What, if any, were the party-political preferences of English plebeians in the nineteenth century? The question cannot be answered by reference to parliamentary elections, for outside fifteen or so potwalloper boroughs (abolished in 1832), working men were unable to vote until 1867, when many were enfranchised as householders. Then, after just a single election, the introduction of the Secret Ballot (1872) rendered it impossible to know how any individuals voted. Historians are broadly agreed that a significant minority (perhaps even a third) of urban working men supported the Tory Party in the late nineteenth century, not enough to enable it to claim the mantle of a working-class party, but enough for it to call itself a national, as distinct from an upper- or middle-class, party. Various reasons have been put forward for a growth of urban working-class toryism—deference on the one hand and its antithesis (aspiration) on the other, conviviality as an antidote to perceived Nonconformist respectability, superior organisation, imperialism, royalism, No-Popery, Unionism—but the assumption has almost always been that it was a post-1867 development. The main point of Jörg Neuheiser’s extremely scholarly study (first published in German in 2010) is to see popular toryism as a continuation of an indigenous conservatism that had its origins in the patriotic loyalism of the 1790s and which continued to flourish, largely under the radar of historians, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Hence Neuheiser’s preference for the classical term ‘plebeian’ to that of the more commonly employed ‘working-class’. Effectively, he is substituting a slightly elongated nineteenth century for ‘the long eighteenth century’ (1660–1832) that became fashionable in some quarters about thirty years ago. Back in the third quarter of the twentieth century, historians under the sway of E.P. Thompson had also seen the 1790s as seminal, but their emphasis had been on class consciousness and radical protest. Then, in reaction, a number of historians began to focus on ‘Church-and-King’ loyalism. They were right to do so descriptively, for there must have been hundreds of loyal citizens for every radical—though, as counter-terrorist officers know only too well, one rebel can have greater impact than a hundred law-abiding or even law-affirming citizens. It is usual now to see the loyalism and radicalism of the 1790s in essentially vertical terms and as feeding off each other, and the same insight informs the present highly nuanced study. Neuheiser constantly emphasises the heterogeneity of plebeian responses during 1815–67, and what he calls ‘the parallel existence of opposing identities’ (p. 145). So that, while he seeks to rescue popular toryism from the condescension of historians, he makes no attempt to claim that it was dominant. Again, he is sensitive to subtle shifts of emphasis, but his main story is one of continuity, in which dates that are often seen as major turning-points (1828–32, 1848–51, 1865–8) tend to be rubbed out. What results is so dense, discriminating and sophisticated an analysis that any brief summary cannot possibly do it justice. The two poles of the book are: first, a thorough knowledge of the urban grass roots based on newspapers and local records in towns such as Leeds, Liverpool, Bolton, Bradford and Huddersfield, as well as the City of Westminster and other parts of London; and, second, an astonishingly comprehensive and critical exposition of bibliographical reference. Thematically, the focus falls successively on constitutional and confessional thought, on street culture and on social structures and attitudes. To pick a few points at random, Neuheiser insists that David Cannadine is wrong to think that the Monarchy lost all popular support after 1820 and that a ‘tradition’ of Monarchism had therefore to be ‘reinvented’ in the later years of Queen Victoria. Even as the Caroline riots in London evinced hatred of George IV, there was much popular rejoicing in celebration of the Coronation, thus recalling the symbiotic relationship between loyalism and radical protest in the 1790s. While he accepts much of Mark Harrison’s work on crowds, Neuheiser would shift the emphasis away from protest and in favour of loyal affirmation. Likewise, in discussing the many ‘internal paradoxes and diverse rhetorical strands within the language of the factory reform movement’ in the 1830s and 1840s, he opines that the historian Robert Gray, while fully alive to its radical and liberal overtones, has failed to hear conservative elements that were ‘just as pronounced’ (p. 208). He accepts the significance of Oastler’s style of tory paternalism, but seeks to recover in addition an independent strain of plebeian toryism that has been lost from sight. A similar point is made regarding the Operative Conservative Societies, which proliferated in many towns from 1835 onwards. These associations have usually been seen as top-down affairs, a function of the parliamentary party’s efforts to improve its electoral organisation, but the emphasis here is on the complementary bottom-up elements. Their members often described themselves as ‘True Friends of Her Majesty’, even at a time when (within the elite) Victoria seemed aligned with the Liberal Party. The decline of these operative organisations in mid-century was due, it is argued, not to a falling off in plebeian tory sentiment but to a deteriorating organisational