United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
United Kingdom of Great
Britain and Ireland
Coat of arms
|Coat of arms in Scotland (1837–1922):|
and largest city
51°30′N 0°7′W / 51.500°N 0.117°W
parliamentary constitutional monarchy
|House of Lords|
|House of Commons|
• Acts of Union coming into force
|1 January 1801|
|6 December 1921|
|6 December 1922[a]|
|Today part of|
|History of the United Kingdom|
|History of Ireland|
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was a sovereign state in Northwestern Europe that comprised the entirety of the British Isles between 1801 and 1922. It was established by the Acts of Union 1800, which merged the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland into a unified state. The establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 led to the remainder later being renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927.
The United Kingdom, having financed the European coalition that defeated France during the Napoleonic Wars, developed a large Royal Navy that enabled the British Empire to become the foremost world power for the next century. For nearly a century from the final defeat of Napoleon following the Battle of Waterloo to the outbreak of World War I, Britain was almost continuously at peace with Great Powers. The most notable exception was the Crimean War with the Russian Empire, in which actual hostilities were relatively limited. However, the United Kingdom did engage in extensive offensive military operations in Africa and Asia, such as the Opium Wars with the Qing dynasty, to extend its overseas territorial holdings and influence.
Beginning in earnest in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Imperial government granted increasing levels of autonomy to locally elected governments in colonies where white settlers had become demographically and/or politically dominant, with this process eventually resulting in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa becoming self-governing dominions. Although these dominions remained part of the British Empire, in practice dominion governments were permitted to largely manage their own internal affairs without interference from London, which was primarily responsible only for foreign policy.
Rapid industrialisation that began in the decades prior to the state's formation continued up until the mid-19th century. The Great Irish Famine, exacerbated by government inaction in the mid-19th century, led to demographic collapse in much of Ireland and increased calls for Irish land reform. The 19th century was an era of rapid economic modernisation and growth of industry, trade and finance, in which Britain largely dominated the world economy. Outward migration was heavy to the principal British overseas possessions and to the United States. The British Empire was expanded into most parts of Africa and much of South Asia. The Colonial Office and India Office ruled through a small number of administrators who managed the units of the empire locally, while democratic institutions began to develop. British India, by far the most important overseas possession, saw a short-lived revolt in 1857. In overseas policy, the central policy was free trade, which enabled British and Irish financiers and merchants to operate successfully in many otherwise independent countries, as in South America.
The British remained non-aligned until the early 20th century when the growing naval power of the German Empire increasingly came to be seen as an existential threat to the British Empire. In response, London began to cooperate with Japan, France and Russia, and moved closer to the United States. Although not formally allied with any of these powers, by 1914 British policy had all but committed to declaring war on Germany if the latter attacked France. This was realized in August 1914 when Germany invaded France via Belgium, whose neutrality had been guaranteed by London. The ensuing First World War eventually pitted the Allied and Associated Powers including the British Empire, France, Russia, Italy and the U.S. against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The deadliest conflict in human history up to that point, the war ended in an Allied victory in November 1918 but inflicted a massive cost to British manpower, materiel and treasure.
Growing desire for Irish self-governance led to the Irish War of Independence almost immediately after the conclusion of World War I, which resulted in British recognition of the Irish Free State in 1922. Although the Free State was explicitly governed under dominion status and thus was not a fully independent polity, as a dominion it was no longer considered to be part of the United Kingdom and ceased to be represented in the Westminster Parliament. Six northeastern counties in Ireland, which since 1920 were being governed under a much more limited form of home rule, opted-out of joining the Free State and remained part of the Union under this limited form of self-government. In light of these changes, the British state was renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on 12 April 1927 with the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act. The modern-day United Kingdom is the same state, that is to say a direct continuation of what remained after the Irish Free State's secession, as opposed to being an entirely new successor state.
1801 to 1820
Union of Great Britain and Ireland
A brief period of limited independence for the Kingdom of Ireland came to an end following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which occurred during the British war with revolutionary France. The Kingdom of Great Britain's fear of an independent Ireland siding against them with Revolutionary France resulted in the decision to unite the two countries. This was brought about by legislation in the parliaments of both kingdoms and came into effect on 1 January 1801. The Irish had been led to believe by the British that their loss of legislative independence would be compensated with Catholic emancipation, that is, by the removal of civil disabilities placed upon Roman Catholics in both Great Britain and Ireland. However, King George III was bitterly opposed to any such Emancipation and succeeded in defeating his government's attempts to introduce it.
During the War of the Second Coalition (1799–1801), Britain occupied most of the French and Dutch overseas possessions, the Netherlands having become a satellite state of France in 1796, but tropical diseases claimed the lives of over 40,000 troops. When the Treaty of Amiens ended the war, Britain agreed to return most of the territories it had seized. The peace settlement was in effect only a ceasefire, and Napoleon continued to provoke the British by attempting a trade embargo on the country and by occupying the city of Hanover, capital of the Electorate, a German-speaking duchy of the Holy Roman Empire which was in a personal union with the United Kingdom. In May 1803, war was declared again. Napoleon's plans to invade Great Britain failed, chiefly due to the inferiority of his navy, and in 1805 a Royal Navy fleet led by Nelson decisively defeated the French Imperial Navy and Royal Spanish Navy at Trafalgar, which was the last significant naval action of the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1806, Napoleon issued the series of Berlin Decrees, which brought into effect the Continental System. This policy aimed to eliminate the threat from the British by closing French-controlled territory to foreign trade. The British Army remained a minimal threat to France; it maintained a standing strength of just 220,000 men at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, whereas the French Imperial Army exceeded a million men—in addition to the armies of numerous allies and several hundred thousand national guardsmen that Napoleon could draft into the French armies when they were needed. Although the Royal Navy effectively disrupted France's extra-continental trade—both by seizing and threatening French shipping and by seizing French colonial possessions—it could do nothing about France's trade with the major continental economies and posed little threat to French territory in Europe. France's population and agricultural capacity far outstripped that of the British Isles, but it was smaller in terms of industry, finance, mercantile marine and naval strength.
