Political Transition in Britain: 1780-1850

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Political Transition in Britain: 1780-1850

The study of modern Britain has been of interest to  students of history for a variety of reasons. You may be aware that roughly  between 1780 and 1850, Great Britain--comprised  by  England, Wales and Scotland (refer map 1), went through a sweeping  transformation  brought by the Industrial Revolution.  This  momentous change  not only revolutionised manufacturing by introducing  the factory  system but also left a deep impact on the entire  social and political setup of the modern world.

By  taking a lead in this process, Britain also  emerged  as the  biggest  imperial  power in the years to  come  and  further exploited its captive markets and resources to stay ahead in  the race  for  industrialisation right uptil the  beginning  of  this century. We shall talk more about this in chapters
The  same  years interestingly saw the crystallisation  of  a `liberal  polity'  in Britain which has served as a model  for  a number of capitalist states till today. Such a polity  guarantees certain  freedoms such as free speech and equal treatment  before law to its citizens. But it also protects the inequalities  based on property and the wastefulness of the `free' market  associated with artificial demands generated by profit maximising  entrepre neurs.  In the next chapter, we shall closely examine  the  emergence  of such a state and market in Britain between late  eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries.
But the same period in British history is also memorable  for the  growth  of a new kind of politics centred  on  parliamentary elections and electoral competition between organised parties  as well  as struggles for a democratic order granting equal  say  to

all in governance. While the rising middle classes were  particu 9 o5

larly  concerned about the former, the industrial  working  class played an important role in the development of the latter. In the following  pages, we shall try to understand the peculiar way  in which  these political traditions competed in Britain  and  their wider implications for its modern polity.

But,  first it may be useful to review our  understanding  of the terms `politics' and `state' and the ways in which they  have generally  changed in modern times. Politics refers  to  struggle for  power. Those who have power try to maintain it  while  those

who are out of power may resist or try to capture it. In a sense, this  tussle pervades all forms of social relations and  institutions.  At  the  level of the state, however,  its  intensity  is particularly  marked  whether in the shape of  factional  clashes

within the ruling classes or in wider struggles between the  rich

and the poor which may erupt overtly from time to time. Secondly, ideological conflicts also play a significant  role
in  the politics which centres around the state. The  rulers  may
seek  to  justify the existing system in terms  of  religious  or
secular  ideals  while  those out of power may  look  forward  to
changes which may be radically new or reactionary in their  aims.
In  general  terms, such political impulses may be  described  as
centrist, leftist and rightist respectvely. But their content can
vary according to context. And, it may be useful to view them  as
relative positions only, as noted in the previous section.
In  modern times, however, the notion of the `left' has  been
associated  more  with egalitarian movements of/for  the  working
classes  while centrist politics has been mostly ascribed to  the
bourgeoisie  which  champions individual rights  but  not  social

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equality.  `Rightist' politics has further assumed various  forms
in recent times ranging from different types of revivalist  move
ments to secular dictatorships and fascist states.
Apart from generating new shades of political ideologies, the
modern  period has also witnessed significant transformations  in
the  methods by which power has been sought and resisted by  fac
tions and classes. The rising middle class has thus favoured the
maintenance  of  `law and order' through a  representative  state
which  will facilitate maximum productivity and  mobilisation  of
resources without giving up the basic inequality in the distribu
tion of wealth and resources. The mobilisation of popular consent
through  organised parties and propaganda and  winning  electoral
support  and  parliamentary majorities have been its  chief  con
cerns.  The leftist movement, on the other hand,  has  questioned
the  validity of parliamentary politics within a highly  inegali
tarian  social order and not shied away from a violent  assertion
of proletarian rebellions against oppressive states which protect
class divisions. While these political impulses have been  common
to most nations undergoing modernisation yet their precise  shape
and character have obviously varied from country to country.

In  this  context, the history of modern  Britain  offers  an

outstanding  case  of  a stable polity  which  underwent  liberal
democratic  transformation  without a violent  overthrow  of  its
ruling  class. This was in marked contrast to most  countries  on
the  Europeon  continent  which saw  frequent  outbreaks  against
feudal  regimes and their successor bourgeois states as well.  On
the  other  hand,  the British isles (apart  from  Ireland)  were
transformed in this `Age of Revolution' more by industrialisation

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than by violent political upheavals.
This is not to say that radical alternatives to parliamentary
politics  such as a workers' convention and an economy  dominated
by  workers' cooperatives were not tried out in Britain. But,  as
`left'  alternatives, they eigther failed to  gather  substantial
support or their aims remained relatively moderate. As a  result,
by the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain's rising  middle
class  and ruling aristocracy managed to arrive at  a  compromise
and  also to contain the growing working class  movements  within
the  confines of parliamentary politics committed to the  protec
tion of private property. How was this achieved ? And what  fac
tors shaped the peculiar transition of Britain to modern politics
deserve to be studied systematically.
But before turning to that account it may be relevant here to
briefly  consider the nature of political institutions  inherited
by Britain at the beginning of our period.

