A Win for the Gentlemen

Paul Smith

  • Entrepreneurial Politics in Mid-Victorian Britain by G.R. Searle
    Oxford, 346 pp, £40.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 19 820357 8

Negotiating the commercial treaty of 1860 with France, Richard Cobden, he later revealed, felt ‘humiliated’ by the contrast between the rational system of measurement in force across the Channel and the weird complication of its British counterpart. Metrication and decimalisation would not only smooth the conquering path of British commerce but contribute to the harmony of nations. Lord Palmerston, however, had less inclination to admire foreign models and none at all to adopt them. ‘Can you expect that the people of the United Kingdom will cast aside all the names of Space and weight and capacity which they learnt from their infancy and all of a sudden adopt an unmeaning jargon of barbarous words representing Ideas and Things new to their minds. It seems to me to be a Dream of pedantic Theorists ... I see no use however in attempting to Frenchify the English nation, and you may be quite sure that the English Nation will not consent to be Frenchified.’

On the face of it, nothing could better exemplify the opposition between steam-driven, market-led, up-to-the-minute commercial principles, purporting to be based on universal laws and claiming to promote universal wellbeing, and that lazy, cynical, aristocratic attachment to traditional ways, contemptuous of ‘trade’, hostile to innovation and patronising towards foreigners, which has often been blamed for preventing England from being saved by her entrepreneurs. If the first industrial nation now has more people living in poverty than any other member of the European Community except Portugal, Palmerston may seem to be as good a representative culprit as any for the long decline in economic dynamism which is alleged to supply the cause. Those, like Cobden and Bright, who believed in the mission of the industrial and commercial middle classes to liberate Britain from the oppression, inefficiency and corruption of an outworn aristocratic system, and to introduce a new age of rational progress through the application of the bracing maxims of political economy and the salutary disciplines of free trade and open competition, found their most exasperating check in Palmerston’s ability to hold in thrall much of the urban opinion which should have formed their natural constituency.

‘Flunkeyism’ and the lack of self-respect which it denoted were Bright and Cobden’s habitual explanation for the unaccountable failure of the middle class to perform the historic role for which they had cast it. It is the merit of G.R. Searle’s study to show that matters were more complicated than that. Deference apart, there is a well-rehearsed string of reasons for the failure of the middle classes to seize political power after the repeal of the Corn Laws, none of which Searle denies. Men who were building up businesses were reluctant to take up political careers, and by the time their fortunes were made, it was often too late: if they went into Parliament, their stay was relatively short and their chance of office (even without the handicap of social prejudice) correspondingly small. The political life at Westminster was unfamiliar, uncongenial and taxing, its assumption of a liberal education and its premium on debating skill daunting, its long hours in fetid air exhausting. Men of business did not form a sufficiently cohesive phalanx to take power at national level, and in any case their instincts of command, when not completely absorbed in their own enterprises, could often be fully satisfied in control of their own localities.

Moreover, it has been strongly argued that office and power in the overt sense were unnecessary to them. The traditional ruling élite did their political business for them as the price of its continuance, implementing their economic principles in legislation as part of the great compromise between urban and landed property interests which enabled both to face front against democracy. Searle’s purpose is not to criticise these received views but to extend our understanding of why it was that the entrepreneurial politicians did not come to impose the domination of their order in the way that had seemed possible in 1846, by examining the difficulties involved in the practical application of their views to the task of governing Britain in the middle of the 19th century. In doing so, he raises (even if he does not choose very explicitly to pursue) the question of the relevance of the entrepreneurial ethos to politics – whether civil society is best understood or operated as a species of market, whether private interest can be the mainspring, mechanism or measure of public good, and whether the periodic demand for business government is a distillation of common sense or a crude confusion of categories.

What, Gladstone asked in 1853, did the financial reformers ‘mean’ by the ‘precarious’ (in modern terminology, ‘earned’) incomes which they wished the incidence of taxation to favour as against ‘permanent’ incomes based on real property? What, in practical terms, Searle echoes, would the Administrative Reform Association’s anxiety to bring the standards of public service up to those of private business mean? The answers to such questions, he shows, were often indistinct, partly because the problems were intrinsically complicated, partly because it was hardly likely that any solution would commend itself to all strands of middle-class opinion. It was perhaps the administrative reform zealots, riding the wave of public anger engendered by the mismanagement of the Crimean War, who came nearest to enunciating a comprehensive ‘entrepreneurial’ approach to the running of the British state (though many of them were denizens of the metropolitan financial and professional world rather than provincial merchants and manufacturers – here as elsewhere the sociological definition of ‘entrepreneurial’ needs closer attention). Spawned by Scutari and Sebastopol out of Adam Smith, the great watchwords of private enterprise – competition, performance and testing – rode out to do battle with bureaucracy, nepotism and sloth.

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