Defying the Whip: ‘rebel’ MP of the month, Swynfen Jervis (1798-1867)

One of the themes being explored by the Victorian Commons project is the decline of ‘independence’ in the 19th-century Commons and the rise of party-based voting by MPs – a development neatly captured in Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous lampoon of 1882 about MPs being forced to ‘leave their brains outside’ and ‘vote just as their leaders tell ‘em to’ (Iolanthe).

MPs continued to assert their independence on a number of major issues throughout the 1832-68 period, as the rebellion of the Tories against Peel on free trade in 1846 or the split in the Liberals over parliamentary reform in 1866 amply demonstrate. Few, however, chose to defy the party leadership quite so publicly or defiantly as Swynfen Jervis, the ‘eccentric’ Liberal MP for Bridport from 1837-41.

An early photo (c. 1850) of Jervis: © NPG

Jervis stands out for all sorts of reasons, not least because of his zealous support for free trade at a time when most landowners continued to defend the corn laws. Unlike many inheritors of large country estates, Jervis was convinced that removing the import duties on foreign corn would benefit agriculture and that free trade itself was the ‘birth-right of every Englishman’. Jervis even promised to compensate all his tenant farmers on his Darlaston Hall estates should they suffer. ‘If any reduction takes place in the price of grain without a proportionate rise in the demand for other agricultural produce’, he announced, ‘I am ready to meet such a change … by a corresponding reduction of rent’.

It was the striking manner in which Jervis rebelled against the Whig-Liberal government on a crucial Irish vote in 1839, however, which brought him to national attention. Rather than simply staying away or quietly voting against the government, Jervis took the highly unusual step of sending the private communication he had received from the government Whip, Edward Stanley, to the newspapers. He then added a full explanation of his reasons for refusing to obey. ‘As an earnest Reformer, I have always voted with ministers’, he declared, ‘but the question which is now about to be raised in the Commons, however it may be glossed and disguised …  had been made a convenient stalking-horse to support their waning popularity’ and ‘appears to me utterly impossible to approve … without indirectly sanctioning their general policy’.

Swynfen Jervis dictating verse, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1852)

The press had a field-day, especially as official party ‘whipping’ was still in its infancy and remained cloaked in controversy. ‘The letter of Swynfen Jervis, an old and staunch Reformer, repelling the official application of the secretary of the treasury for his vote … has excited the universal displeasure and animadversions of minsters’, noted one Tory paper. Commentary in the Liberal press included assertions that ‘the member’s heart is with the Tories’ and mockery of him as a ‘strange eccentric being, who professing out and out democracy, “is everything by turns and nothing long”’. Bridport’s electors, however, were more forgiving. ‘I see nothing but is manly, straightforward and honest in the conduct of Mr. Jervis’, wrote one local observer.

Jervis continued to defy the Whig-Liberal government on a range of issues after 1839. He also earned the opprobrium of the Tories by launching a scathing attack on the Church of England in more private correspondence, this time with a local parson, that found its way into the press. Despite remaining popular with the ‘ultra-Radical clique’ at Bridport, Jervis retired as its MP in 1841. Meeting him around this time, the Tory essayist Thomas Carlyle didn’t mince his words:

A wretched dud called Swinfen Jervis … called one day … a dirty little atheistic radical, living seemingly in a mere element of pretentious twaddle, with Sheridan Knowleses … and all the literary vapidities of his day.

A subsequent associate of the pre-Raphaelites Dante and Christina Rossetti, who were regular visitors to Darlaston Hall,  Jervis is best remembered today for his poems and his Dictionary of the Language of Shakespeare, which appeared posthumously in 1868.

The full biography of Swynfen Jervis will soon be available on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

Further reading:

  • T. A. Jenkins, ‘The Whips in the Early-Victorian House of Commons,’ Parliamentary History, 19 (2000), 259-286.
  • J. Sainty and G. Cox, ‘The Identification of Government Whips in the House of Commons 1830-1905’, Parliamentary History, 16 (1997), 339-358.
  • P. M. Gurowich, ‘The Continuation of War by Other Means: Party and Politics, 1855-1865′, Historical Journal, 27 (1984), 603-631.
  • H. Berrington, ‘Partisanship and Dissidence in the Nineteenth-Century House of Commons’, Parliamentary Affairs, 21 (1967-8), 338-74.
Posted in MP of the Month | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

New publication: ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’

An article by our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, on ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’ has just been published in a special issue of Parliamentary History, edited by Robert Saunders, and entitled ‘Shooting Niagara – and after?’ The Second Reform Act and its world. This publication, marking the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, also includes contributions from Colin Barr, Malcolm Chase, Kathryn Gleadle, Alex Middleton, Jonathan Parry and Gareth Stedman Jones. It can be accessed here.

