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The Optimists: Themes and Personalities in Victorian Liberalism 
by Ian Bradley.
Faber, 301 pp., £12.50, January 1980, 0 571 11495 4
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‘Most of the great positive evils of the world,’ John Stuart Mill asserted in 1863, ‘are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced to within narrow limits.’ This sort of confidence in the reality and efficacy of progress now seems to set the 19th century distinctively apart from our own. In calling his study of Victorian Liberalism The Optimists Ian Bradley seeks to make good a more specific claim. He is writing about Liberalism with a big L – the creed of the British Liberal party as expressed by its leading politicians, publicists and men of ideas. And of all these men, it is the Grand Old Man who uniquely commands attention, the pre-eminence with which he awed his contemporaries hardly diminished with the passing of time. It still seems slightly presumptuous not to refer to him as Mr Gladstone. Like Dr Johnson, Colonel House, or Professor Joad, he has laid peculiar claim from beyond the grave to a conventional style of address.

As the author admits, the subject of his book is really Gladstonianism. He sets its chronological limits accordingly, with most space devoted to the 40 years from the late 1850s to Gladstone’s death. ‘Perhaps the single characteristic which most clearly united all those who espoused Gladstonian Liberalism was their all-pervasive optimism,’ he maintains, and goes on to reveal his ‘conviction that the Victorian Liberals still have much to offer us today, not least in their refreshing and inspiring optimism’. It is in itself a demanding task to establish that optimism aptly characterises the Victorian Liberal party. Bradley has made things more difficult for himself in tying this theme so closely to Gladstone, whose dominance over Victorian Liberalism did not necessarily make him representative of it. His theology contained a deep streak of quietism which dismissed the postulate of human progress as mere trifling with the pervasive problem of sin. His efforts to make politics a branch of theology did not secularise this view, and he saw the role of conscience chiefly as bearing witness against the evils of the world – preferably the outside world. At any rate, there seems to be some tension between Gladstonian moral assertiveness and the ordinary Liberal belief in trimming back the functions of the state.

The positive side of the Liberal ideal, which Bradley brings out well, was to invoke self-help and the voluntary principle as the true means of promoting progress. This in turn meant leaving a great deal to individual responsibility and judgment, for good or ill. Newman put the philosophical objection here with some precision: ‘Liberalism is the mistake of supposing that there is a right of private judgment, that is, that there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves.’ The alternative position was stated unequivocally by John Morley, who singularly exemplified fidelity to all three persons in the Liberal trinity: Cobden, Gladstone and Mill. Liberalism, according to Morley, ‘stands for the subjection to human judgment of all claims of external authority, whether in an organised Church, or in more loosely gathered societies of believers or in books held sacred’. The freethinking tone of this claim might have been rather jarring on the ears of those Non-conformists who were commonly dubbed the backbone of the Liberal party. To some extent, mutual anti-clericalism would help paper over this crack, just as it helped the High Churchman Gladstone cement an anti-Papal concordat with Protestant Dissent. But an inconsistency between the classical Liberal concept of individual freedom and the overriding force of Gladstonian moral imperatives nonetheless remains.

By deriving his view of Victorian Liberalism so directly from Gladstone, Bradley suppresses this inconsistency. ‘At the heart of Gladstonian Liberalism,’ he writes, ‘was a belief in the importance and the effectiveness of spontaneous activity by individuals and communities as the main agency for providing education, health and welfare to those who could not provide it for themselves.’ This is a persuasive way of describing the area of common ground. And since as a matter of historical fact Victorian Liberals did look to Gladstone to express their convictions, a formula that squared the voluntary principle with the politics of conscience must have existed. The attention given to T.H. Green can be justified partly because he sought to present such a formula in philosophically cogent terms. ‘When we speak of freedom,’ he argued, ‘we do not mean merely freedom to do as we like irrespective of what it is we like. We mean the greatest power on the part of the citizens as a body to make the most and best of themselves.’

Green had reached this view by 1881 in a public lecture on ‘Liberal legislation and the freedom of contract’. The opportunities for state intervention which this doctrine suggests were to give Green a subsequent reputation for fathering a collectivist approach in welfare legislation. But the reputation was really fathered upon Green – he was more fathered against than fathering. Green himself had not meant to move so far. But that he had moved away from any tolerably strict definition of voluntarism is surely evident. In 1873 he had declared that ‘the drink curse is altogether too big a thing to be dealt with by individual effort only.’ In this field at least, higher claims than mere liberty had to be asserted, albeit by the citizens as a body. There is a splendid vignette, dating from the following year, of Green in conversation with a friend, dwelling ‘with great disappointment on the use made by the workmen of their half holiday and shorter hours. He even said that he thought it was better they should not have a half holiday, but should be kept constantly at their work so that they should not have time to drink.’

Here, as elsewhere, the author shows that he has kept open one sharp-sighted eye for apposite quotation while clamping his analytical telescope to the other. There could hardly be a better illustration of the way in which a sort of moral authoritarianism was fostered by the Gladstonian view of politics. Bradley might have linked this with what Gladstone wrote to a colleague at the start of his Bulgarian campaign in 1876: ‘Good ends can rarely be attained in politics without passion: and there is now, the first time for a good many years, a virtuous passion.’ His appeal was not to libertarian logic but to a temperament capable of excitement by virtuous passion. As a young boy, W.T. Stead exclaimed: ‘I wish that God would give me a big whip that I could go around the world and whip the wicked out of it.’ Stead’s future career as a Gladstonian journalist was already ordained.

