Saturday, 22 July 2017

How did the government react to demands for political reform?





Demands for parliamentary reform began in the final years of the war.  In 1812, Major John Cartwright, a radical leader who had campaigned for parliamentary reform since the 1760s, began the first of three tours of the Midlands and North.  He wanted working- and middle-classes to work together to obtain parliamentary reform.  The result was the creation of Hampden Clubs[1] especially in the northern manufacturing districts hit by the slump in trade.  These were working-class in composition and moved away from the household or taxpayer suffrages demanded by middle-class reformers towards demands for manhood suffrage.  The Political Unions, organised by northern workingmen replaced the Hampden Clubs (they were finally banned in 1817) and helped organise over 2,000 petitions for parliamentary reform between 1817 and 1818. 


These two radical organisations raised a series of problems that were to dog radical activity until the 1850s. Was parliamentary reform best achieved by class collaboration (middle and working-classes working together) or by the working-class acting alone?  Should parliamentary reform be approached solely through demands for manhood suffrage (one man, one vote) or through achieving limited suffrage (household or taxpayer suffrage) and then moving to manhood suffrage (votes for adult males)?  The problem with this approach and class collaboration was that once the middle-classes had achieved limited suffrage, their enthusiasm for further reform waned.  This can be seen in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act. What tactics should radicals use to achieve parliamentary reform?  Should radicals rely on persuasion (the use of petitions and meetings) to achieve their aims or should they adopt a more revolutionary approach using force if the government refused to act on their demands?  


It is easy to write off the revolutionaries as a failed minority and in retrospect, their activities can be seen as laughably naïve and doomed to inevitable failure.  However, there was a revolutionary underground in Britain that can be traced back to the late 1790s and it was prepared to confront the authorities with armed force.  The Luddite attacks between 1812 and 1815 had a revolutionary dimension and the Blanketeers projected march from Manchester to London to present a petition implied the use of force.  The fiasco of the Cato Street Conspiracy needs to be seen in the context of the actions of Glasgow weavers who were defeated by troops at the battle of Bonnymuir or the West Riding woollen workers who seized weapons and tried to take Huddersfield in April 1820.  The problem that radical faced was that attempts at revolution increased support for firm government action when public order and property were threatened. 


The transition to a peacetime economy between 1815 and 1821 severely strained social and economic relationships.  Falling demand for manufactured goods, especially textiles and the flooding of the labour market with demobilised soldiers and sailors increased unemployment.  In the climate of ‘distress’, the government found itself under pressure from two quarters.  It faced protest that took traditional forms, like the Fenland riots of 1816 that aimed at restoring ‘just’ wages and prices.  There were also growing demands for political reform from the radical platform of Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt[2] and William Cobbett. Hunt built on the foundations created by the Hampden Clubs and mobilised people around demands for manhood suffrage, annual parliaments and the secret ballot.


Disturbances in 1815 and 1816 convinced Lord Sidmouth[3] that the government faced a revolutionary challenge to its authority.  The disorder at the Spa Field meetings calling for parliamentary reform in London in November and December 1816 appeared to confirm his fears. The attack on the Prince Regent’s coach in late January 1817 was followed later in the year by the march of the Blanketeers,[4] unemployed workers from Lancashire and Cheshire. These events and Pentrich rising[5] in Derbyshire shifted middle-class public opinion, previously sympathetic to the radical demands behind the government that was committed to preserving public order and defending property. In 1817, Habeas Corpus[6] was suspended and restrictions placed on meetings for twelve months (the Seditious Meetings Act).  The opposition Whigs were as worried by events as the government and became more cautious in their approach to parliamentary reform. 


Prompt action by the government only partly explains the decline in radical activities.  Economic conditions eased during 1817 and 1818 and this led to a decline in radical activity.  William Cobbett maintained that it was difficult to ‘agitate a fellow with a full stomach’.  Habeas Corpus was revived early in 1818 and the Seditious Meetings Act lapsed in July that year. However, economic distress returned in 1819 and radicalism revived in 1819 reaching its peak in the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in August 1819.[7]  There was a wave of public support for the radical cause and even The Times attacked the actions of the Manchester magistrates.  The problem that faced Hunt and the radical leadership was how to translate this support into practical actions.  It was clear that the government did not intend to give in to radical demands for parliamentary reform.  Liverpool, though Sidmouth had advised the Manchester magistrates against taking any precipitous action, had little choice but to support their actions.  Repression was re-imposed in the ‘Six Acts’ restricting meetings and the press, allowing magistrates to seize weapons, and preventing drilling.  They gave the government powers to deal harshly with even slight symptoms of discontent.  The radical agitation faltered despite the intense unpopularity of the government. 


