We are used to thinking about the nineteenth century or the Victorian period. But those boundaries are artificial. The world wasn’t very different in 1900 or 1901 than it had been before. The idea of the long nineteenth century isn’t very helpful either. Politically, the UK doesn’t fit neatly into these categories. This essay will argue for the period approximately 1841-1923 as the defining period of pre-twentieth century British politics.
When Walpole became Prime Minister in 1721 power had shifted to parliament. For the first time, the King’s first minister was beholden to his majority in the Commons as well as to his monarch. This constitutional shift was continued with the 1832 Reform Act. After the Reform Act, William IV dismissed his Prime Minister, Earl Grey, and appointed a new one, Robert Peel. This had been standard practice. But Peel lost the election and William IV had to put up with the fact he could no longer decide who would be Prime Minister. This represents the end of the period that started in 1721. Elections were the new game in town.
Peel became Prime Minister again in 1841. By now he had delivered his famous Tamworth Manifesto, the basis of the modern Conservative party, and won a general election. This is the start of the political party system that would operate until 1923, when Labour replaced the Liberals. In the 1841 Parliament Peel re-introduced the income tax (still with us) and repealed the Corn Laws. This turned Britain into a Free Trade nation. The Reform Act was the end of the process begun with Walpole. Peel started the period of economic freedom that now defined Britain.
Free Trade and laissez faire was a continual obsessions of 1841-1923. Gladstonian policy was founded on it. The Conservatives tended to lose elections when they didn’t advocate Free Trade. Whatever else this period was, it was a period of Free Trade. This cuts through distinctions of Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian. What links Peel and Balfour and Baldwin is that their party could agree on Free Trade but also couldn’t win elections without it.
Liberalism was starting to define itself in the 1820s and 1830s, and in the 1850s it became a political force. After the Corn Laws, the Conservative party split and the Peelites went over to the Whigs. This group gradually became the Liberals. They would be a major political force until 1918. Throughout this period they wanted to extend the franchise, and this was done in 1867, 1884, 1918. The latter extending the vote to many women.
Reform in 1823 was defensive. It was about preserving the order of things. The acts of 1867, 1884, 1918 brought much more significant change. They came with the rise of social policy, higher levels of economic intervention, and the beginnings of the end of the empire. Discussion then turned to dominion status for countries in the empire, under the Balfour declaration of 1926. Imperial territory peaked in 1921/22.
The era is also defined by Gladstonian economic policy, essential to the expansion of capitalism. This was an era of invention and infrastructure: trains, telegraphs, and daguerreotypes. And the list of inventions that were produced during the 1880-1918 period is enormous. Bicycles, steam turbines, zinc-carbon batteries, ballpoint pens, diesel engines, wireless radio, plastic, vacuum cleaners, aeroplanes, tanks. And there are even more wonders when we look at scientific breakthroughs in the same period. These were the years when we discovered viruses, x-rays, radioactivity, electrons, Brownian motion, special relativity. Throughout the 1841-1923 period the world got faster, smaller, more technical.
When Gladstone came back in 1880 he was a different Prime Minister. It was now a post-Darwin world. Meritocracy was the watch word. The civil service was reformed. You could no longer buy your way into the army. Gladstone also reformed the judiciary. By the end of the century there was legislation about housing standards, factory inspections, and education. The 1902 Conservative government legislated for primary schools. After 1906, the Liberals brought in pensions and the origins of the welfare state. Constitutional reform continued with the loss of the House of Lords veto in 1911.
And from 1885 onwards, there was the spectre of Home Rule. When Gladstone first proposed it he lost an election. By 1923, Ulster was being partitioned from the rest of Ireland. This was an argument about self-determination, which starts to show us why a new period begins in 1923. Most importantly, is the first Labour government of 1923. This was what everyone had worried about since Robert Peel. Socialism in Downing Street. We started our period with the first Conservative government, and it ought to end with the first Labour government.
Books no longer dominated popular culture as they had before. There is no Dickens or Conan Doyle after the 1841-1923 period. Non-written communication becomes increasingly important as a political and business skill. From now on monarchs and Prime Ministers would broadcast on the radio. This is also the time when television started to come in. People were going to the movies. It was not just the rise of socialism; it was also the rise of screens and stereos.
What makes this bracket of time a refreshing way of breaking up the centuries is that it is not about a monarch (what is the major difference between Victoria and George V?) or one piece of legislation. It’s about the basic dynamic of Conservative-Liberal and then Conservative-Labour. This reflects and creates changes in the constitution, technology, ideas, and the economy. We might quibble about starting in 1832 rather than 1841, but the idea that there was a nineteenth century or a Victorian era seems misguided. The UK changed after the First World War. We might pick 1918 as the end point, or 1916, the year of the Easter Rising and the fall of the last Liberal government. But after 1923 politics has moved on from the Liberal debate, empire was at and then past its peak, and Labour was the new political force. Liberals dominated the 1841-1923 period. Conservatives dominated the post-1923 period, at least until 1997.
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