Not Many Dead

Linda Colley

  • Riot, Risings and Revolution: Governance and Violence in 18th-Century England by Ian Gilmour
    Hutchinson, 504 pp, £25.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 09 175330 9

Ian Gilmour is a distinguished and highly intelligent example of a once rare species: he is a Conservative with a cause. Unfortunately for him, however – and perhaps for the rest of us as well – his cause is no longer that of the political party he has always espoused. The son of a baronet, he was born into Toryism in much the same way as Anthony Trollope’s Duke of Omnium was born to Whig Liberalism, passing through Eton, to Balliol, to marriage with a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, to the Bar, to safe Conservative seats in rural Norfolk and Buckinghamshire, and then on to cabinet rank, first as Secretary of Defence under Heath, and then as Lord Privy Seal and Deputy Foreign Secretary. Then came Margaret Thatcher’s consolidation of her own style of party leadership and, on 14 September 1981, the end of his political progress.

There were clear intellectual as well as tactical, sociological and (doubtless) personality reasons why he was purged in this fashion and at this time. Like most Conservative MPs of his generation, Gilmour had always tended to believe that dogma was the occupational disease of the Left. By contrast, ‘British Conservatism,’ as he wrote in Inside Right (1977), was ‘not an “ism”. It is not an idea. Still less is it a system of ideas.’ By its very essence, Toryism was ‘distrustful of all elixirs and of all allegedly simple answers to very complex problems’. For Conservatives, he argued, ‘there is no alternative to moderation.’ In other words, Sir Ian was – and is – a patrician, ‘one-nation’ Tory, convinced that his party’s hegemony was indispensable to the country’s well-being, but only so long as it cherished as well as reformed the welfare state, strove for full employment, and made social consensus a paramount goal.

To a mind of this Butskellite cast, Thatcherite Conservatism’s adherence to rigorous monetarism irrespective of mounting criticism and social cost was bound to seem profoundly uncongenial and impractical. But I suspect that Gilmour also views the aggressiveness of the New Toryism as being dangerously divisive, indeed disruptive. Thatcher, he claimed in his resignation statement back in 1981, was steering the ship of state ‘straight onto the rocks’. And it is surely this perception – that uncompromising and over-dogmatic government is likely seriously to damage the social fabric of the nation – that underlies this book.

For this is a study which examines the violence of those below in tandem with the violence of the state and its rulers. The former, Gilmour contends, is more often than not a consequence of the latter. Those in power naturally deny this connection: not out of cynicism or oppressiveness necessarily, but because they are out of touch or arrogant or simply blinkered by their own propaganda. ‘Marvelling at the skilful beneficence of their own rule, they are convinced that the ruled can have no cause for complaint; hence they infer that popular violence must stem from licentiousness, perversity or agitation.’

Delicately, Gilmour allows us to find our own present-day examples of this self-serving tendency, while supplying plenty from the 18th century. Sir Robert Walpole, effective prime minister from 1722 to 1742, was both joyously corrupt and a ruthless exponent of one-party government, yet he seems genuinely to have believed that all expressions of hostility to his protracted regime stemmed not from a sense of its unconstitutionality but from Jacobite treason. By the same token, his Lord Chief Justice, Philip Hardwicke, was more concerned to link a crime wave in the 1730s with ‘the degeneracy of the present times, fruitful in the inventions of wickedness’, than with widespread human want and desperation. And there is an almost comical petulance in one MP’s anger at popular opposition to some legislation passed in 1753: ‘I am not little hurt at the spirit and disturbances showed in many parts of England against a law passed after many considerations and debates by the legislature.’ How could the governed be so unthinking and ungrateful?

One has to be careful, of course. Popular resistance in this last case – against the naturalisation of a segment of Britain’s Jewish population – was both wildly excessive and deeply unattractive. Not all popular activism is rational. By no means all crime can be interpreted as social protest. And the poor and subordinate can act in as evil and arbitrary a fashion as the rich and the powerful, if not with such devastating effect. In E.P. Thompson’s words: ‘Christ’s poor are not always pretty.’ Nor are they always right. Yet Gilmour is surely correct in arguing that it was real or perceived injustices by those above which prompted much of the violence of those below and that their ‘defensive aggression’, as he calls it, was modest in comparison with the violence deployed on occasion by the British state.

