Victorians: Power & Politics

Although England in the late 1830s was still ruled by a propertied oligarchy, there had long been a degree of social mobility. It was enough, at least, for Britain, unlike its continental neighbours, to ward off revolution.

Celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 at Wellington Arch, London

Celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 at Wellington Arch, London

THE OLD ORDER

The Palace of Westminster was at the centre of English public life. It seemed to be an architectural embodiment of the unwritten English constitution: the ancient buildings had gradually evolved to suit the institutions they housed. So when it burned down in 1834, it must have felt as though the old world was coming to an end. The Jewel Tower was one of the few parts of the old palace to survive.

A 19th-century imperial standard pint measure from the Jewel Tower, Westminster. From 1869 to 1938, the Jewel Tower was a testing facility for the Board of Trade Standards Department, which determined the definitive values of units of size, weight and volume for the entire British Empire.

A 19th-century imperial standard pint measure from the Jewel Tower, Westminster. From 1869 to 1938 the Jewel Tower was a testing facility for the Board of Trade Standards Department, which determined the definitive values of units of size, weight and volume for the entire British Empire.

CHANGE WITHOUT REVOLUTION

Compared to France, the ancient enemy, Victorian Britain was politically conservative, with change proceeding by inches.

Few things united the English middle and upper classes more than their hatred of revolutionary violence and upheaval. And unlike its European rivals, Britain managed to reform its political system without a revolution. In the course of Victoria’s reign the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 increased the number of adult men entitled to vote from about one-sixth to two-thirds, although there were as yet no votes for women.

WHIGS AND TORIES

The new queen had a tendency towards favouritism in her politics, preferring ‘Uncle Melbourne’ (her first prime minister) and the Whigs to the rival Tories. After her marriage in 1840, however, Prince Albert tempered the queen’s partisanship. Their twin desks at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight vividly express both their personal partnership and the important place that the Crown still occupied in public life.

Melbourne’s replacement, Sir Robert Peel, was a Tory, but also the son of a northern manufacturer. He embodied the broadening social background of the Tories, and their acceptance of the need for (conservative) reform.

The process of reform was rudely interrupted, however, by a great division on the principle of free trade versus protectionism, crystallised in Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which allowed more cheap imported grain into Britain. The issue was as divisive then as the European Union issue is today. Peel split his party on a matter of principle, and ushered in almost 30 years of Whig–Liberal dominance.

Although Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, was designed as a private home for the royal family away from affairs of state, Queen Victoria’s privy councillors met in the Council Room there several times a year.

Although Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, was designed as a private home for the royal family away from affairs of state, Queen Victoria’s privy councillors met in the Council Room there several times a year. By the time of Victoria’s accession, all policy decisions were made by the prime minister and cabinet, but the privy council remained to advise the queen on the exercise of the royal prerogative.

ARISTOCRATS AND RADICALS

In many ways the tone and composition of government remained heavily aristocratic for much of the reign. Queen Victoria’s prime ministers included four earls, a marquess, a viscount and the younger son of an earl. The House of Lords was as important as the Commons, and a major part of political life was played out in grand London drawing rooms and at country-house weekends.

A new politics was taking shape, however, springing up in the manufacturing cities of the midlands and north. In response, from the late 1850s onwards Whiggism morphed into Liberalism. This was personified by Liverpool-born William Gladstone, who joined the Liberals in 1859.

A painting of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli at Osborne House in 1878. Although Victoria was supposed to be politically impartial, she often favoured certain ministers above others, and much preferred the Conservative Disraeli to his Liberal rival and successor, William Gladstone.

A painting of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli at Osborne House in 1878. Although Victoria was supposed to be politically impartial, she often favoured certain ministers above others, and much preferred the Conservative Disraeli to his Liberal rival and successor, William Gladstone.
© The Forbes Magazine Collection, New York/Bridgeman Art Library

GLADSTONE AND DISRAELI

In the 1860s the Conservatives recovered thanks to the inspired leadership of Benjamin Disraeli, and his ability to persuade his party to countenance further parliamentary reform. The tussle for power between Disraeli and Gladstone, the two great politicians of the age, saw the appearance of modern two-party politics in a recognisable form, and their regular jousts at the dispatch box continued until Disraeli’s defeat in 1880.

By then, parliamentary government was at the height of its prestige. In 1886 the issue of Irish home rule, championed by Gladstone, split the Liberals, allowing the Conservatives to dominate as the 19th century drew to an end.

The election of James Keir Hardie, first MP for the Labour Representation Committee (precursor of the Labour Party), in 1900, presaged the decline of liberalism and the politics of a new age.

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