Catherine Hall’s article on the circumstances surrounding the 1867 Reform Act (nlr 208) could not, as your editorial notes, be more relevant to political debate today. It is truly a history of the present day. As Hall suggests, the issues of race, class and gender which are central to political debate today were also the central issues at the time of one of the formative measures of the modern British state—the 1867 Reform Act.
However, while a great service is done in raising these issues, Hall does so in a rather one-dimensional way. Her view of the labour aristocracy is limited and emphasizes only the conservative rather than the radical aspects of its existence and behaviour. Indeed, while Hall focuses on issues of race and gender, her treatment of class is unsatisfactory. Her view of the changes brought about in 1867 is largely top-down and there is no sense of class as a relationship, or that the ideas of classes are fluid and may change as a result of struggle. The classic formulation is that of Edward Thompson when he wrote:
By class I understand a historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasize that it is a historical phenomenon. I do not see class as ‘structure’ nor even as a ‘category’ but as something which in fact happens [and can be shown to have happened] in human relationships.footnote1
In reality Hall references no working-class radicals in her article, preferring instead to situate them in the context of middle-class radicals such as Mill and Bright. More particularly, although Hall occasionally hints at them, she misses out the key arguments amongst working and middle-class radicals in the years leading up to the 1867 Act. Most specifically she fails to identify the important strand in working-class radicalism that was both for the female suffrage and for giving the vote to those in the colonies, as the French Revolution had done after 1789.
The development of this strand may be traced back to the defeats suffered by Chartism in April and, particularly, in August 1848. But it was