Vitality

John Cannon

  • A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 by Paul Langford
    Oxford, 803 pp, £25.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 19 822828 7
  • Voters, Patrons and Parties: The Unreformed Electorate of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832 by Frank O’Gorman
    Oxford, 445 pp, £40.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 19 820056 0

The publication of the first volume of the New Oxford History of England series, under the general editorship of J.M. Roberts, is something of an awesome event. Generations of schoolchildren and students thumbed their way through their predecessors, Davies and Clark, Woodward and Ensor, and it must be an agreeable thought to the new authors that their books will be selling deep into the 21st century. Paul Langford’s volume invites comparison with Basil Williams’s The Whig Supremacy, which appeared exactly fifty years ago. In many respects the new volume has the edge. It is quite beautifully produced, with some excellent illustrations and charming little engravings at the end of chapters. The writing is lively and spirited, with glimpses and vignettes of people who do not always turn up in textbooks: Mary Tofts, ‘the rabbit woman’; the Rev. William Dodd, forger; Elizabeth Brownrigg, murderess; the Rev. Augustus Toplady, Evangelical; Elizabeth Chudleigh, duchess and bigamist, and the like. The straight political content is considerably reduced, but there is more on manners and morals, travel, entertainment and crime.

Williams placed his emphasis on the stability of the period: Langford does not agree, though at the cost of a certain amount of special pleading. ‘If stability means either tranquillity or unchanging government,’ he writes, ‘it will not do.’ That is surely to pitch one’s definition unreasonably high and begs the question whether resistance to change or adaptation to change is more likely to produce stability. Not all the differences from Williams are necessarily for the better. The decision to begin the volume in 1727, at the accession of George II, is not defended and may be questioned: it lands us slightly awkwardly after the Hanoverian succession and in the middle of Walpole’s long period in office. Ireland and Scotland are pushed into the background. The Black Hole of Calcutta, so fearful an event to previous generations, disappears into its own black hole.

The theme which Langford traces is the transformation of the country within this period by the spread of trade and commerce, the growth of professions, and improvements in education and transport. The picture painted is of a confident and exuberant society, with a keen eye to commercial advantage. But the humane and philanthropic impulses of the period are by no means neglected: the heyday of Tyburn tree also saw the establishment of the great London and provincial hospitals. Langford is to be congratulated on capturing the vitality and energy of the period, even if it leads him into occasional exaggeration. It is not so much wrong as unhelpful to describe Georgian England as a ‘plutocracy’, since it does little to distinguish it from, say, Edwardian England or late 19th-century America. Is it not excessive to say of the increasing affluence that ‘luxury and refinement seemed within the reach even of relatively humble families’? Is it not close to hyperbole to suggest that the changes were so dramatic that the commercial people in the 1780s ‘did not, in any fundamental sense, inhabit the same society’ as their predecessors in the 1730s?

What may puzzle some readers is the relationship between the political events of the period and the stirring economic and social developments. Langford is certainly not creased with admiration for Hanoverian politicians, yet they presided over these remarkable changes; even if they did not prompt them, at least they did not get in the way. But the relationship between the aristocrats and gentry who ran the government and the commercial bourgeoisie whose success Langford is celebrating is not really very thoroughly explored. It was a little wilful to relegate any discussion of aristocratic influence and power to a late chapter entitled ‘Macaroni Manners’.

Langford’s book is for the general reader: O’Gorman’s is highly specialist. Few worlds can have vanished more completely than that of the old unreformed electoral system. Only a very observant motorist, noticing an unusually well-preserved row of burgage houses, might remember that he is driving through a Heytesbury or a Great Bedwyn. Modern general elections are not exactly occasions to raise the spirits: public meetings have long been mostly abandoned, and we are lucky to to get one wet canvasser while huddled round our TV sets taking in ‘sound-bites’. But in Georgian England, once every five or six years, the Wootton Bassetts and the Cricklades, the Morpeths and the Hindons came to life, with bands and bruisers, streamers and speeches, and wagonloads of out-voters arriving at the Bull to spend a few days at home at the expense of the candidates. Even the non-voters had their parts to play as piemen or messengers, chairmen, bill-stickers or noisy chorus. This world Frank O’Gorman has reconstructed with loving and patient care and with a wealth of documentation and analysis that is imposing. Not since the days of the Porritts, before the Great War, has the old system received such attention.

His overriding theme is the vitality of the unreformed system, which he exhibits as a working unit, serving important political, social and personal needs. He emphasises service, respect and reciprocal advantage between voters and candidates rather than crude bribery or intimidation. He reminds us that all this frenzied and highly expensive electoral activity would scarcely have been undertaken had it not been thought necessary to persuade, woo and flatter voters, and he insists that most electors were by no means helpless victims of an oppressive oligarchy. With most of this one very readily agrees, even if, at times, O’Gorman seems to overstate his case. He warns us very sensibly against the pitfalls of the computer and explains that the data-base for his poll-book analysis must contain a variety of types of constituency: ‘generalisations based upon the study of a handful of freeman boroughs would be dangerous.’ He then constructs a data-base with one householder borough and five freeman boroughs, having ruled out burgage boroughs ‘because of the obvious pressure under which voters were put’ and corporation boroughs ‘because of the paucity of voters’. It was objected to Sir Lewis Namier’s work that it was too much concerned with small Cornish boroughs, and it could be argued that O’Gorman has merely reversed that picture.

He is naturally anxious to establish what proportion of electors could vote independently, and is, I am sure rightly, sceptical of Namier’s declaration that ‘not one voter in twenty could freely exercise his statutory right.’ But the evidence is difficult to handle. In one analysis we are told that if we add voters who were out (and therefore could not be canvassed) to the neutrals and the doubtfuls, as much as a quarter of the electorate might be unpredictable and volatile. Even this is hardly a justification for describing it as ‘the golden age of the independent voter’. But how does the fact that they were out tell us anything about their independence at all? They might have been dead or drunk or ill or on holiday, sturdily independent or slavishly submissive. O’Gorman’s argument about bribery (with which I am in agreement) is weakened by the fact that he limits it strictly to cash transactions, and is not totally illuminated by the comment that ‘money can be regarded as a means of exchange by which patrons attempted to exert their influence over electors.’ Most of us came in by that door. One of O’Gorman’s most valuable insights is that the old system could not be impervious to change and that even within its venerable forms, developments were taking place. But even this can be pushed too far. I do not quite understand why he tells us that the proportion of voters to the total national population was 5.2 in 1715, 4.0 in 1754, falling to 3.2 in 1831, only to protest that the suggestion that there was a ‘sharp decline in the proportion of people who had even a formal share in the political life of the nation’ cannot be sustained. His own figures show it.

The dynamism which Langford celebrates was sufficient, in O’Gorman’s view, to send pulses through even the narrowed arteries of the unreformed system. Despite the essentially local character of most lives and loyalties, which O’Gorman stresses, national considerations continued to make progress. But in one respect the bewildered reader will stay bewildered. For O’Gorman suggests that electoral participation itself may have been a vital ingredient in maintaining that Hanoverian stability the existence of which Dr Langford denies. I suppose that unanimity was too much to hope for.