Article summary:

Kathryn Rix, ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’

This essay considers the role which the issue of bribery and corruption played during the debates on parliamentary reform in 1867-8, a theme previously neglected by historians of the Second Reform Act. It examines the ways in which the 1867 Act itself sought to deal with corruption, analysing the rationale for the disfranchisement of four venal boroughs. It also looks at the attempts made by backbenchers to insert provisions to curtail the growing costs of elections. Above all, it shows how the decision to confine discussion of electoral malpractice largely to the separate 1868 Election Petitions Act facilitated the progress of the main Reform Act. The 1868 Act was of ground-breaking constitutional significance in transferring jurisdiction over election petitions from committees sitting at Westminster to election judges, who tried petitions in the constituencies. Why the Commons – somewhat reluctantly – decided to surrender what had hitherto been a jealously-guarded privilege of the lower House is examined, discussing the failings of the existing tribunal and the role of Disraeli in skilfully guiding through reform. For contemporaries, the 1868 Act was very much part of a wider reform settlement. Reintegrating the question of electoral corruption into historical analysis of the Second Reform Act helps to provide a fuller understanding of the broader concerns underpinning the extension of the franchise in 1867.

Posted in Corruption, Publications | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

‘The son of one of the best men who ever adorned the country’: William Wilberforce (1798-1879)

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), by John Russell (Leeds Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/william-wilberforce-17591833-37751)

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), by John Russell: Leeds Museums and Galleries http://www.artuk.org/artworks/william-wilberforce-17591833-37751

Trading heavily on his family name, William Wilberforce (1798-1879), eldest son and namesake of the noted anti-slave trade campaigner, was elected in 1837 as Conservative MP for Kingston-upon-Hull, which his father had represented from 1780 until 1784. During one election meeting he was overcome with emotion when referring to his father (who had died four years earlier), declaring that he wished to ‘follow his example, and endeavour to diffuse among all nations, light, liberty, and civilization’. On his canvass of the electors, he noted that ‘I find the name of my father, your own townsman, a passport to the hearts of all around me’.

Despite his family background, Wilberforce’s career before entering Parliament had been distinctly unpromising, and he had been a considerable source of anxiety to his parents. In 1816 his father noted his ‘sad qualities’ and ‘selfishness’, and the following year bemoaned that ‘I fear he has no energy of character or solid principle of action’. In 1820 Wilberforce senior described his son as ‘in many respects extremely amiable; & his talents are certainly of a superior order, but he sadly wants diligence’. Wilberforce junior disappointed his parents with his idle habits and extravagant spending as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where his misdemeanours including getting drunk on a Sunday. They consequently removed him from the university.

Although Wilberforce qualified as a barrister in 1825, he quickly decided that the legal profession was not for him. Instead, with financial support from his father, he invested in a dairy farm at St. John’s Wood, which aimed to supply London’s residents with cheap and pure milk. However, this venture failed in 1830 due to an unreliable business partner and a severe drought, running up a debt of £50,000. Bailing out his son proved financially crippling for Wilberforce senior, who rented out his house in order to economise. Wilberforce junior spent time in Switzerland and Italy in order to escape his creditors. Meeting him at Naples in April 1833, John Henry Newman found him ‘certainly graver – I cannot exactly say, wiser’.

Wilberforce’s election in 1837 for his father’s former constituency offered the potential for a new start. Proud to follow in his father’s footsteps, he argued at a celebratory election dinner that his victory showed the importance of the ‘hereditary principle’ in Parliament, in contrast with the ‘reckless change and innovation’ urged by the Liberal party. His father had earlier advised that should he ever enter the Commons, he should choose ‘some specific object, some line of usefulness’. Yet while Wilberforce senior’s election for Hull had marked the beginning of a 45 year career in the Commons – he subsequently sat for Yorkshire, 1784-1812, and Bramber, 1812-25 – his son’s time at Westminster was brief and unremarkable. He managed to make only three speeches in the chamber before he was unseated on petition in March 1838.

