Part-7 NATIONALISM AND BRITISH DEMOCRATIC POLITICS

Emergence of Modern state

Britain was among the first countries to emerge as a nation-state in the early modern period. Under the Tudors and Hanoverian dynasty, it acquired political stability (cessation  of wars amongst feudal factions, a strong defence against external invasions and  pride  regarding its ‘mixed constitution’). The relative decline of widespread political violence, whether in the form of factional wars within the ruling classes, large scale popular disturbances, or brutal state suppression  (or  even  organized  crime)  in  the

century after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was a significant feature of the British  polity. This was accompanied by the growth of the sovereign authority of the ‘King in Parliament’ and the subjugation of church, lords and autonomous communities within Britain. The growth of a nationalist identity amongst its citizens (outside Ireland) was of great significance.

Various measures were also required to establish a ‘free market’ (another major concern  of an emerging modern state). It began with a series of abolitions from the closing years of eighteenth century, of price and wage controls,   of state-supported monopolies, and of subsidies and restrictions on business. It  also  demanded the unification of the internal market and the tariff reforms of 1786 and 1820s culminating in  the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846. The New Poor Law of 1834 played a critical role in establishing a free labour by making conditions for local welfare for the poor very strict.

The beginning of a public education system was made with the Act of 1833 when grants-in- aid and school inspection were also started. But disputes between religious groups slowed the pace of change on this major issue. Similarly, a public health policy evolved after Chadwick’s energetic but controversial efforts at enforcing sanitation schemes through the Public Health Board established in 1848. The development of public utilities were assigned to local bodies by the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 but it gathered momentum only from the late nineteenth century when ‘gas and water socialism’ was championed by  leaders  like Chamberlain.

Early industrial state was slow to grant even basic workers’ rights to form unions or to strike peacefully. The Anti-Combination Act against unionization was passed in 1799 and early labour movements were suppressed violently. The existing system of poor relief was also considered wasteful and scaled down by the New Poor Law of 1834. The growing misery of the  proletariat and pressures from humanitarian groups  and the labour movement itself forced the state  to take limited ameliorative measures subsequently. The anti-combination laws were repealed in 1834. The first Factory Act was passed in 1833 only to provide  some  protection  to  children  under  the

 

pressure of the Evangelicals (one of the reforming religious groups). Further reforms came in small doses, e.g. Mines Act (1842), Ten hours working day (1847), legalization of union (1870’s) and of peaceful  picketing  (1876).

Apart from labour, other social groups which demanded reforms were religious minorities and women. Despite the advocacy of women’s rights by Mary Wollstonecraft and some liberals like John Stuart Mill, female franchise was conceded only  after  the  First  World War.

 

Working class and Chartist  movement

There were radical movements led jointly by artisans and some middle class activists at the turn of the nineteenth century. The British state adopted repressive measures against them which culminated in the Peterloo massacre of 1819. The first attempts to link all laboring men together in general trade union and also to forge unity for a General Strike acquired momentum during the 1820s and 30s. In 1834, the Grand National confederation of Trade Unions or the GNCTU was formed to give concrete shape to a broad working class movement to demand better wages and working conditions, including a ten hour working day. Some of the members also looked forward to an Owenite millennium in which workers would enjoy the full product of their labour by organizing industries under their own cooperatives.

State also swung into action and widespread arrests were ordered against all unions. For example, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Workers was disbanded and six of its organizers convicted for seven years transportation simply on the ground of ‘taking secret oaths’. These became famous as the Tolpuddle martyrs and only after a prolonged agitation by workers they were repatriated in 1839. Workers  were  badly  hit all over Britain. Some working class leaders were beginning to question  the  Owenite  stress on self help and cooperatives and demanding political  rights  for  workers instead.

In 1836, the London Working Men’s Association was founded by men like Lovett to demand universal suffrage. Radicals like William Morris and Smith O’ Brien also called for a new awakening  amongst  workers.

The Chartist Movement was the most significant  outcome  of  the  growing  focus  on

 

political power which the British workers evinced in 1830s and 40s. It derives its name from the six point Charter, it presented before the parliament demanding universal manhood suffrage, secret ballot, annual parliaments, equal electoral districts, abolition of property qualification for the members of House of Commons and payment of regular salaries to them. In 1839, the first Chartist Convention met in London but despite the collection of a million signatures for its petition it was rejected outright by the parliament.

Economic recovery of the mid forties again turned the attention of most workers away from radical politics and towards wage improvement through trade union activity. The last flicker of Chartism glew again in 1848-which was the year of revolutions all over Europe. A demonstration of five lakh Chartists was called at Kennington commons in the heart of London to present a mammoth petition of six million signatures  to the  parliament.

Overall, in Britain, Liberal rather than revolutionary politics remained the preponderant concern of workers. The growth of the Labour Party committed to parliamentary politics at the turn of the present century further ensured this pattern. Term ‘labour aristocracy’ is used to refer to men whose specialized skills in the expanding industrial economy coupled with the growing benefits of Britain’s large empire enabled them    to maintain a comfortable standard of living. As   a result, the ‘labour aristocracy’ put faith in ‘improvement’ within the Capitalist order rather than  its  overthrow.

Reform Act of 1867 which granted voting right for urban workers was a product not of a radical mass movement but of party politics. The urban working class was further accommodated within the liberal polity with further enactments to recognize their right to form trade unions (1870)  and  to  go  on  strike (1876).

The principal factors which led to such a political resolution in the first industrial nation were: the unity displayed by its upper classes vis-à-vis workers, the economic benefits of the expanding British Empire, the relative weakness of revolutionary politics in nineteenth century Britain and the subsequent growth of welfare legislation  in  the country