Here is a term paper on ‘Reforms of A.V. Dicey in Britain’ during 1868-1885.
Walter Bagehot, writing a preface in 1872 to a new edition of his English Constitution of 1867, made necessary by the passage of the Second Reform Act, expressed the fear ‘that both our political parties will bid for the support of the working-man,’ perhaps suggesting the public discussion of – topics which will bind the poor as a class together; topics which will excite them against the rich;. . . .make them think that some new law can make them comfortable—that it is the present law which makes them uncomfortable—that Government has at its disposal an inexhaustible fund out of which it can give to those who now want without also creating elsewhere other and greater wants.
A.V. Dicey, whose Lectures on the Relation between Law and Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century (1905) established the view that Benthamism was the chief inspiration of the legislation of 1825-70, believed that ‘collectivism’ displaced it in the late ‘sixties.
‘The Reform Acts, 1867-1884, were carried in deference to the wishes and by the support of the working classes, who desired, though in a vague and indefinite manner, laws which might promote the attainment of the ideals of socialism or collectivism,’ Collectivism he identified with a kind of socialism, ‘which favours the intervention of the State, even at some sacrifice of individual freedom, for the purpose of conferring benefit upon the mass of the people’.
Its characteristics include a willingness to breach freedom of contract, a desire to ‘equalize advantages’ and a tendency to treat men ‘not so much as isolated individuals, but as beings who by their very nature are citizens and parts of the great organism— the State—whereof they are members.’
Whereas Dicey’s claims for Benthamism have been much disputed, those he made for collectivism have scarcely been challenged. Yet they are the more misleading. A fortiori, Bagehot’s fears proved irrelevant to the period under discussion.
i. The Education Act of 1870:
The best evidence for Dicey’s view is the Education Act of 1870. This measure led to a large extension of State intervention, the greatest of the whole nineteenth century in practice if not in theory. It limited individual freedom, as understood by Dicey. It conferred benefit upon the mass of the people.
It equalized advantages. It may be added that it cost a lot of money. The education vote was about £1,000,000 a year in the ‘sixties; by 1885 the figure was about £ 4,000,000, by far the largest amount for any public service apart from ‘Law and Justice’ and defence. Local authorities were also spending £ 4,000,000 a year on education in the ‘eighties, as much as on the police and more than on any other public provision except the Poor Law and roads.
By comparison with previous educational measures, the Act of 1870 was sweeping. Its essential aim was to create enough school places for all children between the ages of 5 and, generally, 13. To begin with, a last special opportunity was given to the voluntary societies.
There was to be a ‘period of grace’ in which they could still obtain government building grants on the old basis. From the last day of 1870, however, these grants were to cease. Thereafter, the voluntary schools could hope only for maintenance grants, from the central government, equivalent to the amounts privately subscribed.
In areas where voluntary effort had failed to make adequate provision by the end of 1870, there were to be elected school boards, which were to levy rates for the building of new schools, ‘to fill the gaps’. This procedure was compulsory. On the other hand, it was a matter for individual boards to decide whether parents should be compelled to send their children to the schools provided.
As for the religious difficulty, the boards were not permitted to allow the teaching in their schools of ‘formularies distinctive of any creed’. That apart, they could prescribe what religious instruction should be given, excluding it altogether if they wished.
Such instruction, though, had to be arranged at times when children could easily be excused from it if their parents so desired. Finally, by clause 25, the boards were empowered to assist poor scholars in denominational schools by grants in aid of fees. No other payments could be made out of the rates to help voluntary schools.
During the ‘period of grace’ 1600 successful applications for building grants were made. In many areas the ‘Establishment’ preferred to provide a sufficiency of school places by private effort, rather than risk the intrusion of a school board. Gladstone displayed his duality again. Nothing could be worse, he thought, than a school board for Hawarden.
