A chapter from a book shortly to be published by Gollancz on the formation of the working class.

When reform agitation resumed in 1816, it was not possible, either in London or in the industrial North or Midlands, to employ a ‘Church and King’ mob to terrorise the Radicals. From time to time, between 1815 and 1850, Radicals, Owenites, or Chartists complained of the apathy of the people. But—if we leave out of account the usual election tumults—it is generally true that reformers were shielded by the support of working-class communities. At election times in the large towns, the open vote by show of hands on the ‘hustings’ which preceded the poll usually went overwhelmingly for the most radical candidate. The reformers ceased to fear ‘the mob’, while the authorities were forced to build barracks and take precautions against the ‘revolutionary crowd’. This is one of those facts of history so big that it is easily overlooked, or assumed without question; and yet it indicates a major shift in emphasis in the inarticulate, ‘sub-political’ attitudes of the masses. We must look in many directions to find reasons for this change—the Jacobin propaganda of the 1790s, the painful experiences of the Napoleonic Wars, effects of industrialisation, the growing discredit of the monarchy (culminating in the Queen Caroline agitation of 1820), increasing popular alienation from the established Church, the educative propaganda of Cobbett and of the cheap Radical press after 1815, the ambiguous influence of the Irish immigration (which—while a source of new tumults—was never a source for tame ‘Church and King’ mobs).

The shift in emphasis is perhaps related to popular notions of ‘independence’, patriotism, and the Englishman’s ‘birthright’. The Gordon Rioters of 1780 and the ‘Church and King’ rioters who destroyed the houses of wealthy dissenters in Birmingham in 1791 had this in common: they felt themselves, in some obscure way, to be defending the ‘Constitution’ against alien elements who threatened their ‘birthright’. They had been taught for so long that the Revolution settlement, embodied in the Constitution of King, Lords and Commons, was the guarantee of British independence and liberties that a kind of reflex had been engendered—Constitution=Liberty—upon which the unscrupulous might play. And yet it is likely that the very rioters who destroyed Dr. Priestley’s precious library and laboratory were proud to regard themselves as ‘free-born Englishmen’. Patriotism, nationalism, even bigotry and repression, were all clothed in the rhetoric of liberty. Even Old Corruption extolled British liberties; not national honour, or power, but freedom was the coinage of patrician, demogogue and radical alike. In the name of freedom Burke denounced, and Paine championed, the French Revolution: with the opening of the French wars (1793), patriotism and liberty occupied every poetaster:

Thus Britons guard their ancient fame,
Assert their empire o’er the sea,
And to the envying world proclaim,
One nation still is brave and free—
Resolv’d to conquer or to die,
True to their king, their laws, their liberty.

The invasion scare of the 1802–3 resulted in a torrent of broadsheets and ballads on such themes, which form a fitting background for Wordsworth’s smug and sonorous patriotic sonnets:

It is not to be thought of that the Flood
Of British freedom, which, to the open sea
Of the world’s praise, from dark antiquity
Hath flowed, ‘with pomp of waters, unwithstood,’ . . .

‘Not to be thought of’: and yet, at this very time, freedom of the press, of public meeting, of trade union organisation, of political organisation and of election, were either severely limited or in abeyance. What, then, did the common Englishman’s ‘birthright’ consist in? ‘Security of property’, answered Mary Wollstonecraft in her Rights of Men: ‘Behold . . . the definition of English liberty’. And yet the rhetoric of liberty meant much more—first of all, of course, freedom from foreign domination. And, within this enveloping haze of patriotic self-congratulation, there were other less distinct notions which Old Corruption felt bound to flatter and yet which were to prove dangerous to it in the long run. Freedom from absolutism (the constitutional monarchy), freedom from arbitrary arrest, trial by jury, equality before the law, the freedom of the home from arbitrary entrance and search, some limited liberty of thought, of speech, and of conscience, the vicarious participation in liberty (or in its semblance) afforded by the right of parliamentary opposition and by elections and election tumults (although the people had no vote they had the right to parade, huzza and jeer on the hustings), as well as freedom to travel, trade, and sell one’s own labour. Nor were any of these freedoms insignificant; taken together, they add up to a ‘moral consensus’ in which authority at times shared, and of which at all times it was bound to take account.