The question of why Britain had no revolution in 1848 can be addressed in several ways. The classical view claims that Revolution did not come to Britain because government had been based on the liberal tradition since 1688. Moderate British governments listened to the discontent of the people and reacted with political reforms, preventing the need for violence. This view is plausible in relation to events in Britain, but it sees Britain as totally detached and unrelated from events on the continent, which it was not.
This essay will examine Britain in 1848 in the context of the wider European upheavals, highlighting why it avoided revolution. During the years 1848-49 revolutions broke out across Europe, each with its own particular problems. In brief, severe economic crisis coincided with social crisis and political problems1. It is important to take this constellation of crisis into account with regard to the continental revolutions of 1848. Roger Price maintains that few people really wanted or expected revolution2. In Britain this too was certainly the case.
Fears of revolution sparked by those on the continent were high and property owners, who would be major losers in a revolution, sought to dominate the working classes for their own gains. However, despite Marx’s prediction that the emerging industrial proletariat in England would rise in revolution and attempt to gain political power in response to the Industrial Revolution, Britain instead had relatively peaceful movements such as Chartism. If revolution on the continent was driven by political, economic and social crisis, what differences prevented similar outbursts in Britain?
First, the economic crisis in 1845 and 1846 in Britain caused by bad harvests was not as bad as on the continent. In Europe the crisis was magnified by the ancien regime economique, poor cereal harvests of 1845 and the potato blight of 1846 were more severe and the economy was much more dependant on agriculture. John Buckler states Britain and Russia were the only countries to avoid revolution due to being overdeveloped (in the case of Britain) or underdeveloped (as in Russia).
It is true that Britain’s economy was more advanced but its involvement in overseas commerce and economic access to food imports, unlike on the continent, were the crucial factors that made it better able to secure additional supplies in a time of crisis. Thus Britain, excluding Ireland (in deep depression and little helped by relief measures from the mainland), better weathered the economic crisis that Price sees as crucial in initiating revolutions elsewhere. Second, the working class was split.
Living standards in the first half of the nineteenth century improved for the more skilled working class. This caused divisions between skilled workers and those who (as their counterparts on the continent) wanted to overthrow the existing system from which they were presently excluded. Skilled workers now had a ‘supposed vested interest in the perpetration of that capitalist system’3. Also factory workers, miners, transport workers and other industrial workers began to organise trade union organisations which undermined Chartism as the mass working class movement.
Third, the difference in the position of the middle class affected the ability and success of political movements since it was only when economic discontent gained a political focus that it became a threat to existing governments. The aggravation of Middling classes were vital in this both in Britain and on the continent as it was through their organisation that the working class could be politicised and mobilised. On the continent many wanted modernisation on the British model, where the middling classes had already been enfranchised.
For a working class movement to be successful in Britain it was essential that it also involved the middle class. On the continent it was in their interest to join forces with the working classes to create a mass movement against the existing order. In Britain, as can be seen through the Kennington common demonstration, the middle classes united with the elite and upper classes against the working class. Thus we can see fundamental differences between Britain and Europe leading to different types of movements. In Britain the existing system had shown its self to be responsive to agitation for change.
Charles Grey saw the best way to conserve the traditional political order was to promote a measure of reform giving concessions such as the Reform act of 1832. His policies were intended to separate the middle and working classes to prevent a revolutionary situation. This worked by securing middle class support and thus reducing their interest and influence in radical politics. In contrast governments on the continent were unresponsive, even during the economic crisis of 1846-7, thus resistance increased as did the ‘circle of those normally interested in politics’4.
The crisis of Chartism highlights the political and economic differences that prevented revolution in Britain. Chartism was essentially a working class movement with middle class leadership, drawing support from the disappointment of 1832. The Reform Bill had temporarily relieved pressures in Britain by giving more representation to the new industrial areas, reflecting the growing urban society, and eliminating many ‘rotten boroughs’. In the 1830s many associations were formed such as the London Working Men’s association or the Birmingham Political Union, these institutions reflected further desire for change from the disenfranchised.
Liberals felt only property owners were responsible enough and would make choices for the ‘common interest’. To those who were disenfranchised this ‘common interest’ seemed more like the interests of property owners. In 1837 the people’s charter was formed by six radical MPs and six working-class activists. Its points were exclusively political such as secret ballot, so that the property-less could vote under no pressure from the property owners, annual parliaments, abolition of property and paying members of parliament to enable the property-less to hold office.
