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.
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.
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.
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.
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.