By 1880 the number of denominational schools had risen from 8,000 to 14,000 in ten years, and the number of children attending them from 1,200,000 to 2,000,000. Between 1820 and 1883 Anglicans raised £12.25 million for the building and maintenance of Church schools, which compares with £15 million during the whole previous history of the National Society. Roman Catholics also subscribed largely. The Dissenters made lesser efforts because they were more satisfied with the new State system.
All the great towns, and many other places, had to elect school boards. By 1880 they ran over 3,000 schools, some of them in buildings originally erected for voluntary and private schools, and educated 750,000 children in them. On the whole, they were better equipped than the denominational schools. There was great variety of religious teaching.
The London Board gave a lead, which was widely followed, in prescribing Bible-reading ‘with explanation’. After long struggles, the Radical Birmingham Board in 1879 allowed Bible-reading ‘without note or comment’. Manchester’s Board satisfied most Anglicans. Some boards in fact allowed the catechism into their schools.
In Liverpool even the susceptibilities of Roman Catholics were considered, to the point that the Douai version of the Bible might be used. Clause 25 caused violent disputes, and had to be modified in 1876.
By 1885 the church schools as a whole were educationally and financially on the defensive, though they contained the majority of the children, and though in most areas the ‘Establishment’ and snobbery were on their side.
As usual in educational history, it was political and religious disputes rather than the quality or breadth of teaching which engaged public attention. In this context the Act certainly marked a great extension of secularism.
Already for forty years the State had had to be neutral as between the denominations. Now it effectively set itself up in competition with them. Immediately the 1870 Act intensified denominational disputes. In the long run it nullified them. The teachers constituted, in Disraeli’s words, a ‘new sacerdotal class.’
Educationally, of course, the Act was of enormous importance, especially as strengthened in 1880; when school attendance was made compulsory over the whole country. By the end of the period, in England and Wales, only about 10 per cent of those marrying were illiterate. The number of children being educated, and the number of certificated teachers, trebled between 1870 and 1885.
The quality of the education provided, measured by its cost per head, rose by about 70 per cent over the same period. New types of periodical were founded with the new educated class in mind, such as Tit-bits in 1880; and it is hard to imagine the ‘new unionism’ of the ‘eighties, catering for unskilled workers, without the Education Act.
The Act, though, had very grave limitations. That the Act did not apply to Scotland, where educational provision was already more generous, is unimportant. The Scottish measure of 1872 was less radical. But it is significant in reference to Dicey’s arguments that the voluntary principle was so elaborately respected.
It is also highly important that nothing whatever was done by the State to make secondary or University education available to the poor. A Royal Commission report of 1867, which recommended that the State set up a national system of secondary education, was shelved. Many of those who supported and worked the Act intended to give only such schooling to the working class as would fit them better for their traditional employments.
It should be added, however, that some progressive school boards were already by 1885 assisting a few secondary students, that private efforts much improved and extended secondary education in this period, and that several new University Colleges, including some which admitted women, were founded.
Some account of the passage of the 1870 Act must be given. It will be remembered that the Newcastle Commission had reported complacently on the state of popular education in 1861. The satisfaction this Report gave did not survive the publication of some private surveys of school provision in the great towns.
In any case the mood of the educational debate changed very quickly at the end of the ‘sixties. The development has not been fully studied, but it seems that these are the main factors. The passage of the Second Reform Act led conservatives of both parties to take more seriously the education of what Lowe called ‘their masters’, the new electorate.
Then the Liberal-Nonconformist resurgence of 1867-68 led to a much wider demand than had existed previously for un-sectarian State education, preferably free and compulsory as well. The most militant Dissenting elements were now found in favour of a State system, on condition that it was not dominated by the Church; and presumably their successes in other fields in these years led them to think that that condition could now be secured.
There was opposition to this line within Nonconformity, especially among Congregationalists, who were mostly voluntaryists. There was, additionally, dispute about the meaning of ‘un-sectarian’. But the new movement put the question on to the legislative programme.
