In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, Edmund Burke poured scorn on the Romantic philosophy that had supported the overthrow of the ancien regime. Burke rejected the idea of universal rights born of nature. Nature, for Burke, was something quite different, represented by the established order, tried and trusted over centuries, which the Romantics would seen done away with and replaced with the tyranny of the baying mob. Burke pointed to the ugly turn events had taken in France to make his point that the “swinish multitude” neither had the right, nor were they fit, to govern. Burke declared:
“The occupation of the hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honour to any person...Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they ... are permitted to rule” [my emphasis] p43
The liberals responded to Burke with equal force. Mary Wollstonecraft in her “Vindication of the Rights of Man” wondered aloud where Burke’s attachment to hereditary monarchy had been when he had supported, with some haste and enthusiasm, George III’s being replaced by the Prince Regent, who also happened to be Burke’s patron’s patron. When Burke had claimed that God had hurled King George from his throne, had he not sounded a little, well, French? p45 Thomas Paine’s reply to Burke, “Rights of Man”, massively outsold “Reflections”, becoming the best-seller of the century. Part II of that book set forth a radical welfare state agenda, advocating resdistribution of wealth through progressive taxation.
There was now a real groundswell of radical politics, not just in London but in the ‘new Britain’ of Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Newcastle. The 282-41 defeat in Parliament of a very mild reform bill in 1793 only served to strengthen the revolutionary strand within this movement against their more reformist comrades. The government responded with brutality to the new popular politics, banning “seditious” assemblies, arresting the movement’s leaders and shipping them off to Australia p51. Prime Minister William Pitt warned of “bloody revolution” if Paine’s ideas caught on p52. When war with France began in 1793, the opportunity was quickly grasped to brand the radicals as traitors.
Mary Wollstonecraft followed up her attack on Burke with “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, proposing a feminist element to the liberal revolution. “Many of [the book’s] insights – the conditioning of girls to correspond to male stereotypes – of the doll-playing, dress-loving minature coquette; the surrender of independence of mind and body for the slavery of idolization; the assumption that their anatomy disqualified them from serious thought – have since become commonplaces of the feminist critique of a male ordered world. But when Mary Wollstonecraft set them out they were still profoundly shocking, even to those who thought themselves on the side of Progress and Liberty” p59. The latter point was especially true since Wollstonecraft had attacked the Romantic’s patron saint, Rousseau, for his espousal of the notion of biologically-determined female subserviance.
Wollstonecraft, like Paine and others, moved to revolutionary France as a sort of political-philosophical pilgramage, but soon became horrified by the bloodletting and terror and disillusioned with what the revolution had become. Paine, though he had publically opposed to execution of Louis XIV, stuck with the revolution longer than Wollstonecraft. Indeed, he was even nominated by Napoleon Bonaparte to be head of the government in a post-invasion Britain. But as time went on and Bonapartist tyranny revealed itself, Paine renounced Napoleon in strong terms and left France.
Meanwhile in Britain, the authorities were clamping down hard on dissent. Advocating republicanism or even male suffrage were now classed as treason. Habeas corpus was suspended, and hundreds imprisoned. But the combination of a failing war effort, an economic slump and food shortages made Britain a difficult place to control. Mass protest meetings were held, riots broke out, and, in a near-echo of events in France, the King’s coach was attacked by a mob, with King George barely escaping with his life p67-8. Pitt responded by extending the sedition laws yet further.
“Not surprisingly, the combination of propaganda, gang intimidation, genuinely patriotic volunteer militias, censorship, political spying and summary arrests [deployed against the dissidents] succeeded in stopping the momentum of democratic agitation” p69.
How best to crush the threat of democracy was by no means Pitt’s only concern. Bonaparte’s France now controlled Europe, while Ireland - Britain’s swinging back-door - was becoming unstable. Concessions to the Catholics, aimed at forstalling the threat of their becoming a strategic asset of France, only succeeded in angering the Protestants; and when moves towards greater Irish autonomy were hastily withdawn, no-one was happy. There was enough discontent for a revolt to start but, even with France’s help, not enough to expel the British. Instead, a huge wave of violence erupted before Ireland was eventually absorbed fully into Britain in 1801.
The real threat of invasion in 1804-5 rallied the public to the cause of King and Country, but by 1807 the dissenters were back, ending the slave trade (though not slave ownership) in the Empire with a huge petitioning campaign.
