“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 Moore refuses to use the historian’s technique of the moving staircase the reader often wanders in the void. I have an old-fashioned view that at the end of a historical work the reader should feel he understands some topic better than he did before. At the end of Moore’s book the reader is more likely to feel that he does not understand some topic which he thought he did. However, with history as with everything else, it takes all sorts to make a world, and Moore’s book is certainly one sort of history though it is not mine.
I will now try to set down what I have extracted rather than learned from Moore’s convoluted pages. We can start with what he alleges to be the accepted view. Before the Reform Act of 1832 the landowners dominated Parliament. The Act enfranchised the new industrial towns and thus transferred power to the bourgeois capitalists. I am surprised to be told that any serious historian holds this view, but Moore is entitled to his Aunt Sally. According to Moore, the aim of Lord Grey’s government was quite different. It was to destroy the excessive influence of government on parliament and to restore Parliament’s mythical independence.
The driving force behind this was Catholic Emancipation, which Wellington had forced on a reluctant country by the use of government influence. This seems to me indisputable and, I thought, undisputed. The prime achievement of the Reform Act was therefore to abolish the nomination boroughs, which provided the government with its tame majority. The act enfranchised new boroughs and also increased the representation of the counties. Its makers were not concerned only with the industrialists. They wished to strengthen the system by which various “interests,” and especially the landed interest, were represented. They distinguished sharply between legitimate and illegitimate interests. Legitimate interests were those of solid men, surrounded by loyal dependents. Illegitimate interests rested solely on money—hence the abolition of the nomination boroughs. By using the poll books Moore shows how parishes and other units tended to vote as a bloc. The political agents could calculate to a nicety how the votes would be cast simply by discovering the leaders of the community. These leaders were not always landowners. They might also be factory owners. But landowners came first in the calculations.
At any given moment the results of an election in any constituency could be ascertained beforehand. Hence contests were rarely necessary. The traditional leaders simply settled things between themselves. Occasionally there was a shift of pattern, as when a Conservative landowner died and was succeeded by a Whig heir. Then a new set of calculations had to be made. The great national issues of policy played little part in elections unless they upset the outlook of the leaders, as for instance Wellington’s behavior in 1829 upset many Tories. In theory members of Parliament arrived with open minds and then decided according to their convictions rather than because of promises they had made to their constituents. In reality their minds were already made up in favor of certain policies or against them. But this did not mean that they were rigidly committed to the support of any particular government.
The essential feature of the Reform Act was its emphasis on communities. Individual voters were hardly considered at all, and it was assumed that all adhered to firmly established blocs. The makers of the Reform Act wished to increase the representation of the rural communities and in particular to protect them from encroachments by the towns. The Reform Bill in its first shape laid down that no one who voted in a borough could also vote in the county even though his holding of property there entitled him to do so. At a later stage this provision was dropped. Moore lays great emphasis on this. Indeed he labors for many pages over the first Bill, its amendment, the second Bill, and the final retreat. But I was left in the dark why the government abandoned what was apparently an essential provision. Certainly the change opened an unexpected door for the future.
Though much of what Moore writes is convincing, even if not always novel, I am puzzled by one point, as I used to be puzzled by a similar approach that Namier developed in discussing the mid-eighteenth century. Both Moore and Namier write a great deal about the system. They rarely mention parties except as convenient tags. They refer to Whigs and Tories without attempting to define them. I once asked Namier why men persisted in calling themselves Whigs or Tories if these party names did not mean anything. He replied, “Habit, I suppose.” Presumably Moore would make the same reply. I do not believe it. Whig and Tory meant more than family traditions. They meant different ways of approaching politics. Why did Charles Fox oppose the wars against revolutionary France? Was this merely factious dislike of George III? In my opinion Fox believed in liberty. But I know this is an old-fashioned view. At any rate there is little about party creeds in Moore’s book. Perhaps old-style Toryism decayed after Catholic Emancipation. Perhaps this is why the Tories changed their name to Conservatives. But that name too surely meant something.
The system created by the Reform Act and to which Moore devotes most of his attention only lasted some fifteen or twenty years if it ever existed at all. Contested elections remained comparatively few. Election agents conscientiously studied the poll books. One new element was introduced by the Reform Act. This was the registration of voters. If you did not register, you could not vote. And of course many potential voters did not register unless prodded to it by the agents. The art was to register your own side and to challenge the registrations brought forward by the other side. This explains why the number of voters rarely corresponded with all or most of those entitled to a vote. If one side had a firm majority, it was not worth while registering everyone, and its rival hardly bothered to register at all. Since the object of the system was to represent communities rather than to ascertain national opinion, the erratic registration made no difference at all.
Great issues were decided in Parliament, not in the country. The most striking case of this is that of Sir Robert Peel and the Corn Laws. When the Conservatives won a great majority in 1841, it was assumed that Peel accepted the Corn Laws, with the protection of British agriculture from imports which this implied. Four years later he changed his mind. Moore provides a valuable discussion of how this change happened. Peel came to grasp that agriculture could be made prosperous by improved methods rather than by protection. He himself was an “improving” landlord. But of course this was poor consolation for the more traditional farmers, the very men who had helped Peel to power. Peel repealed the Corn Laws because he thought this was right, not because his followers wished him to do so. Shortly after their repeal his government was defeated in the House of Commons. Peel resigned. He believed that he could have won a majority if he had dissolved Parliament and appealed to the electors. But this would have derogated from “the sovereignty of Parliament.” In the eighteenth century, as American readers may recall, Great Britain went to war with the colonies for exactly the same reason: to maintain the sovereignty of Parliament.
Nevertheless this sovereignty was endangered after the middle of the century when men began to think that Parliament should represent parties rather than communities. The urban politicians began to encroach on the counties. Townspeople registered in county areas. Towns sprawled into the counties as suburbs. One election agent looked back nostalgically to the time when “the normal opinion of the general community of the qualified” was all that mattered. Instead there were interlopers and party politicians who had no relation with this general community of the qualified at all. The second Reform Act was in part an attempt to reverse the trend or at any rate to confine the town dwellers within enlarged urban constituencies. It was no good. Instead of legitimate interests, there was a revival of illegitimate influences. Money once more took the place of deference. In the end secret ballot had to rescue a system that had broken down.
I think this is what Moore wanted me to learn from his book though I would not count greatly on my ability at decipherment. In conclusion he points the contrast between the old system where men were expected to vote according to their traditional associations and the new system where it was assumed that they voted according to the exercise of their individual judgment. This latter assumption provoked the bewilderment expressed by Graham Wallas. Of course it is nonsense that men have ever voted as abstract individuals in this way. Moore seems to imply that when they ceased to follow their traditional loyalties they accepted instead the call of class. But this too is notoriously inaccurate. In Great Britain nearly half the members of the working class vote Conservative, and a smaller proportion of the middle class vote Labour.
However Moore is confident that the election agents who studied the poll books knew what they were doing. I wish he had explained one thing. He refers constantly to the communities, the congeries, the blocs, on which deference was based. But he never explains in any detail how they were composed. Does he mean tenants, economic dependents, social sycophants? Just how was it done? Moore, like his mid-century predecessors, takes the communities, congeries, blocs for granted. So there really is an unsolved mystery after all.
April 14, 1977