These demands were much more radical than those of revolutionaries on the continent. However, for the majority change was seen as coming from within the existing system not by overthrowing it, which seemed the only possibility on the continent. Institutions such as the BPU served to reconcile the working classes to industrialisation by giving them a vested interest in society. During the next five years Chartism was central to political life in Britain.
Their newspaper, the Northern Star, ran a press of 40,0005 at its peak. The Chartists faced problems of a hostile government who could easily put down any violent protest, and would subsequently have little sympathy for them. Tactics were therefore largely peaceful, although there was a minority of physical force Chartists. Tactics involved public mass meetings, parades, demonstrations, petition drives, and many also met regularly in their clubs and associations in which women were also welcome.
There were many such public meetings; a National Charter association aimed to organise the individual movements and developed the idea of ‘national holiday’, a ‘sacred month’ or what one now would call a general strike. In 1839 the first Chartist petition was presented to parliament containing over one million signatures. A very small number of MPs voted in favour of receiving and debating the petitions, the majority, Liberal and Conservative MPs, simply ignored them. Three years later in 1842 came the second petition, with an added two million signatures.
It reflected the severe business downturn of 1842, which caused large-scale unemployment and wage cutbacks for factory workers and artisans. The Chartists’ final tactic, a general strike, produced the Plug riots 1843, with work stoppages in northern cities such as Manchester. These were not nationally organised but their demands linked to those of the charter. The government responded by arresting the suspected leaders. Chartism had a brief revival in 1848 led by those on the continent.
In January of 1848 fears of invasion from France appeared in the press along with many concerns of a possible revolution in Britain. The fall of Louis Philippe in France also stimulated fears of a possible revolution in Britain. No plans were made for an attempted revolution in 1848, perhaps as previous plans had always been found out by spies of the government causing them to make arrests, but Chartists regarded it as a great chance for the aims of the charter to be realised and increased their agitation.
The third national petition was set to be presented to parliament on 10th April which some, among elites, worried may become Britains ‘February days’. Chartism was strongest in the new industrial towns and rioting in Manchester and Glasgow served to increase fears of a possible Chartist revolution. For any movement to be of influence it had to have wide support in London but in the capital there was apathy among the working class towards Chartism. This can be explained by looking at the divisions between the working class.
Rowe states ‘each trade divided from every other, and some of the most numerous even from themselves’6 within London. This meant there was no common set of grievances and that the Chartists also lacked good organisation within the capital. This was coupled with the differing situation of the London working population who Rowe describes as ‘a quiescent inactive race as far as public matters are concerned’ due to lack of a common ideology. Britain had no revolution in 1848 because the use of force had already been ruled out by the majority of the Chartist movement.
As a working class movement it relied on radical middling class support. Most Chartists accepted that force would not defeat the government but give it an excuse for repression and scare away the middle class. Peaceful movements on the other hand were much more likely to receive support from the middle class and thus be better organised, larger and much more likely to be successful in gaining concessions. The need for use of force in the language of Chartism was thus to some extent a bluff.
The threat of violence was there and at times employed on a small scale but not well organised by the Chartist movement. When violence did occur riots were not planned and erupted from more localised reasons causing little if any political menace to the government. As Homiz states ‘inertia and apathy would continue to work for a long time in favour of established institutions and against those who sought to mount a popular challenge to them’7. Chartist aims were exclusively political and, despite becoming increasingly politicised, the working class was not committed like the middle classes.
Many were preoccupied with just surviving. Thus in 1848 the Chartist leaders aimed to have a peaceful demonstration, a fact that the government were well informed of. The Chartist convention also issued a statement stating that ‘our procession will be an unarmed moral demonstration’8 and even disarmed fellow Chartists. The government still took precautions, employing many special constables who where said to be ‘armed to the teeth’ and also having the army on standby. Certainly if a scuffle had broken out it is likely many Chartists would have come to harm.
It was convenient for the government even if they knew there was no real cause for alarm to play along with the hysteria caused by the press to appear ‘firm and vigorous’9. This would also increase their reputation and prestige abroad. As planned the demonstration on April 10th was peaceful and did not break into revolution. By two thirty in the afternoon the mayor could report to the home secretary that it had finished and people were quietly disbursing. There are many explanations for the absence of revolution in Britain in 1848.
In economic terms the influential working classes in London were better off than in the new industrial towns – let alone in continental Europe – and didn’t want revolution. Economic activity such as railway building and growing world markets helped to stabilise the economy and these contributed to declining support for any radical action. After 1848 the decreasing severity of depressions and a rise in real wage levels undermined Chartism as a mass movement, although the ‘nature and timing of trends in living standards cannot be reconciled with a simple relationship between increased material comfort and the decline of Chartism’10.