To prove his point, he examines a succession of popular disturbances from the anti-Catholic riots in London and elsewhere in 1688 to the bitter protests against war, soaring food prices and political oligarchy that characterised the 1790s. Throughout, he argues, the crowd was volatile but rarely indiscriminate in its violence. Rioters, even religious rioters, hardly ever killed. So although some five thousand people participated in the Sacheverell riots in London in 1709, there were only two casualties, and one of these was a victim of falling masonry. Since Roman Catholicism was hated in a way that Protestant Dissent, the target of 1709, never was, the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780 were predictably far more extensive. But, typically, the vast majority of the three hundred or so who perished on this occasion were the rioters themselves, killed by troops, or by gentleman volunteers like John Wilkes, or by the raw alcohol they looted from Catholic-owned distilleries.

Food rioters, too, only rarely inflicted serious injury on the farmers, shopkeepers and middlemen whose prices they protested against. And industrial rioters were far more likely to destroy the machines they saw as putting them out of work than their employers. Gilmour attributes this remarkable restraint in part to the fact that few ordinary Britons in the 18th century owned firearms or knew how to use them. How true this is remains unclear, since the number and availability of guns in this culture has never been adequately researched. But it may be significant that one of the rare occasions in this period on which protesters did seize guns and threaten to use them was in the Liverpool seamen’s strike in 1775. It seems likely that many of the men involved had spent time in the Royal Navy and had therefore been trained to violence in a way that most of their civilian counterparts were not. In Britain, as elsewhere, naval and army veterans have always represented a distinctive challenge to the authorities. So have miners and for much the same reasons: they work in conditions of physical danger which familiarises them with pain and sudden death, and breeds a strong sense of collective identity.

Yet for the majority of 18th-century English rioters, it was probably not an absence of weaponry that deterred them from serious violence, so much as the fact that they did not need to resort to weapons in order to make their point. As Hannah Arendt argued, controlled and moderate popular violence can be highly effective as a means to achieve short-term ends and dramatise grievances. Most mass violence in 18th-century England was of this limited and ritualistic kind. As such, and as Gilmour shows, it often worked. Food riots served a vital, indeed a benevolent function in alerting indifferent or ignorant magistrates and politicians to the existence of serious local shortages of grain, and prodding them into the necessary action. During the second half of the century, for instance, when population pressure on food was mounting, London agreed to suspend the export of grain one year in every two. Political disturbances were much less successful in swaying the men in power, and always failed when they challenged the system as a whole. But rioting did achieve the withdrawal of specific pieces of unpopular legislation – the Excise Bill of 1733, the Jew Bill of 1753, and, in Scotland, the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. And rioters could play an auxiliary, if always subordinate, part in overthrowing administrations which had also alienated large numbers of patrician supporters. So crowd action contributed to the expulsion of James II in 1688, to the overthrow of Godolphin’s Whig administration in 1710, and to the resignation of the Duke of Newcastle in 1756 and of Lord Bute in 1763.

Much of this analysis will be familiar to experts in the field, but Gilmour’s lucidity, pungency and wit should make it accessible and welcome to a much broader audience. And his parallel treatment of popular and official violence, and his sturdy refusal to treat the latter as automatically legitimate, is genuinely novel and important. Insisting, as Gilmour does, on the aggressiveness of the 18th-century British state, its growing army, its huge array of capital offences, its press gangs and its game laws, is not in itself new. But this is a critique that has usually been made by historians of the Left. Here, in the hands of a clever Conservative historian, this approach becomes more subtle and more well-rounded – though not, to my mind, entirely convincing.

Part of Gilmour’s condemnation of what has been styled the ‘Whig banditti’ of 18th-century Britain derives of course from the fact that they were indeed Whig. There is a long and respectable Tory tradition of condemning Robert Walpole and those other Whig politicians who monopolised power after 1714 for debasing government and oppressing the masses. Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke and Alexander Pope argued this at the time, and Benjamin Disraeli made the same point when he stigmatised the Venetian oligarchy. Yet labelling the Whigs as the bad guys in this fashion, and indeed discussing 18th-century England in terms of internal violence in the way that both Gilmour and certain Marxist historians have selected to do, raises as many problems as it solves.

For, arguably, what is most striking about this society was not the violence its members inflicted on each other, but the limits of that violence in comparison with what was practised elsewhere in Europe, and in comparison too with what had been common in England itself in earlier periods. To his credit, Gilmour himself half-recognises this. Not only does he draw attention to the restraint of the crowd, but he also points to some of the ways in which the authorities were far less brutal than they might have been. In 1715, for example, the victorious Whigs passed a potentially draconian Riot Act allowing the Army to come to the aid of civil authorities in suppressing Tory and Jacobite mobs. Yet this legislation was drawn up badly and allowed to remain unclear. Hence its efficacy as a means of ‘social control’ was blunted from the start. Lord Hervey – a friend of Walpole’s – drew attention to this in the 1730s: ‘When ... two or three hundred men are ordered by their officer to go against two or three thousand rioters, if they refuse to go it is mutiny, and they will be condemned by a court martial and shot; if they go and do not fire, they will probably be knocked on the head; and if they fire and kill anybody, they will be tried by jury and hanged. Such are the absurdities of our laws at present.’

