Bring back the 19th century

Miles Taylor

  • British Society 1680-1880: Dynamism, Containment and Change by Richard Price
    Cambridge, 349 pp, £40.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 521 65172 7

Like the Swiss, British historians prefer their centuries to begin at a different time from everyone else. The 18th century has always begun in 1688 and, depending on your taste for military matters, the 20th century usually starts in 1914 or 1918. Even the 19th century continues to defy logic. Despite the territorial completion of the United Kingdom in 1801 and the death of Victoria almost exactly one hundred years later, historians still opt for a split at 1815 and an end in the 1880s. So in choosing to conclude his new survey at 1880, Richard Price joins a long tradition of irreverent timekeeping. Except that, according to Price, it is not the 19th century that ends in the 1880s, but the ‘long’ 18th century. In recent years the lifetime of the distinctive political regime and social structure which emerged under the House of Hanover in the early 18th century has been extended by historians to encompass the reigns of George IV and William IV. Now Price wishes to stretch the elastic a little further and bring in the Victorians as well. He argues that neither the advent of Parliamentary democracy in 1832 nor the coming of free trade in 1846 saw off the dominant features of the Hanoverian era. Only with the expansion of empire and the growth of central government in the last quarter of the 19th century did Britain become recognisably modern. There is plenty to commend in this approach, but it is also fraught with danger. With such a long 18th century, I begin to fear for the 19th. The Victorians are not simply being put in their place: they are being taken out of the picture altogether.

What is this long 18th century which has encroached on so much of the historiography of the Victorian era in the last two decades? There are two versions of it, one of which is static, the other dynamic. The static version presents us with an ancien régime model of the economy, society and political establishment of the period between 1688 and 1832. Cherry-picking from the revised estimates of economic and demographic growth produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and devoting much attention to the religious thought of the day, this account denies that there was a natural evolution of liberal democracy and an individualist market culture during this period. Until the late 1820s divine right and Anglican orthodoxy remained the norm, the paternalist landed aristocracy went unchallenged and demands for radical change were confined to a few noisy Protestant dissenters. The dynamic version of the long 18th century emphasises the transformation of Hanoverian England – an imperial state at war for much of the period – as the fiscal and military demands of the country’s foreign policy wrought a domestic revolution in finance and banking, invigorated Parliament as public consent was required for increasing levels of tax revenue, and obliged the gentry and the clergy to take seriously their social responsibilities as magistrates, guardians of the poor and all-round improvers of public amenities, for fear that instability at home would undermine British power overseas.

It is not difficult to see the attractions of these new interpretations. Hanoverian history has become exciting again. The long stand-off between Namierite history from above and Edward Thompson-style history from below is over, and a broader and more colourful view of the period has emerged. Much of the new historiography comes from the US and Canada, where its preoccupations – with empire and subject peoples, with law and religion, and with popular participation and protest – dovetail with the abiding interests of historians of colonial North America. The 18th century has not only got longer, it has gone global. But while time has moved on, literally, for 18th-century historians, the clock appears to have stopped for their 19th-century counterparts. As Price observes, the bestselling and most widely read historians of Victorian Britain remain G.M. Young, George Kitson Clark and Asa Briggs, hardly a triumvirate of young Turks even in their heyday. The first two were not so much Victorian specialists as Victorians. Weary of interpretations based on class, uncomfortable with democracy and dismissive of progress, 19th-century historians have struggled for some time to find a new lens through which to bring the Victorian world into focus. The subject has atomised. The best political history of the period remains too cautious, and the worst not cautious enough. ‘Victorian studies’ has been colonised by an over-populated branch of English literature in which the same canonical texts are read and reread in order to decode Victorian values. Intellectual historians continue for the most part to give the era a wide berth. Social historians reared on class have switched to gender and race, forgetting in most cases to retool their conceptual skills. Victorian historiography, in other words, has lost its way. But is Price right to suggest that a detour via the 18th century will put the subject back on track?

