A Slight Dash of the Tiresome

Brian Harrison

  • The Blind Victorian: Henry Fawcett and British Liberalism edited by Lawrence Goldman
    Cambridge, 199 pp, £25.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 521 35032 8

Intellectuals – informed people who enjoy accumulating and diffusing ideas – were more prominent in Victorian public life than they are today. Public life was then confined to a well-educated élite, and intellectual activity was less rarefied in language, less specialised in scope, more readily discussed in periodicals designed for general circulation. Politics, literature, religion, scholarship and even natural science all fertilised one another. The cultivated ‘man of letters’, broad but selective in his reading, moulded taste. Universities have subsequently hived off much intellectual activity into academic journals inaccessible to the educated public. They have converted associations such as the British Academy and the Royal Society, where the layman was once made to feel at home, into learned societies. H.A.L. Fisher threatened to resign from the British Academy in 1938 if it refused to recommend Winston Churchill for election: such a decision, he said, would ‘mark the triumph of a tendency towards minute specialisation ... which I have long watched with concern, as likely to rob the Academy of its national character’.

There is also a party-political reason for the intellectual’s retreat: the dispersal of the Liberals to the parties of right and left in the 1920s. Central to the Liberal faith was a belief in broadening the scope of reason in human affairs: the hope that a stable political system and a humane society would somehow emerge from a continuous susurration of public argument and discussion. Mid-Victorian left-wing Liberals saw the intellectual as society’s major safeguard against the bogey they feared: stagnation, the stationary state – what Mill called ‘collective mediocrity’. ‘The great enemy of knowledge is not error but inertness,’ wrote the historian H.T. Buckle. ‘All that we want is discussion, and then we are sure to do well, no matter what our blunders may be.’

In Liberal vision, the lamp of reason blazes forth to scatter the forces of tradition, obscurantism, convention, violence, deceit, formality, Medieval superstition and unearned privilege. Many of these forces were seen as lurking within the Tory Party, described by Mill as the ‘stupid party’. The Mid-Victorian Liberal Party therefore reserved a niche for intellectuals. They were best qualified to think themselves into the minds of others – to show the imaginative sympathy that social harmony required. They would display the impartiality that transcends class and sectarian interest. ‘The ideal of a Liberal party,’ said Robert Lowe in 1877, ‘consists in a view of things undisturbed and undistorted by the promptings of interest or prejudice, in a complete independence of all class interests, and in relying for its success on the better feelings and higher intelligence of mankind.’ The Liberal Party saw itself in the role that Marx assigned to the labour movement: as an alliance between ‘those who think and those who suffer’. Through their books and journalism, intellectuals would ensure that government never moved too far out of contact with the governed and that the masses would grow in self-reliance. Society would then be in every respect self-governing: it would spontaneously generate its own orderliness, and government’s role would diminish almost to vanishing point. Between 1868 and 1900 the smallest number of men of letters and academic people who entered Parliament as Liberals was 28, a figure never matched by the Conservatives. The Liberal intellectuals included some famous names: Bryce, Courtney, Freeman, Lecky, Lowe, J.S. Mill, John Morley.

A nervous concern about the consequences of mass franchise, worries about the concessionary mood of the Liberal leaders – especially in the face of violence in Ireland – led many Late Victorian Liberal intellectuals to drift rightwards toward ‘the stupid party’, which therefore became gradually less stupid. Concern about the impact of the mass franchise on property, social stability and freedom carried more Liberal refugees into Conservatism during the 20th century. But the Conservative Party has far less faith in the spread of reason, smaller hopes of improving the world, and its intellectuals wielded no influence as a group. Those known to the Conservative MP Radcliffe Cooke as ‘the class of prigs, professors, philosophers and pedants’ was not welcome in the House of Commons smoking-room.

