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Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880.

At no point during the Victorian period was the identity of the Liberal party (Gladstonian or otherwise) devoid of problematic elements. For analytical purposes, those elements can be assigned to one of two categories: that which chiefly concerns the bonding agents and fissiparous forces at work among those in parliament occupying some portion of the non-Tory political spectrum; and that which chiefly concerns the relation between party within parliament and politics without. Of the books reviewed here, those by Newbould and Steele, each of which addresses a discrete block of time between the First and Second Reform Acts, may not reduce to manageable proportions the difficulties posed by the first category. They do, however, conspicuously add to our understanding of their complexity. The third, by Biagini, endeavours to comprehend the sources, substance, and dimensions of popular liberalism in the age of Gladstone. In doing so, it advances appreciably our understanding of the elements associated with the second category.

Readers in search of the origins of popular liberalism will want to look elsewhere than to the Whiggery examined by Newbould. Those familiar with Newbould's important series of articles on the politics of the 1830s will be surprised by neither the argument of Whiggery and Reform nor by the wealth of archival research and telling detail by which that argument is supported. He contends that the Whig governments of the 1830s, whether led by Grey or by Melbourne, were primarily interested in strengthening and preserving aristocratic political influence. The Whigs alone, so they believed, possessed the political temperament and good sense required to hold at bay both the executive (Tory) excesses that threatened the liberties of the people, and the reckless radicalism whose demotic delusions could not be reconciled with the maintenance of social order. The intransigence of Wellington on the reform question in 1830 compelled the Whigs to take office and tackle the issue. Only a bold move on parliamentary reform, one that recognized the legitimate claims of the middle classes, could give to rank and property the firm and durable political footing that Tory obstinacy jeopardized. The unexpected turmoil to which that commitment gave rise, however, emphasized the need for caution after 1832. The sundry reforms of the 1830s were authored by men of conservative disposition who would propose nothing deemed incompatible with the containment of radicalism and the enhancement of aristocratic political control. Although some of this line of argument respecting the Whigs is at odds with a portion of the established historiography on the subject, and is certainly at variance with the interpretation constructed by Peter Mandler in his excellent Aristocratic Government in the Age of Reform, (1) it will not seem especially peculiar to those well-acquainted with the literature on Whiggery.

Where Newbould does strike out on a course pretty much of his own making, and one that merits close consideration, is in his treatment of party during the 1830s. In his articles and in his monograph, Newbould has vigorously assaulted the proposition (a proposition emphatically identified with the work of Norman Gash) that a two-party system took shape in the aftermath of the dismissal of Melbourne's government by William IV in November of 1834. Notwithstanding the fact that their survival as a ministry in the late 1830s depended upon Radical and Irish votes, the Whigs scarcely saw themselves as the leaders of a "party," if the term be meant to imply doctrinal and/or organizational coherence. It was not programmatic unity that kept together the ministerial side of the House on questions of confidence, but rather a shared aversion to the prospect of a Tory administration. Whigs joined with Tories in resisting Radical initiatives on the ballot and the corn law, regardless of the ever-increasing majority of non-stories in the House endorsing these initiatives. The actual business the Whigs did as a government rested on a tacit understanding with Peel, without whose assistance measures could not be got through the House of Lords. Peel's predicament had something in common with Melbourne's - just as the latter strove to check the influence of the Radicals, so the former sought to restrain the ultra Tories. Given this state of affairs, reasons Newbould, the supposition of a "strong two-party parliamentary system" is unsustainable (p. 8).

Newbould's richly informed and tough-minded analysis of the politics of the 1830s offers a salutary corrective to what had emerged as the predominant interpretation of party for the period 1834-1846. His pointed and penetrating application of thinner breaks down the viscosity of the Gashite analytical solution. Yet it is possible that the author of Whiggery and Reform has reacted more strongly to that solution than is altogether healthy for his own version of party and its role. On Newbould's own reading of events, party often emerges as the preponderant force propelling the actions of Melbourne and Peel. He concedes that the "party came first in Melbourne's opinion" (p. 266), as the latter weighed the advantages and disadvantages of calling a dissolution following the May 1841 defeat of the government on the sugar duties. When Peel cashiered collaboration in favour of confrontation in 1840, he did so because his ultras were setting the pace. This fits well with Newbould's depiction of a Conservative party experiencing serious internal friction, but Peel's answer to the problem also underscores his commitment to party. "Graham and Goulburn questioned if the conservative party could hold together much longer without a direct attack on the government. It was above all this fear of dissolving his party that prompted Peel to take Graham's advice to attack" (p. 258).

