The Vic­to­ri­ans’ long shadow

Queen Vic­to­ria died in 1901, so why did the big­gest is­sues of her reign dom­i­nate Bri­tish pol­i­tics into the 1980s and be­yond?

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - By David Can­na­dine

David Can­na­dine ex­plains why the Vic­to­rian era de­fined po­lit­i­cal dis­course in Bri­tain up to the 1980s and be­yond

There were two very dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the 19th cen­tury, both of which ex­er­cised a large but con­trast­ing in­flu­ence on 20th-cen­tury Bri­tish politi­cians. One it­er­a­tion of this story took its stand­point in 1897, at the time of Queen Vic­to­ria’s di­a­mond ju­bilee, and cat­a­logued the mas­sive achieve­ments of the pre­ced­ing 60 years: un­prece­dented con­sti­tu­tional and po­lit­i­cal progress, with the or­dered march to­wards democ­racy, as ex­em­pli­fied by the Re­form Acts of 1867 and 1885; un­par­al­leled so­cial sta­bil­ity, com­pared to the tur­moil and rev­o­lu­tions that char­ac­terised so much of con­tem­po­rary Europe; un­ri­valled eco­nomic suc­cess as the ‘work­shop of the world’, made plain at the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1851 and reg­u­larly pro­claimed there­after; and the creation and gov­er­nance of the great­est transoceanic em­pire the world had ever known.

Here was an as­ton­ish­ing na­tional nar­ra­tive of gold and glory, of god­li­ness and great­ness, em­bod­ied and per­son­i­fied in that one short woman mak­ing her way to St Paul’s Cathe­dral for her earthly apoth­e­o­sis in the sum­mer of 1897. From this proud and con­fi­dent per­spec­tive, late 19th-cen­tury Bri­tain was the best of all pos­si­ble worlds: so much so that the prime task of pa­tri­otic, con­ser­va­tive state­craft dur­ing the 20th cen­tury was to pre­serve it, to safe­guard it, to get back to it, or to recre­ate it.

Con­sider Stan­ley Bald­win, the dom­i­nant fig­ure in Bri­tish pol­i­tics be­tween 1923 and 1937, and prime min­is­ter on three oc­ca­sions. Born in 1867, Bald­win was a child of the Vic­to­rian world, and re­mained at­tracted all his life to the lo­cal, pa­ter­nal regime that had thrived in his fam­ily-owned iron­works near Bewd­ley in Worces­ter­shire. And it was this es­sen­tially late 19th-cen­tury vi­sion – of pol­i­tics, so­ci­ety and the econ­omy – which he sought to ar­tic­u­late and ad­vo­cate dur­ing his years of power. Bald­win’s public doc­trine was gen­uinely and feel­ingly re­li­gious, and he de­lighted in Bri­tain’s con­tin­ued con­sti­tu­tional sta­bil­ity and in its fur­ther suc­cess­ful avoid­ance of Euro­pean rev­o­lu­tion. Above all, he stood for those two car­di­nal 19th-cen­tury virtues: re­spectabil­ity and public spirit­ed­ness.

So, too, did most of the other in­flu­en­tial fig­ures of the in­ter­war years: Ge­orge V as king and em­peror of In­dia, Sir Ed­ward Grey and Lord Hal­i­fax in pol­i­tics, arch­bishop Cosmo Lang in re­li­gion, Sir John Reith at the re­cently es­tab­lished BBC, and Ge­orge Macau­lay Trevelyan in his­tory. Like Bald­win, all of them were quin­tes­sen­tial Vic­to­rian fig­ures, both in their age and in their out­look. And like him again, they all be­lieved that what was best for Bri­tain and its em­pire dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s was to try to re­turn to how things had been be­fore the lamps had gone out in 1914, and be­fore Queen Vic­to­ria had died 13 years ear­lier.

Or con­sider Win­ston Churchill, who be­came an MP while the queen-em­press was still on the throne, who was 25 be­fore she died, and who never ceased to de­light in hav­ing grown up in what he later came to re­gard as the “au­gust, un­chal­lenged, tran­quil glow of the Vic­to­rian era”. As be­fit­ted a man of his time and gen­er­a­tion, Churchill re­mained all his life a unique amal­gam of Glad­sto­nian Lib­er­al­ism (es­pe­cially over free trade and so­cial ame­lio­ra­tion) and Dis­raelian Con­ser­vatism (par­tic­u­larly in the case of the monar­chy, In­dia and the em­pire). As Nor­man Rose ob­served in his bi­og­ra­phy, Churchill would have made a great Vic­to­rian prime min­is­ter.