When the Liberals split in the First World War, some intellectuals chose a leftward course, so that the Labour Party, too, owes much to Liberalism. Labour, too, had high hopes of human nature and anticipated that political action would dramatically improve the human condition. It, too, has its secular dimension: a belief in the rational re-organising of society, for which help from intellectuals is essential. ‘Reforming society,’ wrote Beatrice Webb, ‘is not a light matter, and must be taken by experts specially trained for the purpose.’ Nonetheless the intellectuals’ contribution to the Labour Party was more muted, their relationship with colleagues more deferential. This is partly because during the Liberal Party’s inter-war Indian summer, reason came to seem less pure in its origins, less dependent on genius, more firmly moulded by environment, more diluted in its operation. As Joad wrote in his autobiography in 1932, ‘today reason is regarded as a feeble shoot springing from a deep and insecure foundation of instinctive tendencies and unconscious strivings.’ In this climate, intellectuals would have declined in political standing even if the Liberal Party had survived.

As it was, the Liberal Party’s decline reduced the intellectual’s standing still further. To Liberals, the elevated role of intellect seemed to justify weighting the franchise in its favour. J.S. Mill thought that ‘it is not useful, but hurtful, that the constitution of the country should declare ignorance to be entitled to as much political power as knowledge.’ No such strategy was possible for Labour. Indeed, Labour’s class loyalties rendered the intellectual somewhat suspect, so that he often felt the need to justify himself by elaborately distancing himself from the interests of his class.

The Labour Party had no place at all for those intellectuals who had lent 19th-century liberal thought its cutting edge: the political economists. Preaching their somewhat austere word as though it were a gospel, the political economists were the apostles of self-reliance, social harmony and a diminished role for government. They had all the self-confidence that stems from believing oneself to be in the van of history, from expounding what one takes to be the unshakably scientific doctrine. Conservatives could never consolidate the counter-case and the opposing interests into an equally powerful political grouping. For John Ruskin, Henry Fawcett seemed the ‘dismal science’ incarnate, a man who spent his life teaching ‘the great Devil’s law of Theft by the Rich from the Poor’, and his view has moulded the outlook of Lawrence Goldman and all but one of his seven contributors to this book. Ruskin’s outlook helps to explain why there have been only two biographies of Fawcett, the second published in 1915.

The decline in Fawcett’s reputation after his death in 1884 was sudden, and reflects both the subsequent decline in respect for self-help and the concomitant advance of the state. For Fawcett exemplified the Victorian pursuit of knowledge under difficulties. Soon after becoming a Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge he lost his eyesight in a shooting accident. He is said to have decided ‘in ten minutes’ that his disability should not hold him back, and to have told a friend that it took him just ‘one night to decide whether the loss of my sight should make any difference in my life or not; I decided it should not.’ Five years later, he had published his influential textbook, the Manual of Political Economy. He entered Parliament in 1865 and in 1880 became perhaps the best-known of all Postmasters-General.

Among the missing essays in Goldman’s volume is a study of Fawcett’s impact on contemporary attitudes to the blind. In 1881 one person in every 1138 was blind – a disability the more serious because social arrangements were only beginning to adapt to it; only half the male and a fifth of the female blind over fifteen were in work. As a blind person one could become a musician or a basket-maker, but not much else. The Mid-Victorian period witnessed several initiatives on behalf of the blind: Worcester College for the Blind, for example, founded in 1866, and the special efforts made for the blind in the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music, opened at Norwood in 1871. Alone among the contributors, Phyllis Deane speculates on how Fawcett’s blindness influenced his intellect: it ‘must have severely narrowed the range of his grasp of contemporary research and new thinking’. Fawcett’s strenuously practical ambitions prevented him from making a virtue of necessity and plunging into the abstractions and theory which were beginning to shift the study of economics away from the arts and towards the sciences. He remained the plain man’s political economist, uninterested in the private controversies of his fellow economists, who were now professionalising themselves out of the political arena, and were therefore entirely uninterested in him.

Ford Madox Brown’s sentimental portrait of Fawcett, shielded against his disability by a devoted wife, appears on the cover of the book and leads one to expect the worst. Yet the cover is profoundly misleading about the book’s overall approach: Goldman’s contributors are well aware that Fawcett’s feminist wife, though devoted to him, was a far more formidable figure than Brown’s ministering angel implies. And they know that Fawcett himself was tough, rugged and outspoken, a convinced Mid-Victorian advocate of ‘manliness’ and an avowed foe of sentimentality who was quite determined that his disability should not hold him back. He kept up his skating, fishing and walking, and his first biographer Leslie Stephen tells us that ‘in later years he was constantly to be encountered upon the roads round Cambridge.’ Rarely in conversation did he refer to his blindness, and when it was adduced to explain any inaccuracy he was not pleased.

