High Time for Reform

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817-1841 by William Thomas
    Oxford, 491 pp, £15.00, December 1979, ISBN 0 19 822490 7

There are two interwoven stories here. One is the ostensible one of the activities and developing ideas of the various radicals, seen during the years in which these men reached some turning-point or other. They stand in sequence and so illustrate the expansion and eventual contraction of the political prospects of this diverse and individualistic movement. The other story, implied, indicated even, but not opened up, is that of the general change of political atmosphere. The years immediately after the Napoleonic wars were ones of stress and barely suppressed violence in which social and political conservatism seemed almost impregnable. In the 1820s, the walls of the established fortress began to crumble. More by chance than good management, the Whigs formed the ministries of the 1830s and called on philosophic radicalism to supply them with a programme. ‘Reform’ was the great word. The decade was one of apparent open possibility: the right push at the right time might send the ship of state in any direction.

It was a period of burgeoning movements, societies, plans and programmes, inquiry and evaluation. But through it all there was a reversion to conservatism. The Tories learnt quicker than the Whigs how to use the new electoral system, and recovered from the demoralisation and divisions of Catholic Emancipation. There is always a place in political life for a party dedicated to foot-dragging over recent change. Centrally and locally, Toryism strengthened its bonds and waited for the succession of Whig ministries to disintegrate. In 1841, it came back to power in Peel’s great ministry. Indirectly, in charting the naivety and crudity of radical thought, and the disagreements and personal failures of the philosophic radicals, this book does much to explain why the political temperature, which when high had made legislative ‘reform’ possible in the 1830s, fell and by falling made possible Tory administrative reform. Some of the explanation lies in the inconsistencies and weaknesses of radical thought, some in the narrow social base of radicalism, more probably in the even narrower social base of the great Whig families. In the long run, there was no real logic in linking the cause of the greatest good of the greatest number to a small group of aristocrats whose unspoken but strongest principle was that the country ought to be ruled by them.

This book is a thoughtful and conversational piece. It expects to be read by people competent to share in debate, who have thought already about the period and its problems. It assumes that the reader knows the main features of the political history of the period and does not bother to expound on Peterloo, Catholic Emancipation, the First Reform Act, the New Poor Law, Peel’s shortlived first ministry, the Bedchamber crisis. These, and other standard features of narrative history, are assumed to be the routine furniture of the reader’s mind. It is the next stage of question and discussion on the springs of political action and the ambience of political success that the book exists to serve. The service is at a high level of scholarship, even allowing notes at the foot of the page, so that the strength of the evidence can be assessed at a glance.

The book is a study of the limitations of intelligence in practical politics. One of the obvious limitations was, then as now, the gulf between the political issues which carried popular feeling and those that really mattered. As an instance of this, William Thomas holds – rightly, I think – that the Municipal Corporation Reform of 1835 was really more important than Parliamentary Reform. He expects his readers to understand the interactions of the two elcctoral systems. He shows, in detail, how well the Tory Party, once it had regained its nerve, could and did use the new system, which gave sophisticated outlets for the interests of property, to regain dominance. The new electorate was, as much in the 1830s as in the 1860s, a feature which the parties had to get acquainted with, and the Tories were quicker at this than the Whigs.

The variety of personality subsumed under the word ‘radical’ is here brought out. Bentham, the adolescent doctrinaire, is shown protected from the rough outside world by the advantages of a reasonable income and the cossetting of his followers. The devastating effect of this fibreglass insulation on his prose, and hence on his capacity to spread his doctrine, is stressed. Then we have the rigid, limited, puritan monolith of James Mill, applying the Bell and Lancaster system, not only in the horrifying way in which his own children were to be educated, but as a description of the progress of different branches of the family of nations: ‘The human race is like a growing family in which some members were qualified to teach and others only to learn.’

He does not take the analogy further, but it is worth remembering that John Stuart Mill, precociously crammed with learning which he had to dispense to his brothers, achieved philosophy and personal maturity only at the cost of successive mental breakdowns. John Mill’s progression from the instrument of his father’s crude ideas to his position as editor of the London Review in its brief period of influence, when it showed that Utilitarianism could be combined with sophistication, humour and an appreciation of the arts, is one of the most enthralling of these essays.

We have also Durham, the poseur, bent on making a mark in politics but not prepared to work at the task, vulgarly displaying his wealth and less vulgarly expecting others to look after it for him, assertively combining radical dogmas with ancestral conceit. Two quoted comments on him are worth holding to. Melbourne sends him to Russia remarking about his radicalism: ‘there is no place in Europe where such opinions must be more harmless than at Petersburgh; the Compressive Power of Russian Despotism would coerce an Expansive Force far more Elastic than that of Durham’s Radicalism.’ (He was not the last prime minister to use Russia as a way of neutralising an inconvenient politician of the left.) Then there is the comment of one of Durham’s own adherents facing his return from Canada: ‘we shall have the walls of Lambton Castle plastered, like those of Versailles by Louis 14rze, with allegorical paintings representing him as Jupiter, Mars and Neptune.’ If Durham carried so little conviction among the politicians of his own side, it is a remarkable tribute to the inadequacies of the press that his image in the public mind was so powerful. The press expounded Durham’s own illusions about himself. The media as fosterers of illusion thus make an early feature of democracy.

