Welcome to the latest instalment in the weekly series about Liberal Democrat political philosophy. I hope you find it interesting and useful - and if you do, please tell your friends and colleagues that they too can sign up for the series.
The content draws very heavily on an excellent pamphlet edited by Duncan Brack for the Liberal Democrat History Group and by contributors to the group's (now sadly out of print) Dictionary of Liberal Thought. In particular, for this week's email, Tony Little, Matthew McCormack and Terry Jenkins.
If you aren't familiar with the group's work, particularly the website and quarterly Journal of Liberal History, I'd highly recommend taking a look.
If you like elements of the emails that follow, most likely Duncan and colleagues deserve the credit. For the bits you don't like, the brickbats should come my way.
The Peelites, followers of Sir Robert Peel (1783–1850), were one of the three groups of MPs who came together to found the Liberal Party in 1859. The other two, Radicals and Whigs are covered below but first, the Peelites.
Although the group’s existence was short (1846–59), the Peelites bequeathed a distinctive philosophical flavour to the Liberal Party. Pre-eminently they were free traders but in addition, as Gladstone summarised, Peel bequeathed them, "the policy of peace abroad, of economy, of financial equilibrium, of steady resistance to abuses, and the promotion of practical improvement at home, with a disinclination to questions of reform gratuitously raised".
In 1846 the Conservative government led by Sir Robert Peel split over its proposal to abolish duties on grain imports (the Corn Laws). The split proved permanent when Peel’s followers sustained a Whig minority government against the remaining, protectionist, Tories. After Peel’s death in 1850, the Peelites maintained an independent parliamentary group until, in 1859, they joined Whigs and Radicals in bringing down Derby’s Conservative government. The key meeting in deciding on this course of action was held in Willis’s Rooms in St James, London on 6 June 1859, and it is generally held to mark the foundation of the Liberal Party.
The Peelites included some of the most talented of Peel’s ministers, such as Lord Aberdeen, Sidney Herbert, William Gladstone and Edward Cardwell, all of whom played preeminent roles in the Aberdeen Whig-Peelite coalition of 1852. Gladstone and Cardwell also held senior cabinet posts as Liberals after 1859.
While their approach to free trade, exemplified by the overthrow of the Corn Laws, brought significant economic benefits, its chief justification to Peelites was moral. They sought to free the ‘People’ from unnecessary burdens and to place the interests of the nation ahead of party, or of vested interests such as the Tory landowners who benefited from high grain prices but were seen to be obstructing the relief of famine in Ireland. The same prioritising of the national interest led Gladstone to champion Irish home rule in spite of the damage this did to the Liberal Party.
Peelite sound finance dominated the Victorian Treasury. Government spending, heavily weighted towards the armed forces, was minimised, a process known as retrenchment. As a consequence, Peelite foreign policy was biased against military adventures and Peelite ministers warmly embraced administrative reform, substituting meritocracy for patronage in recruitment to the military and the civil service. Balancing spending against tax revenue avoided the moral hazard of borrowing, which burdened future generations and encouraged extravagance. Income tax, previously used only as an emergency measure during the Napoleonic wars and abolished in 1816, was reintroduced by Peel in 1842 and made sound finance possible. It was also used by Peel, and more thoroughly by Gladstone, to enable the elimination of many indirect taxes on commodities essential to the poor, encouraging employment and placing the tax burden more fairly on those able to pay, thereby promoting class harmony.
In his 1834 Tamworth address (the first election manifesto addressed to a national audience, outlining his approach to government), Peel had indicated his intention "to remove every abuse that can impair the efficiency of the Establishment, to extend the sphere of its usefulness". He was referring to the Anglican Church but the intention to preserve rather than overthrow existing institutions by judicious, adaptive reform was given much wider application by Peelite ministers. The retention of church schools in state education is a consequence of Peelite adaptation in the 1870 Education Act.
Some Peelites described themselves as Liberal Conservatives for electioneering purposes but this label did not indicate a centrist position between the two forces. Commitment to free trade united all the component Liberal groups and separated them irrevocably from Conservative thinking. Sound finance linked the Peelites with the Radicals, while the Peelite ‘righteous’ but ‘practicable and attainable’ approach to reform differed subtly from the just-in-time approach of the Whigs and wholly from that of the more thorough-going Radicals and the reactionary Tories.