During the early modern period (circa 1500-1800), a number of

states  in Europe emerged as sovereign political entities  laying
claims to the allegiance of all the subjects within their  terri
tories  and also rapidly expanding their administrative and  eco
nomic  functions under absolutist monarchs such as Louis  XIV  of
France and Frederick the Great of Prussia.
In  countries like Britain and Netherland, however, the  rise
of  a sovereign nation state was also accompanied by a system  of
constitutional government based on a rule of law as enshrined  in
parliamentary  statues  and  legal conventions  rather  than  the
arbitrary will of the monarch. In Britain particularly, this  had
been  achieved after historic revolutions during the  seventeenth

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century  against  the absolutist ambitions of Stuart  kings  who
were  replaced with a new dynasty as well as a  new  constitution
ensuring a division of powers between the monarch and the parlia
ment and a more independent judiciary.
The parliament was indeed the distinctive organ of  Britain's
government. It consisted of two houses. The upper one, called the
House of Lords, representing the higher clergy and the hereditary
peerage  and the lower one called the House of Commons which  was
elected  on the basis of a limitied franchise. After the  revolu
tions of the seventeenth century, the lower house had managed  to
introduce some important checks on the monarch's political powers
and aquire a crucial role in governance. For example, the crown's
finances  including its right to raise fresh taxes and  spend  on
all  state departments including the army were controlled by  the
House of Commons through the mandatory annual budget.  Similarly,
all  new laws had to be passed by the parliament first  and  only
then sent for royal assent. The legislative and budgetary  powers
of  the parliament, moreover, put important checks on the  execu
tive  authority of the monarch who was in practice  compelled  to
appoint  his ministers largely from those who had a following  in
the House of Commons. This significant convention opened the path
to the future development of the modern `cabinet system' in which
the council of ministers is held collectively responsible to  the
parliament and holds office as long as it can command a  majority
in the House of Commons.
The  mixed constitution of Britain had few parallels  in  the
rest  of the world right uptil late eighteenth century. Yet,  its
celebrated division of powers as well as its checks and  balances

ï 9 o5 Šwere not without serious limitations and problems. The powers  of

the  House of Commons were clearly circumscribed by those of  the
monarch  and  the Lords. Moreover, within Commons,  factions  and
influence  dominated the proceedings rather than  well  organised
political parties with defined programs and ideologies. Thus, the
Whigs and the Tories which were the principal political groupings
in  British  parliament since the Glorious  Revolution  of  1688,
represented  by  and large the same  aristocratic  interest  with
minor  differences on questions of religious and  political  dis
sent.  The Tories were political conservatives and firmly  geared
towards the ruling Anglican aristocracy while the Whigs supported
the  organised  body of religious dissent in England as  well  as
Scotland  and were more open to middle class demands for  greater
political  equality and freedom. On the whole,  party  discipline
and  organisation in parliament were, however, still  weak.  This
further  opened  the  path for undue influence of  the  crown  in
parliament as patronge and placemen were easy to implant.
Thirdly,  the  electoral base of the Commons itself  was  ex
tremely limited and the landed interest dominated the lower house
as  well as the House of Lords. Thus, at the close of the  eight
eenth  century,  a mere 2% of the population of England  had  the
right to vote. In the rural counties the franchise was restricted
to those men who held freehold property worth 40 schillings while
amongst the urban boroughs there existed wide disparities between
constituencies.  Some large centre like Westminster had  several
thousand voters while a few ghost towns like Old Sarum had as few
as  seven. The restricted character of the franchise was  further
vitiated by widespread use of influence and bribery in the  elec
toral process.

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While  such `corruption' in the political process  was  noted
and criticised by a number of contemporaries it is equally inter
esting to note that the narrow social base of the parliament  was
actually  defended by most ideologues of the eighteenth  century.
The  leading parliamentarians of the times in fact  claimed  that
only landowners had a stake in the country and thus the right  to
be  represented  in  parliament. Even reformers  such  as  Edmund
Burke, as we shall note below, had considerable contempt for  the
poor  and feared any mass action instead of veiwing it as  a  re
source for reform efforts.
No  account of the British state would be complete without  a
discussion of the nature of local government in those times. At a
time when daily papers did not carry the news of central  govern
ment's  decisions to every household, the actual government  with
which  most citizens were familiar was that of the vestry or  the
village  council, the municipal bodies and the lower  courts.  It
was the mayor and the alderman in the towns and the Lord Leiuten
ants  and  the magistrates (also called the  Justices  of  Peace)
maintaining  law  and order in the counties who  personified  the
state  to  an average Britain citizen. The Justices of  Peace  in
fact carried out a number of functions at the local level includ
ing  those of a revenue official and the organiser of relief  for
the poor. It is notable that uptil late nineteenth century  there
was in fact no regular police in Britain to assisst these  unpaid
local  officials apart from the small army garrisons which  could
be  called for help during times of unrest. Another key  official
who  played an important role during the period was the  Improve
ment Commissioner. These were generally appointed through acts of

ï 9 o5 Šparliament  to oversee the development of roads, bridges,  canals

etc. in the counties.
While it is apparent that representative institutions  played
a unique role in Britain both at the central and local levels  in
fixing  taxes and regulating state's expenditure as well as  poor
relief,  it is also worth remembering that the dominance  of  the
landed  aristcracy at all levels was actually unassailable  right
uptil the beginning of the present century. The Britain  aristoc
racy indeed had some important characterstics which may be brief
ly noted at this stage.
At  the top, there was a powerful group of some 350  families
who  owned  huge landed estates and were known by the  titles  of
earls and squires. A seat in the House of Lords was their special
privilege  besides  a hold on other influential  offices  of  the
state.  Below this exclusive group of peers in  Britain's  ruling
elite, came the 4000 odd families constituting the gentry .  They
were  again owners of substantial landed estates. A  few  amongst
them had wealth comparable to those of the Lords but their  title
was  that of a knight or a baron and the offices  they  generally
aspired  to were those of the unpaid Justices of Peace or a  seat
in the House of Commons.
Another  peculiar feature of the British aristocracy was  its
fairly  compact  character. While in most  Europeon  nations  the
ruling  elite was supposed to include all scions of  noble  fami
lies, in Britain on the other hand, due to the practice of primo
geniture  and  the  regular outflow of younger  children  of  the
titleholders  into  the armed forces, the diplomatic  corps,  the
church  and  high finance, the number  of  titleholders  remained
fairly  restricted.  Even  as some successful  members  from  the