The reason for his unseating was that Wilberforce did not possess the property qualification then required of MPs. The election committee agreed that his Yorkshire estates – inherited from his father – were of sufficient value to qualify him. However, rather ironically, given Wilberforce senior’s hopes that his son might follow him into Parliament, the complex terms under which Wilberforce junior was granted these properties by his father’s will – notably that trustees had the power to sell the estates within 21 years of Wilberforce senior’s death – meant that he lacked the ‘absolute and indefeasible interest’ in these properties which the law demanded.

Despite this setback, Wilberforce stood again, seeking election at Taunton at the 1841 general election. He finished third in the poll behind the sitting Liberal MPs, despite resorting to bribery in his efforts to win the seat. His brother Samuel complained that ‘had his hands been clean’, Wilberforce might have been able to petition successfully against his opponents, who had apparently also resorted to corrupt practices.

In September 1841 Wilberforce made his final attempt to enter the Commons, at a by-election at Bradford, where he was proposed as ‘the son of one of the best men who ever adorned the country’. Despite being an outside candidate, while his opponent was a former MP for the borough, Wilberforce came within four votes of victory. He subsequently faded from public view, leading what one obituary described as an ‘unsympathetic, aimless, objectless life’.

Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), depicted in Vanity Fair (1869)

Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), depicted in Vanity Fair (1869)

He spent much time abroad in the late 1850s and early 1860s, residing at St. Germain en Laye, near Paris. An American visitor who met him there in 1857 found him ‘rather dull, with nothing of his father but the name’. In common with his brothers Henry and Robert – both of whom were Anglican clergymen – he converted to Roman Catholicism. Their fourth brother, Samuel, the most prominent of Wilberforce senior’s sons, remained an Anglican, serving as Bishop of Oxford, 1845-69, and Winchester, 1869-73. Nicknamed ‘Soapy Sam’, he was involved in a famous debate on evolution with Thomas Huxley and others at Oxford in June 1860. William Wilberforce returned to live in England in the 1870s and died in 1879.

Further reading

  • A. Stott, Wilberforce. Family and friends (2012)
  • W. Hague, William Wilberforce (2008)
Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling’: Charles Dickens, Eatanswill and the 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election

Allen, Harry M., active 1907-1937; Charles Dickens, Aged 27

Charles Dickens, aged 27, by Harry M. Allen (after Daniel Maclise) Image credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

Today’s blog marks the anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth by exploring the inspiration behind one of the most notable political events in his first novel.

Dickens’s riotous description of the Eatanswill borough election in the Pickwick Papers, first published in July 1836, is one of the most famous literary representations of a British election. Readers are often surprised to find out that it is set in the reformed electoral system after 1832. However, as our research for the House of Commons 1832-68 project is revealing, the electoral traditions famously epitomised by Hogarth’s Humours of an Election and described so vividly in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, endured, evolved and often thrived between the first two Reform Acts.

As well as Dickens’s experiences of electoral practices in the boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, his account of Eatanswill was inspired by his assignment to report on the December 1835 Northamptonshire North by-election for the Morning Chronicle. Interestingly, unlike the already notoriously corrupt boroughs of Ipswich and Sudbury, Northamptonshire North was a brand new county constituency in the reformed electoral system. Yet the county’s voters and non-voters, who congregated in the nomination town of Kettering for the proceedings, wasted little time in developing their own rowdy and partisan electoral identity. As Dickens found, to his dismay, Northamptonshire North was anything but ‘reformed’.

15-l

‘The Election at Eatanswill’ by Phiz, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836)

The 1835 by-election prompted by the unexpected death of Northamptonshire North’s Whig MP, Viscount Milton, gave a resurgent Conservative interest in the county the chance to assume complete control of Northamptonshire’s county seats, which four years earlier had been in the hands of the Whigs. By the end of 1835, controversy surrounding the Corn Laws, Whig reforms to the Poor Law, the Melbourne government’s coalition with Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Repealers and the ruthless attention paid by the Conservatives to electoral registration had placed the Whigs on the back foot nationally. These winds of political change, which were particularly relevant to an Anglican, agricultural county, meant that Northamptonshire North’s by-election received extensive attention in the national press.

