Changes in British Polity
In Britain, after the revolutions of the seventeenth century, the lower house (House of Commons) managed to introduce some important checks on the monarch’s political powers and acquired a crucial role in governance. For example, the crown’s finances, including its right to raise fresh taxes and spend on all state departments were controlled by the House of Commons through the mandatory annual budget. Similarly, all new laws had to be passed by parliament first and only then sent for royal assent.
The Monarch who was in practice compelled to appoint his ministers largely from those who had a following in the House of Commons. This significant convention opened the path to the future development of the modern ‘cabinet system’ in which the council of ministers is held collectively responsible to parliament and holds office as long as it can command a majority in the House of Commons.
The Whigs and the Tories were the principal political groupings in British parliament since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Tories were political conservatives and firmly geared towards the ruling Anglican aristocracy while the Whigs supported the organized body of religious dissent in England as well as Scotland and were more open to middle class demands for greater political equality and freedom.
Still, the electoral base of the Commons itself was extremely limited and the landed interest dominated both the houses. Some large centres like Westminster had several thousand voters while a few ghost towns like Old Sarum had as
few as seven. Narrow social base of parliament was actually defended by most ideologues of the eighteen century. Even reformers such as Edmund Burke had considerable contempt for the poor and feared any mass action instead of viewing it as a resource for reform efforts.
While it is apparent that representative institutions played a unique role in Britain both at the central and local levels in fixing taxes and regulating state expenditure as well as poor relief, it is also worth remembering that the dominance of the landed aristocracy at all levels. At the top, there was powerful group of some 350 families who owned huge landed estates, usually with titles of nobility.
Below this exclusive group of peers or nobles in Britain’s ruling elite, came the 4000 odd families constituting the gentry. They were again owners of substantial landed estates. A few amongst them had wealth comparable to those of the lords but their title was that of a knight or a baron and the offices they generally aspired to were those of the unpaid Justices of Peace or a seat in the House of Commons. Another feature of the British aristocracy was its fairly compact character.
Parliamentary checks on the executive’s right to impose new taxes, the sanctity of private property, the independent tradition of the English common law and the force of legal provisions such as Habeus Corpus along with a relatively free press guaranteed some important rights to the upper and middle classes in Britain as a time when similar liberties were unknown elsewhere. At the same time it is important to remember that these freedoms could be enjoyed in practice only by the wealthy who could take recourse to the lengthy procedures of law.
Demand for Reforms
Britain had tradition of liberal thought going back to the revolutionary decades when philosophers such as John Locke espoused a new theory of state bound to safeguard persons and property. The controversies generated centering on the freedom of press and protection against arbitrary arrest during 1760s and 1770s brought the issues of civic rights to the fore to British politics. The arrogance of George III, who ruled Britain from 1760 to 1820, the fight for liberal
rights led during his rule by leaders such as Fox and Wilkes, and the issues raised by the liberation of British colonies in America after 1776 further stoked the embers of such discontent.
The most important concern of the liberal agenda was of high taxation and waste in public expenditure. The parliament as well as the press were important fora through which the demand for the ‘economical reforms’ against these ills was raised. In 1779, influential sections of the gentry led by Wywill gave further support to such demands. Consequently, Conservative leaders such as Edmund Burke as well as liberals such as Pitt the Younger embarked upon a series of reforms which led to the abolition of crown patronage and the introduction of modern budgeting in Britain.
The Doctrine of ‘utilitarianism’, was coined by influential thinker Jeremy Bentham. According to this doctrine all laws and institutions of society were to be judged on the basis of their utility to the maximum number and not by their traditional sanctity or textual authority.
Others causes of public concern during this period were: the issues of public health and education, crime and morality, the treatment of prisoners, condition of the poor in sprawling industrial slums and the rights of dissenting religious groups. The demand for electoral and parliamentary reforms was also gaining momentum amongst sections of the middle class as well as artisans and working classes. The writings of radicals like Tom Paine and Major Cartwright acted as powerful catalysts in this respect.
The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 also had a positive impact on the radical movement in Britain. During this period, the British state not only used nationalist sentiment to buttress its authority but also unleashed unprecedented repression against the radicals as well as the nascent working class movement. This included the suspension of the Habeus Corpus in 1794, the introduction of anti-combination laws in 1799 as also a series of treason trials and bloody suppression of all radical organizations.
Meanwhile the working class movement was also maturing in Britain. The initial phase of industrialization was full of misery for the proletariat which worked and lived in extremely
hostile conditions for long hours on meager wages and with few rights or social security. It is hardly surprising that in the face of these brutal conditions, in several places, the workers responded by systematically breaking the machines which symbolized the new order to them. These early machine breakers have been nicknamed Luddites after their mythical leader Nedd Ludd. Socialists such as Robert Owen (1771-1858) further argued that all wealth is created through labour and therefore the laboring classes should claim the full fruit of their work. Owen himself emphasized workers’ cooperative and self help rather than a direct confrontation with the state.
Most brutal state action was visible in 1819 at Peterloo Park, in Manchester, where a crowd of 60,000 had gathered to listen to Orator Hunt on Democratic reforms. It was indiscri- minately fired at. Eleven persons lost their lives and more than four hundred were injured in this bloodbath. Peterloo has been remembered as the domestic Waterloo of the old guard which became panicky and passed the infamous Six Acts putting fresh restrictions on the press and political assemblies etc.
The passage of the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 was one of the most crucial events in Britain’s transition to modern politics as it ensured a prominent place to the rising middle classes in British polity and a stake in its stability. However, aim of the Act was to preserve the existing Constitution of Britain; not to change it. It tried to introduce some reforms in the election of the House of Commons. While providing for a redistribution of 143 seats of the lower House to accord with the new demographic pattern of industrial Britain, the Act also abolished a number of ‘rotten’ boroughs (parliamentary constituencies with few members) and extended the franchise marginally. The few electorates still consisted of less than six lakh men or a mere 3% of the total population of Britain then.
Thus, the Act ensured that the rule of property would continue in Britain. But, alongside the established aristocracy, it granted representation to the rising middle classes in the country’s parliamentary government. This went a long way towards forging a compromise between the bourgeoisie and the landed elite,
thus enabling a peaceful transition to a modern liberal polity in Britain.
First, the very manner of its passage enhanced the significance of the House of Commons in relation to the upper House and also set an important precedent of extra parliamentary pressure on legislators. Second, the reformist agenda within parliament became extremely strong after 1832 as more radicals entered parliament from the industrial centers which had gained representation.
The emergence of modern political parties geared for electoral competition and the mobilization of public opinion also had an important bearing on politics. Liberal polity matured. e.g. resolution of corn controversy.
The Corn Laws had been passed in 1815 to ensure good returns to the landed classes of Britain on their staple produce with the help of high tariffs on cheaper grain coming from overseas. This was hurting the interest of all who had to purchase grain from the market, including the workers and the middle classes. The industrialists also viewed them as a serious burden since they compelled them to pay higher subsistence wages to workers. In 1839, the middle classes, led by Richard Cobden, founded the Anti- Corn Law League and launched a nation-wide campaign for the abolition of the hated laws. The campaign was a remarkable illustration of a political movement employing modern means of propaganda for a well defined objective to be achieved through parliamentary legislation. The abolition of the laws was actually carried out, not by a liberal, but by a pro-landlord Tory government in 1846. This again established the spirit of accommodation.