Napoleon expected that cutting Britain off from Continental Europe would end its economic hegemony. On the contrary Britain possessed the greatest industrial capacity in the world, and its mastery of the seas allowed it to build up considerable economic strength through trade to its possessions and the United States. The Spanish uprising in 1808 at last permitted Britain to gain a foothold on the Continent. The Duke of Wellington gradually pushed the French out of Spain, and in early 1814, as Napoleon was being driven back in the east by the Royal Prussian Army, the Imperial Austrian Army, and the Imperial Russian Army, Wellington invaded southern France. After Napoleon's surrender and exile to the Principality of Elba, peace appeared to have returned. Napoleon suddenly reappeared in 1815. The Allies united and the armies of Wellington and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher defeated Napoleon once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo.
War of 1812 with the United States
To defeat France, Britain put heavy pressure on the United States, seizing merchant ships suspected of trading with France, and impressing sailors (conscription) born in Britain, regardless of their claimed American citizenship. British government agents armed Indigenous American tribes in Canada that were raiding American settlements on the frontier. The Americans felt humiliated and demanded war to restore their honour, despite their complete unpreparedness. The War of 1812 was a minor sideshow to the British, but the American army performed very poorly, and was unable to successfully attack Canada. In 1813, the Americans took control of Lake Erie and thereby of western Ontario, knocking most of the Indian tribes out of the war. When Napoleon surrendered for the first time in 1814, three separate forces were sent to attack the Americans in upstate New York, along the Maryland coast (burning Washington but getting repulsed at Baltimore), and up the Mississippi River to a massive defeat at the Battle of New Orleans. Each operation proved a failure with the British commanding generals killed or in disgrace. The war was a stalemate without purpose. A negotiated peace was reached at the end of 1814 that restored the prewar boundaries. British Canada celebrated its deliverance from American rule, Americans celebrated victory in a "second war of independence," and Britain celebrated its defeat of Napoleon. The treaty opened up two centuries of peace and open borders.
Postwar reaction: 1815–1822
Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars a very different country than it had been in 1793. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, society changed, becoming more urban. The postwar period saw an economic slump, and poor harvests and inflation caused widespread social unrest. British leadership was intensely conservative, ever watchful of signs of revolutionary activity of the sort that had so deeply affected France. Historians have found very few signs, noting that social movements such as Methodism strongly encouraged conservative support for the political and social status quo.
The major constitutional changes included a reform of Parliament, and a sharp decline in the power and prestige of the monarchy. The Prince regent, on becoming King George IV in 1820 asked Parliament to divorce his wife Queen Caroline of Brunswick so that he could marry his favourite lover. Public and elite opinion strongly favoured the Queen and ridiculed the king. The fiasco helped ruin the prestige of the monarchy and it recovered a fraction of the power wielded by King George III in his saner days. Historian Eugene Black says:
- the damage was irrevocable. The sovereign was increasingly a symbolic contradiction in his own age. Through madness, stupidity, and immorality Victoria's three predecessors lowered the stock of monarchy. Only thirty years of the narrow domestic virtues of Queen Victoria finally retrieved the symbolic luster of the sovereign.
Ultra Tories: Peterloo Massacre and the Six Acts
The Ultra-Tories were the leaders of reaction and seemed to dominate the Tory Party, which controlled the government. Every untoward event seemed to point to a conspiracy on the left which necessitated more repression to head off another terror such as happened in the French Revolution in 1793. Historians find that the violent radical element was small and weak; there were a handful of small conspiracies involving men with few followers and careless security; they were quickly suppressed. Nevertheless, techniques of repression included the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1817 (allowing the government to arrest and hold suspects without cause or trial). Sidmouth's Gagging Acts of 1817 heavily muzzled the opposition newspapers; the reformers switched to pamphlets and sold 50,000 a week.
In industrial districts in 1819, factory workers demanded better wages, and demonstrated. The most important event was the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, on 16 August 1819, when a local militia unit composed of landowners charged into an orderly crowd of 60,000 which had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. The crowd panicked and eleven died and hundreds were injured. The government saw the event as an opening battle against revolutionaries. In reaction Lord Liverpool's government passed the "Six Acts" in 1819. They prohibited drills and military exercises; facilitated warrants for the search for weapons; outlawed public meetings of more than 50 people, including meetings to organise petitions; put heavy penalties on blasphemous and seditious publications; imposing a fourpenny stamp act on many pamphlets to cut down the flow on news and criticism. Offenders could be harshly punished including exile in Australia. In practice the laws were designed to deter troublemakers and reassure conservatives; they were not often used.
One historian would write: "Peterloo was a blunder; it was hardly a massacre." It was a serious mistake by local authorities who did not understand what was happening. Nevertheless, it had a major impact on British opinion at the time and on history ever since as a symbol of officialdom brutally suppressing a peaceful demonstration thinking mistakenly that it was the start of an insurrection. By the end of the 1820s, along with a general economic recovery, many of the repressive laws of the 1810s were repealed and in 1828 new legislation guaranteed the civil rights of religious dissenters.