At the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson had ended the threat of invasion, but not Napleon’s power in Europe. Britain was now shut out of European markets. Continental industruy thrived under this protection, but the British economy staggered and stumbled. Unemployment and food prices soared, “Luddites” expressed their outrage by smashing machinery and a ruined businessman assasinated Prime Minister Perceval.
By 1813 “[s]ome 12,000 regular troops – more than Wellington had to use against the French – were stationed at home to deal with the marches, riots and machine-wrecking that had become a regular feature of British life” p92.
When Napoleon was finally defeated altogether in 1815, the potential gains in terms of lower food prices were negated by the Corn Law protection granted to landowners, which allowed them to enrich themselves further while the poor – their ranks swelled by war-veterans – went hungry.
These social iniquities drew the ire of writers such as Williams Hazlitt and Cobbett, who attacked a governing class that claimed itself inheritor of England’s rural tradtion even as its enclosures and Corn Laws drove the people of the countryside into destitution. There was an audience for these views in both urban and rural areas, since “the industrial towns of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands were crammed with first-generation migrants from [the new] capital intensive, labour-extensive, commercialized countryside. Both [urban and rural dwellers] were now suffering” through lack of work and poverty wages p98. Cobbett noted the correlation between agrarian reform, private wealth and public squalor, since it was not in the north and north-west but in “the grain-belt of the Home Counties and East Anglia, where land had been most heavily exploited to maximise profit [that] the condition of the labourers was worst” p99.
Though no saint - and in fact a pretty vicious racist towards Blacks and, especially, Jews - Cobbett was also, through his ‘Weekly Political Register’ which sold in vast numbers, a major force behind mass political mobilization against (other) social and economic injustices in Britain. And when, in 1819, soldiers charged with swords drawn into a crowd of 50-60,000 in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, causing 11 deaths and 421 serious injuries (the latter number including 100 women and small children) in what became known as the “Peterloo massacre”, it was clear that this popular mobilization, and the backlash from the authorities, was to be no sideshow in British politics. Even a further round of state repression, and the imprisonment by the end of 1820 of most of the democratic movement’s leaders, could not mask that fact, at least not for long.
Political movements augmented by the non-conformist churches and now organised as pressure groups in the recognisably modern sense formed to take up the causes of civil rights for Irish Catholics and the abolition of slavery. It is now believed that one in five adult males signed an abolitionist petition in 1787, 1814 or 1833 p104. Elite claims that political dissatisfaction was confined to the margins and got up by extremists and foreigners – which Schama says were even echoed in the school textbooks of his childhood – were a self-serving fantasy. Dissidence of whatever colour was the political mainstream. It was Parliament that was at the margins.
In 1830, more high prices, unemployment and continued poverty wages brought the southern counties out into open revolt, which the authorities put down with force. 19 rebels were executed with a further 200 death sentences commuted to transportation to Australia.
The fear of revolution was now causing many in the ruling elite to think seriously about pre-emptive political reform. Tory Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington, ruled it out, despite having previously backed down on Irish Catholic emancipation, but he was soon gone, replaced by a Whig administration promising serious changes. Riots in Derbyshire, Nottingham and Bristol served to further concentrate their minds; the town of Merthyr Tydfil had even been briefly occupied by the rebels. Lords reform was effected to remove that barrier to franchise extention,and the Reform Act was finally passed in 1832.
The Act was one of establishment self-preservation, not democratic emancipation. The vote was only extended to men holding £10’s worth of property which, as the Whigs calculated correctly, was enough to split and weaken the democratic movement, albeit temporarily.
So Britain was still not a democracy, and nor would it be for the better part of a hundred years. But the efforts of this revolutionary generation had not been for nothing. In 1833 Britain outlawed slavery in all its colonies “at a time, notwithstanding recent historical writing, when the demand for slave-products was actually increasing and not diminishing” p108. The monopoly of the Church of England was weakened by the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act. And, most important of all, the voices and concerns of ordinary people had, through their own self-organised and sustained actions, become impossible for the ruling elite to ignore. Their struggle was far from over.
Though the Great Exhibition of 1851 was intended to showcase a nation singing in harmony – unifying the rural and the urban, religion and technological progress, the ‘quality’ and the great unwashed - fear of mass revolt was still never far away. The now octogenarian Duke of Wellington, as commander of the garrison of London, judged that the capital would only be secure at any one time with no less than 15,000 troops on stand-by, backing up a huge police presence p115.