Occasionally Newbould's eagerness to demolish the idea that party was of paramount importance carries him along a path that threatens to take a tendentious turn. An example concerns a putative effort to fortify the treasury bench in the summer of 1839. Although an exercise of this nature has been known to recommend itself to twentieth-century British administrations, Newbould proclaims that "the disposition to change personnel in order to get legislation passed, and to give the appearance and perhaps the reality of strength, weakens the argument that party was important. If a steady hand could, or was thought able to, guide legislation through parliament where a lesser one could not, the pull of party could not have been considered to have been of overriding concern" (pp. 248-49). A good bit of this seems rather gratuitous, particularly when one looks closely at the circumstances that give rise to such observations. The cabinet shuffle involved a swap of places between Normanby and Russell. There is little in the account furnished by Newbould to suggest that anyone other than Russell, who insisted on taking the Colonial Office, was notably enthusiastic about the change. Indeed, John Prest, in his biography of Russell, remarks that it "aroused much opposition."(2) Such misfires, however, are few and far between, the better part of Newbould's punches being crisp, clean, and robust.

A suggestive theme adumbrated by Newbould is that the victor at the 1841 general election was less a Peelite brand of moderate reformism than out-and-out reaction. The conservative instincts of the electorate reasserted themselves after 1832, and the beneficiaries were "the old causes of Church, land and aristocracy" (p. 12). "Neither the Whigs nor Peel ... could survive against the forces of reaction which triumphed in 1841" (p. 12). Albeit given unequivocal expression, this postulate does not elicit much analytical development from Newbould, whose principal focus is the parliamentary strategy and tactics of the Whigs. Yet it is an intriguing hypothesis, especially when juxtaposed against E.D. Steele's observation, in Palmerston and Liberalism, that "the mid-century electorate and public displayed a permanent Liberal bias" (p. 6). If one accepts the validity of both statements, then something fairly fundamental must have changed in the decade or so after 1841. That something, presumably, was not the composition of the electorate. Some attitudinal alteration within that electorate doubtless occurred in response to the Conservative rupture of 1846 and to the shifting claims made upon public and parliamentary attention by an assortment of issues. Be this as it may, neither Newbould nor Steele makes it his task to chart the course of political change between 1841 and 1855, and for this omission they are certainly not to be faulted. Like Newbould, Steele has written a big book on a big subject, a book that is likely to stand for some time as the centrepiece of historiography on the Palmerstonian ascendancy. And like Whiggery and Reform, Palmerston and Liberalism is seen by its author as a work of revisionist history.

Few historians have questioned Palmerston's resourcefulness as a politician or his popularity with the mid-Victorian public. And many before Steele would have had qualms about accepting John Vincent's epigrammatic characterization of Palmerston's methods: "crude belligerence abroad and class fear at home" (quoted in Steele, p. 5), an assessment used by Steele as a foil in his introductory chapter. At the same time most have had difficulty distinguishing Palmerston's brand of politics from that practiced by his Tory adversaries (if adversaries they were). In The Foundation of the Conservative Party, 1830-1867, Robert Stewart speaks of the "truce of parties" that took hold during the ascendancy of Palmerston,(3) while Gash, in Aristocracy and People, entitles his chapter on these years, "The Decline of Party Politics."(4) Stewart observes: "Seldom in its long history has the Conservative party been less powerful than it was during the decade of Palmerston's ascendancy. But then, since Palmerston was a Liberal by habit, not by creed, it has never had less reason to lament its impotence."(5) The Tories could find little to complain of. In 1864 Lord Robert Cecil, the future Lord Salisbury, praised Palmerston's parliament for having "done that which it is most difficult and most salutary for a Parliament to do - nothing."(6) In recent years the orthodoxy on the party system has met with critical scrutiny. Both P.M. Gurovich and Angus Hawkins have given to party a pivotal role in the politics of the period.(7) Steele agrees - "The decline of party was a myth sedulously propagated by politicians out of office" (p. 71) - and yet the heart of his argument assays the essential role played by Palmerston in the construction of a national political consensus. It was this consensus that prepared the ground for "the democratic politics that arrived with the reform bills of 1866-67" (p. 367).

