Not Many Dead

Linda Colley

  • Riot, Risings and Revolution: Governance and Violence in 18th-Century England by Ian Gilmour
    Hutchinson, 504 pp, £25.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 09 175330 9

Ian Gilmour is a distinguished and highly intelligent example of a once rare species: he is a Conservative with a cause. Unfortunately for him, however – and perhaps for the rest of us as well – his cause is no longer that of the political party he has always espoused. The son of a baronet, he was born into Toryism in much the same way as Anthony Trollope’s Duke of Omnium was born to Whig Liberalism, passing through Eton, to Balliol, to marriage with a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, to the Bar, to safe Conservative seats in rural Norfolk and Buckinghamshire, and then on to cabinet rank, first as Secretary of Defence under Heath, and then as Lord Privy Seal and Deputy Foreign Secretary. Then came Margaret Thatcher’s consolidation of her own style of party leadership and, on 14 September 1981, the end of his political progress.

There were clear intellectual as well as tactical, sociological and (doubtless) personality reasons why he was purged in this fashion and at this time. Like most Conservative MPs of his generation, Gilmour had always tended to believe that dogma was the occupational disease of the Left. By contrast, ‘British Conservatism,’ as he wrote in Inside Right (1977), was ‘not an “ism”. It is not an idea. Still less is it a system of ideas.’ By its very essence, Toryism was ‘distrustful of all elixirs and of all allegedly simple answers to very complex problems’. For Conservatives, he argued, ‘there is no alternative to moderation.’ In other words, Sir Ian was – and is – a patrician, ‘one-nation’ Tory, convinced that his party’s hegemony was indispensable to the country’s well-being, but only so long as it cherished as well as reformed the welfare state, strove for full employment, and made social consensus a paramount goal.

To a mind of this Butskellite cast, Thatcherite Conservatism’s adherence to rigorous monetarism irrespective of mounting criticism and social cost was bound to seem profoundly uncongenial and impractical. But I suspect that Gilmour also views the aggressiveness of the New Toryism as being dangerously divisive, indeed disruptive. Thatcher, he claimed in his resignation statement back in 1981, was steering the ship of state ‘straight onto the rocks’. And it is surely this perception – that uncompromising and over-dogmatic government is likely seriously to damage the social fabric of the nation – that underlies this book.

For this is a study which examines the violence of those below in tandem with the violence of the state and its rulers. The former, Gilmour contends, is more often than not a consequence of the latter. Those in power naturally deny this connection: not out of cynicism or oppressiveness necessarily, but because they are out of touch or arrogant or simply blinkered by their own propaganda. ‘Marvelling at the skilful beneficence of their own rule, they are convinced that the ruled can have no cause for complaint; hence they infer that popular violence must stem from licentiousness, perversity or agitation.’

Delicately, Gilmour allows us to find our own present-day examples of this self-serving tendency, while supplying plenty from the 18th century. Sir Robert Walpole, effective prime minister from 1722 to 1742, was both joyously corrupt and a ruthless exponent of one-party government, yet he seems genuinely to have believed that all expressions of hostility to his protracted regime stemmed not from a sense of its unconstitutionality but from Jacobite treason. By the same token, his Lord Chief Justice, Philip Hardwicke, was more concerned to link a crime wave in the 1730s with ‘the degeneracy of the present times, fruitful in the inventions of wickedness’, than with widespread human want and desperation. And there is an almost comical petulance in one MP’s anger at popular opposition to some legislation passed in 1753: ‘I am not little hurt at the spirit and disturbances showed in many parts of England against a law passed after many considerations and debates by the legislature.’ How could the governed be so unthinking and ungrateful?

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