Politics and society in mid-Victorian Glasgow, 1846-1886
Hutchison, Iain George Campbell
Despite the impression of stability and placidity which is conveyed by the virtually uninterrupted Liberal monopoly of its parliamentary representation between 1846 and 1886, Glasgow presents a useful case study of the interaction of political ideas and behaviour with socio-economic movements and institutions in mid-Victorian Britain especially as it was the second largest city. Class was not the basis of political allegiance, and indeed relations between the social classes were generally harmonious. Nevertheless, the economic foundations of the city were transformed after about 1860 with the decline of the textile industry and the rise of heavy engineering, shipbuilding and metal manufacturing sectors, and this shift created important social changes. As a rule, too, economic interests groups were not politically homogeneous, but there is evidence that religious issues provided a significant, (though not definitive), factor in shaping political allegiances. The Glasgow Liberal party consisted of three broad strands: the Whigs, the Dissenting Radicals and the working-class Lib-Labs. Each espoused distinctive facets of Liberalism: the upper-class Whigs, the historic traditions of reform; the more middle-class Radicals, an evangelical interest in temperance, disestablishment and social regeneration based on Christian principles; the Lib-Labs, the political, social and intellectual elevation of the common man. Yet while there was no monolithic unity here, there were wide areas of shared doctrine - free trade and, above all, the commitment to constitutional and political advance - which acted to bind them closely together. Thus, while important social changes occurred to produce alterations in the relative strength of the factions, any fissiparous tendencies could be contained within the framework of common ideals. The Conservatives put no emphasis on such social or economic issues as social reform or tariff reform, but rather appealed to the strong ultra-Protestant sentiments prevalent in Glasgow. This was typified by the party's semi-official liaison with the Orange Order. In addition the Tories also began in this era to establish themselves as the patriotic party. Neither party organisation was active in dealing with technical matters like registration, but each played a different role in promoting their party's prospects. As befitted a minority party, the Conservative Association strove to sustain the spirits of the converted and to propagandise others. The Liberal body in contrast served as a vehicle whereby the various factions sought to secure control over the choice of candidates or to win endorsement for their sectional credos. Hence a powerful caucus emerged, manipulating the mass Liberal movement in order to legitimise the demands of faction. Before 1886, the solidarity of the two major parties left the sizeable Irish element unable to deploy its voting power in order to wring concessions from either. The difficulties of the Irish nationalists were further compounded by a series of obstacles encountered both within their own community and amongst non-Irish Glaswegians. Socialism, too, was powerless, for it only attracted a handful of lower-middle-class young intellectuals, who failed to dent the massive loyalty displayed by the working-classes to Liberalism. At the time, the Home Rule split of 1886 did not appear an irreparable breach and only in retrospect did it take on the semblance of finality. It was not the culmination of a long succession of policy divergences among Liberals leading inevitably to a rupture, nor did it create a class-based realignment of politics. The issue was argued between protagonists as a genuine disagreement over the principles of Liberalism, and only very gradually did the position adopted by the Liberal Unionists harden into one of permanent opposition to the Gladstonian Liberal party, before which there were numerous re-conversions to the latter. However, the mould in which mid-Victorian politics in Glasgow had been set was shattered.