The Cato Street conspiracy, when a group led by the clearly unstable Arthur Thistlewood planned to assassinate the Cabinet in February 1820, had little impact on public opinion though Liverpool was able to make political capital out of it during the election campaign caused by the sudden death of George III the previous month.  More damaging for Liverpool was the unsuccessful attempt by the new king, George IV to divorce his wife Queen Caroline and the successful attempt to prevent her attending his coronation in 1821 (she was locked out of Westminster Abbey).  George IV became king on the death of his father in January 1820.  He had long lived apart from him wife whose behaviour had been a cause of concern since the mid-1800s.  In June 1820, she returned from Italy to claim her rights as queen, to which George IV was totally opposed.  The government was instructed to dissolve the marriage.  It was forced to abandon its attempts to deprive Caroline of her title and dissolve the marriage in November 1820 after widespread popular and Whig opposition.  She died suddenly in August 1821, three weeks after the coronation and the London crowds forced the military to take her coffin through the City on its way to Harwich and to her family home in Brunswick. The Queen Caroline affair made the government very unpopular and the Queen’s cause provided a rallying point for radical campaigners.


Once again, as the economy revived in the early 1820s, radicalism declined.  The public’s energies were diverted into other forms of radical action.  Some workingmen turned to religion and there were Methodist revivals in Lancashire and Cumberland.  Others campaigned against the Combination Acts.  Successful parliamentary pressure led to the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824.  A downturn in the economy led to a rapid increase in trade union activity with extensive strikes, including some violence in the winter of 1824-1825. Employers lobbied for the reintroduction of the Combination Acts and in 1825 new legislation was introduced that allowed unions to negotiate over wages and conditions but did not confer the right to strike.  This effectively limited trade unions to peaceful collective bargaining with employers over wages and hours.  Trade unionists who went beyond this narrow definition of legal activity for trade unions could be prosecuted for criminal conspiracy.


Two linked issues arise from the revival of radicalism after 1815: how revolutionary was it and how justifiable was the response of the government? The radical platform posed a significant threat in that it created a potential for revolution.  This was a very real fear for central and local authorities that feared a repeat of events in France thirty years earlier.   However, radicals who sought revolutionary solutions were never a leading force in the movement.  Far more importantly, the radical platform’s grievances challenged the whole direction of social development created by the industrial revolution.  There was a growing belief that working-class grievances like discriminatory taxation, the Corn Laws, the game laws, and the legal ban on trade unions could only be resolved by a parliament elected on democratic principles. Unrest and agitation, though they appeared to contemporaries to be part of a nation-wide movement, are best seen in terms of responses to local conditions. In this situation, the local magistrates rather than central government were at the forefront of reaction. The Home Office was prepared to provide advice to local authorities and increasingly its officials became convinced that there was a general desire to begin a national revolution.  The problem that Liverpool faced was that he had to rely on information provided by magistrates who reached national conclusions on their basis of their own local experiences, army officers and spies who often exaggerated the nature of the radical threat for financial gain. 


Liverpool was therefore responding to a perceived threat to public order based on inaccurate and, on occasions, deceptive information.  As a result, the government often overreacted to events as a result and because it did not wish to run any risk of revolution ever happening in Britain.  In fact, Liverpool’s approach was relatively moderate.  When legislation was passed, it was either, like the Seditious Meetings Acts given a time limit or as the Six Acts demonstrated largely ineffective in practice.  These radical demands challenged the political and economic power of the landed classes and industrialists and it was this that added a potentially revolutionary dimension of the radical challenge. The reaction of the government though criticised by contemporaries and historians as dictatorial emphasised the need for public order and tried--not always successfully--to distinguish between genuine social grievances and deliberately disruptive radical activity.



[1] Hampden Clubs were first set up in 1812 by Major Cartwright to promote the cause of parliamentary reform.  They were named after Sir John Hampden who fought and died for the cause of Parliament in the Civil Wars in the mid-seventeenth century. They were banned by the government in 1817.
[2] Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (1773-1835) advocated annual parliaments and universal suffrage (one man, one vote).  He was the major leader of the radical movement in the 1810s.
[3] Henry Addington 1st Viscount Sidmouth (1757-1844) was an able administrator but a mediocre Prime Minister between 1801 and 1804.  He was an effective Home Secretary between 1812 and 1822
[4] March of the Blanketeers.  Manchester textile workers decided to march to London to petition the Prince Regent for parliamentary reform.  They each carried a blanket but few got beyond Stockport and only one reached London.
[5] The Pentrich Rising was led by Jeremiah Brandreth with little support and was easily put down.
[6] Habeas Corpus.  A writ requiring that someone who has been arrested and imprisoned should be examined by the courts to see whether there are sufficient grounds for continued imprisonment.  It is an effective means of protecting the individual against arbitrary arrest and detention.
[7] Peterloo Massacre.  On 16 August 1819, a peaceful meeting was held at St Peter’s Field, Manchester.  Local magistrates decided to arrest Hunt who was one of the speakers.  The Yeomanry were given this task, in the ensuing chaos, large numbers of people were injured, and at least eleven killed.

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