Great Britain: Economic, Social, and Political Change

Economic, Social, and Political Change

George III was succeeded by George IV and William IV. During the last ten years of his reign, George III was insane, and sovereignty was exercised by the future George IV. This was the “Regency” period. In the mid-18th cent., wealth and power in Great Britain still resided in the aristocracy, the landed gentry, and the commercial oligarchy of the towns. The mass of the population consisted of agricultural laborers, semiliterate and landless, governed locally (in England) by justices of the peace. The countryside was fragmented into semi-isolated agricultural villages and provincial capitals.

However, the period of the late 18th and early 19th cent. was a time of dynamic economic change. The factory system, the discovery and use of steam power, improved inland transportation (canals and turnpikes), the ready supply of coal and iron, a remarkable series of inventions, and men with capital who were eager to invest—all these elements came together to produce the epochal change known as the Industrial Revolution.

The impact of these developments on social conditions was enormous, but the most significant socioeconomic fact of all from 1750 to 1850 was the growth of population. The population of Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) grew from an estimated 7,500,000 in 1750 to about 10,800,000 in 1801 (the year of the first national census) and to about 23,130,000 in 1861. The growing population provided needed labor for industrial expansion and was accompanied by rapid urbanization. Urban problems multiplied. At the same time a new period of inclosures (1750–1810; this time to increase the arable farmland) deprived small farmers of their common land. The Speenhamland System (begun in 1795), which supplemented wages according to the size of a man's family and the price of bread, and the Poor Law of 1834 were harsh revisions of the relief laws.

The social unrest following these developments provided a fertile field for Methodism, which had been begun by John Wesley in the mid-18th cent. Methodism was especially popular in the new industrial areas, in some of which the Church of England provided no services. It has been theorized that by pacifying social unrest Methodism contributed to the prevention of political and social revolution in Britain.

In the 1820s the reform impulse that had been largely stifled during the French Revolution revived. Catholic Emancipation (1829) restored to Catholics political and civil rights. In 1833 slavery in the British Empire was abolished. (The slave trade had been ended in 1807.) Parliamentary reform was made imperative by the new patterns of population distribution and by the great growth during the industrial expansion in the size and wealth of the middle class, which lacked commensurate political power. The general elections that followed the death of George IV brought to power a Whig ministry committed to parliamentary reform. The Reform Bill of 1832 (see under Reform Acts) enfranchised the middle class and redistributed seats to give greater representation to London and the urban boroughs of N England. Other parliamentary legislation established the institutional basis for efficient city government and municipal services and for government inspection of factories, schools, and poorhouses.

The competitive advantage British exports had gained from the Industrial Revolution lent new force to the arguments for free trade. The efforts of the Anti-Corn-Law League, organized by Richard Cobden and John Bright, succeeded in 1846 when Robert Peel was converted to the cause of free trade, and the corn laws were repealed. But Chartism, a mass movement for more thorough political reform, was unsuccessful (1848). Further important reforms were delayed nearly 20 years.

The Reform Bill of 1867, sponsored by Disraeli and the Conservatives for political reasons, enfranchised the urban working classes and was followed shortly (under Gladstone and the Liberals) by enactment of the secret ballot and the first steps toward a national education system. In 1884 a third Reform Bill extended the vote to agricultural laborers. (Women could not vote until 1918.) In the 1880s trade unions, which had first appeared earlier in the century, grew larger and more militant as increasing numbers of unskilled workers were unionized. A coalition of labor and socialist groups, organized in 1900, became the Labour party in 1906. In the 19th cent. Britain's economy took on its characteristic patterns. Trade deficits, incurred as the value of food imports exceeded the value of exports such as textiles, iron, steel, and coal, were overcome by income from shipping, insurance services, and foreign investments.

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