It is a measure of the quality of Steele's book that it affords readers the opportunity to ponder seriously the notion of Palmerston as mid-wife to Gladstonian fiberalism. Steele is exceedingly adept at siting the coordinates where the politics of Palmerston and Gladstone intersect. The priority given by Palmerston to the fostering of class reconciliation and cooperation is the principal motif of Steele's detailed and skilful discussion of his protagonist's domestic statecraft. Gladstone's devotion to the same end has long been a central theme of Gladstonian scholarship. Steele comments: "For both men, the pursuit of class collaboration was far more important than party allegiances" (p. 42). In the region of foreign and imperial policy, which also elicits extensive coverage from Steele, the Palmerstonian refrain affirmed the need to protect British interests and to guard British honour and prestige. In the aftermath of the Crimean War, however, it also ascribed importance to the avoidance of costly continental conflicts. According to Steele, "Gladstone quite as much as Palmerston upheld Britain's Great Power status" (p. 41). It could be argued that in some particulars Gladstone's version of what it meant to uphold that status differed profoundly from Palmerston's, but as the burden of Steele's argument falls chiefly on the domestic side of things, so will my remarks.

On what evidentiary foundations does Steele rest his assertion that Palmerston was a genuine Liberal rather than a Tory in disguise? Much is made of his public rhetoric, in which class concord is a recurrent theme. Steele sets much store on Palmerston's receptivity to admitting middle-class men into his cabinets, and on his support for the principle of life peerages. For those who wish to make parliamentary reform the litmus test, Steele's answer is that Palmerston does not fail it, inasmuch as he revealed a willingness to consider the matter and authorized the introduction of the Reform Bill brought in by Russell in 1860. The case is put cogently and elegantly; whether it has been made is debatable. The circumstances leading to the formation of Palmerston's 1859-1865 administration ruled out his adoption of a rejectionist posture on the question of parliamentary reform. No exertion on his part was required to ensure that no measure reached the statute book during the life of that ministry. As to the sort of changes that Palmerston thought "intrinsically desirable" (p. 76), these did not include a lowering of the borough franchise or the elimination "of even the smallest boroughs." Instead he "was attracted to a professional franchise - separate or additional to others that should embrace officers in the services, lawyers, all university graduates, registered medical practitioners ..." (p. 75). Moreover, he was "prepared to revise the occupation franchise in the counties by substituting a 20 [pounds] rating for 50 [pounds] rental as the qualification" (pp. 75-76). Such a package would scarcely induce anxiety even among the most alarmist of Tories.

Steele himself is not inclined to argue that the Conservatives fell outside the national consensus personified by Palmerston. Liberalism was not a monopoly of the Liberal party, and Derby recognized the imperative of presenting his party to the electorate as an agency of progressive (moderate) change. The foremost difference affecting the respective fortunes of Palmerston and Derby from 1855 to 1865 is that the former was better positioned to extract political gain from the invocation of class reconciliation at home and British honour abroad. It is not improbable that the rhetorical expression and practical application of this formula under Palmerston served to facilitate an acceptance of "the democratic politics that arrived with the reform bills of 1866-67" (p. 367), though care is needed when it comes to delineating the content of that "democratic politics." But Steele will not settle for this. He incautiously marches forward to the conclusion that Palmerston's "governments were a conscious introduction to the new era" (p. 367). Nothing Palmerston and Liberalism has on offer persuades me that such a conclusion is warranted.

Perhaps more worrying than the content of Steele's interpretation is the means by which he reconstructs the mid-Victorian political consensus. Tributaries of evidence emanating from diverse sources flow into a Palmerstonian mainstream. At work is a strategy of convergence that may attend too little to the spirit of the documents employed in support of the thesis. The writings and speeches of J.S. Mill, whose liberalism Steele's consensus subsumes, form a case in point. A couple of examples will have to suffice. The first concerns an 1865 election speech in which Mill, says Steele, "offered a definition of his |advanced' politics that placed him well within the ambit of Palmerstonian Liberatism." Steele then states, with reference to Mill's stance, that "Pragmatism was all." A quotation from Mill's speech follows. "I ... accept a reasonable compromise which would give me even a little of that which I hope in time to obtain'." The source cited is the Daily Telegraph of 6 July. The relevant passage, as reported in that newspaper, reads: "I can see much tendency now which we ought to encourage, much to resist; but we ought to take care that the policy of the moment will be such as to fit us, and not unfit us, for the policy of the future. But while I would refuse to suppress one iota of the opinions I consider best, I confess I would not object to accept any reasonable compromise which would give me even a little of that of which I hope in time to obtain the whole." Steele proceeds to paraphrase another passage from this speech: "The first article of Mill's creed was the freedom, equality and (Steele's emphasis) responsibility of the individual, the second, that social progress - which should be understood, by |diligent study' as organic, growing out of history, and not breaking with it - was not to be hurried" (p. 239). The first article of Mill's advanced Liberal creed, as reported in the Telegraph, propounds that "we have not yet arrived at the perfect model of government - that it lies before us and not behind us - that we are too far from it to be able to see it distinctly except in outline, but that we can see very clearly in what direction it lies - not in the direction of some new form of dependence, but in the emancipation of the dependent classes - more freedom, more equality, and more responsibility of each person for himself." As for the second: "Believing as I do that society and political institutions are, or ought to be, in a state of progressive advance; that it is the very nature of progress to lead us to recognise as truths what we do not as yet see as truths; believing also that by diligent study, by attention to the past, by constant application, it is possible to see a certain distance before us, and to be able to distinguish beforehand some of these truths of the future, and to assist others to see them - I certainly think there are truths which the time has now arrived for proclaiming, although the time may not yet have arrived for carrying them into effect."(8) This, it seems to me, is a liberalism that differs not merely in degree but in kind from that of Palmerston.

