Politics in Victorian Britain was a complicated affair, in continental Europe revolution was in the air and England was still controlled by the Palace of Westminster. When it was destroyed in a fire in 1834, many English thought it was the end of a political era. Mostly the politics of Britain in the subsequent years of Victoria’s reign was conservative and the country was driven by the upper and middle classes joining together against their hatred of anything connected with revolution.
Britain was particularly fortunate as it made its political changes avoiding revolution and conflict. During the 19th Century two reform acts were peacefully actioned in 1867 and 1884. These gave more people the right to vote, but not yet women.
The Two Parties
Queen Victoria still held great sway in the politics of the day, and although the Government sat in the Houses of Parliament it is hard not to underestimate the power the queen still had in the decision making process of her country. There were two main parties, The Tories and The Whigs. Basically, Conservative and Liberal, and although the Queen was supposed to be impartial, she favored certain Prime Ministers on whether she liked them personally or not. In many circles people suggested that at heart Victoria’s politics were Conservative.
The big split between the parties at this time in history was one of supporting free trade and the other of protecting English manufacturing and farming. In fact, when Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws in 1846 it led to the Whigs dominating Victorian politics for the following thirty years.
Radicals and Landed Gentry
As Queen Victoria expanded her influence during her reign, many of her supports were from the aristocracy. Prime Ministers that held office during her reign included:
- Four Earls
- A Marquess
- A Viscount
- An Earl’s Son
And although the House of Commons was the senior house, the House of Lords was just as important. Serious political issues were addressed and put into action at dinner parties in London and shooting sprees at country houses. But during this period there was also a ground swell of disenchantment from the industrial towns and cities of the north of England and in the Midlands. This was exemplified by the well known politician from Liverpool, William Gladstone leaving the aristocratic Whigs and joining the Liberal party.
It is interesting to note that Queen Victoria let it be widely known that she had great affection for one of her Conservative prime ministers who was the aristocrat Benjamin Disraeli. However, his successor was the northerner William Gladstone and he was not afforded the same sentiments with his more radical liberal points of view.
In part two of this blog to discover the politics of Victorian Britain, we look at one of the most intriguing political battles of the time. In one corner was the highly conservative Benjamin Disraeli and facing him across the ring was his nemesis, the liberal William Gladstone. Together these two men forged British politics by their opposing views, and their fight to get their views and ideal adopted by the country.