Radicals - a British political movement of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - were another of the groups who came together in Willis's Rooms to form the Liberal Party. Although ‘radical’ activists and organisations can appear diverse in their politics and aims, the Radicals were unified in their pursuit of rights and justice for ordinary people. They drew upon a range of political ideas that were committed to this end, and developed them into a distinctive and influential critique of the social and political status quo.
In the British political context, ‘radical’ refers to a body of specific political traditions and worldviews, rather than just positions that are perceived to be extreme. Early radicals did not employ the term ‘radicalism’, so historians have to be wary of anachronism when conceptualising it as a unified phenomenon with a coherent identity and ideology.
The movement developed in the last third of the eighteenth century, a time when few people could vote and when government was perceived to be aristocratic, remote and corrupt. Radicals were activists drawn from all classes who sought political, social and legal justice for those who were denied them. Their campaigns concerned civil liberties such as freedom of speech, of association and of religious conscience, and later radicals were also concerned with the social and economic plight of working people. The most important goal of the radical movement, however, was the extension of the franchise. This was partly because of its symbolism and value as a rallying point, but also because the radical critique was fundamentally political. Radicals believed that if ordinary people (or at least men) had the vote then Parliament would legislate for the general good; although some radicals believed that social and economic change required direct action, most had faith that this could be accomplished within the legislative sphere.
By and large, radicals therefore sought to work within the existing political system. The constitutionalist idiom of mainstream radicals emphasised that the national political tradition guaranteed them historic rights which they were being denied, a rhetorical tactic that underlined the legitimacy of their claims and campaigning methods. British radicalism, however, always drew strength from new intellectual currents. In the period of the Enlightenment, Thomas Paine rejected historic constitutionalism and espoused a republicanism that was founded upon the inherent rights of men; whereas the later tradition of philosophic radicalism explored the implications of Benthamite utilitarianism. Over the course of its history, British radicalism also engaged with traditions as diverse as Tory paternalism, utopian socialism and Marxism, serving to emphasise its ideological vitality and diversity.
Although radical ideas have a long heritage, the movement was inaugurated in the political conflicts of the 1760s, when politicians began to pursue libertarian causes by appealing to the extra-parliamentary nation. Much of the credit for this conventionally goes to John Wilkes (1727–97), the notorious rake and social climber, who was adept at elevating his personal disputes with government into popular causes of press, legal and electoral liberty. Revolutions in America and France both stimulated and hindered British radicalism. Radicals corresponded with fellow travellers abroad, a dialogue that radicalised their critiques and inspired campaigns for parliamentary reform at home. At the same time, governmental fears of disorder meant that even moderate radicals were tarred with the revolutionary brush, leading to the suspension of civil liberties and mass arrests. It also made it more difficult to assert a patriotic constitutionalist position, which some radicals disowned altogether in favour of internationalist republicanism. During the 1790s, a working-class radicalism developed with its underground culture of meetings, societies and illicit printing.
Radicalism revived in the later years of the Napoleonic Wars and the period of economic hardship that followed. In the Midlands and the north, skilled textile workers known as Luddites targeted the new technology that contributed to unemployment in a wave of machine-breaking. This suggests that radicalism was developing an economic critique of industrial capitalism, but mainstream radicals in this period continued to prioritise political methods and aims. The ‘mass platform’ employed the tactic of monster outdoor meetings of working people. They asserted both their physical numbers and their political responsibility through peaceable behaviour, a claim underlined by the presence of ‘gentleman leaders’ such as Henry Hunt (1773–1835). Their primary goal was manhood suffrage: although women participated in the movement, the vote was usually sought for men in their capacity as breadwinners and household heads. Many radicals were therefore disappointed by the Reform Act of 1832, which largely enfranchised the propertied male middle classes to the exclusion of the many working-class men who had campaigned for the measure.
Radicalism subsequently diverged in class terms, as working class radicals rallied around Chartism. The significance of this movement has been hotly debated. Given its working-class character, historians have often regarded Chartism as a ‘social’ movement, but the Charter itself was exclusively focused upon parliamentary reform, consistent with the old radical faith in the ability of representative politics to achieve social and economic change.
