How Britain Became Civilized

The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain

by Benjamin Schwarz

8 May 2022 New York Times Book Review

Writing during World War II, George Orwell remarked upon the contrast between the “gentleness” that characterized contemporary English civilization and the “brutality” that had distinguished English life a hundred years earlier. Although Orwell goes unmentioned in “High Minds,” the transformation he apprehended forms the focal point of this baggy but astute political and intellectual history of Britain, mostly England, from the 1830s to 1870.

The journalist and historian Simon Heffer begins his chronicle in 1838, the first year of what was almost certainly the most ferocious economic depression in British history (a fact he neither explicitly acknowledges nor sufficiently explores). He describes a society characterized by “widespread inhumanity, primitiveness and barbarism” and afflicted, owing to the shocks of industrialization and urbanization, “by terrible, and destabilizing, social problems.” By 1870, he says, “although poverty, disease, ignorance, squalor and injustice were far from eliminated, they were beaten back more in those 40 or so years than at any previous time in the history of Britain.” His is a story of a civilizing transformation, in which Britain moved ever closer to a humane and decent society.

The transformation that Heffer relates can be disputed; even if accepted, it can be variously interpreted and explained. For instance, some historians disposed to materialist explanations would argue that whatever social and civilizational progress Britain achieved in those years was largely a result of the smoothing out of the inevitable disruptions industrialization created, to changes in economic and political power and therefore in social attitudes, and to the growing and dispersed prosperity that a maturing industrialized economy engendered.

Heffer, in contrast, identifies ideas and sentiment as the driving force of this transformation. Here he is inspired by G.M. Young’s elegant, allusive, impressionistic “Portrait of an Age: Victorian Britain” (which remains the most penetrating book ever written about the Victorians). Intellectuals, politicians and largely upper and upper-middle-class activists, he argues, moved by “a sense of earnest, disinterested moral purpose,” sought “to improve the condition of the whole of society.” This high-minded effort was made manifest in “the measures enlightened government took,” measures that unfolded in a series of landmark parliamentary acts and administrative innovations in the 40-odd years Heffer scrutinizes. These created and enhanced the regulation and oversight of working conditions in industry and mining, while improving child welfare, schools, housing, sanitation and public health. They also extended the franchise to all adult males and enlarged the legal protections and independence of women. Such policies and the frame of mind that generated them, Heffer asserts in celebration, “laid the first foundations of a welfare state.”

Although the responses to industrialization propelled the transformation Heffer recounts, he wisely ignores the hoary debates surrounding that process. His focus isn’t the reality of industrialization, but the ways his high-minded reformers perceived it. In any case, a scholarly consensus has long formed around the issues that concern him. Industrialization both accompanied and created an enormous and unparalleled rise in England’s population and prompted a vast shift from the country to the city, producing an enormous pool of wage workers. In the north, where the new textile industries ballooned, industrialization extruded huge new urban agglomerations in which sanitation and housing conditions produced a demographic calamity. Life expectancy in the 1830s and 1840s in industrialized urban centers plummeted to levels not experienced since the Black Death; average life expectancy for laborers in Liverpool was 15, compared to 55 for the gentry in Bath.

These circumstances provoked interlocking anxieties both political and humanitarian that plagued the high minds Heffer examines. The years between the French Revolution and the Chartist demonstrations of 1848 were perhaps the most protracted period of social turmoil in British history, prompting a pervasive fear of revolution among the upper classes. The ever-expanding new working classes in the foul northern industrial cities seemed abandoned by the nation and its ruling elites, “growing up as best they might,” as Young wrote, “unpoliced, ungoverned and unschooled.” Surveying the squalor and dynamism of Manchester in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville presciently offered the diagnosis and resolution of the deleterious effects of industrial capitalism: “At every turn human liberty shows its capricious creative force. There is no trace of the slow continuous action of government.” With astonishing rapidity the outlook of Britain’s governing classes would come to align with this view, as they committed themselves to applying, as Prime Minister Lord John Russell wrote in 1841, “system, method, science, regularity, and discipline” to the machinery of the state to assess and ameliorate the social problems created by industrial capitalism. This amounted to a revolution in government (albeit, owing to inadequate taxation, a most partial one) and a new philosophy of the state (albeit a most unsystematic one).

In other words, virtually overnight the state had, in pursuit of social improvement and protection, radically expanded its domestic remit. The paternalistic role that the state had arrogated to itself was particularly clear in the plethora of commissions and inspectorates that informed and enforced legislation. These probed with Benthamite exactitude the condition of England — its appalling slums, rampant sewage, inadequate schools, unsafe mines, adulterated food and unclean water — with a zeal in keeping with the contemporary evangelical urge to relentless self-examination of one’s moral state. No revolutionary could indict the British with charges they had not already made against themselves. Indeed, Frederick Engels drew his excoriating account of living and working conditions in Manchester from the reports of Parliamentary commissions investigating those conditions.

Apart from detailing the conditions that motivated this sudden turn toward high-mindedness, Heffer’s history offers little explanation for it. His account would have been enriched by incorporating the Cambridge historian Boyd Hilton’s scholarship, which demonstrates that the idea of the state as an instrument of social welfare cut across party and religious lines to unite paternalist High Tories, social interventionist Whigs, Benthamite utilitarians and premillenarian evangelicals. I wish that Heffer had explored how the British state’s decades-long project to defeat Napoleon may have contributed to the notion that it could play a similarly creative role in social policy. I also wish he’d drawn a connection between the high-mindedness he describes and the state’s new role in protecting animal welfare in this period.

Others will object that while Heffer says his book is in part a “social history,” it doesn’t comport with the current sense of that term. In his examination of the interplay of high politics, policy and the opinions of social critics, the poor and the working classes are merely acted upon. But one needn’t be a thoroughgoing Marxist, adhering to the doctrinaire formula that the economic base determines the political and intellectual superstructure, to believe that the ideas and policies of the ruling classes built the framework in which the poor and working classes acted.

On firmer ground are those who might discern that Heffer’s paean to the elite betrays an interpretive lens distorted by a paternalistic conservatism. Clearly, the high-minded tradition that Heffer praises sought to improve and enlighten the emerging working class, not to fundamentally redistribute economic and political power. Even those reforming paternalists most committed as a matter of moral principle to the welfare of the poor, such as Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (the “Poor Man’s Earl”), recognized that the policies they pursued safeguarded the middle and upper classes. Perhaps from some radical perspectives, all paternalism is merely hypocrisy.

Furthermore, the patrician reformers Heffer praises generally aspired to create and safeguard the conditions in which the working class could sustain the social value most prized by both the British middle and working classes: “respectability” — an amalgam of industry, thrift, sobriety and a structured family life. Plainly, as countless critics have charged, a working class that shared these values with the bourgeoisie was hardly the material with which revolutions are made. Perhaps, again, this makes the high-minded guilty of hypocrisy, which, after all, has been the fault most often leveled against the Victorians. But maybe hypocrisy, as Orwell noted, “is a check upon behavior whose value from a social point of view has been underrated.”

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