Modern World History

British Political Tradition

Throughout the 18th century Britain saw a considerable expansion of population as well as agricultural production and trade and commerce. Such sustained growth in turn unleashed new social and political forces in the country. By the close of the century England, Scotland and Wales were getting rapidly urbanized and witnessing the rise of new social order dominated by middle and working classes in place of old clergy, landowners and agricultural workers. The relations between new social groups were qualitatively different from those of old order. A much greater degree of competition and conflict characterized the relations of these classes as deference or acceptances of hierarchical differences were now on the decline.

There was a growth of informed public opinion with the growing number of newspapers and rise of numerous associations and pressure groups dedicated to various public causes including electoral reforms, the abolition of slavery and free trade etc. characterized the political scenario. The reign of George III who ruled Britain from 1760 to 1820, the fight for liberal rights by leaders like Fox and Wilkes and issues rose by the liberation of British colonies in America after 1776 further stoked such discontent. The last decades of the 18th century were marked by major protests against monarchical influence in the working of the parliament and also against the violation of individual liberty by the government. Britain had a tradition of liberal thoughts going back to the revolutionary decades when philosophers like John Lock had espoused a new theory of state where state was bound to safeguard persons property. The new controversies generated by the Wilkes case centering on the freedom of press and protection against arbitrary arrests during 1760s and 1770s further brought the issues of civil rights to the fore in British politics. The formation of the society for the defense of bill of rights in 1769 and the society for constitutional information in 1780 gave organized shape to such struggles.

The British state responded to these different demands in diverse ways. Some economic and administrative reforms were accepted to accommodate the aspirations of the rising middle classes. Such reformist conservatism of the British oligarchy distinguished it clearly from the rightist forces in the regimes of the period and helped in forging an early alliance between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie there. But the demands of the workers were viewed with general suspicion and suppressed unequivocally in the initial years of industrialization. After 1820 some shift in the attitudes of the state especially towards the middle class demands for economic and administrative reforms was evident. A new group of ministers including Canning, Huskies and Robert Peel now started a series of reforms in state finances, tariff, police and courts etc. The Whig governments of Lord Grey and Lord Russell brought further constitutional and administrative changes during the 1830s.These reforms played an important role in orienting Britain towards a modern economy and administration.

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