Monday, 26 August 2013

Victorian Politics 1: The Mother of All Parliaments

If we were to observe the workings of the British state in the Nineteenth Century we would see much of Parliamentary culture has stayed the same. The machinery of state would be familiar, the House of Parliament, the monarch, the labyrinthine Civil Service. At the same time there are stark differences; for one thing the lack of a universal vote and a society that was trapped between anarcho capitalism on the one hand and a slavish devotion to the concept of an organic society on the other. In many respects the sweep of Victorian society can be epitomised by the idea 'a place for everyone, and everyone in their place'. A Lord remained a Lord, no matter how destitute he was, a chimney sweep remained a chimney sweep and God help you if you rebelled against that. Breeding was at the core of your worth, class was the yardstick by which you were judged, everything else being considered secondary.

The concept of a welfare state had yet to emerge. The poor, where they needed assistance were forced to rely on charity, private philanthropy or the work house. It was only after Victoria's death that concepts like old age pensions or national insurance began to emerge. Universal suffrage would not be truly achieved until 1926; all adult males gained the vote in 1918 in a move that might be cynically attributed to the state's fear of a force of trained men returning from war soon after the Russian Revolution, but women's voting rights lagged behind even with the extension granted to them by Asquith.

It's worth noting that during this period the House of Lords often held the primary hand, despite successive attempts to neuter it. Debates and legislation were often derailed by the Lords causing consternation, particularly as the chamber was considered to be biased in favour of the Conservative party.  Their power diminished slowly, but even at the end of the century they were far from the rubber stamp they are today. Successive acts of parliament were passed to undermine the Lords, but they still caused trouble for the Commons and provided many of the periods Prime Ministers. It wasn't until the Twentieth Century that the idea that to be a member of the Commons you must first renounce your title emerged and it was as late as the early 1960s that we had an aristocratic PM, the short lived premiership of Alec Douglas-Home and he renounced his title before taking up office. Compare that with the Prime Ministers of the Victorian period (Lord Palmerston and the Lord of Derby both created more than one government) and you can see how far things have come.

It's also curious to note that one effect of this limited democracy was to allow prime ministers to recover if they lost a general election. Both William Ewart Gladstone, for the Liberal Party, and Benjamin Disraeli, for the Conservatives, led successive governments through the century, often losing office to each other and returning later on. In many respects these two figures are the archetypes of their political creeds, their actions do much to encapsulate the ideals and ideas that formed their parties' political philosophies.

The main parties of the era were the Conservatives and Liberals, one traditionally supporting the aristocracy, the other representing what Marx would call the Borgeiousie or middle classes. At the time there was no way for the working classes to have their interests represented in Parliament, the vote was based on ownership of property, on income; restricting voting rights to all but the 'deserving'.  Successive Acts of Parliament did slowly broaden the suffrage, but always on the basis of owning property. Being permitted to vote simply for being an adult subject or citizen is less than a century old in Britain.

Constituencies were often based on ancient, out dated boundaries, leading to the creation of rotten boroughs. These were places with almost no population, but which still returned members of parliament often to the detriment of the newer cities. As a result the political map was out of date and in danger of being irrelevant because places like Manchester or Birmingham went unrepresented despite their status as drivers of the Industrial Revolution. In this respect the organ of Parliament was flawed and in need of updating for much of the 19th Century.

Its impossible to discuss the development of any political cause without discussing human nature; like it or not (hell, believe it or not) political theories are based on assumptions about human characteristics. For the Liberal party this meant a belief in the human as a rational, self interested individual who interacted with other individuals in such a way that it would benefit them. From this flowed the ideals of a small state, low taxation and the primacy of the individual. It's said that only Gladstone, of all British Prime Ministers, managed to have balanced budgets, such was the Liberal obsession with frugality and the small state. Perhaps it is ironic that the party would go onto form the basis of the welfare state in the early 20th Century with the introduction of both National Insurance and the state pension.

Conservatism, in contrast, still clung to the Hobbesian idea that man's life was 'nasty, brutish and short'; and in turn it inferred that most men were too. In contrast to the small government approach of their rivals they believed the state must be a Leviathan, capable of overwhelming all opposition because of the inherent flaws within the human soul, for want of a better term. It's an attitude that harks back to the Ancien Regime and the Divine Right of Kings; more traditionally Christian than the Liberal view, though both sides espoused Christianity fervently albeit for different reasons. The Conservatives, in contrast to the Liberal belief in interlocking human experiences believed that society was 'organic', a huge pyramid with the Queen at the top and the working classes at the base. This structure was natural and not to be questioned.

Other differences arose from the attitudes of the parties to the Empire. The Conservative Party were far more gung ho in their attitudes towards Britain's conquests, Disraeli being one of the most keen supporters of it, it was he who promoted the idea of Victoria as Empress of all India in 1876, two years after the East India Company was dissolved. This doesn't mean that they were overly interested in internationalism. Their credo was 'Britain first' and these minds, so keen on Empire, also supported protectionism as opposed to free trade; one of their opponents' issues. They were keen defenders of what has been referred to as 90/9/1 ratio, where 90% of the population is oppressed by 9% who in turn work for 1% - in this case the 1% being British governors and officials.

The Liberals had a more ambivalent relationship with Empire. They weren't keen on handing it back exactly but the idea of subject peoples does not seem to have sat easily with the central ideals of Liberalism. In particular they were vexed by the issue Ireland; Gladstone would make many attempts to introduce Irish Home Rule over the course of the century. Ultimately Home Rule would not be achieved until 1914, and then only in the south as the Ulster region resisted, fearing Catholic domination.

This then was the status quo of 19th Century politics in Great Britain. A middle and upper class dominated collection of men who didn't necessarily represent anywhere that was populated and who were more concerned with order and empire than with the health of their nation.

In part two we'll discuss the working classes and the new ideas that came up from the streets in the form of Unionism, Socialism, Communism and Anarchism.

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