The Ultra-Tories peaked in strength about 1819–1822 then lost ground inside the Tory Party. They were defeated in important breakthroughs that took place in the late 1820s in terms of tolerating first dissenting Protestants. An even more decisive blow was the unexpected repeal of the many restrictions on Catholics, after widespread organised protest by the Catholic Association in Ireland under Daniel O'Connell, with support from Catholics in England. Robert Peel was alarmed at the strength of the Catholic Association, warning in 1824, "We cannot tamely sit by while the danger is hourly increasing, while a power co-ordinate with that of the Government is rising by its side, nay, daily counteracting its views." The Duke of Wellington, Britain's most famous war hero, told Peel, "If we cannot get rid of the Catholic Association, we must look to Civil War in Ireland sooner or later." Peel and Wellington agreed that to stop the momentum of the Catholic Association it was necessary to pass Catholic emancipation, which gave Catholics the vote and the right to sit in Parliament. That happened in 1829 using Whig support. Passage demonstrated that the veto power long held by the ultra-Tories no longer was operational, and significant reforms were now possible across the board. The stage was set for the Age of Reform.
Age of Reform: 1820–1837
The era of reform came in a time of peace, guaranteed in considerable part by the overwhelming power of the Royal Navy. Britain engaged in only one serious war between 1815 and 1914, the Crimean War against the Russian Empire in the 1850s. That war was strictly limited in terms of scope and impact. The major result was the realisation that military medical services needed urgent reform, as advocated by the nursing leader Florence Nightingale. British diplomats, led by Lord Palmerston, promoted British nationalism, opposed reactionary regimes on the continent, helped the Spanish colonies to free themselves and worked to shut down the international slave trade.
It was a time of prosperity, population growth and better health, except in Ireland where over one million deaths were caused by the Great Famine when the potato crop failed in the 1840s. The Government did little to help the starving poor in Ireland. Along with the 1 million deaths, another 1 million would emigrate in a few short years, mostly to Britain and to the United States. The trend of emigration would continue in Ireland for decades and Ireland's population has never recovered to its pre-famine levels. The Irish language was almost wiped out. The failure of the British government to respond to the crisis in the eyes of the Irish people would lead to a growth in resentment of Britain and a rise in Irish nationalism. The famine is remembered in Ireland to this day as oppression by the British Empire.
Industrial Revolution accelerated, with textile mills joined by iron and steel, coal mining, railroads and shipbuilding. The second British Empire, founded after the loss of the Thirteen Colonies in the American Revolutionary War of the 1770s, was dramatically expanded in India, other parts of Asia, and Africa. There was little friction with other colonial powers until the 1890s. British foreign policy avoided entangling alliances.
Britain from the 1820s to the 1860s experienced a turbulent and exciting "age of reform". The century started with 15 years of war against France, ending in Wellington's triumph against Napoleon in 1815 at Waterloo. There followed 15 difficult years, in which the Tory Party, representing a small, rich landed aristocracy that was fearful of a popular revolution along the French model, employed severe repression. In the mid-1820s, however, as popular unrest increased, the government made a series of dramatic changes. The more liberal among the Tories rejected the ultraconservative "Ultra Tory" faction. The party split, key leaders switched sides, the Tories lost power, and the more liberally minded opposition Whigs took over. The Tory coalition fell apart, and it was reassembled under the banner of the Conservative Party. Numerous Tories, such as Lord Palmerston, switched over to the Whig opposition, and it became the Liberal Party.
Constitutionally, the 1830s marks a watershed: the end of Crown control over the cabinet. King William IV in 1834 was obliged to accept a Prime Minister who had a majority in Parliament, and the Crown ever since has gone along with the majority.
The great Reform Act 1832 came at a time of intense public and elite anxiety and broke the logjam. The parliamentary system, based on a very small electorate and large numbers of seats that were tightly controlled by a small elite, was radically reformed. For the first time the growing industrial cities had representation in Parliament. This opened the way for another decade of reform that culminated in the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846—ending the tariff on imported grain that kept prices high for the landed aristocracy. Repeal was heavily promoted by the Anti-Corn Law League, grass roots activists led by Richard Cobden and based in the industrial cities; they demanded cheap food. There were a series of reforms of the electoral laws, expanding the number of male voters and reducing the level of corruption. The reactionary Tory element was closely linked to the Church of England, and expressed its strong hostility toward Catholics and nonconformist Protestants by restricting their political and civil rights. The Catholic started to organise in Ireland, threatening instability or even civil war, and the moderates in Parliament emancipated them. The Nonconformists were similarly freed from their restrictions. In addition to reforms at the Parliamentary level, there was a reorganisation of the governmental system in the rapidly growing cities, putting a premium on modernisation and expertise, and large electorates as opposed to small ruling cliques. A rapidly growing middle class, as well as active intellectuals, broaden the scope of reform to include humanitarian activities such as a new poor law and factory laws to protect women and children workers.
In the 1790–1815 period there was an improvement in morals caused by the religious efforts by evangelicals inside the Church of England, and Dissenters or Nonconformist Protestants as people:
became wiser, better, more frugal, more honest, more respectable, more virtuous, than they ever were before." Wickedness still flourished, but the good were getting better, as frivolous habits were discarded for more serious concerns. The leading moralist of the era, William Wilberforce, saw everywhere "new proofs presenting themselves of the diffusion of religion".
Nonconformists, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, the Baptists and the rapidly-growing Methodist denomination, as well as Quakers, Unitarians and smaller groups. They were all outside the established Church of England (except in Scotland, where the established Church of Scotland was Presbyterian), They proclaimed a devotion to hard work, temperance, frugality and upward mobility, with which historians today largely agree. A major Unitarian magazine, the Christian Monthly Repository asserted in 1827:
- Throughout England a great part of the more active members of society, who have the most intercourse with the people have the most influence over them, are Protestant Dissenters. These are manufacturers, merchants and substantial tradesman, or persons who are in the enjoyment of a competency realised by trade, commerce and manufacturers, gentlemen of the professions of law and physic, and agriculturalists, of that class particularly who live upon their own freehold. The virtues of temperance, frugality, prudence and integrity promoted by religious Nonconformity... assist the temporal prosperity of these descriptions of persons, as they tend also to lift others to the same rank in society.