It also, likes the Nonconformist assault of the early ‘thirties, called forth the power of the ‘Establishment’. A National Education Union, based in Manchester, rivalled the League, based in Birmingham, and even defeated it, as has been seen, in its own stronghold. The Union reflected a shift in Anglican attitudes in favour of State intervention.
Other influences were the difficulties of the Education Department of the Privy Council, administering what was virtually a State system without adequate statutory sanction; the generally greater drive of Gladstonian government as compared with Palmerstonian; and the result of the Austro-Prussian War, which was thought to demonstrate the advantages of the Prussian educational system.
In Parliament the original Bill was considerably modified, mainly to suit the Methodists. But it was finally passed by a combination of Conservatives and moderate Liberals, most of the Radicals and Nonconformists voting against. The Ayes believed that they had achieved the best possible terms for the Church, the ‘Establishment’, voluntary effort and religion. The Noes would not be, content with less than their ideal.
At no stage is there much sign of concern for the views of the working men themselves. The Reform League had demanded the same as the National Education League, but its main stress was elsewhere, and its educational opinions attracted little attention.
As with the great mass of nineteenth-century legislation for the poor, especially the urban poor, the Education Act of 1870 did what their ‘betters’ thought to be good for them rather than what they themselves requested.
ii. Trade Union Legislation:
The Liberals were clear that they must take some action about the legal status of Trade Unions, to repay the working-class organizations for their support in 1868. Within the party, however, there were many manufacturers and some doctrinaire upholders of freedom of contract.
The Trades Union Congress first met in 1868, and appointed a Parliamentary committee from 1871, with the principal object of rewriting the law of Master and Servant, and the law on combinations. In 1871 it extracted a measure giving the Trade Unions legal status. At least the verdict in Hornby v. Close was over-ridden.
But another Act passed at the same time, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, reiterated the existing law on strikes, which, though, variably enforced, could be interpreted to make almost any action involved in a strike illegal. Under this Act seven Welsh women were imprisoned for saying ‘Bah’ to a blackleg. In 1873 the Chipping Norton justices imprisoned strikers’ wives!
Union membership increased very rapidly during these boom years, and the movement had now reached the agricultural labourers. So dissatisfied were the more radical Trade Union leaders with this legislation that they put up independent candidates at elections in 1873-74.
Several, Conservative M.P.s pledged themselves to help repeal the Liberals’ measures. Largely because of support from Cross, the Unions got almost all they wanted in three Acts of 1875. The first, the Employers and Workmen Act, replaced the Master and Servant Acts, making a contract of employment purely a matter for the civil law.
The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act checked the judges’ application to strikes of the law of conspiracy. The third measure repealed the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Peaceful picketing was now expressly permitted. ‘Collective bargaining, in short,’ wrote the Webbs, ‘with all its necessary accompaniments, was, after fifty years of legislative struggle, finally recognized by the law of the land.’
Dicey himself says of these Acts:
The compromise of 1875 represents in the main the combined influence of democracy and collectivism—an influence, however, which was still balanced or counteracted by ideas belonging to individualistic liberalism.
Certainly, it dealt with men in groups, and in a trade dispute waived the ordinary law of contract.
iii. Land Legislation:
It was for Ireland that the largest measures of land reform in this period were enacted. Gladstone had convinced himself by the time of the Election of 1868 that it was his ‘mission to pacify Ireland’. To do this he conceived it necessary, not only to disestablish the Irish Church, but also to change the Irish land law, to meet the grievances of the tenants.
His first Irish Land Act, of 1870, extended the ‘custom of Ulster’ over the whole country, giving the tenant compensation for improvements he made to his holding. It further aimed to compensate him for disturbance if unjustly evicted.
There was also a clause, as in the case of the Irish Church Disestablishment Act, under which tenants might be assisted by government grants to buy the land they leased. This Land Act had one serious flaw. For the sake of individualist theory and landlord interest, tenants were allowed to contract out of the provisions of the Act.