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trades  and  the professions could  always  purchase  substantial
estates and aspire for titles over time. Lastly, it may be  noted
that  the cessation of feuds and intra class violence within  the
British aristocracy, specially during the eighteenth century, was
accompanied  by  the  development of the  gentlemanly  ideal  and
increasing attention being paid to improvement of estates and  to
learning rather than to martial display.
Another characterstic of the British polity which needs to be
noted  at this stage is its claim of promoting `liberty' for  its
subjects.  Apart from numerous British commentators, a number  of
foreign  observers  (including thinkers such as  Montesquieu  and
Voltaire)  also stressed during the eighteenth century  that  the
British  polity  was  distinctive not only due  to  its  powerful
parliament  but also by virtue of the freedom of  expression  and
the security of person and possessions enjoyed by its citizens in
general. Some modern thinkers have also noted that by the  begin
ning  of nineteenth century Britain was being  increasingly  gov
erned through the rule of law in place of direct use of force  to
extract surplus out of the labouring classes.
It is certainly true that parliamentary checks on executive's
right to impose new taxes, the sanctity of private property,  the
independent tradition of the English common law and the force  of
legal  provisions such as Habeus Corpus along with  a  relatively
free  press  guaranteed some important rights to  the  upper  and
middle  classes in Britain at a time when similar liberties  were
unknown  elsewhere. At the same time it is important to  remember
that  these  freedoms could be enjoyed in practice  only  by  the
wealthy who could take recourse to the lengthy procedures of law.

ï 9 o5 ŠIndeed  the  British courts as well as  political  thinkers  from

Hobbes and Locke to Bentham and Bagehot went out of their way  to
champion the sanctity of private property while the laws remained
extreme ly harsh against the poor.
It  is well known that in all inegalitarian  societies  laws,
customs  and  dominant values are subtly biased in favor  of  the
ruling classes. While the owners of land and capital thus  derive
supernormal  profits and rents with little effort,  the  laboring
classes-the  real creators of wealth often starve on  low  wages.
Women  are often confined to unpaid domestic work. Political  and
legal  discrimination  against the lower  orders  further  worsen
their economic deprivation.
British society was no different on this count. Indeed,  the
law  makers as well as executors in Britain were almost  entirely
drawn  from the landed aristocracy. It is hardly surprising  that
the  government  was also biased towards this class.  Apart  from
withholding  political and voting rights from women, workers  and
religious  minorities, the eighteenth century British state  also
put  numerous  restrictions on the free movement of  workers  and
sought to regulate prices and wages in favor of the landed elite.
Some  of  these restrictions were later seen as standing  in  the
path of industrial capitalism and hence progressively removed  in
the nineteenth century as we shall see below.
Throughout the eighteenth century, however, maximum focus  of
the British state was on strengthening the agrarian gentry at the
cost of independent farmers and laborers. The enclosure  movement
under which large estates were created by the rich for commercial
farming  out of the common land of the rural communities  and  by
ousting  the  poor farmers was well  supported  by  parliamentary

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legislation.  On the other hand, the same parliament went to  the
extent  of  passing death penalties for petty  offences  such  as
hunting in the common lands or `theft' from forests etc. In order
to  firmly instil the awe of the propertied classes in the  minds
of  the  poor  public hangings of such offenders  was  also  pre
scribed.  And those found guilty of the death penalty  in  eight
eenth century Britain could well include children stealing  goods
above forty scillings or starving labourers trying to catch  hare
in  the  forests. The claims of `liberty'  obviously  had  little
value for the ordinary folks of Britain.
`The  case  of  John Wilkes' aptly reflects  the  extent  and
nature  of `liberty' acceptable to the ruling classes in  Britain
as  also the middle class aspirations to widen its scope  at  the
close  of eighteenth century. While going through  the  following
summary, try to list some important contrasts between the politi
cal  cultures  of eighteenth century  Britain  and  Mughal/Manchu
courts about which you may have studied earlier.
Wilkes  was  the son of a country distiller who  had  married
well enough to set up as a country gentleman. In 1757 he  entered
Parliament  and  gradually emerged as a strong critic  of  George
III's authoritarian attempts. His paper--North Briton also  acted
as  a major forum for attacks on the king's favourite  ministers.
In 1763, when Britain signed the Treaty of Paris, Wilkes went  to
the  extent  of criticising the king himself for  some  unpopular
provisions of this settlement.
At this point, a general warrant was issued by the  Secretary
of  State--Halifax to arrest `all connected with the  publication

