restricted access Popular Politics in Early Industrial Britain: Bolton 1825-1850 by Peter Taylor (review)
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84Victorian Review Peter Taylor. Popular Politics in Early Industrial Britain: Bolton 1825-1850. Keele: Ryburn P/Keele UP, 1995. 253. £30 (cloth). John Foster's Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution (1974) was probably die most influential book pubUshed on Victorian Britain during die 1970s. A Marxist study of Oldham and two other industrial towns, he explored die 'decline of a revolutionary class consciousness in die second quarter of die century'. Foster pinpointed a critical shift at mid-century whereby a process of liberalization laid die basis for die conformity and consensus poUtics of mid-Victorian Britain. Central to his diesis was die role of die labour aristocracy who introduced a new system of labour discipline in die workplace and abandoned die militant politics of die earlier generation in favor of class collaboration. Foster's account was by no means uncontested but most labour historians felt compelled to position themselves in relation to his work. More recendy, this kind of study has gone out of fashion. Garetii Stedman Jones' critique of Foster and his article 'Rethinking Chartism', both collected in Languages ofClass (1983), questioned die vaUdity of explanations for politics that rest on social structure and particularly on class. Peter Taylor's Popular Politics in Early Industrial Britain shows tiiat diere is still life in die debate about die roots of die mid-Victorian consensus inaugurated by Foster, although his is very much a revisionist account influenced by Stedman Jones' emphasis on die 'relative autonomy of the poUtical'. Taylor uses Bolton as a case study and comes up with an account that differs from Foster's work on Oldham. The Bolton evidence suggests that die roots of die midVictorian consensus can be found not in the late 1840s but in die 1830s. Although working-class politics did become militant for a short while (1838-42), what is more striking is die inter-class appeal of LiberaUsm during die early Victorian period. Reformers of both classes were united through an analysis that stressed political radier than economic causes of exploitation. The language of class failed to displace die older radical critique of Old Corruption. Politics were relatively consensual: thus it was not unusual for middle-class reformers to come out in support of Chartism. At die same time, diere were labour leaders who failed to support die People's Charter but who endorsed die Liberals and opposed die Com Laws. Bolton therefore provides us mainly with examples of popularradier than class politics. Taylor suggests tiiat the real struggles were not between die classes but rather widiin die middle class. From 1827 to 1836, die radical petitebourgeoisie was locked in conflict witii die local Tory-Anglican oligarchy particularly over control of die vestries and die local property assessment. Thereafter, die Liberal upper middle class adopted a higher Reviews85 profile, fighting the Tories on national and municipal issues, particularly incorporation (the Tories contested die legitimacy of the newly formed town council). However, the process of bourgeois hegemony was incomplete by 1850, contradicting Foster's focus on a decisive break. Tories and Liberals enjoyed only limited success in organizing die working class. Taylor seeks out examples of die factory paternaUsm that Patrick Joyce has found elsewhere in Lancashire (crucial in die evolution of popular Toryism) but the evidence is mixed. Taylor is at his best when discussing die poUtics of the middle class although there is extensive discussion of the labour process. In contrast to Foster, Taylor shows that proletarian poUtical activity was rarely militant and almost never anti-capitalist. Instead, working-class politics employed moral economy arguments and emphasized fairness. The main charge against employers was that they had forgotten their traditional duties towards labour, a position that as Taylor shows, left room for manoeuvre and compromise. It might be possible to riposte that all this merely reveals die peculiarities of Bolton which has never been seen as a major centre of radical militancy. However, Taylor's study complements Michael Winstanley's recent work on Oldham (die subject of Foster's book). Like Taylor, Winstanley has also found that die roots of die midVictorian consensus can be found not in changes in die workplace but in die poUtics of die 1830s. Both historians...