Radical rethink

The Decline of British Radicalism, 1847-1860
September 22, 1995

The present volume is clearly the outcome of an industriously pursued doctoral thesis, but topped up, the author informs us, by the incorporation of the insights of the "linguistic turn" in historiography. Alas, like so much of the material emanating from that particular stable, the first problem we are offered is one of the clarification and definition of terms.

It seems impossible that in the 1990s anyone could take the term "radical" as unproblematic, but we are in fact never offered a definition of its use in this book. Even more oddly, the core of the book is the examination of a so-called "Reform Party" in Parliament. It is never explained quite what definition of the very political term "party" may be held to include Feargus O'Connor, William Williams, Richard Cobden and John Bright and a disparate group from both sides of the house and from none, many of whom were barely on speaking terms with each other. It seems, in fact, to be a term used to avoid clear definition rather than to aid it.

There are many issues raised by the argument and terminology of the book, but I will take up only one section. I have to confess that this is partly because of the considerable irritation I feel at being told that "even my own figures" illustrate what was in fact the main thesis of my book on Chartism. This thesis is that the reform agitation in the 1830s and particularly the activity in Parliament of the "radicals" who were responsible for the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the 1835 Municipal Reform Act, the 1839 Rural Police Act and other root and branch "reforms", together with the extra-parliamentary activity of the magistracy and the judiciary, especially in the 1834 Tolpuddle and the 1837 Glasgow Cotton spinners' episodes, turned the popular mind towards access to law-making and parliamentary reform as a method of dealing with their problems.

Anyone who has followed the post-Chartist lives of these local leaders and members will see that the great majority moved back, during the 1840s, to local organisation of trades, friendly societies and cooperative organisations. Very many emigrated to the United States or to the Antipodes. A few remained at the fringes of conventional politics - as temperance lecturers, local councillors - some Liberal, some Tory, but mostly at the popular end of local liberal politics, which began to seek an artisan and small business vote during the years of Tory government in the mid-1840s. These latter are the people whom Miles Taylor takes as in some way typifying the ex-Chartists, although Margot Finn in her recent much more closely textured work on one aspect of post-Chartist politics -nationalism - has shown other areas of concern on the part of that small minority of Chartist activists who remained linked with British and European politics. But the point about the ex-Chartists was that they retreated from national and to a great extent from local politics into other more local and, in some ways, much narrower and less ideological forms of activity. When a new political labour movement arose four decades after the end of Chartism, it arose from these "non-political" forms of labour organisation, not from some "radical" enclave within the parliamentary Liberal party.

The Chartist movement had a necessarily short life as a mass movement. Poor people's movements do not have the resources to sustain a permanent organisation; they gain their effect in particular short-term ways. The Chartist movement had many effects and in many ways changed the terms of 19th-century politics. For all the divisions and tensions within it, it did bring a whole new class into the political map of the nation. But its influences were, like all political forms throughout the major part of the century, at least as much provincial as national, and they simply cannot be understood by an analysis of the parliamentary division lists. Outside periods of national emergency, in particular the emergency of a major war and its aftermath, the political powers that affected the common people of Britain during the 19th century were the still powerful figures of the employer, the landlord, the magistrate and, to some extent, the priest; it was precisely the retreat from the centralising politics of the radical reformers of the 1830s, exemplified by the 1847 modification of the Poor Law and the slow and cautious introduction of policing nationally that made it possible for the regularly employed working people to return to their own forms of protection and defence within their own trades and their own communities. To see such activities as "non-political" is to use a very narrow definition of politics.

Taylor's book is part of a rather fashionable move from a historiography too heavily weighted towards the economic and social back to a concern with the history of politics and political ideas. Most social historians welcome the change of emphasis, but the new political history must surely take account of new questions posed of old political concepts by the more recent disciplines and not simply return unproblematically to the old 19th-century political terminology.

Dorothy Thompson is author of The Chartists.

The Decline of British Radicalism, 1847-1860

Author - Mike Taylor
ISBN - 0 19 820482 5
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £45.00
Pages - 422

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