Turning to Steele's chapter on "Empire," we find similar use being made of Mill. The pertinent paragraph begins: "Scattered round the globe were a number of imperial strongpoints." A little further on, Steele observes that "For Mill, such places created no moral problem; they existed for |the convenience of the governing state.' To him, as to Palmerston and public opinion, Britain was |the Power which, of all ... best understands liberty - and whatever may have been its errors in the past, has attained to more of conscience and moral principles in its dealings with foreigners than any great nation seems either to conceive as possible or recognize as desirable"' (p. 333). The quotations are from Mill's chapter in Considerations on Representative Government titled "Of the Government of Dependencies by a Free State." There the phrase "convenience of the governing State" is surrounded by a thicket of qualifiers. "The military or naval object is in this case paramount, and the inhabitants cannot, consistently with it, be admitted to the government of the place; though they ought to be allowed all liberties and privileges compatible with that restriction, including the free management of municipal affairs; and, as a compensation for being locally sacrificed to the convenience of the governing State, should be admitted to equal rights with its native subjects in all other parts of the Empire." What could be more remote from the cavalier inflections of Palmerston's imperial voice? The point that needs to be made about the lengthier quotation from Mill is that its provenance is a section of the chapter that deals not with "imperial strongpoints" but with the self-governing colonies. One of the advantages deducible from the association of these colonies with Britain was that it added "to the moral influence, and weight in the councils of the world, of the Power which, of all ... best understands liberty" etcetera.(9)

These examples are not necessarily symptomatic of an intrinsic disposition with respect to the treatment of texts. Nonetheless they raise troubling questions about the manipulation of materials in the interest of a thesis whose validity is thereby rendered more rather than less suspect. That such questions should arise is regrettable, not least because Palmerston and Liberalism is a major work of political history authored by a scholar of uncommon ability.

The same, absent the regret, can be said of Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform and its author, Eugenio F. Biagini. This work is easily the most ambitious attempt yet made to survey and excavate the terrain of mid- and late-Victorian popular Liberalism. What Biagini discovers is "that popular support for the Liberal party was not irrational in either its objectives or its motivations, but that - on the contrary - its dissemination was due to the fact that the programme of reforms proposed by the party leaders offered convincing solutions to some of the problems perceived to be real and urgent at the time" (p. 6). He furthermore ascertains "that working-class liberalism was not the fruit of the ideological success of bourgeois ideas during the mid-Victorian decades, but rather the continuation of older and genuinely plebeian traditions" (p. 6). In the exposition, explication, and elaboration of these findings, Biagini traverses a chunk of ground. Part I takes up the language and attitudes of popular Liberalism in relation to social and economic reform, and elucidates the significance of "Civil and Religious liberty" and "Retrenchment" within the frame of reference characteristic of that Liberalism. In Part II Biagini evaluates the temper of popular Liberalism vis-a-vis political reform, conducting searching inquiries into the franchise question, the connection between parliamentary representation and community structure, and the functions fulfilled by Gladstone as charismatic leader.