Middle class radicals, on the other hand, developed a radicalised Victorian Liberalism of free trade, individual liberty and moral respectability. The Anti-Corn Law League, founded by the manufacturer Richard Cobden, sought to end the agricultural protectionism that enriched landowners at the expense of industrialists and poor families alike. The politics of the League were recognisably radical in their pursuit of social justice and individual independence, in opposition to the traditional monopolies enjoyed by the privileged. The moral basis to this struggle is discernible in the passionate Christian rhetoric of Cobden’s colleague John Bright (1811–89), who was subsequently a leading spokesman in the long campaign that led up to the Second Reform Act of 1867.
In later-Victorian Britain, radical causes were commonly pursued under the broad umbrella of Gladstone’s Liberal Party. The colourful politician Charles Bradlaugh, for example, conducted a wide range of radical campaigns in the 1880s as Liberal MP for Northampton; these causes included republicanism, birth control, compulsory education and – as an atheist – the right of MPs to affirm rather than take the oath. Radicalism, however, retained its distinctiveness. New currents such as socialism, anti-landlordism and collectivism were mediated through the indigenous radical tradition, in terms of what Belchem calls, "the triumphant crusade of the working people".
By the end of the nineteenth century, many working class activists had become frustrated with the Liberal Party and sought an independent representation in Parliament. The resultant Labour Party sought to get working men into Parliament, opposed protectionism and the landlords, and promoted trade unionism and interventionist social policies – a manifesto that suggests Labour politics in the twentieth century owed as much to radicalism as it did to Marxism.
Historians have conventionally conceptualised radical politics in terms of social class. Radicalism is often regarded as the expression of a politically conscious working class, an ideology that reflected social conflicts and conditions. However, it is also productive to consider radical critiques, methods and cultures on their own terms. In this way, the striking continuities of the radical tradition are all the more apparent, as well as its close relationship with – and influence upon – both the Liberal and Labour Parties. British radicalism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had many significant achievements and legacies; indeed, it should be central to our understanding of the development of left-wing and liberal politics in our own times.
- John Belchem, Popular Radicalism in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Macmillan, 1996)
- Matthew Roberts, Political Movements in Urban England, 1832–1914 (Palgrave, 2008)
- Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832–1982 (Cambridge University Press, 1983)
- E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Victor Gollancz, 1963)
Whigs were the third group to come together at Willis's Rooms to form the Liberal Party. Whiggism emerged in the late seventeenth century as an ideology of resistance to the threat of royal absolutism, and it underpinned the subsequent evolution of a system of parliamentary government within which ‘constitutional’ monarchs were obliged to act. It continued, into the nineteenth century, to assert the role of the territorial aristocracy as the natural champions of popular liberties, and as the leaders of movements for political and religious reform.
Although the principles associated with Whiggism had their intellectual roots in the civil war of the 1640s, and even earlier, it was during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679–81 that ‘Whig’ was first used as a political label. It denoted those, such as Lord Shaftesbury (1621–83), who tried unsuccessfully to remove James, Duke of York (later James II) from the royal succession. The Whigs feared that, as a convert to Catholicism, James would inevitably subvert the Protestant Church of England and establish a despotic government on the continental, Catholic model, using the army to subordinate Parliament.
Intellectual validation for the Whig position was found in the argument, derived from ‘natural law’, that kings exercised their authority only by the consent of the people. A ‘contract’ had originally been entered into, when the people entrusted some of their powers to the King, and this was only binding for as long as royal authority was exercised for the common good. If the King betrayed his trust, the people were no longer obliged to obey him and had the right of resistance. In these circumstances, Parliament, representing the people, could determine the royal succession. This happened (so it was claimed) during the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688–89, when James was driven from the country and his crown offered to William of Orange and his wife Mary (James’s daughter). In 1701, the Act of Settlement fixed the succession on the Protestant Hanoverians.
The duty of governments was to protect the people in their lives, liberties and estates, and the Whigs attached particular importance to the defence of property rights. It was through ownership of land that a man was believed to attain true liberty and independence (by being financially independent and so able to resist corruption and influence-peddling). Property secured the means to resist an over-mighty government. ‘Liberty and Property’ (a popular and enduring political slogan) went hand in hand, and it was the large stake they held in the country’s soil that enabled the Whigs to claim for themselves the responsibility to act as guardians of the rights of the people.