The Nonconformists suffered under a series of disabilities, some of which were symbolic and others were painful, and they were all deliberately imposed to weaken the dissenting challenge to Anglican orthodoxy. The Nonconformists allied with the Whigs to demand for civil and religious equality. Grievances included a 1753 law that to be legally recognised marriage had to take place in the Anglican parish church. The Anglican parish register was the only legally accepted birth documentation. The Anglican parish controlled the only religious burial grounds. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge had to reject non-Anglican applicants. At the local level, everyone who lived in the boundaries of an Anglican church was required to pay taxes to support the parish. The Test and Corporation laws required all national and local government officials had to attend Anglican church services. In February 1828, Whig leader Lord John Russell, presented petitions assembled by the main Nonconformist pressure group, the United Committee, which represented Congregationalist, Baptists and Unitarians. Their demand was the immediate repeal of the hated laws. Wellington and Peel originally were opposed, but then tried to compromise. They finally gave, splitting the Tory party, and signaling that the once unstoppable power of the Anglican establishment was now unexpectedly fragile and vulnerable to challenge.
Three men shaped British foreign policy from 1810 to 1860, with only a few interruptions, Viscount Castlereagh (especially 1812–1822). George Canning (especially 1807–1829) and Viscount Palmerston (especially 1830–1865). For a complete list, see Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
The coalition that defeated Napoleon was financed by Britain, and held together at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815. It successfully broke Napoleon's comeback attempt in 1815. Castlereagh played a central role at Vienna, along with Austrian leader Klemens von Metternich. While many Europeans wanted to punish France heavily, Castlereagh insisted on a mild peace, with the Kingdom of France to pay 700 million livre in indemnities and lose the territory seized after 1791. He realised that harsher terms would lead to a dangerous reaction in France, and now that the conservative old-fashioned Bourbons were back in power, they were no longer a threat to attempt to conquer all of Europe. Indeed, Castlereagh emphasised the need for a "balance of power", whereby no nation would be powerful enough to threaten the conquest of Europe the way Napoleon had. Vienna ushered in a century of peace, with no great wars and few important localised ones until the Crimean War (1853–1856). Prussia, Austria, and Russia, as absolute monarchies, tried to suppress liberalism wherever it might occur. Britain first took a Reactionary position at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but relented and broke ranks with the absolute monarchies by 1820. Britain intervened in Portugal in 1826 to defend a constitutional government there and recognising the independence of Spain's American colonies after their wars of independence in 1824. British merchants and financiers and, later, railway builders, played major roles in the economies of most Latin American nations.
Age of Reform
In the 1825 to 1867 era, widespread public demonstrations, some of them violent, escalated to demand reform. The ruling Tories were dead set against anything smacking of democracy or popular rule and favoured severe punishment of demonstrators, as exemplified by the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819. The Tory ranks were cracking, however, especially when Robert Peel (1788–1830) broke away on several critical issues. Nevertheless, the Whig party gets most of the credit. The middle classes, often led by nonconformist Protestants, turned against the Tories and scored the greatest gains. For example, symbolic restrictions on nonconformists called the Test Acts were abolished in 1828. Much more controversial was the repeal of severe discrimination against Roman Catholics after the Irish Catholics organised, and threatened rebellion, forcing major concessions in 1829.
Financial reform, led by William Huskisson and Peel, rationalised the tariff system, and culminated in the great repeal of the tariffs on imported grain in 1846, much to the dismay of grain farmers. The 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws established free trade as the basic principle by which British merchants came to dominate the globe, and brought cheap food to British workers. A depoliticised civil service based on merit replaced patronage policies rewarding jobs for partisan efforts. Efficiency was a high priority in government, with the goal of low taxation. Overall, taxation was about 10%, the lowest in any modern nation.
Foreign policy became moralistic and hostile to the reactionary powers on the continent, teaming up with the United States to block European colonialism in the New World through the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. The Royal Navy stepped up efforts to stop international trade in slaves.
Municipal reform was a necessity for the rapidly growing industrial cities still labouring under a hodgepodge of centuries-old laws and traditions. When Peel took over the Home Office, he abolished the espionage and cruel punishments, ended the death penalty for most crimes, and inaugurated the first system of professional police—who in London to this day are still called "Bobbies" in his honour. The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 modernised urban government, which previously had been controlled by closed bodies dominated by Tories. Over 200 old corporations were abolished and replaced with 179 elected borough councils. Elections were to be based on registered voters, city finances had to be audited in a uniform fashion, and city officials were elected by the local taxpayers.
By far the most important of the reforms was the democratisation of Parliament, which began in a small but highly controversial fashion in 1832 with the Reform Act of 1832. The main impact was to drastically reduce the number of very small constituencies, with only a few dozen voters under the control of a local magnate. Industrial cities gained many of the seats but were still significantly underrepresented in Parliament. The 1831–1832 battle over parliamentary reform was, "a year probably unmatched in English history for the sweep and intensity of its excitement." Every few years an incremental enlargement of the electorate was made by Parliament, reaching practically all male voters by the 1880s, and all the women by 1928. Both parties introduced paid professional organisers who supervised the mobilisation of all possible support in each constituency; about 80% of the men voted. The Tories discovered that their conservatism had an appeal to skilled workers, and also to women, hundreds of thousands of whom were organised by the Primrose League. Women's suffrage was not on the agenda. The abolition of the House of Lords, while often discussed, was never necessary because the upper house repeatedly retreated in the face of determined House of Commons action. After defeating the first two versions of the Reform Act of 1832, the Whigs got the King to agree to appoint as many new peers as was necessary to change the outcome. He promised to do so, but convinced the Lords it would be much wiser for them to approve the law.
