A Win for the Gentlemen

Paul Smith

  • Entrepreneurial Politics in Mid-Victorian Britain by G.R. Searle
    Oxford, 346 pp, £40.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 19 820357 8

Negotiating the commercial treaty of 1860 with France, Richard Cobden, he later revealed, felt ‘humiliated’ by the contrast between the rational system of measurement in force across the Channel and the weird complication of its British counterpart. Metrication and decimalisation would not only smooth the conquering path of British commerce but contribute to the harmony of nations. Lord Palmerston, however, had less inclination to admire foreign models and none at all to adopt them. ‘Can you expect that the people of the United Kingdom will cast aside all the names of Space and weight and capacity which they learnt from their infancy and all of a sudden adopt an unmeaning jargon of barbarous words representing Ideas and Things new to their minds. It seems to me to be a Dream of pedantic Theorists ... I see no use however in attempting to Frenchify the English nation, and you may be quite sure that the English Nation will not consent to be Frenchified.’

On the face of it, nothing could better exemplify the opposition between steam-driven, market-led, up-to-the-minute commercial principles, purporting to be based on universal laws and claiming to promote universal wellbeing, and that lazy, cynical, aristocratic attachment to traditional ways, contemptuous of ‘trade’, hostile to innovation and patronising towards foreigners, which has often been blamed for preventing England from being saved by her entrepreneurs. If the first industrial nation now has more people living in poverty than any other member of the European Community except Portugal, Palmerston may seem to be as good a representative culprit as any for the long decline in economic dynamism which is alleged to supply the cause. Those, like Cobden and Bright, who believed in the mission of the industrial and commercial middle classes to liberate Britain from the oppression, inefficiency and corruption of an outworn aristocratic system, and to introduce a new age of rational progress through the application of the bracing maxims of political economy and the salutary disciplines of free trade and open competition, found their most exasperating check in Palmerston’s ability to hold in thrall much of the urban opinion which should have formed their natural constituency.

‘Flunkeyism’ and the lack of self-respect which it denoted were Bright and Cobden’s habitual explanation for the unaccountable failure of the middle class to perform the historic role for which they had cast it. It is the merit of G.R. Searle’s study to show that matters were more complicated than that. Deference apart, there is a well-rehearsed string of reasons for the failure of the middle classes to seize political power after the repeal of the Corn Laws, none of which Searle denies. Men who were building up businesses were reluctant to take up political careers, and by the time their fortunes were made, it was often too late: if they went into Parliament, their stay was relatively short and their chance of office (even without the handicap of social prejudice) correspondingly small. The political life at Westminster was unfamiliar, uncongenial and taxing, its assumption of a liberal education and its premium on debating skill daunting, its long hours in fetid air exhausting. Men of business did not form a sufficiently cohesive phalanx to take power at national level, and in any case their instincts of command, when not completely absorbed in their own enterprises, could often be fully satisfied in control of their own localities.

Moreover, it has been strongly argued that office and power in the overt sense were unnecessary to them. The traditional ruling élite did their political business for them as the price of its continuance, implementing their economic principles in legislation as part of the great compromise between urban and landed property interests which enabled both to face front against democracy. Searle’s purpose is not to criticise these received views but to extend our understanding of why it was that the entrepreneurial politicians did not come to impose the domination of their order in the way that had seemed possible in 1846, by examining the difficulties involved in the practical application of their views to the task of governing Britain in the middle of the 19th century. In doing so, he raises (even if he does not choose very explicitly to pursue) the question of the relevance of the entrepreneurial ethos to politics – whether civil society is best understood or operated as a species of market, whether private interest can be the mainspring, mechanism or measure of public good, and whether the periodic demand for business government is a distillation of common sense or a crude confusion of categories.