By the beginning of Gladstone’s second Ministry the problem of Irish land had changed. In so predominantly agricultural a country as Ireland the bad harvests of the late ‘seventies and the competition of cheap grain from abroad added up to ruin. The land could be profitable neither to tenant nor landlord.
The Land League had the whole island in rebellion. The second Irish Land Act, of 1881, claimed to guarantee to the tenant a fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale of his holding. It enforced its provisions by setting up a Land Commission of judges to determine rents. This was to abandon completely any notion of freedom of contract between landlord and tenant.
Not until the First World War was any form of rent control introduced in Britain, but by this Act it was imposed universally in Ireland. The Arrears Act of 1882 attempted to deal with the case of tenants who had simply not been able to pay rent during the years of depression.
Even the ‘revolutionary and socialistic’ second Land Act did not solve the problem. Endless court cases followed, since a ‘fair’ rent was not defined. The Act was attempting to make ‘dual ownership’ work, but, as usual, the Irish appeared to have altered their Question as soon as Parliament had answered it.
Only peasant proprietorship could meet the case now, and this could be achieved only if the State would provide the full cost of land purchase. The first measure to go so far was passed by the Conservatives in 1885, but the sum of money it made available was very small.
For Britain also, important reforms were made in the land law, but not of so startling a character. By the Agricultural Holdings Acts of 1875 and 1883 tenants in England and Wales gained much greater rights to compensation for improvements they made to their holdings.
In 1876 a general Commons Act reversed the legislative trend of many centuries, and established a presumption in favour of the public’s rights to commons as against prospective individual purchases and enclosers.
By the Settled Land Act of 1882 ‘entails’, arrangements controlling the descent of land over several generations, were much restricted, in the interest of the life tenants and a freer market in land. These statutes obviously have a mixed bearing on Dicey’s thesis.
iv. The Social Reforms of Disraeli’s Ministry:
Disraeli’s Ministry of 1874-80 has long enjoyed a reputation for promoting social legislation, and the Prime Minister has had much of the credit. Compared with the Liberals’, the Conservatives’ record in some fields is certainly impressive.
Of these the most important, the Trade Union legislation, owed most to the sympathy of Cross. Disraeli was totally lacking in the capacity to devise detailed schemes of legislation. The most that can be said for him in this connexion, which still gives him great importance, is that, particularly in speeches of 1872, he had committed his party in general terms to social legislation, and that he backed Cross in the Cabinet.
It has been usual to list two other Conservative measures as specially notable in this field, the Public Health Act of 1875 and the Factory Act of 1878. These, however, were scarcely more than consolidating statutes. The most interesting of the other Acts passed by Disraeli’s Ministry was the Artizans’ Dwellings Act of 1875.
It offered government loans to local authorities to enable them to buy up, perhaps compulsorily, property declared to be insanitary, so that it could be replaced by new houses. This embodies a glorious mixture of theories. The interference with property rights was justified solely by health considerations. The building of the new houses was firmly left to private enterprise.
v. Gladstonian Legislation:
Apart from Irish legislation, which was always treated as exceptional, and the Education Act, the record of Gladstone’s Ministries gives little support to Dicey. The main work of 1868-74, it would seem, was to rationalize administration and to bring nearer equality of opportunity for the middle classes, particularly the Nonconformists.
This latter was obviously among the motives of the Universities Tests Act, and of the Civil Service and army reforms. The Licensing Act also was most popular with Nonconformists. In 1870 and 1882 the first Acts were passed in the interests of a more distinctively middle-class minority, namely, to protect the property of married women.
Liberals in general and Gladstone most intensely, were conscious of the party’s debt to ‘the Celtic fringe’ and of the growth of nationalism in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Second Reform Act made Scotland even more of a Liberal preserve than before, and effectively emancipated Wales, enabling the Nonconformist majority to overwhelm the Anglican landlords.
The Third Reform Act made Southern Ireland solidly Parnellite, which for many purposes meant Liberal. Before 1885 the Liberals did not become committed to Welsh or Scottish Disestablishment or Irish Home Rule, but worked, in subtler ways, to please their non-English supporters. Gladstone appointed in 1870 the first Welsh-speaking Bishop of St. Asaph for centuries.
