The Slow Birth of Liberal England

  • T. A. Jenkins
Part of the British Studies Series book series (BRSS)


Lord John Russell’s appreciation of the long-term dilemma confronting Whiggery, in the post-Reform Act era, is apparent in a famous letter to Lord Melbourne, written as early as the autumn of 1837:

I always thought that the Whig party as a party would be destroyed by the Reform Bill. Their strength lay in certain counties and in close boroughs. The Tories, by the new construction of the House, were sure to beat them in the counties, and the radicals in the open towns.1

It is extremely doubtful whether Russell had really taken such a gloomy view of the Whigs’ prospects during the heady days of 1832, and allowance has to be made for the natural sense of despondency engendered by the way their parliamentary majority had been dramatically eroded at the general elections of 1835 and 1837, the latter of which had just taken place when Russell wrote. Nevertheless, there remains in Russell’s letter an important recognition of the central paradox of ‘Liberalism’ at the beginning of the Victorian period: that a parliamentary grouping dominated by the landed aristocracy was becoming increasingly dependent for its electoral vitality on support from the urban and industrial centres of Britain. The spectacular successes achieved by the Whigs in the county elections of 1832 had proved to be a temporary phenomenon, and, although the Whigs were never extinguished in these constituencies as Russell seemed to fear, it is true that they were never again to be more than a substantial minority presence.


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© T. A. Jenkins 1994

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  • T. A. Jenkins

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