organized popular radical movement. This was the heroic age of popular protest, of crowds meeting to demonstrate their collective strength, solidarity and determination to achieve their desired reforms. But what did it mean to be a ‘radical’ and why were there so many of them in the first half of the nineteenth century? This label denoted either an individual tendency or, more commonly, an association with a particular reforming cause. Most radicals were independent of, and all too frequently in opposition to, the two main political parties but sometimes worked with them to achieve their objectives.
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 3. The Culture and ‘Failure’ of Radicalism

Abstract
For many activists there was more to being a ‘radical’ than championing popular rights and demanding the six points of the People’s Charter. It could also mean subscribing to a set of values, beliefs and practices amounting to a distinct radical lifestyle. For the more zealous and committed, this formed the basis of an alternative culture. The names of some of the organizations, such as the Bradford Chartist Temperance Co-operative Society, give an indication of the breadth of radicalism and the associational culture to which it gave rise.1 The very act of participating in a movement was part of the radical experience, not only in terms of bringing like-minded people together, but also as a means to create a democratic culture within their organizations as a prelude to creating a democratic society.2 Radicalism was an ideology of change (in both its restorative and progressive, utopian guises) and, by extension, a dynamic movement in which its leaders and supporters had to mobilize for change. To preserve what already existed or to amend, rectify and tinker with the existing system, as did the opponents of radicalism, was seemingly far easier to achieve than a drastic reform of that system, let alone building an entirely new system as advocated by some radicals.
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 4. The Making of Mid-Victorian Popular Liberalism

Abstract
In contrast to the tumultuous 1830s and 1840s, the mid-Victorian decades were politically and socially tranquil. If the early Victorian period was the age of protest, the mid-Victorian era was the ‘Age of Equipoise’: stability, co-operation, conciliation and compromise replaced unrest, division, conflict and intransigence.1 Politically, this stability manifested itself in the rise of popular Liberalism, based on a coalition of former Chartists and moderate reformers who agreed to sink their differences and come together in support of the Liberal party and the principles that were identified with a new set of popular tribunes. One tribune in particular towered above the rest: Mr. Gladstone (Prime Minister 1868–74, 1880–85, 1886 and 1892–94). This chapter and Chapter 5 explore the extent to which Liberals and radicals were able to coalesce under the banner of Liberalism between 1848 and 1880, and analyse the reasons for this. Traditionally, this period was largely written-off by labour historians, as it represented a hiatus in the making of the working class — a process that ended dramatically with the ‘failure’ of Chartism in 1848 and one that was only resumed in the 1880s with the revival of socialism. Frederick Engels gave expression to this view in 1890, when he wrote that the English proletariat had just awoken ‘from its forty years winter sleep’.2 Yet, the mid-Victorian decades were not quite the sedate and slumbering years that Engels suggested, and neither had the working class been reduced, in the words of Karl Marx, to ‘nothing more than the tail of the great Liberal Party’.3
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 5. Post-Chartist Radicalism and the (Un)making of Popular Liberalism

Abstract
The transition from the confrontational and independent radical politics of Chartism to the relatively harmonious, compromising cross-class politics of Gladstonian Liberalism has given rise to an extensive and often confusing historical debate. Much of that confusion stems from a failure to define the terms of the debate satisfactorily. This definitional imprecision has its origins in the period itself. Ambiguity surrounds the shifting nomenclature of the popular movements and their members — Chartists, radicals, Liberals, reformers. Even more difficult to pinpoint are the boundaries between these groupings. Were Chartists merely radicals by another name, as Feargus O’Connor believed? Or was Chartism an aberration of radicalism, a view that was propagated by former disillusioned Chartists such as R. G. Gammage? At what point did ‘moral force’ Chartists become Liberals? What was the relationship between the popular radicals and the group of parliamentary radicals known as the ‘reform party’ in the House of Commons? There are also ambiguities surrounding chronology. When, why and to what extent did radicalism decline after 1848? Was the rise of popular Liberalism based on the incorporation of radicalism, or did the Liberal party merely fill the gap after the collapse of Chartism?
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 6. Rethinking the ‘Transformation’ of Popular Conservatism

