The 1832-68 project recently passed a major milestone with the completion of its 1000th article. 897 biographies and 106 constituency accounts (comprising over 2 million words) have now been written and are being uploaded to our preview website, which, when completed, will also provide links to MPs’ votes, speeches, committee work and electioneering data (in progress). Special thanks to Drs Henry Miller (now at Manchester University), Kathryn Rix, James Owen and Stephen Ball for their herculean efforts in getting us to this point, and to the 50+ external writers and academics from around the world who have so far contributed their expertise. In particular we must thank Stephen Lees, of ‘Who’s Who of British MPs’ fame, for his unstinting labours, especially on some of the more obscure and problematic figures of this period.
Political biography on this scale inevitably opens up many new perspectives on the workings of the Victorian political system. Surprisingly few (only 9%) of our 2,589 MPs have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – and many of these are primarily remembered for their non-political achievements. The work of backbenchers, in particular, in overseeing and regulating an ever expanding Victorian state (and empire), before the emergence of the civil service and modern bureaucracy, remains largely unexplored. Early careers of so-called ‘non-elite’ MPs are especially revealing. Many rose through the new local political structures created by municipal and administrative reform before securing the nomination of a constituency association. Others capped successful careers in finance, industry or as entrepreneurs with the social accolade of a landed estate and a seat in the House, often at vast expense. The cost of politics completely ruined many – elite and self-made – and the House took no prisoners when it came to clumsy or tiresome speeches, whether by peers or popular agitators.
In the constituencies, meanwhile, participation in the rituals associated with Victorian elections soared, aided and abetted by a partisan press and the growing cult of the MP. Voter turn-out rates in the 1832-68 period are some of the highest on record (average 70%), but it is the involvement of non-voters (including women and children) in electoral politics that is one of the most striking features to emerge from our constituency surveys so far. In addition, many of the so-called ‘missing contests’ – elections without rival candidates and polls – turn out to be anything but ‘walkovers’. On the contrary, pre-electoral skirmishes and campaigning were often so intense that they made the outcome of a poll all but inevitable. Contests were therefore only held when it was too close to call.
It’s too early to predict how exactly the Victorian Commons will emerge from this project – we still have 1,692 MPs and 295 constituencies to go – but the material gathered so far is already pointing to a far more popular, socially accessible and vibrant political system than we traditionally associate with the pre-democratic era. Votes, it would seem, may not be everything.
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