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Response to Review no. 699

I am delighted that Chartism: a New History has received such a comprehensive and enthusiastic review. There is nothing in it with which I could possibly take issue. Robert Saunders’s review is itself a vivid exposition of what Chartism was, and why it continues to matter to British historians. However, I welcome this opportunity to address more directly ‘the great interpretative questions associated with the movement’ about which the book is seemingly reticent, as Dr Saunders points out in his concluding paragraphs. Following him I take these questions to be the relationship of Chartism to the fortunes of the British economy; the impact on the movement of political responses to it (in particular Peel’s ministry, 1841–6); its anomalous appearance as the one epic mass agitation for electoral reform in modern Britain; what Chartism became in the absence of transformational constitutional change; and finally, Chartism in relation to class, and the languages by which class is understood.

Writing the book, I took a conscious decision to dispense with both an introductory historiographical survey, and a concluding overview of the movement’s turbulent two decades-long history. I did so for two reasons. While avoiding, I hope, the fallacy that it is possible to portray history ‘as it actually happened’, I wanted my narrative to unfold as far as possible without abusing the privilege of hindsight. I also hoped readers would reach their own conclusions concerning the character of the movement, without feeling either alienated by long passages of abstraction or dragooned by the author into accepting a particular interpretation. My reasons for this were, first, that a substantial narrative of Chartism, covering the whole of its 20-year history, was long overdue. I hoped to supply this gap with a volume grounded in an intensive reading of contemporary sources as well one drawing extensively on the subject’s huge secondary literature. Secondly, and more prosaically, was the problem of length. Neither author nor publisher really believed the originally contracted length of 100,000 words would suffice. Extensive discourse on the theoretical interpretation, historiography, or antecedents of Chartism had to be yielded up (as were maps and illustrations) if the text was to be brought in under 200,000 words. I still think the exclusion of a historiographical survey was a correct decision but I am less certain about a concluding chapter. So here briefly are some of the points I would have made.

That many Chartists sometimes went hungry does not mean that Chartism was merely hunger politics. However cyclical downturns in the British economy gave the movement an additional impetus, making it easier to recruit support en masseand command the attention (not necessarily sympathetic) of the social and political establishment. Furthermore, areas of systemic contraction – most conspicuously in demand for domestic-based manufacturing labour – powerfully shaped local and regional support for the movement. However, terms like ‘additional impetus’ and ‘powerfully shaped’ are preferred here because economic factors are a necessary but never sufficient explanation for Chartism.

On any dispassionate assessment of the evidence, those who called themselves Chartists had much to protest about, but why those protests were channelled into a movement for electoral reform is by no means self-evident. The text of the 1839 National Petition provides a clue. ‘We have searched diligently in order to find out the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued’, it declared. But, ‘we can discover none in nature, or in Providence. Heaven has dealt graciously by the people; but the foolishness of our rulers has made the goodness of God of none effect. The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement’. In terms of political responses to Chartism, it is therefore easy to see that Peel’s policies might well have eroded the Chartist conviction that the State was in the hands of the selfish and self-aggrandising. The review draws attention to how Chartism: a New History shows the extent to which O’Connor venerated Peel. O’Connor, Robert Saunders remarks, ‘throws a long shadow across the book’. He did so across Chartism itself: but it is an exaggeration to suppose that ‘had the name Chartist not been coined, the radical movement between 1838 and 1848 must surely have been called O’Connorite Radicalism’.(1) The impact of Peel’s policies was ameliorative (as he intended them to be) not transformative. Furthermore, after July 1846 Peel was not in power: a continuation of genuinely disinterested government under the Whigs could not be predicted. Against the 1847 Public Health Act had to be set the reversal of fiscal reform as, against the background of the commercial crisis that autumn and the broader economic downturn that followed, income tax rose and (even more critically) the downward trend of indirect taxation stalled.

