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By-Elections in British Politics, 1832-1914

 

Edited by T.G. Otte & P. Readman

 

Woodbridge : The Boydell Press, 2013

Hardcover. xiv+306 pages. ISBN 978-1843837800. £75.00

 

Reviewed by Ian Cawood

Newman University (Birmingham)

 

 

In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it (Thucydides)

Professor Otte and Dr Readman comment in their introduction that by-elections ‘have rarely left their mark on the scholarly literature’ [1]. For most political historians, by-elections have been traditionally seen as the political equivalent of William Kempe’s celebrated 1600 morris dance from London to Norfolk: a nine-day wonder. But the ‘New Political History’, with its interest in patterns of behaviour and the material culture of modern politics, has begun to challenge this orthodoxy. Even in the Victorian period, it is striking how much a single constituency contest could dominate the media so completely for a week, with reports on tactical meetings between senior party agents and local colleagues, correspondents from newspapers as august at the The Times sent to the most distant parts of UK to take local soundings and long editorials on the significance and consequence of the outcome, however widely anticipated and unimportant the impact of the result. It is, therefore, highly surprising that this is the first systematic academic treatment of the significance of by-elections on the rapidly changing and increasingly complex political culture of the eighty two years after the Great Reform Act.

The collection is not quite as complete in its coverage as its editors claim, however. While not wishing to decry the quality of Philip Salmon and Angus Hawkins’ typically robust essays on the after-effects of the Great Reform Act, the rest of the eleven essays actually focus on the period from 1867 to 1914: between the Second Reform Act and the First World War, with only Gordon Pentland’s synoptic overview of Scottish politics attempting to cover the whole period. Sadly, of course, this last essay also highlights the need for other chapters on regional political variations, most importantly those in Wales and Ireland, which Matthew Cragoe and Alvin Jackson have recently done so much to illustrate.(1) Much more needed to be said about the impact of crucial by-elections such as Caernarvon Boroughs in 1890 and East Down in February 1902, both of which are omitted in the list of by-elections in the appendix. In the case of the former, the result revealed the extent to which Wales had stayed loyal to Gladstone, despite the defection of other hotbeds of nonconformity, such as West Scotland, Cornwall and Birmingham to Unionism. In Ireland, the success of James Wood, a follower of T.W. Russell, in 1902 convinced George Wyndham that Russell spoke for a powerful swathe of moderate Unionist tenant farmers in opposition to Saunderson’s landlord-dominated official Unionist organisation, and this result was decisive in Wyndham’s decision to buy out the Irish landlords, which was a crucial achievement in the Unionistcampaign to ‘kill Home Rule with kindness’.(2)

Without a more comprehensive study of the regional oddities of late Victorian and Edwardian politics, it is therefore a little premature for the editors to conclude that ‘Victorian and Edwardian politics were more national in character than some historians have suggested’ [18-19]. Jon Lawrence has argued more convincingly that the character of politics was changing in these years, stimulated by national debates over Irish Home Rule and Tariff Reform, but that most of these issues were refracted through local questions and regional patterns of political identity. This collection does not convincingly refute Lawrence’s thesis that British politics was only transformed into a nationalised, largely class-based politics by the impact of the First World War.(3)

There are also a few limitations in the range of sources consulted. While newspapers are used far more effectively than was the case only ten years ago (largely thanks to the digitising of 19th century newspapers by the British Library), some crucial printed sources are overlooked. It is a pity that only the first volume of Lord Derby’s gossipy and indiscreet diaries are used, as he provides a valuable insight into the relationship between party leaders and local political big-wigs in the later volumes.(4) Other resources such as the papers of lesser leaders like those of Leonard Courtney at the London School of Economics archive and the published recollections of individuals such as J.A. Bridges and Alfred Hopkinson provide considerable evidence of a robust localism in the politics of the late nineteenth century.(5) That said, the collection acts as a positive advertisement for the rude health of Victorian political history, with a broad range of traditional and cutting-edge research approaches used to position the by-election as a crucial and influential feature of the political culture of the period. In particular, Ian Packer demonstrates that the influence of by-elections on the campaign for land reform in Britain helps to explain that campaign’s rather staccato nature. Best of all, though, is Thomas Otte’s superb chapter on the relationship between by-elections and foreign policy in an essay that deserves wider dissemination than as a chapter in the midst of a collection which chiefly focuses on domestic politics.

Ultimately, the strengths and weaknesses of the collection are embodied by Kathryn Rix’s essay. Although excellent on the growing professionalism of the party agent in the period, she does sometimes fail to be sufficiently nuanced towards the political context of the period, as she argues for the growth in professional party organisers after 1867. Many Unionists deliberately resisted the employment of a paid agent with some electoral success, as such an appointment smacked of the ‘wire-pulling’ of the caucus, most associated with the ‘Birmingham 2000’ and the National Liberal Federation, and they wished to present themselves as independent, manly individuals, able to present their case to the public themselves with as little professional agency as possible.(6) Likewise, although Sir Henry James objected to the role of ‘outside organisations’ in 1908, having failed to do so in 1883, the fact that he was a staunch Unionist free-trader and the bulk of the proxy associations in 1908 were auxiliaries of the Tariff Reform League, may have played a major role in his volte-face, and Rix’s conclusion that this proves the growth of electoral organisation in this period is not wholly convincing.

Political calculation and the search for new opportunities for advantage, in a new age of mass politics and shifting political allegiance, interfere with any attempt to read the developments of the period in a strictly linear fashion. The first period of ‘popular’ politics in Britain was a fascinating amalgam of jobbery, ‘treating’, wire-pulling and propaganda and this collection identifies valuable areas which deserve further investigation.

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(1) A. Jackson, The Two Unions : Ireland, Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007 (Oxford, 2013); M. Cragoe, Culture, Politics and National Identity in Wales, 1832-1886, (Oxford, 2004).

 

(2) A. Jackson, The Ulster Party : Irish Unionists in House of Commons, 1844–1911 (Oxford, 1989) : 267.

 

(3) J.M. Lawrence, ‘The Transformation of British Politics after the First World War’, Past and Present 190 (2006) : 185-216.

 

(4) J. Vincent (ed.),  The Diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby 1826-93 : Between 1878 and 1893 (Oxford, 2003).

 

(5) J.A. Bridges, Reminiscences of a Country Politician (London, 1906); A. Hopkinson, Penultima (London, 1930).

 

(6) J. Owen, ‘The caucus and party organization in England in the 1880s’, PhD thesis (Cambridge, 2006).

 

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