In 1881 his Government passed the first statute which treated Wales as distinct from England, characteristically the Welsh Sunday Closing Act. Throughout the second Ministry the Cabinet was occupied with proposals for giving limited self-government both to Scotland and Ireland. In 1885 the Liberals secured the establishment of a separate Scottish Office.
vi. Central and Local Government Finance:
In general, it became ever more remarkable how little the central government cost. In 1885 its gross income reached £ 88 million, the highest figure to date. The gross expenditure of the central government, however, was smaller in absolute terms than it had been during the last years of the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars.
The revenue constituted only about 8 per cent of the estimated national income, as against about 20 per cent in 1821 and about 13 per cent both in 1841 and 1861. The standard rate of income tax was even lower than in Palmerston’s day: it actually fell to 2d in the pound. Gladstone’s proposal to repeal it was not so fantastic, nor so out of tune with the times, as has been supposed, and it defence estimates that thwarted him in Cabinet, rather than the costs of ‘collectivism’.
Receipts of local authorities, on the other hand, nearly doubled between 1868 and 1885, to over £ 50,000,000, that is, they rose faster than national income. Birmingham under Chamberlain is the model municipality of the period, buying up its gas and water works, building a town hall, clearing slums.
In none of these endeavours was it actually a pioneer. But it led the way for many other towns to a generalized ‘civic gospel’ which might even rejoice in worthwhile expenditure. One aspect of this development was the growth of ‘municipal trading’. Not only did more authorities buy gas and water works, but under an Act of 1870 all corporations had the power to build tramways, though not to run them.
To some extent the central government felt it should leave ‘collectivism’ to the localities. ‘We are a Senate,’ said Lord Salisbury of Parliament, ‘not a vestry.’ As yet, though, the organization of local government was absurdly muddled; outside the towns the J.P.s still ran it in an old-fashioned manner; and the new Local Government Board, created in 1871, did little save replace the Poor Law Board.
Dicey was clearly right in attributing some of the legislation of this period to the spirit of ‘collectivism’ or ‘socialism’, if by these terms is meant ‘a willingness to breach freedom of contract’, ‘equalization of advantages’, ‘treating individuals as members of groups’, ‘sacrificing individual freedom for the purpose of conferring benefit upon the mass of the people by State intervention’.
The last of these definitions involves no new principles, but its extension to education was momentous. Equalization of advantages, also not new, was carried much further. The Trade Union Acts of 1875 were genuinely novel in treating individuals as members of groups and in breaching freedom of contract. The Irish Land Acts breached it further.
Dicey’s definitions, however, were very limited. They had to be if they were to apply to this period. This is neatly illustrated by Cross’ disarming remark in introducing his housing measure: ‘I take it as a starting-point that it is not the duty of the Government to provide any class of citizens with any of the necessaries of life.’
The Poor Law of course did just this, but was the product of an earlier age, which some in this period still wished to abolish, in the interests of individualism. But in high politics there was no idea before 1885, or for some years thereafter, of the Government’s setting up pension or insurance schemes or building houses for the poor. Yet in Germany health insurance was introduced in 1883 and accident insurance in 1884.
From 1868 to 1885 virtually no additional controls were imposed on hours and conditions of work. The State took over the management of no commercial enterprises. Even free elementary education did not come until 1891.
By Dicey’s own definitions, there were serious gaps in the legislation. The equalization of advantages did not extend to making it noticeably easier for workmen to rise in the social scale. The doctrines inspiring the Irish Land Acts were not allowed to affect law in Britain.
Other evidence can easily be adduced to the same effect. Chamberlain’s ‘unauthorized programme’ of 1885 was the culmination and extremity of Birmingham radicalism. He called it ‘socialism’, ‘the death-knell of the laissez-faire system’.
