The Reform Bill of 1832 was soon followed by other reform measures. Part of the inspiration for these reforms came from a middle-class group of Utilitarians, the Philosophic Radicals, who believed that, if properly educated, people are impelled by rational self-interest and thus automatically do what is best for themselves and their fellows.
Under their influence, local government and the legal system were made simpler and more efficient. Legal procedures were speeded up. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 vested basic authority in elected councilors who supervised professional civil servants, including the recently established professional police.
Middle-class radicals sought to expedite government rather than to add to its tasks. They believed in education, but not in compulsory public education. Large-scale government reform of British state-supported education had to wait until 1870, and then occurred only at the elementary level. Meanwhile, the private initiative preached by the Utilitarians led to mechanics’ institutes and other adult and vocational education institutions.
The upper-middle class also supported various private schools (which are called public schools in Britain). Many of these had grown from medieval religious foundations, and both discipline and education had fallen to low levels in most of them. Their reform began under Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), headmaster of Rugby from 1828 to 1842, who declared that henceforth the fee-supported schools were to teach religious and moral principles and gentlemanly conduct and to enhance intellectual ability.
New schools founded under his influence restored the “public” schools’ prestige, while the new railroads made it easier for parents to send their sons (and later their daughters) away to Marlborough, Wellington, Eton, Harrow, or Winchester. These schools fostered snobbery and class consciousness, but they also provided the first systematic instruction in the new sciences, introduced entrance by competitive exams, and became the chief nurseries of statesmen and officers. They introduced interschool athletic competition and improved the environment in which education takes place.
In the meantime, in London, Manchester, and other cities, new universities that resembled American urban universities in many ways were opened. These new “redbrick” institutions (so called in contrast to the medieval stones of Oxford and Cambridge) broke the centuries-old monopoly of “Oxbridge,” though they did not have the same prestige.
The reform that stirred up public opinion most thoroughly was the New Poor Law of 1834. This bill made more coherent a system of public relief that had originated in the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 and in earlier Tudor legislation. But it also shifted the base of this relief. The old methods of “outdoor relief” had permitted supplementary payments from the parishes to able- bodied poor working on low wages, supplements for children, and “doles” direct to families living in their own homes. The New Poor Law united parishes for greater efficiency, permitted greater supervision by the central government in London, and supplied poorhouses in which able-bodied paupers were made as uncomfortable as the limits of decency would allow.
Poorhouses offended humanitarians in the upper classes, but to middle-class business interests, they had the merit of making poor relief more efficient—or so it was alleged. The ideology behind the law—that the Poor Law commissioners would teach discipline and restraint to the poor, including restraint in the size of families—was challenged by many, while the inefficiency of the operation of the law was challenged by even more. Clearly it did not work. In 1838 in England and Wales there were something over 80,000 workhouse inmates; by 1843 the figure was nearly 200,000.
The most successful of the Utilitarian reforms in its long-term consequences was the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, after a long campaign headed by the Anti-Corn Law League. This pressure group wanted Britain to adopt free trade so that it might use exports of manufactured goods to pay for imports of raw materials and food. In 1846 they persuaded Peel to abandon traditional Tory protectionism in the face of the tragic potato famine in Ireland and the urgent need for massive importation of cheap grain.
Still another series of reforms were the Factory Acts, begun very modestly in 1802 and 1819. The Act of 1819 applied only to the cotton industry, forbade night work for children and limited day work to twelve hours; it did not provide for effective inspection and was violated with impunity by many employers. The Act of 1833—forbidding child labor entirely below the age of nine and restricting it to nine hours for those below thirteen, and twelve hours for those below eighteen—marked an important stage mainly because it provided for salaried inspectors to enforce the law.