What, Gladstone asked in 1853, did the financial reformers ‘mean’ by the ‘precarious’ (in modern terminology, ‘earned’) incomes which they wished the incidence of taxation to favour as against ‘permanent’ incomes based on real property? What, in practical terms, Searle echoes, would the Administrative Reform Association’s anxiety to bring the standards of public service up to those of private business mean? The answers to such questions, he shows, were often indistinct, partly because the problems were intrinsically complicated, partly because it was hardly likely that any solution would commend itself to all strands of middle-class opinion. It was perhaps the administrative reform zealots, riding the wave of public anger engendered by the mismanagement of the Crimean War, who came nearest to enunciating a comprehensive ‘entrepreneurial’ approach to the running of the British state (though many of them were denizens of the metropolitan financial and professional world rather than provincial merchants and manufacturers – here as elsewhere the sociological definition of ‘entrepreneurial’ needs closer attention). Spawned by Scutari and Sebastopol out of Adam Smith, the great watchwords of private enterprise – competition, performance and testing – rode out to do battle with bureaucracy, nepotism and sloth.

A.H. Layard had ‘often heard it said’, he told the Commons, ‘why does not the Government allow some great firm to contract for carrying on the war? This question, however ludicrous it may appear, is based upon a very good common-sense view of the war.’ Two great contractors, Paxton and Peto, were indeed engaged to provide quarters and communications in the Crimea, but that was as far as privatisation went, and Russian prisoners were not handed over to the care (vodka included) of some contemporary equivalent of Group 4. The idealisation of middle-class managerial efficiency and disinterestedness implicit in privatisation offered too broad and tempting a target, Searle notes, to students of municipal maladministration in the big towns, critics of the boots supplied to the British Army, and close readers of the bankruptcy list. Sapping the system of patronage through which aristocratic rule was articulated and introducing into government service the tests of qualification and performance were more promising methods of getting value for money in the nation’s business and opening the apparatus of the state to middle-class penetration. Here, the advent of limited competitive entry to the civil service was crucial. Life, for the hosiery manufacturer Samuel Morley, was ‘really a continued competitive examination’. But all depended on who chose the syllabus, set the questions and marked the answers. Entrepreneurial politicians soon grasped that the new examinations for the public service were not designed to privilege the practical knowledge and experience which they regarded as the foundations of businesslike administration.

For the Liverpool Financial Reform Association, the way to extract full value from government clerks stuffed with ‘knowledge of the classics, of ancient and modern history; of algebra and mathematics; of Shakespeare, taste, and the musical glasses’ was to lengthen their hours, abolish pensions and ‘life appointments’, and hire superintendents who would ‘be paid by a percentage upon the savings of their offices, and not by a premium upon the waste’. But these next steps had to be left to a future age. The purpose of government-sponsored reform in the 1850s was to improve the effectiveness and increase the defensibility of aristocratic rule.

Entrepreneurial principles were allowed more scope when it came to the formation, not of the sprigs of good family who were to transact the nation’s business, but of the offspring of the poor who were to do their masters’. Elementary education was a locus classicus of the debate over voluntary versus public provision of essential services. ‘Throw the people on their own resources in Education, as you did in Industry,’ wrote Edward Baines in 1854, ‘and be assured that, in a nation so full of intelligence and spirit, Freedom and Competition will give the same social stimulus to improvement in our schools, as they have done in our manufactures, our husbandry, our shipping, and our commerce.’ Not all businessmen were so sure that market forces could be relied on to supply a public need defined in terms which outran the merely economic, and the Manchester reformers in the National Public Schools Association, who believed that efficient education must be every citizen’s right, declared for rate-supported, locally controlled schools, even if that meant substituting public expenditure for the voluntary subscriptions which it would inevitably choke off.

