Politics in Great Britain at this time can be summed up as a grand--and unresolved--debate between classical liberalism, represented by William Gladstone, and interventionist conservatism, represented by Benjamin Disraeli. (Note: These political terms have essentially no resemblance to their modern usage, so as we trace the story of England at this time, try to forget the modern definitions of "liberal" and "conservative".)

Though Gladstone began his career as a Tory (the nickname for members of the Conservative Party), he became the leader of the Liberal Party and a champion of classical liberalism, the economic and political philosophy that opposed state intervention in economic affairs, supported free trade, competition, and individual initiative as the key to success. This philosophy was, above all, an attack on privilege--on the aristocrats, on the Anglican Church. Liberals believed that talent alone should dictate a man's advancement in the world. Under Gladstone, Britain abolished tariffs, cut defense spending, lowered taxes, kept budgets balanced, reformed the civil service into a merit-based promotion system, and made elementary education available to and mandatory for everyone.

While Gladstone advanced a liberal version of England's future, Disraeli advocated a different view, known as conservatism. Supported by an odd coalition of great privilege and the agrarian poor, the Conservative Party pushed for state intervention in the economy on behalf of both the disadvantaged and the landed elite. Both supported tariffs because they helped British agriculture and British domestic industries. While Disraeli was prime minister, the government passed through the following changes:

1. Factory Act of 1875, setting a maximum of a fifty-six hour workweek.
2. Public Health Act, establishing a sanitary code.
3. Artisans Dwelling Act, defining minimum housing standards.
4. Trade Union Act, permitting picketing and other peaceful labor tactics.

As power in parliament switched back and forth, depending upon who was able to craft the more effective voter coalition, England remained insulated from the revolutions and popular uprisings that plagued Europe from 1830-1848, and took considerable pride in that fact. Victorian England was on the road to great strength, maintained by its unparalleled peace at home.


The question remains, however: Why was there no revolutionary uprising in Great Britain? After all, Britain was ruled by an aristocratic or bourgeois elite that excluded democrats, radicals, and workers; further, the government was not fully representative, since in 1832, only 20 percent of the population could fulfill the property qualifications to vote. As explained by historian Mark Kishlansky, England experienced no revolution because its ruling elite, of common background and education, was able to change and adapt to the shifting needs and opinions of modern society.

The Liberals represented the economic and political wishes of the British bourgeoisie--industrial (to some extent), merchant, and professional--and the Conservatives represented the conservative elements of society. Granted, everyone else in society was excluded from voting and, thus, direct representation; however, in many cases, both parties responded to the needs of workers and the poor, most notably the Conservatives. The essential difference between the ruling elites in Britain and those on the Continent was their common background and common philosophy. In Prussia and France, nobles were dedicated to the preservation of their privilege by birthright alone; in England, nobles were dedicated to the preservation of the rights of Englishmen. Granted, to them, "Englishmen" meant fellow nobles and the wealthy; however, the different perspective in terms of rights rather than privilege was more conducive to allowing the English aristocrats to understand liberal demands in the 1840s and respond to them with political and gradual change.

Popular pages: Europe (1848-1871)