The proposals varied from speech to speech, but at most they amounted to an extension of popular government to the counties, free education, land for the labourers, artizans’ dwellings, the rights of the poor in commons and charitable endowments, a revision of taxation, including the consideration of the taxation of ground rents and the contribution of personal property to local rating; revision of the income tax with regard to precarious incomes: reform of the death duties, and graduated taxation.
What was meant by ‘land to the labourers’ was the end of primogeniture and entail, recovery of commons, easier enfranchisement of leaseholds, higher rating of large estates and the provision of allotments or smallholdings by compulsory purchase. With regard to artizans’ dwellings, Chamberlain did not intend more than that, local authorities should have greater power to take up loans to finance slum clearance. There was no question of government, central or local, building the new houses.
Again, T.H. Green is usually taken to be the leading light of the Idealist school of Oxford philosophy at this time, exalting the State and defining freedom so that it embraced ‘positive’ opportunities, of education for example, as well as ‘negative’ liberties.
He and his associates helped to inspire the sweeping social reforms of the Liberal Government of 1905-14. Yet Green’s specific legislative proposals corresponded almost exactly with what Gladstone’s first two Governments managed to achieve, most prominently the promotion of temperance and Irish land reform.
Henry George, an American thinker, author of Progress and Poverty (1879), is generally regarded as a notable contributor to working-class socialism, indeed as the man who virtually brought it to life when he made a speaking tour of Britain in 1881-2.
His programme, however, was confined to a modified form of land nationalization, namely, the levying of a tax on landowners which would take away all they drew in rents. It was claimed that the proceeds of this ‘single’ tax would suffice for all the needs of government.
This period, then, was a period of ‘collectivism’ or ‘socialism’ only in a very limited sense. Even in that sense, these attitudes were not dominant. The politics of the period, and its legislation, are best understood in other terms, those of the main contemporary debate.
The principal battle was between Nonconformity and the Church, which was still identified with the landed aristocracy and its privileges. Outside England nationalism heightened the feeling. The Liberals were the party of movement, and the Nonconformists were the only important policy-makers in the party, apart from Gladstone himself.
Many of them were narrow, negative, and destructive, as portrayed in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, largely written and published in their year of triumph, 1868. They were determined, he said, to disestablish and disendow the Irish Church, but it did not matter to them that thereby a significant endowment was lost forever to religious purposes.
They were obsessed by the fear that ‘the management of education should be taken out of their hands’, rather than concerned ‘to model education on sound ideas’. They chipped away at the land law which operated to maintain the power and wealth of the aristocracy, with no idea how a new elite might be found to replace them. They worried away at the trivial question of the legal prohibition on a man’s marrying his deceased wife’s sister.
They opposed increasing government expenditure on social services. The members of the National Education League, it is true, showed themselves more positive than many Nonconformists, in advocating a State system of education. But they too proved captious at the details of the religious settlement of the 1870 Act and petty over clause 25.
They helped to deny Gladstone the opportunity to improve Irish Universities, because it involved spending public money on a Church they hated. The relationship of Nonconformity with the party was complex. They made or unmade much of its policy; they had much to do with both its victories and defeats at elections; and their support was essential to its success. But the party was also essential to theirs.
The history of the Birmingham organizations is instructive. They could not prevail when they provoked a coalition between Gladstone, moderate Liberals and the Conservatives. They were forced to the conclusion that they had more power within the party than outside it. Ideas of establishing an independent Radical party were never pressed.
Rather, the Nonconformists sought to capture the Liberal party, and Gladstone, for themselves. Chamberlain’s purpose in 1885 seems to have been to drive the Whigs out of the party while retaining Gladstone and the moderate Liberals.
Probably this policy would have defeated its own objects, as Chamberlain’s other ‘unauthorized’ crusades did, over Education in the early ‘seventies and over Tariff Reform after 1903. He always overestimated his own, Birmingham’s and Nonconformity’s independent power.
But, so long as he did not threaten the unity of the party, it was unlikely to be defeated in an Election, and there would be little it could do which he and Nonconformity disliked.