The problem was how to take adequate security for the efficient use of public money. Adam Smith’s experience of Oxford had built into political economy a lively prejudice against teachers, as an especially flagrant case of the master’s maxim that, in every profession, ‘the exertion of the greater part of those who exercise it is always in proportion to the necessity they are under of making that exertion.’ If education was to be publicly endowed, it had to be provided with the discipline of its own market economy: such was the conviction of Robert Lowe, Vice-President of the Committee of Council on Education under Palmerston, not a businessman, indeed one who thought that the narrowness of businessmen’s views inhibited their effective action, but roped in by Searle to represent that political economy brains-trust which gave the entrepreneurial approach whatever it had both of ideological cutting edge and of doctrinaire silliness. Lowe, too, had derived from Oxford a belief that teachers would always skive if they saw a chance. His remedy was to keep them up to the mark by ‘hope and fear’, and the means of enforcing this felicific calculus was to pay schools for results ascertained by tests. The great engine of quality control currently clumping in clumsy pattens across all sectors of the British educational system is no more than the bureaucratic elaboration of Lowe’s Revised Code of 1862, with all Lowe’s glee in lighting bonfires under those suspected of being comfortable in their seats.

Neither in administration nor in educational reform, however, was there really a concerted ‘business’ approach. Searle’s lucid sifting of the policy arguments of the 1850s and 1860s reveals so much diversity of opinion as to prompt the question whether ‘entrepreneurial politics’, in the sense of a coherent political programme uniting the members of a defined socio-economic group, really existed. His own definition of the term – ‘the struggle of new business groups, especially the northern industrialists, to achieve political influence and social status commensurate with their economic power’ – does not of itself imply either sociological or ideological unity, and his conclusion dwells (rather late) on the social and religious heterogeneity and the sectional and local rivalries of the great urban middle-class communities. The problem is not only whether they possessed a recognisable group politics but whether, on the national plane, they were inclined or equipped to play ‘politics’ at all. Once the repeal of the Corn Laws had removed the most obvious symbol of class discrimination, the doctrine of division of labour which was one of the most fundamental applications of political economy in their business lives might well suggest leaving the practice of politics to a specialised governing class which had shown itself responsive to public opinion.

The cry for government by businessmen has always confounded contradictory terms. Politics requires a set of instincts and skills which they have little interest in acquiring. It demands a comprehensive view of society which they have no special qualification to form, even when they are prepared to accept that such a thing as society exists, outside the imagination of left-wing intellectuals and deluded social workers. Robertson Gladstone, William’s brother, told a Liverpool meeting: ‘What we contend for is this – that the affairs of the nation shall be conducted, in every respect, precisely as every sensible, sound-thinking member of this community, with a due regard to economy, would organise his own business (loud cheering). Every man wants to know how cheaply he can get his work done (applause). We want to get value received for our money (loud applause).’ Quite apart from the smugness that you could cut with a knife, if he and his hearers thought this was an adequate summary of the art of government, or a hopeful recipe for social solidarity and national integration, they were demonstrating not the intellectual cogency and practical force of the entrepreneurial approach but its naivety, as later generations of business migrants to Westminster were to discover. Businessmen did not succeed in government, Winston Churchill, a scion of the aristocratic élite, would tell Lord Woolton, who found that the managerial autocrat accustomed to quickfire decision-making was running against the grain of collective responsibility and civil service routine. It was better to avoid Westminster and boss Bradford, where behaviour could be blunter and satisfaction quicker.

Bossing Bradford, it can be argued, was what absorbed most of the energy that might otherwise have fuelled a serious entrepreneurial assault on national political power. Yet the construction of solid urban power bases, equivalent to the strongholds of the landed interest in the counties and bucolic boroughs, was a fundamental precondition of effective entrepreneurial intervention in national politics. It is in the end hard to decide whether it was the successes or the failures of businessmen in achieving mastery on their own middens that did the more to restrict their national political potential. To the extent that they succeeded, that effort in itself might exhaust their energy and aspiration: Joseph Chamberlain was a rare example of successful transition from Brummagem baron to national leader. To the extent that they failed, they left the way open for emergent democracy to rally round principles determinedly hostile to the entrepreneurial. The crux lay in their ability to control their workforce not only in the factory but, prospectively, at the polls.