‘Fawcett’s triumph over handicap,’ says Goldman, ‘was no small benefit to a political economist who sought to instruct the masses that economic and moral improvement could only be obtained by their own efforts and self-reliance.’ Yet most of Goldman’s contributors show a rather mandarin and aloof distaste for someone they see as a man on the make. They scrutinise him a little sourly as he scrambles onto the Social Science Association’s platforms in the 1860s, cultivates his contacts with Mill, and uses the labour question ‘as an entrée into one of Liberalism’s new client groups’. A meritocrat in a society based on privilege, as well as being blind, Fawcett had to struggle if he was to survive in politics.

Goldman’s authors concede that in the 1860s Fawcett was in the forefront of those who were helping the trade unions forward towards their new role as an estate of the realm – as participants in the Mid-Victorian Liberal progressive consortium. They note his belief that the trade-unionist must be fully informed of his employer’s financial situation if his strikes are to succeed, and is thus ‘forced upon his master as a partner’. And they acknowledge his impact on the 1862 edition of Mill’s Political Economy. Trade unions, Fawcett said, counterbalance the influence of the employers’ combination and smooth out contrasts in wages between occupations. But these writers assume that Fawcett’s claim to consolidate the Liberal Party’s classless union of hearts is embarrassed by his failure to follow Mill in rejecting the wage-fund theory.

In this they are encouraged by their editor. Fawcett poses as a political ally of the working man, says Goldman, but is ‘unable to appreciate that the posture was compromised by an excessively rigid adherence to political economy.’ Goldman goes so far as to speak of ‘the basic irrationality of the party of the masters bidding for, and winning, the votes of the organised working class’, and Giacomo Beccattini claims that Fawcett’s ‘uncompromising individualism identified his position more and more with those of the middle classes’. Yet this is surely to ignore the continuing appeal of political economy – with its high estimation of thrift, cheap government, low taxation, a pluralist political structure, free trade and an enterprise economy – to the type of Late Victorian working man who remained so prominent in Gladstone’s Liberal Party, and who has since become an electoral standby of Mrs Thatcher’s party. It is also to exaggerate the conflict between the interests of the employer and employee; to obscure the Mid-Victorian pedigree of the desire for free collective bargaining and a ‘property-owning democracy’; and to understate the potential popularity of ideas of free competition, despite what Stefan Collini sees as a ‘quite exaggerated sense of the capacity of individuals to control their own lives’.

Goldman’s outlook on Fawcett’s economics leads him to undervalue the importance, not only to Fawcett but to Late Victorian Liberal politics, of Fawcett’s success at the Post Office. ‘There is something odd,’ he writes, ‘in the image of Fawcett; all moral fervour and righteous indignation – shackled to a desk in the Post Office.’ Fawcett’s achievements as Postmaster-General, Goldman continues, ‘do not seem to match the assertive Liberalism and the great principles he had espoused’. Perhaps Goldman has been too much influenced by his experiences of the Post Office queues of the 1980s. Fawcett’s Post Office differed markedly from its unenterprising present-day successor. In the 1880s the number of telegrams sent in England and Wales and the size of the Post Office Savings Bank deposits in the United Kingdom more than doubled. The number of letters carried in the United Kingdom trebled between 1870 and 1913. The Fabians took the Post Office as their model of a nationalised industry, and it was the precedent on which were based the six nationalisation Bills introduced to Parliament between 1906 and 1913.

Fawcett did not in fact regard himself as ‘shackled’ at all. On the contrary, as his first biographer pointed out, he showed a real zest for the work, and loved discussing its minutiae. He did not merely acquiesce in Post Office growth: he accelerated it. He saw the Post Office as an engine for diffusing knowledge, for expanding trade, for encouraging families to keep in contact, for increasing prosperity and thrift. Fawcett was keen to make the telegram available to others beside the rich. He launched the parcel post in 1883, promoted thrift through the Post Office Savings Bank and promoted Post Office business in life assurance and annuities. He also made improvements in staff recruitment and management.