ï 9 o5 Šof  the North Briton'. But Wilkes went to court claiming  parlia

mentary privilege and also challenging the validity of a  general
warrant  of  arrest. On both these counts he won the  battle  and
also  filed  a  suit claiming damages against  the  Secretary  of
State.  Subsequently, Wilkes' enemies succeeded in expelling  him
from  Parliament on charges of libel. Wilkes then took asylum  in
France.  But not before receiving a hero's status in  London  and
making the government look foolish in people's eyes.
In 1768 Wilkes returned from France and stood as a  candidate
in the Middlesex election for parliament and won the seat  amidst
much  excitement  and  shouts of `Wilkes and  liberty'  all  over
London. The parliament was outraged at the prospect of an  outlaw
sitting  amongst  them and twice dismissed him only to  find  him
reelected  by  the electors of Middlesex. At this  juncture,  the
radical--Horne Tooke founded the `Society for the Defence of Bill
of  Rights'  and leaders like Lord Chatham also admitted  that  a
serious  constitutional issue was at stake and Wilkes had  to  be
ultimately readmitted to parliament.
The third episode of the `Wilkes Case' began in 1771 when the
owner of a Middlesex newspaper who had published the  proceedings
of  the Parliament was sought to be arrested by the  authorities.
But  Wilkes,  who  was now a magistrate,  actually  arrested  the
messenger sent by the Parliament and refused to heed its summons.
Ultimately,  the Commons were forced to admit the right of  news
papers to cover their debates.
Having discussed the principal features of the British polity
at  the  beginning of our period, it may now  be  appropriate  to
focus briefly on important economic shifts emerging in the  coun

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try around this period. Throughout the eighteenth century,  Brit
ain  saw a considerable expansion of population as well as  agri
cultural  production  and trade and commerce.  Such  a  sustained
economic growth in turn unleashed new social and political forces
in the country by the close of the century. England, Scotland  as
well  as Wales were getting rapidly urbanised and witnessing  the
rise  of a new social order dominated by the middle  and  working
classes in place of the old clergy, lords and agricultural  work
ers.  Moreover, the relations between the new social groups  were
qualitatively  different  from those of the old. A  much  greater
degree of competition and conflict informed the relations between
these classes as deference or acceptance of heirarchical  differ
ences  were  now on the decline.
An  important  dimension of the ferment now  visible  on  the
political  scene was the growth of informed public  opinion,  the
growing  numbers of newspapers and the rise of numerous  associa
tions  and  pressure groups dedicated to  various  public  causes
including  electoral reform, fiscal discipline, the abolition  of
slavery  and  free trade etc. The arrogance of  George  III,  who
ruled Britain from 1760 to 1820, the fight for liberal rights led
during his rein by leaders such as Fox and Wilkes and the  issues
raised  by  the liberation of British colonies in  America  after
1776  further stoked the embers of such discontent. Not  surpris
ingly, the last decades of the eighteenth century were marked  by
major protests against undue monarchical influence in the working
of  the parliament and also against the violation  of  individual
liberty  by  the government.
Britain had a tradition of liberal thought going back to  the

ï 9 o5 Šrevolutionary  decades when philosophers such as John  Locke  had

espoused  a  new theory of state bound to safeguard  persons  and
property.  The  new controversies generated by the  Wilkes'  case
centring on the freedom of press and protection against arbitrary
arrest during 1760s and 70s further brought the issues of  civic
rights  centre  stage in British politics. The formation  of  the
Society for the Defence of Bill of Rights in 1769 and the Society
for  Constitutional Information in 1780 gave organised  shape  to
such struggles.
However,  most middle class leaders of the times  thought  of
liberty  from  the perspective of the propertied  classes  alone.
Some  pioneering feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and  early
socialists such as Robert Owen tried to question the sanctity  of
private property and the subordination of women under patriarchy.
But, more generally, the interests of the workers, the  religious
minorities  and  women  continued to be ignored  in  the  liberal
ideology which held sway in Britain during this period.
The most important concern of the liberal agenda during these
years  was of high taxation and waste in public expenditure.  The
parliament as well as the press were important fora through which
the  demand for the `economical reforms' against these  ills  was
lead.  In 1779, influential sections of the gentry led by  Wywill
gave further support to such demands. Consequently,  Conservative
leaders such as Edmund Burke as well as liberals such as Pitt the
Younger  embarked  upon  a series of reforms which  lead  to  the
abolition  of  crown's patronage and the introduction  of  modern
budgeting in Britain.
Apart from economy in state's expenditure, the rising  middle
classes  were  also  interested in market reforms  at  a  broader

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level.  This  demand was particularly raised by the  bankers  and
traders  of  London and the manufacturers of  growing  industrial
centres  such  as Birmingham and Manchester. They  became  ardent
champions of free market principles and campaigned for the aboli
tion  of  high tariffs as well as state supported  monopolies  in
trade  and  manufacturing. Adam Smith's famous treatise  on  `The
Wealth  of Nations' which gave the theoretical justification  for
freedom of economic enterprise and minimum state interference  in
the market became an influential text in support of their  views.
While the rising bourgeoisie (consisting of capitalist  manu
facturers and traders as well as educated professionals) demanded
minimum  state interference in the market at the same  time  they
put  new demands for a lean but efficient state  machinery  which
will run on rational principles and ensure the smooth functioning
of private enterprise in the country. The doctrine of  `utilitar
ianism',  coined by another influential thinker of the  age  viz.
Jeremy  Bentham, offered a philosophical justification  for  such
demands. According to this doctrine all laws and institutions  of
society  were to be judged on the basis of their utility  to  the
maximum  number and not by their traditional sanctity or  textual
 Other  causes of public concern during this period were:  the
issues  of public health and education, crime and  morality,  the
treatment of prisoners, condition of the poor in sprawling indus
trial slums and the rights of dissenting religious groups.  Apart
from  the Liberals, Utilitarians and the Utopian Socialists,  the
religious  movements of the Evangelicals and the Methodists  also
played an important role in raising these issues in  contemporary

ï 9 o5 ŠBritish politics.