But in­stead he was obliged to spend most of his po­lit­i­cal life in what he called the “woe and ruin” of the first half of the 20th cen­tury, where the key task was to try to de­fend im­pe­rial Bri­tain from the many en­e­mies that as­sailed it. There was Lenin and the “foul ba­boon­ery” of Bol­she­vism, which threat­ened or­der, sta­bil­ity and monar­chy. There was Ma­hatma Gandhi, who threat­ened In­dia, the em­pire and thus Bri­tain’s con­tin­ued ex­is­tence as a great world power. And there was Hitler, who threat­ened lib­erty, democ­racy and (once again) na­tional se­cu­rity and in­ter­na­tional great­ness. Like Bald­win, al­beit from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, Churchill re­garded late 19th-cen­tury Bri­tain as the best of all pos­si­ble worlds, and he de­voted his long life and ex­cep­tional tal­ents and en­er­gies to try­ing to pre­serve or to sal­vage as much of that mag­nif­i­cent in­her­i­tance as pos­si­ble.

Or think about, in more re­cent times, the out­look and at­ti­tudes of Mar­garet Thatcher. Born in 1925, she was not her­self a late Vic­to­rian, but her fa­ther, Al­der­man Al­fred Roberts, with his Gran­tham cor­ner shop, and his ar­dent be­lief in self-help and self-im­prove­ment, em­phat­i­cally was. And it was from him, as Thatcher so fre­quently re­called, that she learned those quin­tes­sen­tial ‘Vic­to­rian val­ues’ of thrift, so­bri­ety, hard work, in­de­pen­dence and self-reliance – val­ues which she be­lieved had made Bri­tain great in the past, and val­ues which she was de­ter­mined would, un­der her own lead­er­ship, make the United King­dom great again. For Thatcher, as for Bald­win and for Churchill, 19th-cen­tury Bri­tain was in­deed the na­tion at its zenith: as the virtues of self-help en­abled the Bri­tish to self­help them­selves to the great­est em­pire the

world had ever seen. And her whole po­lit­i­cal agenda was built around the no­tion of recre­at­ing this van­ished golden age of na­tional great­ness: by rolling back the state, the civil ser­vice and the trade unions, so as to free up once again those in­nate but thwarted char­ac­ter­is­tics of en­trepreneurial en­ergy and wealth-cre­at­ing zeal; and by re­assert­ing Bri­tain’s place in the world, as ex­em­pli­fied by the tri­umph of the Falk­lands War, when the gun­boats were again sent out with an al­most Palmer­sto­nian rel­ish and de­ter­mi­na­tion – and suc­cess.

These three prime min­is­ters, all of them fig­ures on the po­lit­i­cal right, were in thrall to the pos­i­tive, up­beat, di­a­mond ju­bilee ver­sion of Bri­tish his­tory. But for those on the left of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, Vic­to­rian Bri­tain looked very dif­fer­ent, and much less ad­mirable. In pol­i­tics, 19th-cen­tury progress to­wards democ­racy had clearly been lim­ited: at the death of Queen Vic­to­ria, one third of the male pop­u­la­tion did not have the vote, no women at all were en­fran­chised, and the House of Lords still wielded im­mense power. In so­cial terms, there might be sta­bil­ity and or­der, but they came at a high price in terms of the sub­or­di­na­tion of women, the be­lief in racial su­pe­ri­or­ity, and the cru­elty and hypocrisy of the pre­vail­ing moral code.

As for the econ­omy: great wealth brought with it cor­re­spond­ing greed, vul­gar­ity and cor­rup­tion (as sear­ingly de­picted by An­thony Trol­lope in The Way We Live Now); and amid so much plenty, there was also much poverty, as re­vealed in the so­cial sur­veys con­ducted by Booth in London and by Rown­tree in York. As for the em­pire, do­min­ion over palm and pine seemed to its crit­ics to be the nega­tion of in­ter­na­tion­al­ism and per­sonal lib­erty. It also made pos­si­ble the ex­al­ta­tion of greed, power and ex­ploita­tion to un­ac­cept­able lev­els – as ex­em­pli­fied by the blood­bath of the Boer War.

So, for those on the left, 19th-cen­tury Bri­tain was far from be­ing an in­spi­ra­tional place. On the con­trary, to its crit­ics, it wit­nessed the worst of times rather than the best, and this in turn meant that the prime task of 20th-cen­tury states­man­ship was em­phat­i­cally not to pre­serve, safe­guard or em­u­late it. From this more scep­ti­cal and hos­tile per­spec­tive, 19th-cen­tury Bri­tain was an un­pleas­ant, un­happy and un­just so­ci­ety, whose ills it was nec­es­sary to erad­i­cate, and whose un­fin­ished busi­ness it was vi­tal to con­clude.