To the free-trader, this concern for the customer was an important aspect of free trade’s romantic success-story, a striking instance of the way material progress and moral growth can interact if only meddling legislators will let well alone. Recent postal history seemed to demonstrate conclusively that free trade could benefit the humblest members of society. ‘Think what a softening of domestic exile,’ ‘what an aid in keeping warm the feel of family affection, in mitigating the rude breach in the circle of the hearth,’ Gladstone said in 1891 of the reformed postal system.

In several respects, Leslie Stephen’s biography of Fawcett, published in 1885, has not been superseded. For although Collini is surely right to stress Stephen’s improving purpose his wish to foster an unflinching independence and self-reliance in the reader – he epitomises the biographer who transcends the stitching together of a patchwork of material: who can compile a fluent narrative informed by personal knowledge of the man and his times. This new collection of essays about Fawcett is nonetheless most welcome, not just because Fawcett’s attitudes are a good way into Victorian values, but also because Stephen is at his weakest and dullest when dealing with the political aspect of Fawcett’s career. Nor could he in 1885 have the perspective on British feminism needed in order to provide a clear, balanced and well-documented view of Fawcett’s partnership with his wife. Rubinstein’s chapter in this book is a fine advertisement for his forthcoming and much-needed biography of Mrs Fawcett.

Goldman’s book does not entirely rectify the defects of Stephen’s political coverage. For this it would be necessary to go into far more detail about Fawcett’s relationship with the other Mid-Victorian radicals, and to discuss the interaction between radicals of different kinds: secular and Nonconformist, individualist and constructive. ‘How these Radicals hate one another!’ Harcourt exclaimed. Joseph Chamberlain appears only three times in Goldman’s index and John Bright only twice. There is no doubt that Fawcett was a bit of a gossip, and insufficiently discreet about it. ‘It is unfortunate that he has got such a very coarse voice,’ Gladstone’s private secretary E.H. Hamilton said of him, ‘and that he should make such very loud use of it.’

Still more damaging for his career, Fawcett gossiped in print and in Parliamentary speeches – launching scathing attacks on Gladstone’s first government of 1868-74. Granville told Bright in 1875 that Gladstone as party leader had been ‘scandalously treated’ by Fawcett, among others, and five years later told Ponsonby that Fawcett was a man of ability and courage with ‘a slight dash of the tiresome’. Gladstone would have seen this as an understatement. By May 1883 he considered Fawcett ‘an unmitigated burden to us’, and two months later ‘a periculosa haereditas to the Liberal Party’. Fawcett, Gladstone said, had ‘an original and organic malformation of mind for the purposes of government’. Fawcett’s threats of resignation, his restiveness with government policy, his direct and unsubtle temperament, his complete lack of interest in the religious issues which preoccupied Gladstone – all ensured that there would be no meeting of minds between the two. Goldman thinks that had Fawcett lived he would probably have resigned in the midst of the franchise reform crisis of 1884, and Harvie seems to share Mrs Fawcett’s view that in 1886 he would have split with Gladstone by declaring against Home Rule for Ireland.

Goldman’s book originated in a conference at Fawcett’s old Cambridge college in 1984. After a well-balanced and informative introduction by Goldman, Collini (with Boyd Hilton as respondent) explains the relationship between Fawcett and his first biographer, and shows how integral the concept of ‘manliness’ was to their affinity and to their faith in political economy. Collini’s somewhat mannered and over-elaborate style (rather a hallmark of Cambridge’s present-day historians of thought) is not reproduced in the book’s later, more straightforward contributions. Phyllis Deane valuably fills in the background in Cambridge economics, Donald Winch sets Fawcett in the context of economic thought during his time, and Beccattini, in a notably sympathetic piece, gives close attention to Fawcett’s outlook on the labour question. Goldman then further strengthens the case for taking the Social Science Association seriously as a Mid-Victorian forum for discussion on social policy, and Christopher Harvie rounds things off by casting a sardonic eye over Fawcett’s political career.

Fawcett in his temperamental unsuitability for office is the Dennis Skinner of his day, though without the humour. In carrying his beliefs to their logical extreme he is the Enoch Powell of his times, though without the creative imagination and forcefulness of phrase. As for his combination of political economy with intense moralism – his enthusiasm for ‘Victorian values’ – the parallel hardly needs spelling out.