Crown, Church and Constitution
Popular Conservatism in England, 1815-1867
Studies in British & Imperial History, vol. 5
New York: Berghahn, 2016*
Hardcover. viii+316 p. ISBN 978-1785331404. $110
Reviewed by Emily Jones
Pembroke College, University of Cambridge
The perceived need to ‘explain’ the ‘conservative working man’ or woman is immediately suggestive of a number of problematic assumptions. The first and most obvious is that the phrase is, to many, a contradiction in terms: surely the worker (male or female) knows on some level that their best interests will be served by the ‘progressive’ party – whether Liberal or Labour? In order to explain the conservative workers’ supposed transgression, therefore, it is necessary to assert that they must have been tricked in some way. The assumption here, of course, is that the workers’ best interests are either material interests or those that liberate them in some way from structures of oppression defined against modern standards and expectations. The reason for the lower classes supporting, say, the Tories in the 1830s or in the 1890s (never mind in the 2010s) is based on some kind of false consciousness, simple ignorance, or an oversupply of free beer, rather than as genuine or considered support for a C/conservative alternative.
Jörg Neuheiser’s Crown, Church and Constitution : Popular Conservatism in England, 1815-1867 offers another explanation – for nineteenth-century England, at least. In the first half of the nineteenth century, many of those working- and not-quite-middle-class political participants had genuine ‘conservative’ political beliefs based on a Tory, or Conservative, conception of the English Constitution. This conservative constitutionalism was centred on three key points: the defence of the traditional position of the Crown as well as other institutions such as the House of Lords; the defence of the Anglican Church as the established national church; and the defence of traditional elites as leaders in society . Conservative constitutionalism provided the underlying basis for a form of ‘conservatism’ that is in some sense separate from the national, and relatively elite, Conservative Party: being a conservative was not simply about ‘casting a ballot for a Conservative candidate or supporting the policies of the Conservatives in Parliament’ but encompassed a much broader ‘amalgam of ideas, traditions, rituals and practices’ .
The popular defence of these key principles is traced by Neuheiser from the loyalist reaction against the French Revolution in the 1790s, through to the late-Victorian period – that is, to the moment in which, according to a great deal of scholarship, the Conservative Party became incredibly successful at mobilising popular support around the country . Neuheiser demonstrates that, throughout the intervening period, key motivators for these Conservative supporters right across the social spectrum included their sense of patriotism; of their Protestant Christianity (and its relation, hatred of Catholicism); and of the importance of history and tradition. In providing a sustained link between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the enactment of the household franchise, Church, Crown and Constitution is a convincing and much-needed study of Conservative behaviour and motivating ideas.
Neuheiser illustrates, through the regional and national newspapers of Bolton, Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire and London, the extent of Conservative political participation and engagement amongst the lower classes. The ‘lower classes’ are broadly defined, encompassing those whose social status was considered below the ranks of the ‘middle classes’ and were commonly referred to as the ‘lower orders’ (or ranks or classes), ‘operatives’, or the ‘working classes’ (or the ‘labouring’, ‘humbler’, or ‘poorer’ classes) . Especially revealing are the Operative Conservative Associations set up in the 1830s to attract Conservative support amongst the lower classes through meetings, speeches, and assemblies. Most speakers to Operative Conservative Associations chose not to speak on topics such as the New Poor Law or factory regulations, but on a conservative understanding of the monarchy and the constitution, of the need to defend the role of the Anglican Church as an established church, and to refute attacks on English society by radicals [68, 228]. This did not, however, mean that Conservatives like Richard Oastler and Michael Sadler were unable, in other circumstances, to provide popular constructive suggestions for future social reforms which simultaneously maintained the structures, institutions, and hierarchies of English life [206, 208]. Instead, it illustrates the wide resonance that appeals to imaginative ideals of the English Constitution could have, and the powerful responses they evoked.
However, given the assumptions made about popular C/conservatism discussed above and the extensive literature on the radical politics of this period – most obviously Chartism – Neuheiser has a lot of historiographical baggage to contend with. This is particularly true in the first chapter, on crowds and popular support for the monarchy, and in discussions of popular ‘conservative’ instincts on topics such as anti-Catholicism and the response to ‘Papal Aggression’ in the 1850s. At times, therefore, the historiographical engagement sits heavily on the reader – even when one is familiar with the literature being critiqued. I also wondered, in the same way that we can think about Chartism in a radical tradition with roots going back the 1760s, we might consider whether Neuheiser’s conservative constitutionalism has a longer popular root than the 1790s.
Given the centrality of Neuheiser’s argument for the importance of conservative constitutionalism, I was disappointed that this same argument was not drawn through the women who make a fleeting appearance at the close of the book. As Neuheiser demonstrates, appeals to lower-class women were made on points of morality and the family because both male and female Conservatives painted themselves as the defenders of traditional family values . Admittedly, as Neuheiser states, there are some difficulties finding sufficient source material on Conservative women’s political thoughts and activities. Yet it is a pity that women appear only as a final thought. Why, I wonder, did these women join Conservative Sick and Burial Associations rather than Liberal or radical ones ? Was this just about a domestic ideal or was it also about political and constitutional values? Surely the answer has to be the latter, but this could have been more clearly argued.
Neuheiser’s book is a fascinating and important monograph for all scholars and students of British political history. It is also a timely and pertinent one. At last, more and more nineteenth-century political and intellectual history is beginning to realise the importance of the constitution for shaping political identities. As Neuheiser shows, the liberties of the English, or British, Constitution could be treasured and defended just as fiercely by the English working classes as by their social superiors right across the political spectrum.
* Translation of Krone, Kirche und Verfassung : Konservatismus in den englischen Unterschichten 1815-1867. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010.
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