A weak ruler as regent (1811–1820) and king (1820–1830),
After four decades of rule by Pittites and Tories the first breakthrough in reform came in the removal by a Tory government of restrictions on the careers of Protestant Nonconformists in the repeal in 1828 of the laws that required Anglican church membership for many academic and government positions. Much more intense was the long battle over the civil rights of Roman Catholics. Catholic emancipation came in 1829, which removed the most substantial restrictions on Roman Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland. The Duke of Wellington, as Tory prime minister, decided that the surging crisis in largely Catholic Ireland necessitated some relief for the Catholics, although he had long opposed the idea. The other main Tory leader was Robert Peel, who suddenly reversed himself on the Catholic issue and was roundly denounced and permanently distrusted by the Ultra Tory faction of die-hards.
Earl Grey, prime minister from 1830 to 1834, and his rejuvenated Whig Party enacted a series of major reforms: the poor law was updated, child labour restricted and, most important, the Reform Act 1832 refashioned the British electoral system. In 1832 Parliament abolished slavery in the Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. The government purchased all the slaves for £20,000,000 (the money went to rich plantation owners who mostly lived in England), and freed the slaves, most of whom were in the Caribbean sugar islands.
The Whigs became champions of Parliamentary reform by making the
Most historians emphasise the central importance of the legislation of the 1830s–60s, although there was a dissenting minority of scholars in the 1960s and 1970s who argued against deep meanings of Whiggish progress because each of the reforms was relatively minor in itself. Historian Richard Davis concludes that the scholarship of the 1970s represented "a vindication of the main outlines of the old "Whig interpretation." That is, the Reform Act of 1832 was a response to mounting popular pressure. It was "the culmination of a long historical process, and an important turning point in the emergence of a more liberal and broadly based political system… it deserves its old designation of 'Great.'"
David Thompson has stressed the revolutionary nature of the entire package of reforms:
- In all these ways—the organization of the new police (by Peel as Home Secretary in the 1820s), the new Poor Law, and in the new municipal councils—the pattern of government in England was changed fundamentally within a single decade. In conjunction with the removal of religious disabilities, these reforms laid the structural foundation for a new kind of State in Britain: a State in which the electoral rights and civil rights of citizens were extended and given greater legal protection, but in which the ordinary citizen was subjected to a much greater degree of administrative interference, direction, and control from the centre. The most spectacular element in this whole process—the Reform Bill of 1832—ensured that the state should also be partially democratized at the centre. The full significance of 1832 in the history of the country is appreciated only if it is seen as the central change in this mini-sided transformation of an agricultural nation ruled by squires, parsons, and the wealthy landowners into an industrial nation dominated by the classes produced by industrial expansion and commercial enterprise.
Chartism was a large-scale popular protest movement that emerged in response to the failure of the 1832 Reform Bill to give the vote to the working class. It lacked middle-class support, and it failed repeatedly. Activists denounced the "betrayal" of the working classes and the "sacrificing" of their "interests" by the "misconduct" of the government. In 1838, Chartists issued the People's Charter demanding manhood suffrage, equal-sized election districts, voting by ballots, payment of Members of Parliament (so that poor men could serve), annual Parliaments, and abolition of property requirements. The ruling class saw the movement as dangerous. Multiple large peaceful meetings across England demanded change but the Chartists were unable to force serious constitutional debate. In July 1839, however, the House of Commons rejected, by 235 votes to 46, a motion to debate the Chartists' national petition, bearing 1.3 million signatures. Historians see Chartism as both a continuation of the 18th century fight against corruption and as a new stage in demands for democracy in an industrial society.
Prime ministers of the period included: William Pitt the Younger, Lord Grenville, Duke of Portland, Spencer Perceval, Lord Liverpool, George Canning, Lord Goderich, Duke of Wellington, Lord Grey, Lord Melbourne, Lord Palmerston and Robert Peel.
The aristocracy remained dominant: there were 200 hereditary peers in the House of Lords in 1860; by 1837 they numbered 428; in 1901, there were 592. The number rose to 622 by 1910. Reform legislation in 1832, 1867, 1884 and 1918 weakened the aristocracy in terms of its control of the House of Commons. However, it ran the government: of the ten prime ministers under Victoria, six were peers. The seventh was the son of a duke. Two (Peel and Gladstone) emerged from the business community and only one (Disraeli) was a self-made man. Of the 227 cabinet members between 1832 and 1905, 139 were sons of peers.
Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon, served as the leader of the Conservative party in the House of Lords, 1828–1846. Some writers have belittled him as a befuddled reactionary, but a consensus reached in the late 20th century depicts him as a shrewd operator who hid his cleverness behind the facade of a poorly-informed old soldier. Wellington worked to transform the Lords from unstinting support of the Crown to an active player in political manoeuvring, with a commitment to the landed aristocracy. He used his London residence as a venue for intimate dinners and private consultations, together with extensive correspondence that kept him in close touch with party leaders in the Commons and with leading figures in the Lords. He gave public rhetorical support to Ultra-Tory anti-reform positions, but then deftly changed positions toward the party's centre, especially when Peel needed support from the upper house. Wellington's success was based on the 44 peers elected from Scotland and Ireland, whose election he controlled.
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey had promoted reform of Parliament since the 1790s, always to be defeated by the Ultra-Tories. The breakthrough came in his success in passage of the Reform Act of 1832. He sought this as the final step of reform, rather than a first step in a long process, emphasising the urgent need in 1832 to settle the intense and growing political unrest across Britain. He believed that the respectable classes deserved to have their demands for greater representation met, but he refused to extend political power to the mass of the lower middle class and working class, saying that they were not ready to be trusted with it. He wanted to preserve the basic elements of the existing constitution by removing obvious abuses, thinking that this would strengthen aristocratic leadership. He persuaded the king to promise to create enough new peers to force the bill through the House of Lords. The king made the promise while also advising the peers to stop blocking the bill. The Reform Act was Grey's principal achievement; it reflects his pragmatic, moderate and conservative character, as well as his parliamentary skills of timing and persuasion. His cabinet was a coalition of diverse interests, so in 1834 when it divided over the Irish church question he resigned.
