Politicians and Social Reformers in the Industrial Revolution

Politicians and Social Reformers: A Comparison of their roles during the Industrial Revolution and an analysis of the effect of the Industrial Revolution on these key groups in society:

During the Industrial Revolution, each socioeconomic class in society was tremendously altered and the roles and living conditions of the members of those classes were revolutionised. Nowhere were the alterations in roles in society of greater magnitude than in the cases of the politicians and social reformers of the period. These groups were arguably the greatest agents of change in society during the Industrial Revolution, and were both fiercely opposed and mutually dependent.

During the mediaeval period (and until the late eighteenth century) the political scene was dominated by the monarch. Only the monarchy and aristocracy held real power over the Government of Great Britain. There were, of course nominal ‘law-makers’, the politicians, but the system of election was clearly corrupt. Members of Parliament had to be land-owners with estates worth at least £600 (equivalent to approximately $1,000,000 today.) Politicians were usually members of the aristocracy, or connected to aristocrats or other influential members of society.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the only way politicians the “lackeys of the Monarch” (Trevelyan, 1924 p.307) could gain any clout in political decision making was to gain favour with the Monarch of the day, and the only way of achieving such favour was to become the protégé of a politician already in power (that is, one already in favour with the Monarch.) It is therefore obvious that the Monarch was the dominant figure in Government prior to the Industrial Revolution.

The circumstances of Social Reformers are more difficult to analyse, because social reform is not a profession, nor a class into which one is born. It is, rather, a social phenomenon, evolving over a period of many years in response to many different sociological conditions. However, it is clear that prior to the Industrial Revolution, social reform was rarely, if ever, publicly proposed.

Cromwell’s brief defeat of the English Crown had been the only ‘revolutionary’ movement towards reform (if the defeat of Monarchy can be considered reform) and the subsequent conquest of this reform and all that it stood for quashed any further attempts at political or constitutional reform (and in so doing, thwarted any attempts at widely-ranging social reform.) In general, campaigns for social or political reform (or indeed, any change from the status quo) were swiftly defeated by those in power.

This was because the proposed social, political or constitutional reforms directly or indirectly necessitated the removal of a portion of privilege or power from those in power at the time that the reforms were proposed. Social reform would have removed power from politicians because the fundamental aim of all reform in society is to improve standards of education, and thus standards of living among the majority of the population. If the standards of education increased, the people would realise that their political representatives were not, in fact, concerned for their welfare, rather that politicians of the day were self-serving.

Therefore, if social reform occurred, the politicians in power prior to the increase in education would lose their seats, and thus their influence. Those in power during this period had no connection with or understanding of those whom the proposed reforms would benefit, and were motivated by self-interest to preserve the existing system. Thus, they had no incentive to enact or facilitate any social reforms proposed. Therefore, prior to the Industrial Revolution, social and political reformers were not often publicly recognised, and those who were met with little or no success in their endeavours to produce reform.

In terms of their respective positions prior to the Industrial Revolution, these key groups in society are comparable in many respects. It is clear that both groups were, of themselves virtually powerless. The social reformers depended upon the public in the sense that social reformers needed to convince the population of the need for change, and were also dependent upon politicians in order that the social reform they desired might be debated in Parliament and gain support.

Politicians and social reformers were adversaries in that social reformers sought to remove much of the power that the politicians of the period held and politicians blocked social reform to prevent this. This dependency upon politicians was the principle factor contributing to lack of social reform prior to the IndustrialRevolution.

The Industrial Revolution was a fundamental agent of change throughout society, and could be said to have founded the civilisation in which we live today. But perhaps its greatest influence lay in creating change of great import in the fields of government and social reform.

The Industrial Revolution transformed the position of politicians by a gradual process of democratisation of education, which in turn led to demands from the people for proper representation in Parliament. Successive monarchs also began to delegate many of their political powers and responsibilities to the democratically elected politicians. George III was the first monarch to transfer a large portion of his power in the Government of Great Britain to politicians; however, he did not do so entirely willingly.

Early in his reign as King, he had abused his powers in Parliament, bribed his ministers, and, in one flagrantly corrupt instance, appointed a Prime Minister without consulting the Cabinet of the day. George III was declared insane by 1811, at which point many of his political powers were sacrificed to the politicians, the Prince Regent being both unwilling and unable to carry out these duties.

Once sacrificed, the monarchy’s political powers could not be regained. During William IV’s reign, several minor administrative powers were devolved upon politicians and 1832 Reform Bill (to which the King objected) was passed, furnishing most men in the population with the right to vote. His successor, Queen Victoria, recognised that the monarchy’s survival depended upon its reinvention.

She concluded that the Monarchy needed to become a ceremonial institution, and on the advice of Lord Melbourne (her first Prime Minister and confidante) she issued a decree to the effect that “we [she] hereby renounce and relinquish the powers invested [in us]… to dictate the governance of Great Britain. It is our intention to give our opinions and guidance to our Prime Minister’s…” (GM Trevelyan- The Age of Change (1924)) She and her consort, the Prince Albert, did attempt to influence politics through advice given to her Prime Minister’s, however they were not bound to heed her after politicians were freed from the influence of monarchy through the 1841 decree.

The 1832 Reform Act provided working men with the vote, and the emerging middle class, (which evolved through the developing prosperity of manufacturers) demanded that they be represented while the monarchy lost its grip on political power thus, democratically elected politicians gained real power in the House of Commons.

The Industrial Revolution was equally significant in increasing the power of social reformers. The middle class (which emerged during the Industrial Revolution when manufacturers and others in similar positions could prosper) had far greater understanding of the plight of the lower-classes, and far more sympathy with them.

They were susceptible to the moral and sentimental calls for reform issued from factions of the Church of England clergy and the works of noted Victorian author, Charles Dickens as the upper-classes had never been. The middle and lower-classes were dissatisfied with the political power invested in the upper-classes, and the working man began to form political opinions and demand representation. It was this which led to the Chartist movement gaining support. Demand from the middle classes for political reform was matched with their zeal for social reforms.

Many of the middle-class, particularly the Quakers; rejected the Industrial Revolution on the premise that it had the effect of degrading people (the lower-classes) and campaigned for an increase in education among working class women and children. This was, naturally, supported by the working-classes themselves. Many also raised concerns about factory conditions, pay and hours.

The machines developed during the Industrial Revolution were seen to enslave the working men; and it was this viewpoint which led to the Luddite movement and support for the Luddite’s attempts to sabotage machinery. Demands for reform were also made in response to the exploitation of children working in factories. Through a series of parliamentary ‘factory acts’ conditions gradually improved, and the age at which children could be sent to work was raised. This serves as another example of successful campaigns for social reform.

In conclusion, as with their respective positions prior to the Industrial Revolution, the effects of the Industrial Revolution on politicians and social reformers can be compared. The Industrial Revolution has been shown to have increased power in both groups, with both politicians and social reformers gaining support and success in society, and as it has been shown, both politicians and social reformers were agents of major change in society at this time, but the respective effectiveness of both groups was determined by their dependency on each other.