The Duke was right to be nervous. The preceding decade had seen enormous political unrest, made even more threatening to the existing order when seen in the context of events on the continent, where revolutions were forever bubbling under or exploding through the surface. The 1832 Reform Act, predictably since it had not empowered the general population, had not resulted in an improvement in their conditions. Cities like Manchester, for example, were the scenes of appalling levels of squalor. In that city, the life-expectancy of ‘mechanics and labourers’ in 1842 was, statistically, 17. For ‘professional persons’ it was 38. Unemployment stood at between a quarter and a third. Disease and ill-health was rife. p133
The attitude of the Victorian ‘quality’ towards its inferiors was not one that we are entirely unfamiliar with today. There was a keenly perceived moral hazard to be avoided in allowing the poor any kind of social safety net. Poverty was, after all, clearly the result of some moral failing such as sloth; a view which, based as it was on the assumption that economic outcomes were a reflection of virtue, had the happy side-effect of casting the well-to-do in a semi-saintly glow. What measures were therefore taken to prevent the poor from simply dying altogether needed to be as harsh as possible, so as not to encourage idleness. The result was the workhouses, popularly known as the ‘Bastilles’ whose inmates were brutally shorn to make them instantly identifiable on the outside. A society which claimed to see the family as the first school of virtue saw fit, in the workhouses, to seperate husbands from their wives and parents from their children. The ‘Bastilles’ were designed to replicate prisons so closely that people would take any kind of legitimate work to avoid them. In this sense, they must have helped underwrite the most exploitative employment practices. Employers like the Manchester oligarchs saw profits, not the condition of their employees, as their primary concern. Low wages were simply an economic fact-of-life since higher wages would threaten business, and where would we all be then?
This was how the higher classes rationalized a status quo that they so happened to benefit enormously from. But their worldview did not go uncontested. In 1839, 1842 and 1848, millions signed petitions in favour of a People’s Charter demanding universal male suffrage with no property qualifications, equal votes, annual Parliaments, paid MPs and the secret ballot. The rationale was put succinctly by Bronterre O’Brien, editor of the ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’:
“Knaves tell you that it is because you have no property that you are unrepresented. I tell you, on the contrary, it is because you have no representation that you have no property” p135
With their demands ignored by Parliament, a distinction (though not a schism) became visible in the Chartist movement between reformers (favouring “moral force”) and revolutionaries (favouring “physical force”). In the autumn of 1839 armed uprisings in South Wales and Yorkshire resulted in “the largest loss of life inflicted by a British government on its own people at any time in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries” when 15 were killed and at least 50 seriously injured in a battle with Chartist rebels at Newport. The 1840s saw the Chartists develop into a well-organised, centrally co-ordinated pressure group, with individual active units answerable to a central office.
So when the massive Chartists demonstration on Kennington Common, south London coincided – in April 1848 – with the ‘springtime of the people’ in a Europe set ablaze by revolution, the governing class, for all its patronizing sniggering at the jumped up hoi polloi, was, in truth, plain scared. London had to be defended, lest the demonstrators decide that they would not be going home until they had got the democracy they came for.
“Some 85,000 men were sworn in as special constables to supplement the 4,000 Peelers of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police and 8,000 regular troops. Government offices were barricaded with crate-loads of official papers and copies of Hansard. Guns and cannon were posted at critical sites: the Bank of England and the Tower of London. The Stock Exchange volunteered some 300 of its own employees as ‘specials’ to defend the bastion of captitalism. Defenses, complete with light artillery, were set up on the Mall to prevent access to Buckingham Palace. (The royal family had in any case, on the advice of the government, taken themselves off to the Isle of Wight to avoid anything disagreeable.)” p140-1
In the end, determined to prove themselves emphatically not the bloodthirsty Jacobins of elitist scaremongering, and perhaps less than confident in their ability to successfully effect an armed revolution in any event, the Chartists’ demonstration passed off for the most part peacefully. This may have proved the high water mark of militant Chartism, but the energies generated by the movement did not fizzle out. Rather, they were channeled into trade unionism, cooperatives, friendly societies and other vehicles of working class empowerment and self-determination. Schama argues, plausibly, that it may have been this new, less confrontational manifestation of discontent amongst the masses that caused Parliament to allow household male suffrage in the second Reform Act of 1867, less fearful perhaps than it had been nineteen years earlier, of letting in the Jacobins by the backdoor. It is also possible that the improved economic conditions of the years between 1848 and 1867 drew some of the militancy out of the pro-democracy movement. In any event, the mobilised general public had won another victory from their masters and Britain had taken another small step towards democracy.