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston played the dominant role in shaping British foreign-policy as Foreign Secretary (1830–1834, 1835–1841 and 1846–1851) and as prime minister (1855–1858, 1859–1865). He served as Secretary at War in Tory governments for two decades, but switched over to the Whig coalition in 1830. The Tories despised him thereafter as a turncoat, and many of the more radical Whigs were distrustful of his basically conservative views that saw him fainthearted about or opposed to reform measures. He typically warned on the one hand against delays and on the other hand against excessive enthusiasm for reforms, preferring compromise. He was keenly sensitive to public opinion, and indeed often shapes it through his dealings with newspaper editors. When he sensed that public demand had reached an unstoppable momentum, he would work for a watered-down reform. He routinely gave the same advice to foreign governments. Diplomats across Europe took careful note of his move from the Tories to the Whigs, and suspected him of sympathy with the reform movements which were setting off upheavals in France, Belgium and elsewhere, and which frightened the reactionary governments of the major powers Russia, Austria and Russia. In reality he drew his foreign policy ideals from Canning. His main goals were to promote British strategic and economic interests worldwide, remain aloof from European alliances, mediate peace in Europe and use British naval power sparingly as needed. He worried most about France as an adversary, although he collaborated with them as in securing the independence of Belgium from the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He much preferred liberal and reform-oriented nations to reactionary powers. He placed a high priority on building up British strength in India, He spoke often of pride in British nationalism, which found favour in public opinion and gave him a strong basis of support outside Parliament.
John Bright (1811–1889) built on his middle-class Quaker heritage and his collaboration with Richard Cobden to promote all varieties of humanitarian and parliamentary reform. They started with a successful campaign against the Corn Laws. These were tariffs on imported food that kept up the price of grain to placate Tory landowners. The major factor in the cost of living was the price of food, and the Corn Laws kept the price high. Bright was a powerful speaker, which boosted him to election to parliament in 1843. His radical program included extension of the suffrage, land reform and reduction of taxation. He opposed factory reforms, labour unions and controls on hours For workers, women and children, arguing that government intervention in economic life was always mistaken. He opposed wars and imperialism. His unremitting hostility to the Crimean war led to his defeat for reelection in 1857. He was soon reelected from Birmingham, leading a national campaign for parliamentary reform to enlarge the suffrage to reach the working man. He was intensely moralistic and distrusted the integrity of his opponents. He loathed the aristocracy that continued to rule Britain. He held a few minor cabinet positions, but his reputation rests on his organising skills and his rhetorical leadership for reform.
One historian summarised Bright's achievements:
- John Bright was the greatest of all parliamentary orators. He had many political successes. Along with Richard Cobden, he conducted the campaign which led to the repeal of the Corn Laws. He did more than any other man to prevent the intervention of this country (Britain) on the side of the South during the American Civil War, and he headed the reform agitation in 1867 which brought the industrial working class within the pale of the constitution. It was Bright who made possible the Liberal party of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George, and the alliance between middle-class idealism and trade unionism, which he promoted, still lives in the present-day Labour Party.
The Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's rule between 1837 and 1901 which signified the height of the British Industrial Revolution and the apex of the British Empire. Scholars debate whether the Victorian period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians—actually begins with the passage of the Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency era and succeeded by the Edwardian period. Victoria became queen in 1837 at age 18. Her long reign saw Britain reach the zenith of its economic and political power, with the introduction of steam ships, railways, photography and the telegraph. Britain again remained mostly inactive in Continental politics.
The Queen played a small role in politics, but became the iconic symbol of the nation, the empire and proper, restrained behaviour. Her success as ruler was due to the power of the self-images she successively portrayed of innocent young woman, devoted wife and mother, suffering and patient widow, and grandmotherly matriarch.
Free trade imperialism
After the defeat of France in the
Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire
One nagging fear was the possible collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was well understood that a collapse of that country would set off a scramble for its territory and possibly plunge Britain into war. To head that off Britain sought to keep the Russians from occupying Constantinople and taking over the
The next Russo-Ottoman war in 1877 led to another European intervention, although this time at the negotiating table. The Congress of Berlin blocked Russia from imposing the harsh Treaty of San Stefano on the Ottoman Empire. Despite its alliance with the French in the Crimean War, Britain viewed the Second Empire of Napoleon III with some distrust, especially as the emperor built up his navy, expanded his empire and took up a more active foreign policy.
American Civil War
Starting in 1867, Britain united most of its North American colonies as the Dominion of Canada, giving it self-government and responsibility for its own defence, Canada did not have an independent foreign policy until 1931. The second half of the 19th century saw a scramble for Africa among the European powers. There was talk of war with France over the Fashoda Incident of 1898.
The rise of the
Ever since Britain had wrested control of the Cape Colony from the Netherlands during the Napoleonic Wars, it had co-existed with Dutch settlers who had migrated further away from the Cape and created two republics of their own: the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. The British imperial vision called for control over these new countries, and the Afrikaans-speaking "Boers" (or "Afrikaners") fought back in the War in 1899–1902. Outgunned by a mighty empire, the Boer Commandos waged a guerrilla war (which certain other British territories would later employ to attain independence). This gave the British Armed Forces a difficult fight, but their weight of numbers, superior equipment and often brutal tactics, eventually brought about a British victory. The war had been costly in human rights and was widely criticised by Liberals in Britain and worldwide. However, the United States gave London its support. The Boer republics were merged with Cape Colony and Natal into the Union of South Africa in 1910; this had internal self-government, but its foreign policy was controlled by London and it was an integral part of the British Empire.