The two candidates were the Conservative, Thomas Maunsell, and the Whig, William Hanbury. The Conservatives had been buoyed by the recent conversion of some of the division’s former Whigs, who were outraged over their local party’s advocacy of free trade and the Whig government’s ‘disgraceful coalition with O’Connell’. Both parties claimed to be certain of success after their extended canvass, where tit-for-tat partisanship reached new levels, and both sides accused each other, probably correctly, of intimidating voters and pushing the custom of ‘treating’ local residents with drink to the bounds of acceptability.

This intense atmosphere continued at the nomination, which was an unruly affair, thanks largely to Maunsell and his Conservative entourage, who arrived on horseback and muscled their way to the front of the crowd using their horse whips. Following repeated skirmishes in the crowd as the candidates were being proposed, one of Maunsell’s supporters had his loaded double-barrel pistol confiscated, after he threatened opponents with it on three occasions. Charles Dickens, who viewed the event from the reporters’ area in front of the hustings, informed his fiancée that he had never seen ‘anything more sickening and disgusting’, describing the division’s Conservatives as ‘a ruthless set of bloody-minded villains … led by clergymen and magistrates’.

After both candidates had made their speeches and a poll had been demanded, two local Whig and Conservative notables took it in turns to rile up the crowd with inflammatory speeches about the other. Dickens’s colleague at the Standard reported that ‘the scene of confusion and turbulence which ensued was quite indescribable’.

The next day, Dickens regretted that his editor had requested he stay in the division to report on the poll, prophesying that:

we shall have an incessant repetition of the sounds and sights of yesterday ‘till the Election is over – bells ringing, candidates speaking, drums sounding, a band of eight trombone (would you believe it?) blowing – men fighting, swearing, drinking, and squabbling – all riotously excited, and all disgracing themselves.

Sure enough, on the morning of the poll Dickens complained that ‘the noise and confusion here … is so great that my head is splitting … the voters … are drinking and guzzling and howling and roaring in every house of entertainment there is’. The ‘conservative electors’ were ‘such beasts’, he explained, that he and his fellow reporters were forced into hiding in his room at the White Hart hotel.

Days later, Dickens was ‘overjoyed’ when his editor told him that he could leave the county before the result was announced. Much like in one of the comical episodes featuring Samuel Pickwick and his travelling companions in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens then convinced his fellow journalists from The Times, the Morning Advertiser and the Morning Post into hiring and driving their own post-chaise to escape to nearby Northampton. After a two-day journey, which involved a detour to Boughton House and a carriage crash caused by a driver ‘overcome with potations of ale’, Dickens, to his dismay, received confirmation that Maunsell had been returned with a considerable majority.

As he wrote his account of the Eatanswill election over the following months, Dickens delighted in exposing the ‘patriotism’ of the fictional borough’s notables, electors and non-electors, as they revelled in the boisterous and intense atmosphere of the canvass, the nomination and the poll, shamelessly exploited the culture of treating and inflated their own self-importance on a national scale. As he was doing so, it is hard to escape the notion that Dickens had his experiences at Northamptonshire North in mind.

The full constituency article on Northamptonshire North will soon be available on our 1832-68 preview site.

Posted in 1832-68 preview site, Constituencies, Corruption, Elections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: From pot boy to parliamentarian – John Lloyd Davies (1801-60)

Of all the ‘self-made’ men who made the mid-nineteenth century House of Commons distinct from earlier periods, few can have begun life in such humble circumstances as John Lloyd Davies, MP for Cardigan Boroughs from 1855-7.

The son of a publican, Davies was born on the premises of the Old Black Lion in Aberystwyth in November 1801, but lost his father when aged about five. Accounts differ as to how he came to be educated. One account said his mother was ‘determined to give him the best possible education’, but another statement, made in the course of a legal dispute over Davies’s legacy in 1879, claimed that until he met his future wife he was illiterate and earned his living as an hotel servant, and that it was she who ‘had him educated’. In any case, Davies was subsequently articled to a solicitor, and by the age of 24 had succeeded to a lucrative practice in Newcastle Emlyn. In June 1825 he married his benefactress, Anne, the only surviving child of the late John Lloyd, a one-time mayor of Carmarthen. The widow of an army officer, she had grown wealthy through inheriting substantial estates at Blaendyffryn and Alltyrodyn from her late husband and from a cousin.

