The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Economic and Political Development of Britain after the Napoleonic Wars. The Period of Reaction

Category: 19th century

The people of England had suffered many hardships during the Napoleonic wars, from which they expected relief with the coming of peace. Instead of relief, however, there followed a period of a severe economic and political crisis. For one thing, industry was considerably upset by the sudden change from a war time to a peace time basis. The heavy industries were the first to experience the effects of the economic crisis. This in its turn increased mass unemployment.

The growth of mass unemployment coupled with the general growth of the population gave the industrialists a priority which they used to their advantage: wages fell, since there was a vast reserve army ready to take up any position which a dissatisfied worker left vacant. Now, though wages fell, prices stayed high for the government allowed the Bank of England to issue paper money without the adequate gold equivalent.

However, worst of all was the introduction of the notorious Corn Laws in 1815 which prohibited the import of cheap continental grain in order to keep up the high war time prices on grain. The cost of bread was high. High bread prices nieant hungry workers and constant opposition in the form of disturbances and riots. The government responded by ruthless suppression. The prisons of which most horrible was Newgate in London were overcrowded.

All these things attracted a lot of public attention. But the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, and his government did nothing about them. Discontent and opposition grew in the country. The Luddite movement continued. Workers in many towns marched with flags calling for ‘bread,,or blood’. However, most wellknown were the Spa Field riot in 1816 and the ‘Peterloo’ or Manchester Massacre in 1819.

The massacre that was derisively dubbed ‘Peterloo’ took place in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, on 16 August. It had been intended as a peaceful gathering, but the local magistrates were afraid. Some 60,000 men and women had peaceably assembled and were about to listen to Orator Hunt, when the magistrates ordered the yeomanry (local, part-time cavalry) to arrest the speaker, and in their efforts to do so the yeomanry set about the crowd with their swords. Altogether eleven people were killed and over four hundred wounded including one hundred women. People referred bitterly to this crime as the battle of ‘Peterloo’. The government had not been faced by an army in Manchester, like Wellington at Waterloo. It had attacked an unarmed peaceful crowd. There was a mass outcry of protest all throughout the country. However, the government equally promptly congratulated both the magistrates and the yeomanry and within a matter of weeks rushed through Parliament the notorious Six Acts, aimed at curbing radical journals and meetings as well as the danger of armed insurrection. Peterloo became a symbol: it was condemned at mass meetings throughout the country, and was commemorated at gatherings for many years afterwards.

Despite the suppressive acts of the Government social discontent was growing in the country. It found expression in the movement of radicalism which was gaining momentum in England. Radical clubs, so-called Hampden clubs, were appearing everywhere.

There were two wings in this movement: the moderate right wing led by such philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and the other Philosophic Radicals and the left wing. Especially influential among the moderate right was Jeremy Bentham and his basic concept ‘Utility’. His ideas had an almost incalculable effect on the minds of the bourgeoisie. His approach was of utilitarian character. If anything is useless, sweep it away, for it contributes nothing to human happiness. Bentham and his supporters advocated the principles of bourgeois liberty, free trade, enlightened self-interest, laissez-faire. The latter was a most important bourgeois principle. The French word meant ‘Let things remain as they are, without disturbing them\ Let the law of supply and demand operate freely, with both goods and labour. Hence we see that the adherents of such a concept supported the basic principles of capitalism — free enterprise and rivalry. Bentham’s utilitarianism contributed to the reform of the antiquated legal system in England, and it was an influential force behind the political and social legislation in the reign of Queen Victoria. Parliamentary reform was supported by the industrial bourgeoisie which wanted a greater say in the distribution of the wealth of the state.

The left wing was headed by Henry Hunt (he was known as Orator Hunt), Richard Carlyle, William Cobbett. The latter was most radical in his outlook. Through the columns of his periodical Weekly Register he appealed to the workers for political action, persistent parliamentary reform and extension of the franchise.

The Tories were in power and they were firm in their desire to crush the movement for any reform in the country. Both Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington — the leading figures in the Tory cabinet — dealt with the opposition movement severely and brutally.

The situation surrounding the throne enhanced the unpopularity of the whole regime. In 1820 George III, after an interval of insanity which continued for 10 years died detested and despised by the people. The prince regent was extravagant, selfish and completely unfit to reign. Moreover, a political scandal followed. As Regent he was separated from his wife, and after the death of George III she demanded her place as queen. A disgusting series of events followed when the people openly expressed their anger with the whole scandal. Eventually, the regent was crowned as George IV (1820—30) and the ruling oligarchy,decided to discharge the explosive atmosphere in the country by forming a government of moderate politicians: George Canning, a liberal Tory became foreign and later prime minister (Castlereagh, the embodiment of reaction, killed himself in a fit of insanity and when his body was carried for burial the crowds of Londoners openly cheered his death), Robert Peel known for his moderate views became home minister and Huskisson, another liberal Tory, minister for trade. This change of facade meant that the ruling-circles frightened by the mounting opposition in the country against open reaction decided to change tactics and apply new disguised measures of moderation to cool down the spirit of radicalism in the country.

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