John Locke was the first and perhaps the greatest of the Whig writers. A friend and protégé of Shaftesbury’s, in 1689 he published Two Treatises of Government, in which he attacked the Tory, ‘patriarchical’ concept of kingship, and expounded the ‘contractarian’ theory described above. In the same year, his Letter Concerning Toleration advocated religious toleration for Protestant Dissenters.
Religious liberty played a central part in Whig thinking. Like Locke, the first Whigs found valuable political allies in the Protestant Dissenters, whose right to worship without state interference was acknowledged. Late-eighteenth-century Whig latitudinarianism moved further, towards a policy of religious equality, by advocating repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which (symbolically) barred Dissenters from holding public office. Early Whiggism was virulently anti-Catholic in character, and toleration of ‘Papists’ was unthinkable. By the early nineteenth century, however, with British Catholicism no longer perceived as a threat to the established church, and the practical problem of reconciling the Catholic majority in Ireland to the Union with Britain, the Whigs favoured the removal of discriminatory legislation against their old enemies.
In the late eighteenth century, Edmund Burke, an MP and protégé of the Whig leader, Lord Rockingham (1730–82), provided intellectual justification for the parliamentary opposition to George III’s governments in his pamphlet Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770). Burke’s definition of ‘party’, as an honourable body of men joined together in the pursuit of common principles, helped to legitimise the Whig strategy of systematically opposing the King’s chosen ministers, in order to force him to replace them en bloc with members of the Whig party. The Whigs’ growing determination to assert the primacy of Parliament, by using party connection to restrict monarchical freedom in the appointment of ministers, pointed towards modern constitutional practice.
The Whigs were bitterly divided by the French Revolution. Some, most notably Charles James Fox, Charles Grey and Richard Brinsley, expressed their sympathy for French radicalism; others, most notably Burke, became fierce opponents of the revolution in France. Burke left the Whigs and joined the Tories; when others followed in the 1790s the Whig cause and its parliamentary strength were, for a time, considerably reduced. Whig differences over Britain’s relations with France and the dramatic changes in French society had their counterpart in a general political caution about reform in Britain.
If Whiggism sought to impose limits on monarchical government, it was equally clear about the dangers of conferring unlimited power on the people, insisting that an aristocracy was needed to act as mediators between these two essential, but potentially destructive forces. Society was conceived of in hierarchical terms, and, while the early-nineteenth-century Whigs recognised the changes being wrought by the processes of urbanisation and industrialisation, they looked to promote what they termed ‘rational liberty’. By carrying the Great Reform Act of 1832, which cleansed the electoral system of its most corrupt features and extended the franchise to the industrious, respectable ‘middle classes’, the Whigs aimed to restore confidence in Britain’s existing political institutions. A virtuous, aristocratic ruling elite would command ‘legitimate deference’ from the people.
The Whig belief in gradual progress was most famously described by the Whig politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. In his four-volume History of England (1848–55), Macaulay celebrated what he saw as the uninterrupted, "physical … moral and … intellectual improvement" of the nation since the Glorious Revolution. He believed that measures such as the Great Reform Act demonstrated the capacity of the political system to adapt gradually to changing circumstances, without the need for violent revolution. Macaulay’s work formed the basis of what became known as the Whig interpretation of history.
Whiggism was always more of a practical, working political creed than an abstract philosophy. Its legacy was to Victorian liberalism, within which the Whig tradition occupied a proud position. Leading Whigs of the 1820s and 1830s, Earl Grey and Lord John Russell especially prominent amongst them, championed electoral reform and secured a place in British Liberal politics for Whiggism, alongside growing middle-class and radical parliamentary representation; the Whigs won and retained influence in a reform-minded party collaboration that was able to operate successfully in a deeply class-conscious society. Indeed the aristocracy provided an administrative cadre for Liberal governments until the late nineteenth century, and Whiggism was seen as exercising a guiding and moderating influence over the Liberal Party. It ultimately inspired a centrist style of politics that has never disappeared.