As a proprietor with a life interest in these estates, Davies rose quickly within the local squirearchy. He was appointed to the county bench, made a deputy lieutenant and was an active trustee of the Carmarthenshire turnpike trusts. At the 1837 general election he proposed one of the candidates for Carmarthenshire. Recognised as a ‘very active and talented’ magistrate, he subsequently confronted the Rebecca rioters in the Llandysul district, and in June 1843 helped to repel an attack on Carmarthen workhouse. In 1845 he was appointed high sheriff of Cardiganshire.

Having declined several invitations to stand for Parliament, Davies agreed to offer for a vacancy at Cardigan in February 1855. Being ‘neither Whig nor Tory’, but claiming to be an independent Conservative, he won favour by addressing the electors in his native tongue, ‘much to the delight’ of those unacquainted with English. As a zealous Anglican, he opposed the Maynooth grant. He objected to an extension of the county franchise, but at the same time, he backed Irish land reform and supported the secret ballot. Above all, he was a trenchant critic of the government’s conduct of the war against Russia, accusing ministers of sending ‘54,000 of their countrymen … to starve in the Crimea’.

Davies came into Parliament at a time when the expansion of the provincial press had stimulated a wider public interest in the proceedings of the Commons. He not only attended the House regularly – proving as likely to vote with Lord Palmerston’s ministry as not – but also made frequent, brief interventions in debate on a variety of different topics and took part in the growing practice of questioning ministers. However, despite enhancing his reputation as a popular representative by campaigning to exempt Dissenters from the payment of church rates, and promoting the establishment of a harbour of refuge at Cardigan, he was promptly brought to earth after the dissolution in March 1857. Having issued what his critics described as ‘the most boastful and egotistical’ of election addresses, he found himself opposed by a member of the borough’s most influential family and promptly retired.

His days as an MP over, Davies still remained active in public life, becoming a trustee for a scheme to establish a joint stock ‘Bank of Wales’, and was heavily involved as company chairman in promoting the construction of a railway line between Carmarthen and Cardigan, which was regarded as his greatest achievement.

His wife had died shortly before he entered Parliament, but Davies married another heiress in March 1857, the daughter of a Gloucestershire landowner. His second wife died in February 1860 and Davies passed away three weeks later. Despite leaving a legacy of £10,000 to his two infant sons, along with the Alltyrodyn estates which were not legally his to give, much of his goods and livestock had to be sold off to meet the demands of his creditors, reflecting the provisional nature of the social and political standing of this low-born but capable MP.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month, Wales | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Happy New Year from the Victorian Commons for 2017

We would like to wish all the readers of the Victorian Commons a very Happy New Year for 2017! We’re looking forward to another year of blogging, but in the meantime, here are some of our blog highlights from 2016.

Looking back over our MP of the Month series, some interesting common themes have emerged. One developing strand in our research is the growing number of MPs from non-élite backgrounds, and the impact that their activities – which were often particularly noticeable in the committee rooms – had on the Commons. Among them are the Abingdon paper manufacturer, John Thomas Norris, described as an ‘upstart from the ranks’; Charles Capper, the Manchester weaver’s son who made his fortune in the shipping industry before serving briefly as MP for Sandwich; and James Barlow Hoy, formerly an assistant surgeon in the army. Another rather unlikely parliamentarian was John Gully, elected in 1832 for Wakefield, but better known as a champion pugilist, professional betting man and racehorse owner. Like Gully, Charles George Lyttelton was an enthusiastic sportsman, but it was his prowess as a cricketer which brought him renown.

Once again we have been delighted to host guest blogs. Caroline Shenton shared her expertise on the building of the new Houses of Parliament with her post on its architect, Charles Barry. Having contributed articles on Buteshire to our project, Matthew McDowell of the University of Edinburgh blogged for us about one of its MPs, James Lamont, better known as an Arctic explorer and scientist than as a parliamentarian.

We were joined this year by a new member of our research team, Martin Spychal, whose first blog for us looked at county politics in Northamptonshire South, where the Knightleys were one of the dominant families. He has also blogged about a Chancellor of the Exchequer described by Disraeli as having ‘the sagacity of the elephant, as well as the form’, George Ward Hunt. Another office-holder to feature as one of our MPs of the Month was Edward Lucas, who served in the important role of under-secretary for Ireland.