Prime ministers of the period included: Lord Melbourne, Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Lord Derby, Lord Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone, Lord Salisbury and Lord Rosebery.
Disraeli and Gladstone dominated the politics of the late 19th century, Britain's golden age of parliamentary government. They long were idolised, but historians in recent decades have become much more critical, especially regarding Disraeli.
Disraeli drummed up support by warnings of a supposed Russian threat to India that sank deep into the Conservative mindset. His reputation as the "Tory democrat" and promoter of the welfare state fell away as historians showed that Disraeli had few proposals for social legislation in 1874–1880, and that the Reform Act 1867 did not reflect a vision of Conservatism for the unenfranchised working man. However, he did work to reduce class antagonism, for as Perry notes, "When confronted with specific problems, he sought to reduce tension between town and country, landlords and farmers, capital and labour, and warring religious sects in Britain and Ireland—in other words, to create a unifying synthesis."
In the popular culture, Disraeli was a great political hero, a status that persisted for decades after his death. For British music hall patrons in the 1880s and 1890s, "xenophobia and pride in empire" were reflected in the halls' most popular political heroes: all were Conservatives and Disraeli stood out above all, even decades after his death, while Gladstone was used as a villain. After 1920, historical films helped maintain the political status quo by sustaining an establishment viewpoint that emphasised the greatness of monarchy, empire and tradition as they created "a facsimile world where existing values were invariably validated by events in the film and where all discord could be turned into harmony by an acceptance of the status quo." Disraeli was an especially popular film hero: "historical dramas favoured Disraeli over Gladstone and, more substantively, promulgated an essentially deferential view of democratic leadership." Stage and screen actor George Arliss (1868–1946) was famous for his portrayals of Disraeli, winning the Oscar as best actor for 1929's Disraeli. Arliss "personified the kind of paternalistic, kindly, homely statesmanship that appealed to a significant proportion of the cinema audience… Even workers attending Labour party meetings deferred to leaders with an elevated social background who showed they cared.".
William Ewart Gladstone was the Liberal counterpart to Disraeli, serving as prime minister four times (1868–1874, 1880–1885, 1886 and 1892–1894). His financial policies, based on the notion of balanced budgets, low taxes and laissez-faire, were suited to a developing capitalist society but could not respond effectively as economic and social conditions changed. Called the "Grand Old Man" later in life, he was always a dynamic popular orator who appealed strongly to British workers and the lower middle class. The deeply religious Gladstone brought a new moral tone to politics with his evangelical sensibility. His moralism often angered his upper-class opponents (including Queen Victoria, who strongly favoured Disraeli), and his heavy-handed control split the Liberal party. His foreign policy goal was to create a European order based on cooperation rather than conflict and mutual trust instead of rivalry and suspicion; the rule of law was to supplant the reign of force and self-interest. This Gladstonian concept of a harmonious Concert of Europe was opposed to and ultimately defeated by the Germans with a Bismarckian system of manipulated alliances and antagonisms.
Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury was a "talented leader who was an icon of traditional, aristocratic conservatism". Salisbury was "a great foreign minister, [but] essentially negative, indeed reactionary in home affairs". Another historian's estimate is more favourable; he portrays Salisbury as a leader who "held back the popular tide for twenty years." "[I]nto the 'progressive' strain of modern Conservatism he simply will not fit." One historian pointed to "the narrow cynicism of Salisbury". One admirer of Salisbury agrees that Salisbury found the democracy born of the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts as "perhaps less objectionable than he had expected—succeeding, through his public persona, in mitigating some part of its nastiness."
The Victorian era is famous for the Victorian standards of personal morality. Historians generally agree that the middle classes held high personal moral standards (and usually followed them), but have debated whether the working classes followed suit. Moralists in the late 19th century such as
Early 20th century
Prime ministers from 1900 to 1923: Marquess of Salisbury, Arthur Balfour, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, H. H. Asquith, David Lloyd George, Bonar Law.
Edwardian era: 1901–1914
Queen Victoria died in 1901 and her son Edward VII became king, inaugurating the Edwardian era, which was characterised by great and ostentatious displays of wealth in contrast to the sombre Victorian Era. With the advent of the 20th century, things such as motion pictures, automobiles, and aeroplanes were coming into use. The new century was characterised by a feeling of great optimism. The social reforms of the last century continued into the 20th with the Labour Party being formed in 1900. Edward died in 1910, to be succeeded by George V, who reigned 1910–1936. Scandal-free, hard working and popular, George V was the British monarch who, with Queen Mary, established the modern pattern of exemplary conduct for British royalty, based on middle-class values and virtues. He understood the overseas Empire better than any of his prime ministers and used his exceptional memory for figures and details, whether of uniforms, politics, or relations, to good effect in reaching out in conversation with his subjects.
The era was prosperous but political crises were escalating out of control. Multiple crises hit simultaneously in 1910–1914 with serious social and political instability arising from the Irish crisis, labour unrest, the women's suffrage movements, and partisan and constitutional struggles in Parliament. At one point it even seemed the Army might refuse orders dealing with Ireland. No solution appeared in sight when the unexpected outbreak of the Great War in 1914 put domestic issues on hold. The political party system of the Edwardian era was in delicate balance on the eve of the war in 1914. The Liberals were in power with a progressive alliance of Labour and, off and on, Irish nationalists. The coalition was committed to free trade (as opposed to the high tariffs the Conservatives sought), free collective bargaining for trades unions (which Conservatives opposed), an active social policy that was forging the welfare state, and constitutional reform to reduce the power of the House of Lords. The coalition lacked a long-term plan, because it was cobbled together from leftovers from the 1890s. The sociological basis was non-Anglicanism and non-English ethnicity rather than the emerging class conflict emphasised by the Labour Party.