In a number of respects Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform is something of a tour de force. The research upon which it is based is of prodigious proportions (the bibliography runs to thirty-seven pages). Into the vessels of "Liberty," "Retrenchment," and "Reform," which all too often have seemed to contain but a thin and insipid libation, Biagini has poured a rich and hearty brew. His book perspicaciously recreates (those of a sceptical cast of mind might say creates) a remarkably coherent, persistent, and vibrant plebeian political culture whose liberalism was soundly reasoned and energetically expressed. His thoughtful and generous appraisal of Gladstone's leadership constitutes a valuable contribution to our appreciation of Gladstone's achievement and of the forces in the nation without which that achievement could not have occurred. No student of the politics of the period will be able to ignore the powerful case he has made for Gladstone's having "equipped Victorian Liberalism for mass democracy in an age when charismatic leadership was the only effective means of reaching out to the new mass electorate and effectively mobilizing popular radicalism" (p. 425). With regard to these matters and to much else, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform stands as a work of conspicuous distinction.

In one important aspect Biagini's study of popular Liberalism resembles Steele's study of elite Liberalism - the theme of continuity and consensus permeates the analysis. It is a theme that in recent years has become increasingly fashionable in writings on the economic, social, cultural, and political history of Victorian England. Many of these writings have markedly enhanced our understanding of this society, and Biagini's book merits a place of honour among such works. Yet the evident tilting of the scales against the conflict model and in favour of the consensus model (it is perhaps inappropriate to speak of models with reference to the books discussed in this essay) carries its own risk of historical distortion. The aggregation of traditions, beliefs, and ideas inhabiting the political culture explored by Biagini was very probably less of a piece than he would have us believe. And while it is useful to be shown the practical components joining plebeian radicalism to Gladstone's Liberalism, such a display may obscure the weakness of some of the links and conceal the divergent sensibilities and objectives distancing Gladstone from certain elements of that radicalism.

A second reservation prompted by Biagini's approach concerns the magnitude of the phenomenon he describes and elucidates. Of course Biagini knows that his "subaltern classes' included some who had little if any political consciousness and who had no sense of themselves as "plebeian radicals." What proportion of these classes did the plebeian radicals comprise? Biagini cannot tell us; nor should we expect him to. The problem is that he exhibits a tendency to move from the particular (i.e. plebeian radicals) to the general (i.e. subaltern classes) with a disquieting alacrity. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that he thinks of the subject of his book as "the politics of the subaltern classes"; he states, for example, that newspaper sources are "particularly relevant for the study of the politics of the subaltern classes in nineteenth-century Britain" (p. 21). I reckon it could be argued that where these classes had "politics" they were of the description Biagini imparts, but I doubt that he would accept this qualification if it were taken to imply that a substantial portion of them had no politics. My guess is that the "plebeian radicals" made up a less sizeable part of the "subaltern classes" than Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform wants the reader to suppose.

About the quality and value of Biagini's book no guesswork is called for. It is a splendid gift to the literature on mid- and late-Victorian Liberalism.

(1) Peter Mandler,aristocratic Government in the Age of Reform. Whigs and Liberals, 1830-1852 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). Mandler's thesis includes the view that the "decades of Reform witnessed ... an appeal to Parliament to reconnect itself to the people, not only by enfranchising them but also by protecting them, by legislating for them ... The whigs proved practically unique among the landed classes in their willingness, even eagerness, to respond to the full range of pressures from without. Their responsiveness was not merely cynical or opportunistic, but rather part of a coherent definition of what an aristocrat should be and do." (p. 2). (2) John Prest, Lord John Russell (London: Macmillan, 1972), pp. 151-52. (3) Robert Stewart, The Foundation of the Conservative Party, 1830-1867 (London: Longman, 1978), pp. 310-17. (4) Norman Gash, Aristocracy and People. Britain, 1815-1865 (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), chap. 9. (5) Stewart, Foundation of the Conservative Party, p. 310. (6) "The House of Commons," Quarterly Review, CXVI (July 1864), 245. (7) P.M. Gurovich, "The Continuation of War by Other Means: Party and Politics, 1855-1865," Historical Journal, XXVII (1984),603-31; Angus Hawkins, Parliament Party and the Art of Politics in Britain, 1855-59 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987). The monograph by Hawkins is an outstanding work of political history. (8) This election speech is printed in volume XXVIII of the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Public and Parliamentary Speeches, ed. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer, Collected Works, vols. XXVIII-XXIX [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988],18-28 [for the specific passages concerned, see 23]). Although the Morning Star of 6 July serves as the copy-text for this speech, the variant notes provide alternate readings from the Daily Telegraph, the Daily News, and The Times. (9) See Considerations on Representative Government, in Essays on Politics and Society, ed. J.M. Robson, Collected Works, vols. XVIII-XIX (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), XIX, 562 and 565.
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Author:Kinzer, Bruce L.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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