The fluidity of nineteenth-century party labels has been a recurrent theme in our research, and was brought to the fore in our blogs on Rowland Alston (who was also noted for averting a duel involving the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel) and on Samuel Bayntun, a ‘true blue’ Tory turned Reformer. We have continued to explore the political influence of women, as shown in our blog on the Unitarian MP Daniel Gaskell, whose wife played a key role in encouraging his parliamentary career. In June we marked the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill presenting the first mass women’s suffrage petition to the Commons.

The draft biographies and constituency articles we are preparing for the 1832-68 project can be found on our preview site – details of how to access and cite our work can be found in these links. You can sign up to follow our blog via e-mail or WordPress, or follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons

We look forward to sharing more of our research with you in 2017. Happy New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New book: Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910

Our assistant editor, Dr. Kathryn Rix, has just published her first book, with Boydell and Brewer, in the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series, entitled Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910. She shares some of the key themes of her research in this blog.

bookcoverParties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 is the first major study of the professional constituency agents during a key transitional period in British politics. Following the electoral reforms of 1883-5 – which extended the franchise, redrew the electoral map and introduced more stringent corrupt practices legislation – the Liberal and Conservative parties were confronted with the challenge of harnessing the support of a mass electorate. The expansion of local government, with county councils from 1888 and parish and district councils from 1894, created another potential arena for partisan effort. The solicitor agents who had typically undertaken the work of registration and electioneering on a part-time basis prior to 1880 were increasingly replaced by a new breed of full-time professional organisers, who handled the work of registration, electioneering and the day-to-day political, educational and social activities of local parties in the constituencies. These professional agents performed a vital role as intermediaries between politics at Westminster and at grass-roots level, bridging the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, and between politicians and those they sought to represent. The relationship between central party organisation and the localities is one of the underlying themes of this book.

My research considers the agents not only as political figures, but also as men (and occasionally women) determined to establish their status as professionals, placing them within the broader socio-economic context of late nineteenth-century professionalisation. It analyses the agents’ social and occupational backgrounds, drawing on a collective biographical study of almost 200 agents. Significantly for a group who often served as local figureheads for their party, agents came to a surprising extent from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds. In exploring the agents’ efforts to improve their position by means of professional associations (established on a national basis by the Liberal agents in 1882 and 1893, and by the Conservatives in 1891), it also assesses the impact which this had on political culture.

Electioneering in North Devon, 1910 (via sophialambert.com)

Electioneering in North Devon, 1910 (via this website)

In particular, this book analyses how far the professionalisation of party organisation can be equated with the ‘modernisation’ or ‘nationalisation’ of politics. It argues that while the agents’ professional networks and their high levels of geographical mobility contributed to a growing uniformity in certain aspects of party organisation, local forces continued to play a vital role in British political life. The balance of local, regional and national factors is explored particularly in relation to three key aspects of the election campaign: the selection of candidates; the ‘platform’ campaign of speeches by leading party figures, MPs, candidates and other activists; and the vast provision of election literature by local, regional and central party bodies.

One of the principal questions which has occupied historians in assessing Liberal and Conservative party activity in the later Victorian period is how the ideals and beliefs espoused by each party’s members were reflected not only in the policies they presented to the electorate, but also in the organisational structures and methods through which they sought to cultivate their political appeal. The Liberal approach to politics has been characterised as a more rational, sober and serious-minded one, while the Conservatives have been seen as more proficient at creating a social appeal and defending the ‘pleasures of the people’, such as sport and the public house. This book uses the agents’ perspective to shed new light on these important debates about party identity, arguing that the cultural differences between the parties were less clear-cut than might be supposed. Many Liberal agents, for example, were keen to overcome the impression that Liberalism was the creed of dull, temperance-abiding killjoys, and made efforts to develop the social side of party organisation in their constituencies. While the main focus of the research presented here is the two established political parties, the role of professional organisation within the embryonic Labour party is also discussed.

Overall, this book highlights the transformation of the function and standing of the political agent between 1880 and 1910, and the impact which the presence in the constituencies of this professional cadre of party organisers had on political and electoral culture.

For further details on this book, see here and here (with a discount offer from the publisher).

Kathryn will be giving a paper on her research to the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on Tuesday 30th May 2017 at 5:15 p.m.

Posted in Publications | Tagged , , | 1 Comment