Con­sider Asquith’s Lib­eral ad­min­is­tra­tion of 1908–14, which was pre­oc­cu­pied with try­ing to deal with is­sues and solve prob­lems with which the late Vic­to­ri­ans had con­spic­u­ously failed to deal or to solve. They had been un­able to tame or re­con­struct the House of Lords, which meant that Asquith had to pass the Par­lia­ment Act in 1911, de­priv­ing the Lords of its ab­so­lute power of veto on leg­is­la­tion. They had failed to ad­dress the prob­lems of poverty, to which the Lib­eral govern­ment’s re­sponse was the pro­vi­sion of labour ex­changes and old age pen­sions. The Vic­to­ri­ans had not been able to solve the so-called ‘Ir­ish ques­tion’, but nor could Asquith and his col­leagues in

For Thatcher, as for Bald­win and for Churchill, 19th-cen­tury Bri­tain was the na­tion at its zenith: as the virtues of self-help en­abled the Bri­tish to self-help them­selves to a mighty em­pire

the years just be­fore the First World War. For a civil­i­sa­tion that seemed, from an­other per­spec­tive, so se­cure and so suc­cess­ful, the 19th cen­tury had be­queathed a great deal of un­fin­ished busi­ness to its 20th-cen­tury suc­ces­sor. Cle­ment At­tlee’s Labour gov­ern­ments of 1945–51 were even more de­ter­mined than those of Asquith to cure the ills and to dis­man­tle the legacy of the 19th cen­tury. In eco­nomic terms, they be­gan with the pre­sump­tion that Vic­to­rian cap­i­tal­ism did not work and had had its day. Hence their na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the great sta­ple in­dus­tries: coal, rail­ways, iron and steel. In so­cial terms, they be­lieved that the cult of self-help and vol­un­tarism had also had its day: hence the creation of the wel­fare state, with its na­tional health ser­vice and cra­dle to grave pro­vi­sion. And in terms of po­lit­i­cal econ­omy, they no longer be­lieved in thrift or a bal­anced bud­get: hence their brave new Key­ne­sian world where the aim was to spend your way out of eco­nomic trou­ble. John May­nard Keynes was,

in­deed, the clas­sic ex­am­ple of a son in re­volt against parental Vic­to­rian val­ues, pre­fer­ring spend­ing to sav­ing, and sex­ual free­dom to a rigid moral code. (As a bi­og­ra­phy of Keynes re­minds us, his fa­ther once smoked a cigar, and en­joyed it so much he vowed he must never do it again.)

In terms of the Bri­tish em­pire, At­tlee’s govern­ment was no less anti-Vic­to­rian. For in giv­ing in­de­pen­dence to In­dia in 1947, they not only un­rav­elled the whole Dis­raelian and Churchillian fan­tasy of the Raj, but they also set in mo­tion a process of im­pe­rial dis­so­lu­tion which meant that, within 50 years, the whole of the Bri­tish em­pire, that very quin­tes­sence of Vic­to­ri­an­ism, would be rolled up, given away, and van­ish into his­tory.

The next Labour ad­min­is­tra­tion to oc­cupy 10 Down­ing Street after At­tlee’s – that of Harold Wil­son from 1964 to 1970 – was in many ways as ag­gres­sively anti-Vic­to­rian as its pre­de­ces­sors. Wil­son was pledged to mod­erni­sa­tion: to de­mol­ish­ing the slums and schools and hos­pi­tals that seemed to be the squalid, in­ef­fi­cient and out­dated legacy of the 19th cen­tury. He sought to re­place the am­a­teur and gen­tle­manly anachro­nisms of the board­room with prop­erly trained ex­perts, the pro­po­nents of the white hot rev­o­lu­tion in tech­nol­ogy that would fi­nally bring Bri­tain out of the 19th cen­tury and into the 20th.

The Wil­son govern­ment also presided over a se­ries of fun­da­men­tal re­forms in the fields of abor­tion, di­vorce, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and the death penalty, which ir­re­vo­ca­bly over­turned many of the most en­dur­ing le­gal un­der­pin­nings of the 19th-cen­tury moral code, and ush­ered in a new, post-Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety which (de­pend­ing on your point of view) was ei­ther more tol­er­ant than ever be­fore, or more per­mis­sive.

It was also un­der Wil­son that Bri­tain’s great power sta­tus and im­pe­rial pre­ten­sions were fi­nally given up: in part be­cause of the ac­cel­er­ated end of em­pire al­most ev­ery­where (ex­cept South­ern Rhode­sia); in part be­cause of the aban­don­ment of a sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary pres­ence east of Suez; and in part be­cause the con­tin­ued weak­ness of the econ­omy and the pound ster­ling meant that Bri­tain could no longer plau­si­bly sus­tain a world role.

