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.

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