Who Shot Aunt Sally?

The Politics of Deference: A Study of the Mid-Nineteenth Century English Political System

by David Cresap Moore
Barnes and Noble Books (a division of Harper and Row), 529 pp., $19.50

The study of politics is just now in a curiously unsatisfactory position.” This sentence by Graham Wallas is evidently a favorite of David Cresap Moore’s. He uses it a number of times. This is indeed a habit of his. Once he has found a good quotation he repeats it again and again until the reader is ready to scream with tedium. I was quite interested to learn that Lord Grey defined the “first and most anxious object” of his government in 1830 as “the relief of distress” or that Lord John Russell revealed in 1854 a vital “defect” of the Reform Act. But when I was told these things half a dozen times I began to duck for cover. At any rate we can adapt Graham Wallas’s sentence and say that to judge by this book the study of British politics in the mid-nineteenth century is in a very unsatisfactory position indeed. David Moore clearly thinks so. But his attempt to put things right threatens to make confusion worse confounded.

Moore is a very learned man. He is a master of the poll books in which the votes of the enfranchised were recorded between the first and second Reform Acts. He draws from these poll books many valuable conclusions. But his method of exposition is deplorable. He sets up an Aunt Sally of the accepted version which he never defines and then takes random shots at it without making clear what he has hit. This book is a detective story where the clues are displayed at random in such a way that the reader cannot grasp even at the end of the book who committed the murder. When Moore finds a nail he believes in hitting it on the head at least three times. Here is an example. He is writing of the attempts by Birmingham Liberals to penetrate the county constituencies:

When they challenged the Conservative hegemony in the counties these men were shaking the foundations of the mid-century political system. They were jeopardizing the roles and thus the existence of the traditional agencies of electoral recruitment. In consequence, they were jeopardizing the roles and thus the status of the traditional elites.

Moore thinks that what he says three times is true. Usually it is. But it would be true if he said it once and the reader would be more inclined to believe him the first time.

A more serious defect is that Moore uses the methods of sociology. In his repetitive way he analyzes how the midcentury political system worked, implying that there was a traditional system that everyone accepted. But in history, as opposed to sociology, things do not stand still. No sooner is a system established than it changes into something else. So it was with British politics. Moore therefore is forever lamenting that the system is not working properly and that men are trying to substitute a different one. This transformation, I suppose, is the central theme of the book. But because …

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