Abstract
If popular Conservatism is defined as electoral support for the Conservative party, then it formally came into existence in 1830. This was the year in which the term ‘Conservative’ was first used in English political language as the new name for the old Tory party. The Conservative party was in a perilous state at the moment of its birth. The granting of full political and civil liberties to both Protestant Dissenters in 1828 and Roman Catholics in 1829, along with the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, greatly weakened the Anglican and aristocratic edifice of the English constitution, the integrity of which the Tories had sworn to preserve. There is an irony in dating the formal existence of popular Conservatism from 1830, as it was the old Tory party’s resistance to popular politics in the shape of parliamentary reform that was responsible, in part, for the coalescing of Tories and conservative Whigs into the new Conservative party. Despite this decidedly unpopular birth, the party soon established itself as one of the most successful and popular political parties of the modern world. The Tories were in office, either on their own or as part of a coalition, for nearly 58 years of the nineteenth century.
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 7. Defining and Debating Popular Conservatism

Abstract
The electoral success of the Conservative party used to be dismissed as accidental, or else it was seen as the result of anti-democratic strategizing. According to this ‘negative’ interpretation of popular Conservatism, the Tories were largely the passive beneficiaries of deference; religious, ethnic and class tensions; or of patriotic and imperial sentiment, and their opponent’s weaknesses.1 In addition, it was noted how the Tories went to great lengths to ‘avoid rather than confront the mass electorate’.2 Few historians would now accept, in the wake of the critique of ‘electoral sociology’ and the ‘new political history’, that popular Conservatism can be viewed as the product of elite manipulation or reduced to the expression of underlying socio-economic structures, such as class.3 As Francis and Zweiniger-Bargielowska have argued, the problem with subjecting the history of the British Conservative party to a class analysis is that it has ‘always had difficulty in explaining how a party led by landed aristocrats and the bourgeoisie has sustained a dominant position in an emerging parliamentary democracy in which the majority of the electorate were working class.’4 This chapter offers a critique of the ‘negative’ and sociological model of popular Conservatism. It shows just how active, creative and integrative the Conservative party was in the face of democratization, and how aspects of Conservative ideology resonated with popular audiences.
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 8. The Decline of Liberalism and the Rise of Labour I: A Narrative

Abstract
Of all the historical debates surrounding popular politics, none has been more contentious than the one that has raged on the realignment of progressive politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was the period when the Labour party established itself, and soon replaced the Liberals, as the main party of the British left. The facts appear straightforward: after their landslide victory of 400 seats at the 1906 general election, by 1924 the Liberal party had been reduced to a rump of 40 MPs. Labour, on the other hand, enjoyed a meteoric rise: from humble beginnings in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee, which only managed to elect two MPs at the general election held in that year, the Labour party (as it was renamed after the 1906 election) had 191 MPs by 1923. Less than one year later, Labour formed its first government. The rapidity and scale of this realignment has been forensically analysed by generations of historians; there has, however, been little agreement about why and precisely when this happened. Put simply, the debate has been divided between ‘inevitablists’ and ‘accidentalists’: the former have emphasized longer-term structural changes, pre-eminently the rise of class-based politics; the latter have stressed short-term, contingent factors, such as the far-reaching changes associated with the First World War.1
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 9. The Decline of Liberalism and the Rise of Labour II: The Debate

Abstract
One of the leitmotifs of this book has been the way hindsight has often given rise to narratives that have distorted the past. Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the political change that resulted in Labour replacing the Liberals as the main party of the left. Formulaic and teleological narratives of ‘rise’ and ‘decline’ have been the main culprits here. Just as teleological narratives of the ‘forward march of Labour’ are difficult to reconcile with the uneven and often poor electoral performance of the Labour party, so is the Liberal party’s revival after the split over Home Rule in 1886, culminating in the Liberal landslide victory at the 1906 general election, at odds with notions of interminable decline.
Matthew Roberts

Chapter 10. The Modernization of Popular Politics

Abstract
By way of conclusion, this chapter will assess how far the framework and political culture outlined in Chapter 1 was subverted, revised and overturned between the 1832 Reform Act and the First World War. One school of historians has argued that this period witnessed the birth of a modern system of party politics in which ‘political principle defined in national terms by the parties at Westminster took the place of the local, factional, and idiosyncratic concerns’ that had hitherto characterized the system.1 While this school of historians might disagree over the timing of this development, broad agreement exists about the factors responsible for this ultimately inevitable development: the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884, the associated growth of centralized party machines and a burgeoning cheap daily press.2 As more and more men had the vote, so the parties went to greater lengths to integrate them into their organizations.
Matthew Roberts
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