The study of individual philosophic radicals enables some of the lesser themes of the early 19th century to emerge. We have three studies of electioneering, Hobhouse, Roebuck and Joseph Parkes, which together show how the various urban electorates could be handled or mishandled. Of these, Parkes is the most interesting, for he made it his business to know exactly who would exercise the vote after 1832, though as a man with a chameleon-like ability to suit his colours to those of his correspondents, he is probably the most elusive of figures. Study of him explains the strength and limitation of the Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations. The issue of the newspaper tax is handled in a new way, and Mr Thomas shows how the reduction of the tax in 1836 destroyed the serious working-class press. The reading public did not expand as much as was expected, but its expansion made it less radical and more frivolous. The political nation changed, but not in the way the radicals expected – here was one of the elements in the Tory revival.

Again and again, the philosophic radicals stressed the need to educate the masses, but there were inconsistencies in their reasons for this. James Mill saw education of the poor as a means of protecting property. But he also held that the unpropertied classes did not suffer the intellectual distortions produced by property: truth belonged naturally to the middle and lower classes. Gradually it became apparent that the mass of the population had different ideas and priorities from those of the philosophic radicals. The note struck again and again was: ‘why don’t the working classes want to be like us?’ ‘The people at present are far too ignorant to render themselves happy, even though they shall possess supreme power tomorrow. Of the many evils which they now suffer, the larger part arises from their own ignorance.’ ‘Could we enlighten the whole population,’ wrote Roebuck, ‘in a few short years they would laugh at the taxes, when called a burden.’ The naivety which assumes that taxation can ever become a matter of indifference seems today engaging.

One of the puzzles about 19th-century reform was that the parties appear to have been content with a geographical division. The towns, for both central and local representation, would be opened to a middle-class democratic system in the 1830s; the countryside was to remain under the control of landowning society until the 1880s. Of course, reform had to be achieved by alliance with the Whig aristocracy. But Mr Thomas brings out other reasons. The middle classes were urban, and there was little pressure for the opening of rural politics to people of this sort. In any case, a true reshaping of politics on a numerical basis would have increased the share of Ireland, and the Irish stood for a reactionary position over the Corn Laws. One suspects that radicalism did not despair of persuading the working classes in the towns of the rightness of this reasoning, but despised and feared the rural vote. The radicals were slow, however, to appreciate the nature of the urban electorate which they had helped to make. It was, as Mr Thomas shows, not only politically unadventurous but unable to see any reason why expansion of the franchise should go further. The voter created by 1832 was eventually prepared to be content with government by Palmerston – that is, with the combination of a lively foreign policy and no coherent programme of legislation. It was not till the 1860s that he wanted the recipe of Gladstonian Liberalism.

Bentham and Grote, essays on whom provide the first and the last items in this book, form an interesting contrast. Both were ivory tower figures, with little understanding of human clay. But Bentham actively wanted to see his various vast schemes carried out; he expected the political world to recognise his genius and to learn from him. Grote was less buoyant. He seems to have put forward his ‘annual political sermon’ on the ballot as a routine piece of political duty. Both needed to have their schemes mediated by men of greater practical knowledge and sense. Both were, as Thomas points out, the product of the survival of a place for the independent in the world of politics and journalism, as well as of an educational system not closely geared to specific careers.

This book, as any careful and intelligent study must do, raises as many questions as it answers. The problem of how an apparently powerful movement for political and social change can break up into animosities and ineffectuality is not confined to the sad end of the proposals for the ballot. What is the nature of the quick-setting cement which ensures that those who have benefited by the first stage of a general reform shall be determined to see that it goes no further? Why is it that those who are enthusiasts for the education and instruction of the masses have so little understanding of what makes ordinary people tick? Indeed, as far as failure to understand other social groups goes, the philosophic radicals, cut off by a big difference in income from the poor, and equally estranged from the aristocracy, seem to have been detached also from the compromises and conventions, assumptions and loyalties, of middle-class life. Where in this range of class attitudes did the lower middle class lie, with their middle-class loyalties, but with incomes very little above those of the skilled worker, and probably with less economic security? With the aberrations and weaknesses of the ‘intelligent’ people now so clearly marked, we need, to give us a wider picture, a complementary study of the uneducated, the country gentry vote, the conventional religious middle class, the poor who were ‘radicals of the stomach’. We also need to have it taken further – to see why the decade in which all sorts of changes besides those that did happen might have come about gave way to the remarkably stable and static era after 1850.

All good history must end with a range of new problems, and these are just some that this penetrating study brings forward.