The  demand  for  electoral and  parliamentary  reforms  was,
meanwhile,  gaining momentum amongst sections of middle class  as
well  as artisans and working classes. The writings  of  radicals
like  Tom Paine and Major Cartwright acted as powerful  catalysts
in  this respect. The outbreak of the French Revolution  in  1789
also had a positive impact on the radical movement in Britain  as
it  revived  the interest in democratic reforms  which  had  been
marginalised after the infamous Gordon riots against Catholics in
London  in 1780. The Society for Constitutional  Information  was
now  revived  along with the opening of a number  of  Republican
Clubs in the provinces. One of the most radical of these was  the
London  Corresponding  Society which under the  guidance  of  the
London shoe maker--Thomas Hardy sought to organise a nation  wide
protest  for parliamentary reform as well as workers' rights  and
also  established contacts with the Revolutionary  Convention  in
Even though the demands and aspirations of the British  radi
cals were moderate yet, the example of revolutionary violence  in
France  greatly frightened the British authorities. Between  1793
and  1815, Britain in alliance with other monarchies  of  Europe,
was  at continuous war with Revolutionary France (refer  map  2).
During this period, the British state not only used the national
ist  sentiment to buttress its authority but also  unleashed  un
precedented  repression against the radicals as well as the  nas
cent working class movement. This included the suspension of  the
Habeus Corpus in 1794, the introduction of anti-combination  laws
in  1799 as also a series of treason trials and bloody  suppres

ï 9 o5 Šsion of all radical organisations.

Yet,  repression  failed to stymise the radical  movement  in
Britain.  Under the guidance of old stalwarts such as  Cartwright
as  well as new leaders such as Cobbet, the famous Hampden  Clubs
were  formed  in  a number of towns to  press  for  parliamentary
reforms and the extention of franchise specially after 1809.

Meanwhile  the  working class movement was also  maturing  in

Britain.  The  initial  phase of industrialisation  was  full  of
misery  for the proletariat which worked and lived  in  extremely
hostile  conditions for long hours on meagre wages and  with  few
rights  or social security. It is hardly surprising that  in  the
face  of these brutal conditions, in several places, the  workers
responded  by systematically breaking the machines  which  symbo
lised  the new order to them. These early machine  breakers  have
been nicknamed Luddites after their mythical leader Nedd Ludd.
But the working class movement in Britain actually  consisted
of  a variety of strands ranging from self help credit  societies
to  workers' cooperatives to the more radical democrats  and  so
cialists. The democrats reposed faith in universal franchise  and
parliamentary reforms besides workers' rights to form unions  and
to strike gor better conditions. Socialists such as Robert  Owen
(1771-1858)  further  argued that all wealth is  created  through
labor  and therefore the labouring classes should claim the  full
fruit  of their work. In the capitalist system, however,  maximum
share  of  the  wealth produced is appropriated  by  a  miniscule
minority  of  the owners of capital.
How  to  change this unjust order? This was the  major  issue
before  socialists everywhere. Owen himself  emphasised  workers'

ï 9 o5 Šcooperatives  and  self help rather than a  direct  confrontation

with the state. To realise these ideas, he first founded the  New
Lanark Spinning Mill at Glasgow and later the New Harmony society
in Indiana, USA in the initial decades of nineteenth century.  We
shall  learn  more about the labour movement in  Britain  in  the
following pages.

The  British state, meanwhile, responded to these  different

demands in diverse ways. Some economic and administrative reforms
were accepted to accomodate the aspirations of the rising  middle
classes.  Indeed  such `reformist conservatism'  of  the  British
oligarchy distinguished it clearly from the `rightist' forces  in
most  Continental regimes of the period and helped in forging  an
early alliance between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie there.
But the demands of the workers were viewed with general suspicion
and suppressed unequivocally in the initial years of industriali
Thus,  the  defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815  had  been
celebrated all over Britain. However, for the workers of Manches
ter and Birmingham who were awaiting reforms, the end of the  war
actually  brought  more unemployment and  economic  difficulties.
Yet, the Tory goverment of Lord Liverpool (1812-27) continued its
repressive policies. The `March of the Blanketeers' which was led
towards  London by the weavers of Manchester to  protest  against
their  sufferings  in  1816 was beaten back. The  revolt  of  the
Spenceans  who  asked for redistribution of land, was  of  course
seen as treason and crushed.
But  the  most  brutal state action was visible  in  1819  at
Peterloo  park, in Manchester, where a crowd of 60,000 had  gath

ï 9 o5 Šered  to  listen  to Orator Hunt on democratic  reforms.  It  was

indiscriminately  fired at. Eleven persons lost their  lives  and
more  than four hundred were injured in this bloodbath.  Peterloo
has  been  remembered as the domestic Waterloo of the  old  guard
which  became  panicky and passed the infamous Six  Acts  putting
fresh restrictions on the press and political assemblies etc.

After  1820,  however,  some shift in the  attitudes  of  the

Liverpool  ministry, specially towards the middle  class  demands
for  economic and administrative reforms, was evident. A band  of
new  ministers including Canning, Huskisson and Robert  Peel  now
started a series of reforms in state's finances, tariffs,  police
and  courts etc. The Whig governments of Lord Grey and Lord  Rus
sell  brought further constitutional and  administrative  changes
during 1830s. These reforms played an important role in orienting
Britain towards a modern economy and administration and we  shall
learn  more about them in the next chapter. At the moment, it  is
important  to note that the readiness to introduce  such  reforms
went a long way in forging a tie between the landed and  capital
ist classes in the country.
Yet,  the  period  was not entirely free  of  conflicts.  Two
striking  events which convey the depth of tensions between  dif
ferent  social classes in Britain were the struggle over  parlia
mentary reform in 1831-2 and the Chartist movement which surfaced
between 1839 and 1848.