These and subsequent acts required the support of both political parties, as well as demands from below and paternalistic or self-interested concern from above. Given the prevailing laissez-faire economic philosophy and the Utilitarians’ conviction that the state ought not to interfere with the natural order (by which the poor either bettered themselves through thrift, hard work, and a sense of duty, or else remained forever poor), and given the fact that labor was generally all that the working person had to sell, intervention by Parliament was slow and piecemeal. The single greatest intervention against the concept of personal property—the emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire in 1833—had the united support of the humanitarians as well as the hard-headed calculations of many business and plantation owners that slavery was no longer economically sound.
To intervene in the free market in labor required a union of quasi-socialist and conservative paternalistic views. Such a political alliance ultimately led to a series of acts which established a basis on which later reformers could build. The major architects of this legislation were Richard Oastler (1789-1861), a Tory; Sir John Cam Hobhouse (1786-1869), a radical; Michael Sadler (1780-1835), the parliamentary leader behind the bill of 1833; and Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885), a Liberal.
Oastler led the Anti-Poor Law movement and together with Shaftesbury achieved the passage of the Ten Hours Act, which limited the normal workweek to ten hours a day, six days a week, in 1847. Shaftesbury himself sponsored legislation that took women and children out of coal mines and that provided for institutionalized care for the insane.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a complex code of labor legislation regulated the hours of labor for everyone, protected women and children, and made employers responsible for workers’ compensation in industrial accidents. New unions in the 1880s and 1890s organized the dockworkers, gas workers, and other unskilled groups, and in 1892 Kier Hardie (1856-1915), a miner who had turned to journalism, became the first independent worker to win election to Parliament. As the first leader of the new Labour party in Parliament (19061907), he broadened the base of the movement. Then in 1911 came the National Insurance Act, which inaugurated compulsory health and unemployment insurance through combined payments from the state, employers, and employees.
Two areas of entrenched privilege—the older universities and the army—were attacked successfully in the 1870s. The requirement that fellows and staff at Oxford and Cambridge take religious tests to confirm their Anglicanism was abolished by Gladstone with relative ease. And the sorry showing of the British army in the Crimean War (1854-1856) at last made it possible for reformers to change the military system.
Doctrines of economy and efficiency—so natural to the Utilitarians, to both political parties, and to the concept of the modern state—had clearly not been at work in the bungled Crimean War. Military reform was delayed, but in Gladstone’s first ministry (1868-1874), his able secretary for war, Edward Cardwell (1813-1886), initiated a series of reforms that increased the efficiency and size of the British army while reducing its cost. In 1868 Cardwell abolished flogging during peacetime. The next year he began withdrawing troops from self-governing colonies while encouraging the colonies to raise their own militias. In 1870 he abolished bounty money for recruits. He then placed the commander in chief under the secretary for war and attacked the system by which commissions and promotions were obtained by purchase.
Almost all senior officers opposed this last change; in the House of Lords hostility to the bill was so intense that Gladstone asked the queen to abolish purchase by issuing a royal warrant. For the first time the Lords were revealed in complete opposition to the Commons on a class issue; they resorted to full-scale parliamentary obstruction. But demands for democratization of the military were joined by growing fears of Prussian professionalism. Some openly argued that an inefficient army was a protection against an authoritarian state. Gladstone and Cardwell carried the day, however, and the latter quickly began to modernize the army on the basis of the Regulation Bill of 1871.
In foreign relations, almost everyone agreed on Britain’s fundamental position: maintain the European state system in balance, preferably by diplomatic rather than military action; police the seas with the British navy; open world markets to British goods; maintain and extend the vast network of the British Empire.
The Liberals were more likely to side with the democratic and nationalist movements in Europe than the Conservatives were. In midcentury the Liberal Palmerston pursued an active policy of near-intervention on behalf of oppressed nationalities, and British “benevolent neutrality” was a factor in Italian unification. The Crimean War, the only European war in which Britain was directly involved between 1815 and 1914, was fought to maintain the balance of power.
Britain had joined France to oppose what they judged to be a Russian threat to their Near Eastern interests. Although the war was mismanaged on both sides, it at least checked Russian advances for a time and made the ultimate disposition of the Balkan regions of the decaying Turkish empire a matter for joint action by all the great powers.