This is, of course, an ar­gu­ment that can be pushed too far. At­tlee may have presided over a post­war Labour govern­ment that was in re­volt against much of Bri­tain’s 19th-cen­tury legacy, but in terms of his ed­u­ca­tion, his mil­i­tary ser­vice and his out­look, he was in many ways as much a late Vic­to­rian as Churchill. John May­nard Keynes may have be­lieved in fis­cal lib­er­a­tion and sex­ual free­dom as a nec­es­sary and over­due an­ti­dote to Vic­to­rian prim­ness and sex­ual re­straint, but he was also an ex­cep­tion­ally pa­tri­otic and public-spir­ited man, in what was, to the de­spair of his Blooms­bury friends, a recog­nis­ably 19th-cen­tury way.

Harold Wil­son’s govern­ment ush­ered in a new, post-Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety which (de­pend­ing on your point of view) was ei­ther more tol­er­ant than ever be­fore, or more per­mis­sive

Harold Macmil­lan was Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter from 1957 to 1963, and liked to present him­self as a late Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian fig­ure (he was born in 1894) com­mit­ted to main­tain­ing the great­ness of Bri­tain. But he was also ruth­less and un­sen­ti­men­tal in clos­ing down much that re­mained of the Bri­tish em­pire. And while Mar­garet Thatcher was the self-ap­pointed cham­pion of ‘Vic­to­rian val­ues’, this was al­ways a highly se­lec­tive ver­sion of 19th-cen­tury con­ven­tional wis­doms (what about greed and hypocrisy, sex­ism, racism and im­pe­ri­al­ism?). She ap­pointed more Jews to her gov­ern­ments than any prime min­is­ter be­fore or since, and she was ex­cep­tion­ally tol­er­ant of the moral fail­ings and sex­ual lapses of her cabi­net col­leagues.

In­so­far as any gen­er­al­i­sa­tions can be ven­tured about 20th-cen­tury Bri­tain’s view of the hun­dred years that went be­fore, they are cap­tured by the diver­gent ver­dicts of Lyt­ton Stra­chey, and Ge­orge Macau­lay Trevelyan. In his book Emi­nent Vic­to­ri­ans (1918), Stra­chey ar­gued that the 19th cen­tury was an era that it was good and in­deed im­per­a­tive to leave be­hind. For those who fol­lowed Trevelyan’s Bri­tish His­tory in the Nine­teenth Cen­tury (1922), how­ever, there was rather more to be said in favour of the Vic­to­ri­ans – and much of their legacy that was worth pre­serv­ing.

Yet de­spite these dif­fer­ences, the re­al­ity was that the main task of Bri­tish state­craft un­til 1945, and per­haps even be­yond, was to try to main­tain the pre-emi­nent po­si­tion in the world that Bri­tain had es­tab­lished dur­ing the 19th cen­tury. It wasn’t un­til 1963 that the first Bri­tish prime min­is­ter born after the death of Queen Vic­to­ria took of­fice. It’s surely no co­in­ci­dence that it’s only since then that Bri­tain has de-Vic­to­ri­anised do­mes­ti­cally, and has down­sized and de-im­pe­ri­alised glob­ally. For some, this is a cause for re­lief and cel­e­bra­tion, for oth­ers it is a cause for sad­ness and re­gret. Both views in­form our cur­rent de­bates, con­cerns, anx­i­eties and hopes con­cern­ing Brexit. Ei­ther way, the 19th cen­tury has not yet fin­ished with us, and nor have we yet fin­ished with it.

A 19th-cen­tury print li­onises the Bri­tish em­pire un­der the benef­i­cent rule of Queen Vic­to­ria. While many 20th-cen­tury politi­cians were in thrall to the Vic­to­ri­ans’ achieve­ments, oth­ers couldn’t dis­man­tle them quickly enough

Stan­ley Bald­win was the dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal fig­ure of the 1920s and 30s but his out­look was rigidly Vic­to­rian

Blast fur­naces, de­picted in a late 19th/early 20th-cen­tury print. The At­tlee govern­ment’s move to na­tion­alise the great Vic­to­rian in­dus­tries was driven by the be­lief that mod­ern state own­er­ship was bet­ter than out­moded pri­vate en­ter­prise

Win­ston Churchill, pic­tured in 1904, lamented liv­ing in the “woe and ruin” of the first half of the 20th cen­tury

She ex­tolled Vic­to­rian val­ues but Mar­garet Thatcher, pic­tured in 1979, turned a blind eye to her col­leagues’ sex­ual lapses

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