The  passage  of  the Parliamentary Reform Act  of  1832  was

indeed one of the most crucial events in Britain's transition  to
modern  politics  as it ensured a prominent place to  the  rising
middle classes in British polity and a stake in its stability.

ï 9 o5 Š

Demands for reform in Britain's parliametary system had  been
growing  with industrialisation since late eighteenth century.  A
number  of  bills had been introduced  in  Parliament,  specially
since 1780s, to enhance the representation of the new  industrial
centres.  But  none gathered sufficient support.  While  radicals
under  the  leadership of Burdett and some Whig leaders  such  as
Brougham and Russell were committed to reform, the ruling  Tories
were still against any constitutional innovation. Both the  major
parliamentary  factions  were,  moreover,  united  in  dismissing
democracy  or a radical extention of the franchise  as  dangerous
for the country.
The  accession  of the liberal monarch William IV,  in  1830,
brought the Whigs to power after a long gap under the  leadership
of  Lord Grey. This brightened the chances of limited  parliamen
tary  reform. The same year revolutions broke out in a number  of
countries  in Europe and gave further filip to reform efforts  in
Britain.  Under such pressures, the House of Commons  passed  two
successive reform bills. But both were thrown out by the House of
Lords. Meanwhile, pro reform associations were formed in  several
cities  of Britain and leaders like Thomas Attwood in  Birmingham
and Francis Place in London tried to mobilise shopkeepers,  arti
sans  as well as workers in support of parliamentary reform.  In
the  elections of 1831 which were called to end the  deadlock  in
parliament, the reformist Whigs were again returned in  majority.
Ultimately,  the  House  of Lords also bowed  before  the  king's
warning of creating new reformist peers and the first Reform  Act
thus came into force in 1832.
The  aim  of the Act, however, was to preserve  the  existing

ï 9 o5 ŠConstitution  of Britain; not to change it. For this it tried  to

introduce  some reforms in the election of the House of  Commons.
While  providing for a redistribution of 143 seats of  the  lower
House  to accord with the new demographic pattern  of  industrial
Britain, the Act also abolished a number of `rotten' boroughs and
extended  the franchise marginally both in the counties  and  the
boroughs.  In the counties, all men who were #10 copyholders  and
#50  `tenants at will', in addition to the 40  schiling  freehol
dres,  now had the right to vote. In the boroughs, on  the  other
hand, all householders occupying residences worth #10 per  annum,
or more, were enfranchised. The new electorate still consisted of
less  than six lakh men or a mere 3% of the total  population  of
Britain then.
Thus, the Act ensured that the rule of property would contin
ue  in  Britain. But, alongside the established  aristocracy,  it
granted representation to the rising middle classes in the  coun
try's parliamentary government. This went a long way in forging a
compromise  between  the bourgeiosie and the landed  elite.  Thus
enabling  a  peaceful transition to a modern  liberal  polity  in
Apart  from redefining the class character of the state,  the
Act had some other long term implications which are important  to
note  at  this  stage. Firstly, the very manner  of  its  passage
enhanced the significance of the House of Commons in relation  to
the  upper  House and also set an important  precedent  of  extra
parliamentary  pressures on legislators. Secondly, the  reformist
agenda  within parliament became extremely strong after  1832  as
more  radicals  entered parliament from  the  industrial  centres
which had gained representation and the Whigs and the Tories were

ï 9 o5 Š

also  forced  to  develop new programs to  broaden  their  appeal
amongst  the middle classes. In the next chapter, we shall  learn
about a host of reforms including factory laws, municipal  reform
and the freeing of the labor market through a new Poor Law  which
were passed by the parliament soon after the Reform Act of 1832.
The emergence of modern political parties geared for elector
al competition and the mobilisation of public opinion also had an
important bearing on politics now. Uptil 1832, the Whigs and  the
Tories  had  functioned  more or less as  factions  lobbying  for
influence  in the king's government but with little  organisation
or  discipline  in or outside parliament. After the  Reform  Act,
they were forced to transform themselves into modern parties  and
compete  for  power in the parliament on the  basis  of  declared
programmes and an organisational network extending to each local
ity in the country. Party discipline would operate within parlia
ment  through whips and in the constituencies through  provincial
associations  operating under the direction of central clubs  and
 Thus  the Tories founded the Carlton club and, with  the  Tam
worth manifesto of 1835, adopted the policy of reformist  conser
vatism.  In the same year, the Lichfield House agreement  between
Whigs,  radicals and the Irish representatives laid  the  founda
tions  of  the Liberal Party of the nineteenth century.  The  new
members of parliament were also exposed to greater pressure  both
from  the constituencies as well as the parties. By 1841, it  was
common  practice for newspapers to classify election  results  in
terms  of  Liberal and Conservative gains. This  was  an  outward
manifestation  of a revolution in politics which had been in  the

ï 9 o5 Šmaking for almost two centuries.

