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REVIEW ARTICLES POPULAR POLITICS IN A CHANGING WORLD Eugenio F. Biagini. Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform. Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. xii + 476. Margot C. Finn. After Chartism: Class and Nation in English Radical Politics, 1848-1874. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Richard Shannon. The Age of Disraeli, 1868-1881: the Rise of Tory Democracy. London: Longman, 1992. ix + 445. James Vernon. Politics and the People. A Study in English Political Culture 1815-1867. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. xviii + 429.£40.00. Victorian Britain witnessed massive socio-political change, necessarily so as both cause and consequence of a society with a mass electorate, universal compulsory primary education, and widespread urbanization and industrialization. Four recent books greatly illuminate this change. Together these books indicate the extent of widespread social dislocation, instability and fears. Deference and traditional social patterns, never as fixed as some thought, had ebbed, and the new and newly expanded cities and towns created new living environments in which the role and rule of the old world were far less significant. The political, religious, intellectual and educational authority of the Church of England was challenged. The old landowning political elite had its dominance of the electoral process challenged in 1832 and, thereafter, provided a steadily decreasing percentage of MPs. Mr. Merdle, the great 'popular financier on an extensive scale' in Dickens's Little Dorrit, was 'a new power in the country . . . able to buy up the whole Review Article163 House of Commons'. Middle-class interests increasingly set the legislative agenda. Biagini and Shannon essentially view the 'democratic' implications of these changes in a different light to Vernon. Biagini provides a scholarly account of die depth and reasons for Liberal popularity, locates it in an international context, comparing Liberalism with republicanism or socialism in continental Europe, and emphasizes die techniques of mass popularity that focused on Gladstone's charismatic leadership. Shannon studies a different context of political popularity. Disraeli is revealed as an opportunistic and skillful political tactician who was also an acute thinker, able to create a political culture and focus of popular support around the themes of national identity and pride and social cohesion, an alternative to Liberal moral certainty. Under Disraeli, legislation on factories (1874), public health, artisans' dwellings, and pure food and drugs (1875) systematized and extended the regulation of important aspects of public health and social welfare. Tory paternalism was seen in the Factory Act (1874), which limited work hours for women and children in die textile industry. The Prison Act (1877) established state control. These, however, were less important for Disraeli than his active foreign policy, which involved the purchase of shares in die Suez Canal (1875), die creation of die title of Empress of India (1876) die acquisition of Cyprus (1878), and wars widi the Afghans and Zulus. Shannon's is an account of adaptability: alongside Disraeli's attempt to preserve aristocratic politics, a more populist and popular Conservatism was emerging. Shannon argues that 'too much of die old territorial ballast was left in the body of the party' (394), but die potential of Conservative activism was to be shown by the Primrose League, a popular Conservative movement launched in 1883, that enjoyed much support in die 1880s and 1890s for its defence of Crown, social system and empire. A very different focus emerges from Vernon's book. This important work offers a new reading of nineteendi-century politics. In place of a triumphalist focus on the extention of the franchise, Dr. Vernon emphasizes die vitality of popular politics, delineates its characteristics using press, oral and visual sources, stresses die strength and multifaceted character of popular libertarian politics, and explains how this popular constitutionalism was affected by the rise of a more democratic constitution, and limited by the invention of party which disciplined popular politics. Vernon is always interesting, but is particularly so when recovering popular political views. He emphasizes the way in which die tropes of popular constitutionalism, with its Utopian emphasis on a just people struggling to restore a lost golden age, struck a strong and immensely popular (and populist) chord. Thus it is possible to abandon the notion of working-class radicalism and instead...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 162-165
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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