The great technical obstacle to their dominating Westminster and replacing aristocratic government was that the massive under-representation of the great towns in proportion both to population and to property meant that there were simply not enough seats that they could capture. The remedy was redistribution – as Searle points out, the most important goal of parliamentary reform for entrepreneurial radicals – but the price for that was the adulteration of the overwhelmingly middle-class urban franchise of 1832, since members of parliament were unlikely to accept reconstruction of their constituencies unless it appeared as a necessary concomitant of franchise extension, and something had to be offered to the working-class allies who would have to be mobilised to create an urban agitation menacing enough to compel parliamentary reform. The problem was therefore whether businessmen could be confident of exercising over a much enlarged urban electorate the degree of discipline that they tried to enforce on their workpeople, or, to put it another way, whether they could demolish the ‘feudalism’ they complained of by projecting into politics the feudalism they practised.

Impressive though their hegemony in the industrial towns was, it was not at all certain that their grip was strong enough or their labour relations good enough to give them secure command in conditions of ‘democracy’. Though Searle, like others, finds hostility to factory legislation and trade unionism softening by mid-century, the ‘friends of labour’, like Forster, Mundella and Samuel Morley, who shied away from treating labour as a mere commodity to be bought at the cheapest price, were outnumbered by those who believed in the natural right of an entrepreneur to do as he would with his own, even if the instinct of mastery might be expressed in the modulated tones of ‘welfare paternalism’ in model communities. These bore their ruler’s name – Akroydon or Saltaire – and heralded, as Disraeli put it in Sybil, ‘the baronial principle, reviving in a new form’.

The assumption that businessmen would direct their workers in politics as in industry was for many of them a function of their belief in themselves as the representative class of society, whose interest was synonymous with the general interest and whose views would naturally command the assent of rational working men. ‘There can be no doubt,’ James Mill had written, ‘that the middle rank, which gives to science, to art, and to legislation itself their most distinguished ornaments, and is the chief source of all that has exalted and refined human nature, is that portion of the community of which, if the basis of representation were ever so far extended, the opinion would ultimately decide. Of the people beneath them a vast majority would be sure to be guided by their advice and example.’ To deny that proposition was to deny the possibility of levelling against the aristocratic system that united urban force which alone could shatter it. But to test it by a large extension of the franchise was to run a risk deeply perturbing to the many could not quite share Mill’s complacency.

Uncertainty of aim, naivety of approach, and insecurity in the power base, rather than ‘flunkeyism’, made the entrepreneurial politicians easy game for an old hand like Palmerston. The poverty of their pretension to large and comprehensive views of the national interest was particularly simple to expose when they strayed on to the ground of defence and diplomacy, where he was most at home. The parochialism of their outlook was clearly visible through the eirenic rhapsodies of their characteristic domestic delusion, which they also extended to international affairs: the belief that economic rationality must somehow draw political rationality in its train – a piece of ingenuousness which blurred the vision of liberal internationalists in the 19th century as much as it does that of the more simple-minded proponents of European unity in the 20th. The reliance of Cobden’s ‘National Budget’ on huge economies in the armed forces, and the dislike of mercantile men for the weapon of blockade (a prime condition of the effective exercise of British naval power in time of war), were tempting targets for opponents eager to allege that businessmen would subordinate the claims of patriotism to the interests of a class – a charge Palmerston in effect levelled in the debate of 1862 on maritime law. Where patriotism was involved, Bright and Cobden appeared as not only unrepresentative of their class but uncomprehending of it: they were baffled by the readiness of their kind to join the Volunteers. There is much force in the argument of E.D. Steele’s recent study of Palmerston’s last decade that the hold of a ‘righteous and aggressive Protestant nationalism’ on much urban opinion was a main reason for his appeal. The metaphors of Christianity were increasingly military and free trade, as a mechanism for maximising the competitive advantage of the world’s foremost industrial power, became a justification for aggression against those who were slow to grasp its rational beneficence. Entrepreneurial politics in the narrow, class-based, parsimonious, ingenuously pacifistic sense in which Bright and Cobden presented them were going out of fashion.