So, far from accounting for the decline of Chartism, Peel’s legislation perhaps helps explain the revival of its fortunes in 1847–48. Chartists claimed for themselves much of the credit for Whig electoral defeat in 1841 (and not a few Liberals paid Chartism the compliment of blaming it for the Tory victory). Pressure for electoral reform had now to be renewed if further ameliorative measures were to be won. Moreover the economic crisis of 1847–48 provided potentially fertile ground for Chartists and middle-class reformers to make common cause. This ground, however, rapidly slipped away in parallel with the emerging revolution in France. This might have mattered less for Chartism had London not now assumed a large place in the movement’s identity. That it did so was largely due to the combination of regional economic factors and the metropolitan drift of the movement’s executive forces (symbolised by the transfer of Northern Star from Yorkshire to London in 1844). This contrasted sharply with earlier peaks in Chartist activity, when the capital seemed close to stupor in comparison with Britain’s industrial districts.

In retrospect Chartism certainly appears anomalous, as the one epic mass agitation for electoral reform in modern Britain. It’s a nice point if even the early 20th century movement for women’s suffrage approached it in extent or potency. As Gareth Stedman Jones pointed out (in a study sometimes misinterpreted as arguing the opposite), ‘Chartism could not have been a movement except of the working class, for the discontents which the movement addressed were overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, those of wage earners, and the solidarities upon which the movement counted were those between wage earners’.(2) Giving renewed life to the ambitious hopes, but not the organisational forms, of general unionism in the years 1829–34, Chartism naturally focussed on electoral reform. It did so not least because in 1832 parliament had dramatically shown itself open to self reformation due to a potent combination of moral suasion and pressure from without. It would take rather more than just Whig declamations that 1832 was a final measure of reform, for Chartists to be persuaded that further self-reformation was out of the question. It is here that the tyranny of hindsight has most impinged on our understanding of Chartism. It was, first and foremost, a constitutional movement – constitutional in its objectives and constitutional in the form of its agitation. Neither progressive reforms nor official oppression punctured Chartism. Rather, it was the steadfast disavowal by the State that the electoral system was open to further reform that gradually blunted Chartist energies. The book takes care to analyse the debacle around the 1848 National Petition, precisely because the oft-cited allegations of fraud damaged not only the reputation of Chartism as seen from without, but also the Chartists’ own sense of rectitude. Chartism: A New History certainly does not suggest that 10 April 1848 was the point that the movement collapsed. But it does argue that the NCA executive (distracted by events in Paris) mismanaged the Petition campaign; and this, coupled with O’Connor’s misjudged handling of the Petition’s reception in the Commons, undermined the credibility of the movement and the respect – albeit grudging – that it had frequently commanded from outside its ranks.

Yet even this was not fatal to Chartism’s fortunes. As the review vividly summarises, it was a multi-faceted movement. The explanation for its demise needs similarly to be multi-causal. Among longer-term factors identified by the book is the haemorrhaging of support from women (whose participation in Chartism up to 1842 was one of its most striking features); among the short-term factors is the rapid loss of cohesion from 1849, as O’Connor’s effectiveness as a figurehead ebbed away. As far as I am aware, no study before this book has noticed the Chartist petitioning campaigns of 1849 and 1852 and the precision (53,816 and 11,834 signatures respectively) with which they document the decline of the movement.

However, it is necessary to distinguish between Chartism as a political movement and what I term Chartism as ‘a tool to think with’. Robert Saunders perceptively comments that ‘the idea there was a “politics of the possible”, in the absence of transformative constitutional change, marked a critical breach in the Chartist understanding of politics’. However, Chartists had always believed the adoption of the People’s Charter to be possible. This is why the cumulative blunting of Chartist energies, mentioned in the previous paragraph, was so significant. ‘We have now had ten years of Chartist organising, speech-making, petitioning and suffering’, the normally indefatigable George Julian Harney wrote in his address for the New Year 1849, ‘and how near are we to the enactment of the Charter?’ But the movement, as the book’s concluding chapter tries to show, equipped its supporters with the conviction and skills to confront (often successfully) political exclusion in local government, and to diminish social exclusion through energetic involvement in a wide range of voluntary initiatives. Hence Chartism: a New History characterises the movement as exhibiting both a multiplicity of small endings and a multiplicity of small victories.