The Optimists persistently directs our attention to the question of how the Gladstonian style of politics could be made to work in Victorian society. In 1839 Mill was ready to maintain that ‘the motto of a radical politician should be government by means of the middle for the working classes.’ This was a safe enough strategy since it left political decisions in the right hands and avoided the risks of democracy. Bradley does not dissimulate the class character of the enterprise: in fact, at one point he mistakenly exaggerates it. He quotes Cobden’s statement of 1849, that his object was to ‘place as much political power as he could in the hands of the middle and industrious classes’, and comments: ‘He clearly regarded the two as synonymous.’ But Cobden was surely not using two synonyms for the middle class but rather describing two classes. When mid-Victorian radicals used this term they were trying to accommodate the skilled industrial workers within their concept of ‘the people’. Presumably the industrious class might, like the subsequent working class, ‘belie their name’, but Cobden’s point would still stand. He was looking by this time to a wider electorate than that of the ten-pound householder to force the pace of progress – but looking with his customary lack of sentimentality. ‘The extension of the franchise must and will come,’ he confided to Bright in 1851, ‘but it chills my enthusiasm upon the subject when I see so much popular error and prejudice prevailing upon such questions as the Colonies, religious freedom and the land customs of our country.’

The Second Reform Act of 1867 gave the vote to all householders in the boroughs. The industrious classes had come into their own. Their characteristic institutions of collective self-help, like trade unions and co-operative societies, were much admired. Self-improvement had, in Liberal eyes, already earned them the vote. As Gladstone put it, ‘Rochdale has probably done more than any other town in making good to practical minds a case for some enfranchisement of the working classes.’ Bradley is perceptive in bringing out the Liberal cult of the North of England which developed at this time. Moreover, it was expected that further improvement would result from the granting of the vote. Green spoke for those reformers who had ‘from the beginning always said that the enfranchisement of the people was an end in itself. We said, and were much derided for it, that citizenship makes the moral man ... ’

Bradley is generally inclined to accept this prospectus at face value in explaining the historical ascendancy of Liberal ideas: ‘the faith in liberty of Mill, Acton and Morley was the product of an exceptional period in British history when reason did actually seem to prevail over force and political problems could be solved by counting heads rather than breaking them.’ If this seems a rather idealised picture, he is also prepared to offer a materialist gloss upon the same phenomenon. He points to the late 1860s and 1870s as a period of sharply rising real wages, in which ‘people could afford to vote for ideas without too much concern for their own personal benefit’. The self-improving artisan evidently chose the politics of virtuous passion as one of the luxuries of his new station in life. This is an engaging notion, and one which much of the best work in this field would help corroborate.

Some further hypotheses about the rise and fall of Liberal support are, however, rather less convincing. Gladstone himself took a keen speculative interest in electoral sociology and found encouraging precedents for the fact that the humble and meek made the warmest response to the Liberal appeal. ‘Did Scribes and Pharisees or did shepherds and fishermen yield the first, most and readiest converts to our Saviour and the company of his Apostles?’ he demanded pointedly in 1876. But whatever this suggests about the shepherd vote, or the fisherman vote, Bradley’s own contention that ‘Liberalism had very little support among labourers in the mines’ is manifestly wide of the mark. Of all working-class occupations, miners were most distinctively Liberal – a fact fully demonstrated as soon as the mining divisions in the English counties were given proper representation by the Third Reform Act.

Bradley himself invokes the Reform Act in order to explain the decline of Liberalism, arguing that ‘the unskilled working class ... who formed the bulk of the two million people enfranchised in 1884, were very different in their attitudes and demands from the skilled artisans who had formed the backbone of the Liberal party from 1867.’ The fact is that the 1884 Act simply extended to the counties the very measure of household suffrage which the boroughs already possessed under the 1867 Act. Insofar as the new voters were at all different from the old, it was because they were agricultural workers – or miners. The agricultural aspect admittedly introduced a new factor: but even when combined with the author’s suppositions about the impact of economic change, the case here does not seem very persuasive.

The strengths of the book are to be found elsewhere. It gives a vigorous account of Liberal ideas, attractively expounded, and drawing upon a wide range of printed sources. It contains a fair amount of implicit contemporary reference, as befits the work of a journalist who has himself stood as a Liberal Parliamentary candidate. Many of the catch-words of Victorian Liberalism have been given a new currency under the Thatcher Government. But their social resonance is bound to be different in a different century. Bradley’s book serves to confirm that history does not repeat itself: historians repeat each other. He has unobtrusively assimilated many of the findings of recent historical research and thereby made them accessible to a wider readership. The ‘refreshing and inspiring optimism’ which he finds in Victorian Liberalism will obviously not be to everyone’s taste. Some may find the Gladstonian view of politics too optimistic altogether. But it gets a good airing here, and one which shows the subject to be full of interest and vitality.

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