structure. This suggestion fits the overall pattern of the book, which sees the strengthening of local Tory organisation under Gorst in the later Victorian period not as something new, but as a renewal of developments that had simply fallen into desuetude during the Derby era. ‘It was not a coincidence … that the wave of newly founded Conservative Working Men’s Associations in the 1860s and 1870s was strongest in places where the first Operative Conservative Associations had prospered in the 1830s’ (p. 261). Similarly, in regard to religion, Neuheiser rejects the ‘long eighteenth century’ perspective, politely rebuking historians such as Linda Colley and Jonathan Clark for their view that the shouting match between Protestant and Catholic mobs at Pennenden Heath in October 1828 marked a ‘caesura’ or last gasp of working-class ultra-Protestantism. He likewise rejects the argument of John Wolffe and Denis Paz that the lower orders did not come to define their English national identity in terms of Protestantism until almost the end of the nineteenth century. His own view is that anti-Catholic sentiment went through a hesitant phase (‘a kind of up-and-down cycle’) in the first two decades of the century, partly because it was submerged by a powerful radical rhetoric in favour of religious liberty. However, events in Ireland and a loss of radical confidence led to the maturation of a fervent anti-Catholicism, as manifested in constituencies such as York in the 1826 election. In this perspective, Pennenden Heath marked a bubbling up rather than a last gasp. ‘Only a slight shift in social circumstances [had been] necessary in order to bring the Protestant identity of English nationalism back to the forefront so that it could be used to pull together a completely oppositional popular movement operating within the framework of conservative notions of society’ (p. 124). Neuheiser notes that Protestant Operative Associations were often formed in towns that did not have an Operative Conservative Association, implying that it is hard to differentiate between them in terms of function. In his view, plebeian Protestantism was a constant, and if it only acquired salience at certain junctures (most notably the London riots against Papal aggression of the early 1850s), that was due to the failure of local political elites to exploit it. Elsewhere Neuheiser speculates that the anti-Catholic marches and other aspects of street culture can be regarded as an amalgam of conservative racism and radical protest. Such practices ‘became a fixture within the political landscape of English cities’ (p. 177), and should not simply be reduced to carnivalism, rowdiness or manipulative propaganda from above. Here again the influence of the historiography of the 1790s is apparent, especially that of Frank O’Gorman on the Paine burnings and Mark Philp on vulgar conservatism. ‘Social groups from the lower classes do act with intention, even if historians tend to see their actions as irrational and reprehensible’ (p. 173). A similar perspective has recently been advanced in Ryan Hanley’s prize-winning article on how, under the influence of certain nationalist radicals, ‘the English working class came to understand itself as the white working class, almost from its very inception’ (see Ryan Hanley, ‘Slavery and the Birth of Working-class Racism in England, 1814–1833’, Trans. Roy. Hist. Soc., xxvi , pp. 103–23). I have some minor reservations. The final chapter, entitled ‘Beer and Britannia or Moral Reform: Paternalistic Populism, Self-improvement and Gender’ is less penetrating than the rest, and the section on family and gender especially reads rather like an afterthought. It also seems odd to write that ‘the message of an evangelical awakening … even made its way into the Anglican Church’ in the 1820s (italics added), given that the awakening had emerged almost a century earlier from within the bowels of the Establishment in the persons of Wesley and Whitefield, and that its most prominent recent advocates had been people such as Hannah More and members of the Clapham Sect such as William Wilberforce. I was also sorry that, in bibliographical notes which seem to encompass everything ever written on the period, there is no mention of Trygve Tholfsen’s Working Class Radicalism in Mid-Victorian England (1976). Tholfsen’s approach is ideological, where Neuheiser is more interested in language and praxis, but both writers are fascinated by the ambiguous relations of popular conservatism and popular radicalism, and both are aware how just ‘slight shifts in social circumstances’ (c.1850 in Tholfsen’s case) can have significantly disproportionate effect on popular political behaviour. At first I was also inclined to think that Neuheiser’s references—while undoubtedly an education in themselves—were much too thorough and extensive, too Germanic even, and that a more diluted exposition would have made the argument clearer, but I now think I was wrong. This is a powerful book that questions many orthodoxies, but it is not a revisionist polemic, the mode being constantly to touch the tiller rather than attempt any sudden tack. As such, there can be few books in which an author engages quite so thoroughly in conversation with his secondary sources, and to that end the discursive reference sections seem entirely appropriate. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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