Riots, Risings and Revolution

Published in

A new book on 18th-century England

  • Riots, Risings And Revolution: Governance And Violence In Eighteenth Century England
    Ian Gilmour – Hutchinson, 1992 - 504 pp. - £25

Politicians in the nineteenth century were more inclined to spend their time on the backbenches and in opposition engaged in scholarship, contributing to the study of history, philosophy and the classics. The practice has declined since 1945, with the emergence of a greater degree of specialisation among academics and politicians. Mr Gladstone would not have been impressed by Kenneth Baker's production of anthologies of verse or Roy Hattersley's family saga.

In the 1850s, George Cornewall Lewis, who was engaged in writing ancient history in the intervals of office, was dismissive even of Gladstone's scholarship: he selected topics, he complained, with readily available texts which did not take much effort. lan Gilmour is resurrecting a sadly decayed tradition of parliamentary scholarship, and it might be wondered how far his interest in eighteenth-century riots was triggered by the events of the Thatcher years, with violence associated with the poll tax, the miners' strike, Wapping, the IRA and inner city deprivation. The current political point is not made explicit, but he does suggest that violence by the government and the people have been judged by different standards, the one justified and the other condemned. In reality, he remarks, more violence in the eighteenth century came from the government and the ruling elite than the people. Often, the violent response of the people was the only possible reaction to the challenge to their rights, whether by the game laws or enclosure. Some historians have romanticised the 'moral economy' of the crowd, but Gilmour will have none of this: although collective moral outrage was justified by injustice, and it would have been preferable for the government to have avoided such provocations. Perhaps there is a message here for his former political leader.

Gilmour has read extremely widely and perceptively, and has produced readable and accurate accounts of a long list of riots and disturbances, which he groups into three categories. The first deals with issues of legitimacy, such as the '15 and '45; the second turns to 'powers and grievances', such as the game laws, food riots, duelling and industrial disputes, and the third covers avoidance of revolution which includes chapters on Wilkes and the Gordon riots.

Unfortunately, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. It is a pity that he did not develop his general points and make more of his interesting hints about the nature of government violence and the limits of popular reaction. More of the politician would have made for a more interesting book, drawing upon his own experience of controlling force and making explicit the political message which he draws from the relationship between rulers and ruled.

Martin Daunton is the author of Royal Mail: Britain’s Post Office since 1840 (Athlone, 1985).

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