It might appear, and Chamberlain often suggested, that the towns were fighting the countryside. It would be more accurate to say they were fighting over the countryside. An astonishingly high proportion of politicians’ time was spent on the problems of the continuously declining agricultural areas.
As well as destitute Irish peasants, they worried about starving Scottish crofters and English labourers wanting allotments. There was also the question of extending the county franchise and its corollary, the introduction of representative county government. The Farmers’ Alliance was an important ally of the Liberals in the Election of 1880, and Gladstone considered he had brought off a great political coup when he repealed the Malt Tax in the budget of the same year.
Parliament, of course, always found rural questions more congenial than urban. And, just as in the United States the urban poor voted for free homesteads in the West, so in Britain they voted for ‘three acres and a cow’. It should be remembered that most of them had rural fathers or grandfathers, and were familiar with rural problems.
Historians have often been tempted, with reference to this period as to others, to explain the limitations of government action by the nature of Parliamentary membership and of the electoral system. But it is difficult to do so for the age of Gladstone and Disraeli.
Gladstone found it politic and agreeable to surround himself with peers, but it almost seems that he did so in order to bewitch them into supporting proposals which they and sometimes he thoroughly disliked. The House of Lords gained only about 100 members, which means that it became relatively more exclusive.
With a few exceptions such as literary men, soldiers, sailors and one or two politicians, all newly-created peers were substantial owners of landed property. None of them were mere industrialists and businessmen. Yet as a body they acquiesced in such measures as the second Irish Land Act and the Redistribution Act of 1885.
As well as Whig tradition, rebellion in Ireland, agricultural depression and the persuasions of Gladstone, royal influence and the efforts of Conservative leaders help to account for this moderation. The electoral reforms of 1884-85 were the last measures to be agreed between the parties and the houses through royal mediation.
In this period, the attitude of mind instilled into the peerage in the ‘thirties prevailed, and ideas of, constitutional balance survived. It was the Lords’ habit to concede. Only after 1886 did the Upper Chamber become the creature of the Conservatives, and the Queen so partisan that she abandoned attempts to reconcile the Houses.
It is not clear that the mass town electorates enfranchised in 1867 exerted more influence than the un-enfranchised rural labourers. But in any case they did not demand what simplistic sociology would expect them to demand.
As the Webb’s lament, ‘the draft “Address to the Workmen of the United Kingdom” which the Parliamentary Committee [of the T.U.C.] submitted to the Congress of 1885 fell far short of Chamberlain’s “unauthorized programme”.’ In 1885 ‘all observers were agreed that the Trade Unions of Great Britain would furnish an impenetrable barrier against Socialistic projects.’
This hypothesis of Vincent’s helps to explain some of the workers’ attitudes:
That while the Industrial Revolution produced proletarians in some factory districts. . . , over the country in general the economic growth with which it was associated worked for quite a long time in favour of a wider distribution of small property and a diminution of the relative power of large property.
Certainly voting was not on what are usually regarded as class lines. ‘The voting of Anglican clergy, sextons, organists, and gravediggers was more unevenly split between the parties, by a long way, than was voting of the most reactionary or the most revolutionary secular occupation.’
The ‘classes’ that mattered were still the ‘Establishment’ and the rest. The working class, as far as can be discerned, did not generally demand collectivist measures, however defined. What it wanted was to change the social structure in favour of Nonconformists and of the overlapping group of small independent men, who, incidentally, were felt to need special assistance in rural areas.
In the light of past history, mere participation in government was deemed a high privilege; Gladstone’s appeals to the wisdom of the people were found enormously flattering. Maitland in 1888 was to condemn, in his Constitutional History of England, the kind of historical writing which spends pages on party struggles, but forgets institutions as soon as they are established and laws as soon as they are passed.
But the fault was particularly easy to condone in the period just before he wrote, for it was then that parties first became institutions and that their struggles mattered most, as democracy permeated politics.