After a rough start Britain under David Lloyd George successfully mobilised its manpower, industry, finances, empire and diplomacy, in league with the French and Americans, to defeat the Central Powers. The economy grew by about 14% from 1914 to 1918 despite the absence of so many men in the services; by contrast the German economy shrank 27%. The Great War saw a decline in civilian consumption, with a major reallocation to munitions. The government share of GDP soared from 8% in 1913 to 38% in 1918 (compared to 50% in 1943). The war forced Britain to use up its financial reserves and borrow large sums from the U.S.
The Navy continued to dominate the seas, fighting the
By 1918, there were about five million people in the army and the fledgling Royal Air Force, newly formed from the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), was about the same size of the pre-war army. The almost three million casualties were known as the "lost generation," and such numbers inevitably left society scarred; but even so, some people felt their sacrifice was little regarded in Britain, with poems like Siegfried Sassoon's Blighters criticising the war as a human failure. The literary legacy focused on mass death, mechanised slaughter, fallacious propaganda and deep disillusionment, thereby annihilating long-standing romanticised images of the glories of war.
The war had been won by Britain and its allies, but at a terrible human and financial cost, creating a sentiment that wars should never be fought again. The League of Nations was founded with the idea that nations could resolve their differences peacefully, but these hopes were unfounded.
Following the war, Britain gained the German colony of
In domestic affairs the
Campaign for Irish Home Rule
Part of the agreement which led to the
While government funds were supplemented by private individuals and charities, and aid from the United States, it was not enough to avert a major catastrophe. The government of
Parnell's movement campaigned for "Home Rule", by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom. Two home rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were introduced by the Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, but neither became law, mainly due to opposition from the Conservative party and the House of Lords. The issue was a source of contention throughout Ireland, as a significant majority of Unionists (largely but not exclusively based in Ulster), opposed home rule, fearing that a Catholic Nationalist ("Rome Rule") parliament in Dublin would discriminate or retaliate against them, impose Roman Catholic doctrine, and impose tariffs on industry. While most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, six of the counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be affected by any tariff barriers imposed.
Irish demands ranged from the "repeal" of O'Connell, the "federal scheme" of
O'Connell's campaign was hampered by the limited scope of the franchise in Ireland. The wider the franchise was expanded, the better anti-union parties were able to do in Ireland. Running on a platform that advocated something like the self-rule successfully enacted in Canada under the British North America Act, 1867, home rulers won a majority of both county and borough seats in Ireland in 1874. By 1882, leadership of the home rule movement had passed to Charles Stewart Parnell of the Irish Parliamentary Party. A wider franchise also changed the ideological mix among non-Irish MPs, making them more receptive to Irish demands. The 1885 election resulted in a hung parliament in which the Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power. They initially supported the Conservatives in a minority government, but when news leaked that Liberal Party leader Gladstone was considering home rule, the IPP ousted the Conservatives and brought the Liberals into office.
Gladstone took the issue to the people in the
The Conservative government also felt that the demands in Ireland could be satisfied by helping the Catholics purchase their farms from Protestant owners. A solution by money not force was called "killing home rule with kindness".
Ulster Protestants began to arm themselves and form militias ready to fight; senior leaders of the British army indicated they would not move to suppress the Protestants (the Curragh incident). Suddenly war with Germany broke out and home rule was suspended for the duration. There was no conscription in Ireland; military service was optional. Large numbers of both Protestant and Catholic young men volunteered to fight Germany.
Sinn Féin won the 1918 general elections in Ireland and in keeping with their policy of abstention did not send its elected MPs to Westminster, deciding to set up its own separatist parliament in Dublin; Dáil Éireann, which declared independence. The British government attempted to suppress the First Dáil and the Irish War of Independence followed. London's attempted solution was the establishment of two Irish parliaments to pave the way for the Fourth Home Rule Bill, enacted as the Government of Ireland Act 1920 while also attempting to defeat Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army which by this time was operating under the remit of Dáil Éireann. In mid 1921 a truce was agreed between the British government and Sinn Féin and this resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty. On 6 December 1922, Southern Ireland formed a new dominion named the Irish Free State. As expected, "Northern Ireland" (six counties in Ulster), immediately exercised its right under the Anglo-Irish Treaty to opt out of the new state. This treaty created a division in Irish nationalism and resulted in the Irish Civil War between the Provisional Government of Ireland and the Anti-Treaty faction of the Irish Republican Army. The union of Great Britain with most of Ulster was renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927, and is known by this name to the present time.
List of monarchs
Until 1927, the monarch's royal title included the words "of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". In 1927, the words "United Kingdom" were removed from the royal title so that the monarch was instead styled as "King/Queen of Great Britain, Ireland...[and other places]". The words "United Kingdom" were restored to the monarch's title in 1953 with the reference to "Ireland" replaced with a reference to "Northern Ireland".
- George III (1801–1820; monarch from 1760)
- George IV (1820–1830)
- William IV (1830–1837)
- Victoria (1837–1901)
- Edward VII (1901–1910)
- George V (1910–1922; title used until 1927 but remained monarch until his death in 1936)
- Historiography of the British Empire
- Historiography of the United Kingdom
- History of Ireland (1801–1923)
- History of the United Kingdom
- Terminology of the British Isles
- Victorian era, covers social & cultural history
- ^ The state did not cease to exist after the Irish Free State seceded from the Union in 1922 but continued as the same country, renamed under its current name of the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" under The Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927.
- ^ Monarch of the separate Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland from 1760 until 1801.
- ^ a b Due to George III's inability to carry out his duties as King after 1811, his son acted as Prince Regent from then until George III's death in 1820 when he acceeded to the throne as George IV.
- ^ Continued as monarch of the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State until 1936.
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