As Searle concludes, however, measured in terms of influence, they were by no means going down to total defeat. The relation between entrepreneurial middle-class interests and ideas and the practice of 19th-century British government is a much more complicated one than is allowed for by any notion of a failed middle-class revolution, or, more soberly, an aborted middle-class takeover bid. Already by the beginning of the 19th century the increasing extent and complexity of government business had forced a degree of professionalisation on the executive political class. This brought the introduction on a significant scale both of middle-class methods and of middle-class men – not, it is true, entrepreneurs (though they might, like Peel and Gladstone, be businessmen’s sons), but men some at least of whom understood entrepreneurial attitudes and could negotiate with entrepreneurial interests. Looking at the politicians who did the real work in the governments of the Pitt-Liverpool era, Peter Jupp has found their common denominator in ‘a high level of education coupled with a talent for business rather than a high station in landed society’, and Norman Gash has pointed out that ‘it would be nearer the truth to regard Liverpool’s Cabinet as a set of industrious middle-class administrators with a high, almost evangelical, sense of duty rather than as a group of careless, hardbitten aristocrats.’

The problem is to know why this substantial bourgeois penetration at the centre of political power receded after a Reform Act which might have seemed destined to advance it. Jupp sees the emergence of a kind of counterattack on the part of a landed elite feeling its position threatened, which was facilitated by the way in which the electoral system was recast in 1832 to assist landed influence and by the concentration of political authority within parties which the landed elite was able to dominate. But if landed property and aristocratic influence reasserted themselves strongly enough to contain the not very sophisticated entrepreneurial politics of the Bright-Cobden era, they could not dispense with the tradition of managerial expertise built up by the Pittite tendency and its heirs, which aimed at national integration by the deliberate balancing and accommodation of interests. It was lack of this kind of political skill, or rather inability to conceive this subtlety of political aim, that disqualified ‘entrepreneurial politics’ from claiming to offer a genuine national political alternative, and left its practitioners deeply dependent for their influence and for the advancement of their goals on the corps of talented official men who carried forward the Pittite tradition under aristocratic aegis.

Of the latter, Peel and Gladstone were the commanding figures. Despite his commercial antecedents and his habit of taking technical advice from his brother, Robertson, a pillar of the Liverpool mercantile community, Gladstone’s education and beliefs placed him at a considerable distance from much of entrepreneurial opinion. This came out very clearly over civil service reform: he was determined that competitive entry should rest on the ‘literary’ type of examination which practical businessmen despised, because, unlike them, he looked for the selection of a band of high-souled guardians able to work under aristocratic leadership rather than a bevy of smart counting-house clerks. But he could speak businessmen’s language, and the capacity displayed in his budgets of 1853 and 1860 to quieten the financial radicals reduced them, Searle suggests, to so heavy a dependence on him that they could henceforth ‘make absolutely no progress in those areas where he was flatly hostile to their ideas’. Gladstone thus emerged as one of the great political brokers, able to reconcile the urban and industrial world to an ‘aristocratic’ system which it could influence but to which it could not dictate.

Palmerston has to be placed in the same basket, even if his style was very different. If he sneered at the middle classes (even the gentle-manlike Cobden, he thought, was ‘like all middle-class men who have raised themselves either by money making or by Talent very vain, under the semblance of not being so’), the gulf which separated him from them should not be exaggerated. He was not a Whig grandee – Broadlands was hardly Woburn or Chatsworth. As a man who had carefully learned his political economy at Edinburgh from Adam Smith’s disciple, Dugald Stewart, he shared many of the most fundamental pre-suppositions of the business class, and Searle is probably right to think that in the triumphal appearances in the provincial towns which so annoyed Bright he was listening to their drift rather than practising on their toadyism. Prodigiously hardworking, despite the amorous asides and the flippant manner, he was as much a tough administrative talent in the Pittite and Peelite line as Gladstone himself.

As a pair they were ideally adapted to ensure that the corps of official men to which they belonged would carry on with consider able success its self-appointed task of balancing the interests on which the country’s stability and progress depended. Searle’s illuminating study shows up the entrepreneurial politicians as amateurs by comparison. When it came to politics, in mid-Victorian Britain the gentlemen were the real players.