Army officers and ordinary soldiers were left uncertain as to what were the circumstance in which they could legally fire at rioters. As a result, those who died on those occasions when troops did open fire on the crowd were frequently innocent spectators, killed because a confused and worried soldiery had deliberately fired over the heads of the rioters themselves. In other ways, too, the state was reluctant in its violence. Nobody was burnt or mutilated purely on account of their religion, for instance, as had happened all too often in previus centuries. There was no English equivalent of the Frenchman Jean Calas broken on the wheel in 1762 ostensibly for the murder of his child, but in fact because of his faith. Indeed, the use of torture was forbidden by law. And the succession of outcasts who attempted to assassinate George III were sent in the main to asylums, not torn publicly limb from limb between four horses like the man who tried to kill his contemporary Louis XV of France.

To make these points is not to lend yet more credit to the myth of glorious English exceptionalism. Approaching 18th-century England primarily as a land overflowing with opportunity, wealth and boisterous freedoms is complacent and wrong. But equally wrong are those scholars who dwell exclusively on this society’s obvious inequities, oppressions and cruelties. It was not a fair or a peaceful place. But it was more fair – and much more peaceful – than it had been before, or than many neighbouring states were still. Why was this?

We can, I believe, isolate four broad reasons, all of which are glanced at in Gilmour’s book. First – and this is somewhat obscured by his beginning in 1688 – the Civil Wars of the mid-17th century served as a powerful warning which all levels of English (indeed British) society took to heart way into the 19th century. The War of the Three Kingdoms, as it is now called, may have led to the deaths of as many as fifty thousand people in England, Wales and Scotland, with many more losing their lives in Ireland. The memory of such devastation, preserved in folklore as well as in written accounts, must have acted as a brake on those contemplating serious political violence subsequently – whatever their social background. It certainly influenced the ideas and behaviour of the élite. From the Civil Wars, the men who governed England learned the importance of moderating religious strife as much as they could, and of controlling the Army. They also learnt the importance of limiting their own internal quarrels. Tories fought Whigs in Parliament and in the constituencies in the 18th century. But, though proscribed after 1714, the Tory Party as a whole repeatedly refused to support Jacobite plots and invasion attempts against Whig dominance. However much they disliked Walpole and his works, Tory landowners remembered the price that civil war exacted too well to do otherwise.

A second crucial factor was the rise in prosperity which gave far more men and women than ever before a reason to acquiesce in the status quo. The Whig regime was certainly unpopular in the first half of the 18th century, as Gilmour contends. But as he also points out, Charles Edward Stuart’s attempt in 1745 to upset that regime met with minimal popular support. Indeed, the Young Pretender was resisted far more vigorously by all classes in England and in Scotland than is suggested here. Crushing poverty still abounded, but there were now simply too many tradesmen, too many shopkeepers, too many small folk with just a little property and savings, to make a potentially destructive Jacobite revolution seem broadly attractive. Nor, for very similar reasons, was a Jacobin revolution on the cards in the 1790s. And both Jacobitism and Jacobinism were contaminated by their close links with France, with which Britain was repeatedly at war. This was the third reason for the comparative domestic quiescence of this society at this time. Much of its aggression was deflected, as it had not been since the Hundred Years War, into successful war and imperialism. Britons killed foreigners (and were killed by them) in huge numbers in the 18th century while killing comparatively few of each other.

Finally and crucially, this was a society bound together in ideological consensus in the sense that for the first time since the Reformation it had one unquestionably dominant and approved religion. No monarch after 1688 flirted with Roman Catholicism, and almost all kinds of Protestant were tolerated. Whatever else they disagreed about, most Englishmen and women – and most of the Welsh and Scots as well – could agree in celebrating Protestantism and damning Catholicism. This was one reason, as Gilmour points out, why the authorities were so ‘abysmally feeble’ in suppressing the Gordon riots in 1780. Anti-Catholicism was too useful a social cement for them to take action against it until they had to.

Today, of course, there is no such ideological consensus in Great Britain. Nor are most of its inhabitants buoyed up any more by the belief that they possess superior prosperity and civic freedoms to those of the rest of Europe. Nor are they often distracted from their internal disagreements by foreign wars, while the sweets of empire have ended. How, in these greatly changed circumstances, and in an atmosphere of adversity, social quiescence can still be maintained in this island without recourse to the coercive power of the state is an urgent question. Those concerned with it are in Ian Gilmour’s debt for supplying them with a thoughtful, pertinent and timely book.