It is the dynamic version of the 18th century which features most prominently in British Society 1680-1880. The book has little to say about the persistence of the Anglican ancien régime. Indeed, rather regrettably, religion hardly features at all, except for a brief foray into evangelicalism and economics in the 1830s and 1840s. Instead, Price concentrates on establishing a broad continuity between 18th-century economic, political and social change and what happened in the Victorian years. Familiar historical turning points are carefully sidestepped. The Industrial Revolution was not a major disruption, it simply entailed a proliferation of older style manufacturing and craft industries, rather than their replacement by modern factory methods. The financial revolution did not leave industry out in the cold – from its origins in the mid-17th century, overseas trade required harmony between city financiers and provincial manufacturers. Free trade after 1846 did not represent a break with previous commercial policy, it was merely the pursuit of a hegemony over international trade and services by different means. The end of ‘Old Corruption’ after 1815 did not mean that the laissez-faire Victorian state replaced its tax-gathering Hanoverian predecessor. Effective indirect tax – fewer taxes yielding greater revenues – became Victorian fiscal orthodoxy. Whig centralisation of government in the 1830s and 1840s (Poor Law Boards here and Education Commissions there) did not spell the end of voluntary initiative and civic-minded parochial government, which, revived and refreshed, re-emerged in the permissive legislation of the mid-Victorian decades. The 1832 Reform Act was not the new dawn of democracy, it was a further attempt to differentiate between propertied opinion and the mob, as was the reform of local government in 1835. And so on. Where successive waves of 19th-century historians have assumed a break with the Hanoverian past, Price finds an essentially seamless pattern of development. Until, that is, the 1880s. Only then did the needs of finance and industry begin to bifurcate as empire became crucial for one but not for the other. Only after 1880 did the Treasury begin to move towards using tax revenue for areas of continuing and permanent social expenditure, causing a major reform of local government, and eventually occasioning the replacement of indirect tax with graduated direct taxation. Only in the 1880s – after campaigns like the one to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act – did the Victorian state begin to take direct responsibility for policing morals. And, perhaps most significantly, only in the 1880s was the full impact of Parliamentary reform – ‘the electoral time-bomb of democracy’ – felt, as the party machines turned the electoral system from local theatre into national spectacle.

Is this interpretation really so novel? A book which begins with a rehabilitation of Christopher Hill’s ‘century of revolution’, then rescues Marx’s ‘age of manufacture’, before closing with Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘industry and empire’, is more rooted in older approaches than may appear at first sight. And some of the detail, too, is questionable. Free trade was a remarkably tenacious doctrine, lasting well beyond the 1880s (in fact, until 1932). Revenue derived from direct taxation did not begin to overtake that derived from indirect tax until after 1920. Apart from the prison service (1877) it is difficult to think of many institutions or social agencies which were taken over by central government before the 1902 Education Act. Inspectorates, minimum standards enforceable in the courts, local ratepayer control and permissive legislation remained common in the late 19th century. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of parochial administration – the Poor Law – was not superseded by central government until 1929. Furthermore, the complex voter registration system rendered household suffrage more of an ideal than a reality until 1918. But these are small points which do not essentially detract from Price’s main claim that two hundred years of continuity gave way to significant change in the 1880s. The death in London of the as yet unknown Dr Marx, and the birth of Keynes and Attlee, together with the publication of J.R. Seeley’s Expansion of England – all within the first six months of 1883 – are useful reminders of how the old world was giving way to the new. But was it really the long 18th century which was being transformed, or the short 19th?