The  maturing  of  parliamentary  politics  in  Britain  also
depended  on  the growth of political conventions  regarding  the
conduct  of parliamentary proceedings, the role of a  responsible
opposition, the collective responsibility of the cabinet and the
dependence of governments on a clear parliamentary majority  with
which the smooth functioning of the liberal polity is associated.
In the absence of a written Constitution their general observance
and  acknowledgement  by  all political players stand  out  as  a
unique feature of Britain's polity. Although such conventions and
procedures took a number of years to evolve and are difficult  to
identify  with  any single event in its history yet,  the  middle
decades  of  the nineteenth century, can be seen  as  a  critical
period  in  their  evolution when leaders like  Robert  Peel  and
William  Gladstone brought greater emphasis on  their  observance
both in power and in opposition.

One important evidence of the maturing of a liberal polity in

Britain  during  this period was the resolution of the  Corn  Law
controversy  within  the ambit of parliamentary politics  in  the
first  half of nineteenth century. The Corn Laws had been  passed
in  1815 to ensure good returns to the landed classes of  Britain
on their staple produce with the help of high tariffs on  cheaper
grain coming from overseas. They obviously hurt the interests  of
all  who  had  to purchase grain from the  market  including  the
workers  and the middle classes. The industrialists  also  viewed
them as a serious burden since they compelled them to pay  higher
subsistence wages to workers. In an era of progressive  liberali
sation  of the market, these laws indeed stood out as an  anamoly

ï 9 o5 Šand were widely regarded as a symbol of rapacious exploitation by

the state on behalf of the `bread taxing oligarchy'.
Protests against the Corn Laws grew during the second quarter
of  the century. In 1839, middle classes, led by Richard  Cobden,
founded  the Anti Corn Law League and started a nation wide  cam
paign  for  the abolition of the hated laws. The campaign  was  a
remarkable illustration of a political movement employing  modern
means  of propaganda for a well defined objective to be  achieved
through parliamentary legislation. Even though the league enlist
ed support of the workers in several areas yet it confined itself
with  the single aim of the abolition of Corn Laws and  refrained
from  throwing a wider challenge to the wealth and privileges  of
the aristocracy. At the same time, it is interesting to note that
the  abolition of the laws was actually carried not by a  liberal
but  a pro landlord Tory government of Robert Peel in 1846.  This
again  established the spirit of accomodation between the  landed
and capitalist elites in Britain now committed to operate  within
the framework of parliamentary politics.

While the differences between the aristocracy and the  rising

bourgeiosie could be reconciled after the Reform Act of 1832, the
same  could  not be said for the more serious clash  between  the
workers  and the upper classes as a whole. Indeed, the  labouring
classes  were quick to realise that a parliament which  rests  on
limited franchise linked to the ownership of property will  never
be  sympathatic  to their sufferings. As a  result,  many  turned
towards  the creation of non parlimentary instituions such as  an
independent  workers' convention, cooperatives or to radical  de
mands for universal franchise, secret ballot and stipends for all

ï 9 o5 Šmembers  of parliament. A few even propagated the  redistribution

of land, workers control on factories and a socialist order  more
generally  which would rest on the collective ideals of  equality
rather than economic competition between individuals.
The  upper  classes, however, were determined to  thwart  all
such  demands in order to extract a heavy price from  labour  for
the  rapid development of capital in the initial phase of  indus
trialisation.  We  have talked about the  radical  movements  led
jointly  by artisans and some middle class activists at the  turn
of  the  nineteenth century as well as  the  repressive  measures
undertaken  against them by the British state culminating in  the
Peterloo massacre of 1819.
During the same period, an independent working class movement
with  its  own cooperatives, friendly societies,  newspapers  and
stores as well as striking unions was also coming into being.  It
was distinct from the earlier radical tradition by virtue of  its
own  proletarian  leadership, an independent agenda  of  economic
demands and more sustained organisation.
The  first  attempts to link all labouring  men  together  in
general trades union and also to forge unity for a General Strike
aquired  momentum  during the 1820s and 30s. In 1834,  the  Grand
National Confederation of Trade Unions or the GNCTU was formed to
give  concrete shape to a broad working class movement to  demand
better wages and working conditions including a ten hour  working
day. Some of the members also looked forward to an Owenite mille
nium  in  which  workers would enjoy the full  product  of  their
labour  by  organising industries under their  own  cooperatives.
Owen's  own ideas also changed over time. After his  return  from
the  New World in 1829, he was accepted as a major  spokesman  of

ï 9 o5 Š

the budding trade union movement in Britain. However, differences
soon cropped up between him and the younger generation of leaders
as we shall note below.
At the same time, the state also swung into action and  wide
spread  arrests were ordered against all unions. In  Dorsetshire,
for  example,  the Friendly Society of Agricultural  Workers  was
disbanded  and  six of its organisers convicted for  seven  years
transportation  simply  on the ground of `taking  secret  oaths'.
These  became  famous as the Tolpuddle martyrs and only  after  a
prolonged agitation by workers were they repatriated in 1839.
Meanwhile  economic depression had set in leading to  further
lowering  of  wages and large scale unemployment.  As  there  was
little  provision for social security from the employers  or  the
state,  the  workers were badly hit all over  Britain.  Even  the
governing classes were now forced to admit that industrial  Brit
ain was beginning to look like `two nations', divided between the
rich  and the poor inhabiting two different worlds between  which
there was little intercourse, similarity or sympathy.
While  the  rulers thus debated the  `Condition  of  England'
question  in the disturbed thirties, some working  class  leaders
were  beginning to question the Owenite stress on self  help  and
cooperatives and demanding political rights for workers  instead.
In 1836, the London Working Men's Association was founded by  men
like  Lovett to demand universal suffrage. Radicals like  William
Morris and Smith O' Brien also called for a new awakening amongst
workers for building a society in which they would be `at the top
of society instead of the bottom or, one in which there would  be
no top or bottom'.