This brings me, finally, to Chartism in relation to class and the languages by which class is understood – issues of critical importance ever since Stedman Jones’s ‘Rethinking Chartism’. My bookmay make relatively little use of the concept of class, but it never underplays the potency that class analyses brought to the ideology of the movement, especially from 1842. I have argued elsewhere (3) that an appropriate and necessary part of historical analysis of the years from circa1830 turns on working people’s growing awareness of their distinctive situation and common sense of political purpose. This is not to surrender to a metaphysical concept of class, in which ‘the working class’ becomes almost an historical actor in its own right, seemingly capable of independent thought and action. Nor is it to suggest that class consciousness was uniform across all occupations and localities. But the fact remains that Chartism was a national movement of unprecedented scope, intellectual reach, cultural vitality and political ambition. Belief in electoral reform, however widely adhered to, could not alone engender those qualities; neither could the reiteration of the traditional radical trope of ‘old corruption’.

In 1834 the Liberal MP John Roebuck highlighted ‘an important distinction now made by the Working Classes themselves, between the classes that live by the wages of labour, and those who live by the return to capital’. Roebuck added they believed ‘they have interests which are common to themselves as labourers … [but] opposed to interests of the other classes of society.(4) However, this belief was not all that Chartists thought they had in common. They articulated other ‘ways of seeing’ their situation: as the politically excluded, as unwilling subjects of a corrupt state and its venal administrators, as true patriots and as ‘the People’. And the means through and by which this repertoire was articulated was not restricted to print alone. ‘Rethinking Chartism’ caused much confusion by seemingly suggesting that it was. This implication was compounded by the relatively narrow range of contemporary references it cited. (Fewer than 15 per cent of its citations of historical material relate to the years after 1839, while significantly more than half of the remainder pre-date Chartism.) More critically, ‘Rethinking Chartism’ was read as privileging print over other forms of communication – speech, ritual, iconography – and as down-playing (or perhaps even denying) the existence of reality beyond language. There was always an element of caricature about this reading, while Stedman Jones has himself recently qualified the extent to which his seminal essay shares Derrida’s conviction that ‘there is nothing outside the text’.(5)

However, even if we do confine our apprehension of Chartism to the printed word alone, it is clear that its language drew heavily on the vocabulary and conceptual apparatus of class. This was a movement deeply rooted in a shared conviction among wage-earners that their economic and political interests starkly contrasted with those of the rest of society. Too often, however, its history has been written as if this effectively is all that is needed to explain Chartism. Plainly it is not. Chartism: a New History therefore strives for a clearer understanding of the movement, accepting that it exhibited a plurality of motives. It was sprawling and it was untidy, but it was also dynamic and of enduring significance, ‘ever present to the progressive mind’.(6)


  1. D. Thompson, The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution (London, 1984), p. 96.Back to (1)
  2.   G. Stedman Jones, ‘Rethinking Chartism’, in G. Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832-1982 (Cambridge, 1983), p. 95.Back to (2)
  3.   M. Chase, Early Trade Unionism: Fraternity, Skill and the Politics of Labour (Aldershot, 2000), pp. 138-9.Back to (3)
  4.    J. A. Roebuck, Trades’ Unions: Their Advantages to the Working Classes (London, 1834), p. 5.Back to (4)
  5.   See his ‘Postface’ to the French translation of ‘Rethinking Chartism’ in Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine,54, 1 (2007), 63-8.Back to (5)
  6.    A comment by the Durham miners’ leader and Lib-Lab MP, John Wilson, Memories of a Labour Leader (London, 1910), p. 30.Back to (6)