My article ‘Radicals, Tories or monomaniacs?: The Birmingham currency reformers in the House of Commons, 1832-67’ has just been published in the latest issue of Parliamentary History, 31 (2012), pp. 354-77. The article grew out of research for the 1832-68 project and my interest in the popular economic debates of the period. The article shows how the distinctive monetary views of Thomas Attwood and other Birmingham MPs meant that they did not fit into contemporary political categories. The article sheds light on the nature of party labels in the early and mid-Victorian period, the development of British monetary policy and the interaction between national political identities and local political cultures.
Benjamin Disraeli described Thomas Attwood as a ‘provincial banker labouring under a financial monomania’. The leader of the Birmingham Political Union, Attwood’s Warwickshire accent and support for a paper currency were widely derided at Westminster. However, the themes of Attwood’s brief parliamentary career were shared by the other men who represented Birmingham in the early and mid-Victorian period. None of these MPs were good party men and have been variously categorised by historians. With the exception of Richard Spooner, who was a strong tory on religious and political matters, the currency men are best described as popular radicals. They consistently championed radical political reform and were among the few parliamentary supporters of the ‘People’s Charter’. They opposed the new poor law and endorsed factory regulation, a progressive income tax, and religious liberty. Although hostile to the corn laws they believed that free trade without currency reform would depress prices, wages and employment. George Muntz’s death in 1857 and his replacement by John Bright marked a watershed and the end of the influence of the ‘Birmingham school’. Bright appropriated Birmingham’s radical tradition as he used the town as a base for his campaign for parliamentary reform. He emphasised Birmingham’s contribution to the passing of the 1832 Reform Act but ignored the currency reformers’ views on other matters, which had often been at loggerheads with the ‘Manchester school’ and economic liberalism.
For details on how to access the full biographies of Attwood, Muntz, Spooner, Joshua and William Scholefield and the constituency history of Birmingham on our preview site, see here.
The article can be accessed from the Parliamentary History webpage.