ï 9 o5


The Chartist Movement was the most significant outcome of the

growing  focus  on  political power  which  the  British  workers
evinced in 1830s and 40s. It derives its name from the six  point
Charter  it presented before the parliament  demanding  universal
manhood suffrage, secret ballot, annual parliaments, equal  elec
toral  districts,  abolition of property  qualification  for  the
members  of House of Commons and payment of regular  salaries  to
them.  In 1839, the first Chartist Convention met in  London  but
despite  the collection of a million signatures for its  petition
it was rejected outright by the parliament.
Such a rebuff shook the faith of a number of Chartists in the
method  of petition and some like Feargus O' Connor and Smith  O'
Brien now wanted to spread the agitation to the countryside or to
call  for  a general strike and also use force if  necessary.  In
November 1839, thousands of Welsh colliers led an armed march  on
the  town  of Newport. However, unity could not be  sustained  on
these  radical options and though another Chartist  petition  was
presented to the parliament in 1842 yet, the economic recovery of
the  mid forties again turned the attention of most workers  away
from radical politics and towards wage improvements through trade
union activity.
The  last flicker of Chartism glew again in  1848--which  was
the year of revolutions all over Europe. A demonstration of  five
lakh  Chartists was called at Kennington Commons in the heart  of
London to present a mammoth petition of six million signatures to
the  parliament.  But poor organisation, combined  with  untimely
rain,  helped the government in diffusing the crisis and  finally
rejecting  the demands of the Chartists. The economic  prosperity

ï 9 o5 Šof  the  ensuing period further turned the attention  of  British

workers from political demands to economic self help of which the
growth  of the Rochdale store, founded in 1844, was an  important
symbol.  The indifferent response to Karl Marx's efforts to  lead
the  International  Working  Men's Association  from  London  was
As a matter of fact, Marx and his famous associate--Frederich
Engels--  published the Communist Manifesto at the first  conven
tion of the IWMA in London in 1848. It imparted scientific  basis
to socialist thinking and gave a call to workers of the world  to
unite  in the struggle for a new egalitarian society which  would
transcend  the exploitative capitalist order. The Manifesto  also
upheld  the vision of a classless society based on the  abolition
of private property.
You  will learn more about the historic struggles which  this
revolutionary  manifesto inspired amongst the workers in  several
countries of the world. In the context of Britain, however, it is
important  to  remember that liberal  rather  than  revolutionary
politics remained the preponderant concern of workers there.  The
growth of the Labour Party committed to parliamentary politics at
the turn of the present century further ensured this pattern.

One  major factor which led the working class of  `the  first

industrial  nation'  towards such politics was the  rise  of  the
`labor  aristocracy'  there.  These were  men  whose  specialised
skills  in  the  expanding industrial economy  coupled  with  the
growing benefits of Britain's large empire enabled them to  main
tain  a comfortable standard of living. As a result, the  `labor
aristocracy'  put  faith in `improvement' within  the  Capitalist

ï 9 o5 Šorder  rather  than its overthrow. They also aspired  for  voting

rights  on the same grounds that appealed to the  middle  classes
i.e. as a `respectable' class playing its due role in  preserving
the  Constitution. These skilled workers of  Victoraian  Britain,
moreover,  emphasised self help and developed their own  friendly
societies  and  cooperatives as well as `New Unions'  to  improve
their conditions and abjured the path of revolution.
Such an attitude also resulted in the formation of the Reform
League in 1865 by the labor aristocracy jointly with middle class
leaders to demand further parliamentary reforms. Its efforts bore
fruit  two years later when the urban workers finally  got  their
voting  rights.  It is important to remember, however,  that  the
Reform Act of 1867 which granted this right was a product not  of
a  radical mass movement but of party politics in which the  Con
servatives led by Disraeli took the lead to outmanouvre  Gladsto
nian  Liberals  in the mobilisation of votes. Such  politics  was
indeed becoming the mainstay of the the evolving capitalist order
in general.
During the decade or so, following the passage of the  Second
Reform  Act, the urban working class was thus accomodated  within
the  liberal  polity with futher enactments  to  recognise  their
right  to form trade unions (1871), to go on strikes  (1876)  and
some  steps towards educational and health reforms (1870 &  1875)
respectively.  None  of these measures,  however,  mitigated  the
growing inequalities in the economy as the sanctity of private or
even  inherited property was never brought under  question.  Even
democracy  and welfare were still a distant dream for  the  lower
classes in Britain. And fresh bouts of agitation would be  neces
sary  in  the  present century before the  liberal  polity  would

ï 9 o5 Š

really fulfil these fundamental aspirations of workers and of the
`second sex'.
While these developments were still in the future, a  crucial
benchmark had, however, been crossed by mid nineteenth century in
Britain with the largely peaceful resolution of the class  ques
tion  thrown up by the Chartist movement. The acceptance of  par
liament  and electoral politics as the central mechanism for  the
resolution  of  such conflicts was significant  in  shaping  this
The principal factors which led to such a political resolution
in  the first industrial nation were: the unity displayed by  its
upper  classes  vis a vis workers, the economic benefits  of  the
expanding British Empire, the relative weakness of revolutionary
politics in nineteenth century Britain and the subsequent  growth
of welfare legislation in the country.
However,  several  other institutional  changes  besides  the
extention of franchise had to be introduced in the Constituion of
Britain in order to effect this transition on a sustained  basis.
In  what ways this was achieved and what shape the British  state
finally  aquired in the process would be the subject of our  next
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