From a political standpoint the British system was more flexible, recognising that working class people sought a share in the existing political system rather than its replacement. Despite having political consciousness and popular support Chartism aimed to use its influence for a right to a share in the running of government within and through the workings of that system. Unlike those on the continent the existing system was open to change, in Britain such political agitation did gain results, however slowly.
By 1848 the government had made concessions such as the Mines Act of 1844 and the Ten Hour Act of 1847 which had reduced Chartism’s base of support. The established political order was solid in Britain with few divisions compared to France, for example, and had much firmer control over the middle class. Also in Britain the working class was split and many also resented being led by the middle class. These factors all worked against the likelihood of revolution. The fact that there was no revolution in 1848 has tended to mask the political importance of Chartism.
Many historians see Chartism as a symbol of hard times, a response to the industrial revolution and to trade depression. This focuses on the economy and on living standards and is similar to the interpretation of the continental revolutions mentioned above. However, it ignores the roots and history of the radical tradition in Britain dating back to the seventeenth century that some historians feel deserve more credit. (For example the violent protest movement of Luddism had resisted mechanisation in the textile industry at the beginning of the century or the peace movement).
We should not under-estimate, therefore, the political danger that Chartism posed and the real possibility that radicalism presented to the government in 1848. Chartism had both political consciousness and popular support. Britain had a long history of popular radicalism on which the movement could draw. In addition, we should not underestimate the influence of political exiles on British politics. Korner states that although the political language of Chartism referred to this tradition ‘the political establishment and the government saw the Chartist movement in close relation to the events in Paris and Berlin’11.
If sources for the period before 1849 are considered many refer to the events on the continent. The reason they do so is in connection with the presence of continental exiles, the roles they played and influence they had in British politics. Many exiles had come from the continent after failed attempts to over throw the existing power in their homeland. The British government offered political asylum, requiring in return exiles to stop their political activities. However, it seems the exiles took little notice.
When trying to understand the effects of continental radicalism on British politics these figures are critical in influencing debates. With the example of Italy one can see how the internal fate of a cause often depended on international support. Britain at times supported the cause of Italian independence. The way the British government and public reacted to the cause and the resulting amount of sympathy led the government to give diplomatic support to the process for a time.
There was, however, a sense in which exiles such as Mazzini and Kossuth actually diverted attention from the radical politics in Britain, because of the popular support they rallied as revolutionary heroes and their assumptions about radical change. For Mazzini, for example, revolution would come to Britain but only after it had erupted on the continent. The revolutions on the continent are often looked at in a European context. Louis Bonaparte, another exile in Britain, similarly ‘saw the enormous demonstrations (Chartism) within the context of European revolutionary events’12.
One way this diverted attention from reform politics at home was through the debate on centralisation. Whereas Louis Blanc proposed a national workshop scheme, exiles such as Mazzini and Kossuth helped to manipulate public opinion against centralising projects by linking centralisation with despotism. Thus response to the revolutions in Britain was mixed, there was some support for them, and sections of the working and middle class looked to them to spark their own movements and gave them support. However as Claeys has commented on the Hungarian cause for example, it was perhaps because they were so distant13that people were so enthusiastic.
Certainly the revival of Chartism in 1848 owed a lot to the continental revolutions but it was a revival of Chartism, a movement that would not lead towards revolution. Finn explains that early in the year 1848 support had actually served to united the ‘Liberal left wing, Dissent, and the Chartist movement’14. However, this was to be only for a short time. The state always remained in control. To conclude, Britain did not have a revolution in 1848 because there was no popular desire for revolution.
The majority feared such disorder and saw it as a dangerous and risky situation to get into. Britain had already had its revolution and had a parliamentary system installed; as a result of that the government could provide change when finally pushed to do so. Grey’s clever strategy for splitting the middle classes in order to reduce their participation in radical politics had worked. The continental revolutions, despite creating much anxiety over the possibility of revolution, actually served to divert attention away from national parliamentary reform.
Lastly, to succeed the movement needed to have staunch support in London but the working class in London failed to turn out en masse for the Kennington common demonstration. Conditions were different in London to those in the new industrial cities. If revolution was expected to come from discontent owing to industrial change that discontent was not strong enough in London as Rowe comments ‘London had no united grievance’15. Had people been short of basic essential food and shelter the story may have been different but as it was conditions were not bad enough to provoke a violent response.