Mammon, Empire and Parliament. In these three areas Victorian Britain looks fundamentally different from the 18th century, and because they are unduly neglected by Price, it is inevitable that continuity rather than change will appear to be the hallmark of the period down to the 1880s. Personal wealth of an unprecedented kind was amassed in Britain from the second quarter of the 19th century onwards. It may have been gained illicitly and may not have been evenly distributed, but even the most gloomy revisionist accounts of economic growth during Britain’s Industrial Revolution recognise it. After 1820, fixed capital investment displaced the old cash and burn economy in cotton and other manufacturing. Similarly, the railway boom of 1825 to 1852 created a shareholding capitalist economic culture, in which great fortunes were made. The discovery of gold in Australia and California in the 1850s, and the new opportunities to invest in the France of Louis Philippe and, even more, that of Napoleon III, as well as in northern Italy and in tsarist Russia, fuelled this capitalism. While there has been a long debate about what industrialists and city financiers did with their money, there is no doubt that in the Victorian era there were many more rich men and, indeed, millionaires than in the previous century. The wealth they possessed and generated transformed the urban topography of England and lowland Scotland, and created an ethos of charity and philanthropy which meant that local government, infrastructural improvement and social reform could be obtained on the cheap. By 1900 neither old landed wealth nor new capitalist wealth remained as buoyant – this was the reason for the crisis of municipal finance and voluntary welfare provision at the turn of the century.

Victorian Britain was also manifestly an imperial state in a way 18th-century Britain was not. Before 1800, the management of the Empire was left to trading companies and garrison armies, far removed from the metropole: from 1815, imperial acquisitions in South-East Asia and coastal Africa, and colonial settlements in Australasia, the West Indies and British North America were more carefully monitored and controlled by London. By 1850 civil government at home was effectively responsible for more than three times as many peoples in the overseas Empire as in mainland Britain. The affairs of the Empire – slavery, finance, civil rights, armed forces, Protestant missionaries – became intertwined with Victorian domestic politics in ways which historians are only now beginning to document. The Treasury sought to square the circle of cheaper government at home and a spiralling defence burden in the Empire. Mid-Victorian Parliaments debated lowering the franchise in large towns with an anxious eye on the operation of democracy in the Australian states and in the West Indies. Empire brought a more militaristic ethos in its wake, transforming notions of civility from their polite Enlightenment origins into the harder ideals of citizenship and masculinity common after 1860. Evangelicalism at home was intensified by the spread of the gospel overseas. And empire struck back on the political scene, too. Ireland shattered the Liberal Party in the 1880s, and the century closed with the most disruptive imperial episode of all: the South African War. The Empire was also something of a laboratory for social reform at home. In many respects Victorian big government in the shape of state-managed labour and investment did not begin in Britain in the 1880s, as Price suggests, but in the sugar economies of post-emancipation West Indies and post-1857 India, before working its way back via Ireland during Lord Salisbury’s last administration of 1895 to 1902.

Finally, the Victorian era was a golden age of Parliamentary government. There was a strong element of complacency in the high esteem in which Parliament was held after the 1832 Reform Act. Yet the reformed Constitution of the 1830s functioned with an efficiency no Hanoverian Parliament had ever managed. More public and local legislation was passed than ever before and public petitioning of the Commons reached a level that the modern party system has never achieved. Falling in with a long line of historians, Price condemns the 1832 Reform Act for not extending the franchise very far. He points out that the actual size of the electorate was probably about the same as it was in the reign of William and Mary. But that doesn’t mean that Parliamentary institutions were shielded from public gaze. After 1832, the Commons, many MPs complained, became like a glass bowl, subject to the daily scrutiny of the newspapers and the satirists, the pressure of organised lobby groups and associations and a barrage of begging letters from constituents. Parliament may have remained the domain of the leisure classes, as Price implies, but MPs did not get much leisure, especially as elections became regular and were often fought twice over, if one local party complained of corruption. Considered as a reformed legislature, rather than a nascent democracy, the post-1832 Parliament was something of a success. Throughout the rest of the Victorian era the ability of a cramped, smelly and dark chamber on the banks of the Thames to administer the business of a colossal empire without recourse to bureaucracy or decree was the object of envy and wonder across much of republican and autocratic Europe. Only towards the end of the 19th century, when Parliament became overloaded with legislative demands, did new ideas about government by party mandate and through extensive devolution – ideas discussed, for example, by the early Labour Party – begin to emerge. All of this means that there is no need for Price’s long 18th century. The 19th century has been in a state of suspended animation. It is about time it was brought back to life.