The New Statesman Profile - Victorian Britain

Obsessed by a fear of revolution, haunted by a collapse of faith, it yet nurtured great minds, great

Although it is said Margaret Thatcher had a thing for gay men, one doubts whether she would have seen eye to eye with Lytton Strachey. Yet together, the two of them, the louche Bloomsbury historian and the virulently uptight matriarch, managed to gut the reputation of the Victorian era. The combination of Strachey's Eminent Victorians, with its denunciation of the Florence Nightingale generation and its hypocrisy, and Thatcher's fond reminiscences of her parsimonious grandmother condemned the 19th century to being considered a time of cloying evangelicalism, repression and illiberalism.

Strachey's fellow traveller Leslie Stephen best summed up the 20th-century sentiment: "One thing is pretty certain, and in its way comforting, that however far the rage for revivalism may be pushed, nobody will ever want to revive the 19th century."

On 22 January 1901, the bells of St Paul's tolled across London and Queen Victoria finally departed to join her beloved Albert at the Frogmore mausoleum near Windsor. Now, a century later, it is time we celebrated the radicalism and excitement of the Victorian age. This is particularly apposite for the left, which has shamefully allowed Tory apologists to champion the century as their own - a tradition that reached its apogee in 1986 with Sir Keith Joseph writing the preface to a new edition of Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, so turning a radical text for the artisans of Victorian Leeds into a social handbook for Thatcherite economics.

When the young Victoria acceded to the throne in 1837, she took on a nation haunted by the collective memory of the French revolution. As the cold war and fear of nuclear annihilation drove European thought for the latter half of the 20th century, so the Jacobin terror dominated Victorian political culture. What unnerved those journalists who filled the Edinburgh Review, Quarterly Review, Westminster Review and Eclectic Review was the conviction that the revolution was the product of a collapse of faith; they feared that something similar would engulf Britain.

While Strachey rebelled against the 19th century as an age of overbearing Quakers and Evangelicals, the Victorians regarded themselves as a nation horribly fallen. Faith, and fear of a crisis of faith, persecuted the Victorian mind. No one described it better than Thomas Carlyle's autobiographical hero in Sartor Resartus: "To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb." The same apocalyptic fear occupied John Stuart Mill after his mental breakdown; Marian Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot, turned to the writings of Hegel for release from her spiritual sink.

The Victorians nailed faith even to business. A trinity of values governed the market: credit was virtuous, speculation corrupting and debt sinful. In an economy of growing share transaction and increased capital flows, the dread of debt and horror of bankruptcy consumed the imagination. Through Middlemarch's bankrupt financier Bulstrode, Eliot acutely described the religious terror of commercial failure: "Night and day, while the resurgent threatening past was making a conscience within him, he was thinking by what means he could recover peace and trust - by what sacrifice he could stay the rod." Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby and Melmotte (a part that Robert Maxwell was to emulate flawlessly a century later) in Trollope's The Way We Live Now played on the same abiding fear, which led to the draconian bankruptcy laws that the government has only now started to relax.

If a surfeit of faith governed commerce, it was the absence of Christian sentiment that disturbed architectural critics. When Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace, she looked over a London triumphantly Georgian in style. The great developments of Nash had produced a capital to rival Augustan Rome. Bristol, Bath, Edinburgh and Newcastle were all festooned in classicism.

For the Gothic revivalists, this was anathema. Pagan architecture not built to the glory of God was morally bankrupt. The Catholic polemicist Augustus Pugin derided modern architecture for dwindling to a mere trade. Instead, he celebrated the "faith, zeal and unity" of England's medieval craftsmen, who had created Gothic edifices as glorious as Westminster Abbey and Winchester Cathedral. With Charles Barry, he tried to restore those same Catholic attributes in the new Houses of Parliament.

The greatest sage of them all, John Ruskin, held up Venice as a warning. When that city's piety lapsed and it turned into "the masque of Europe", its architecture faltered. Without faith, there could be no proper design. Ruskin's championing of early Venetian building inspired Victorian architects. Even railway trains, the most profound symbol of industrial progress, started to terminate in buildings that glorified a Greek, Renaissance or medieval heritage. The Gothic arches of St Pancras station could just as easily have housed a medieval cloth hall as a railway hotel.

It is one of the abiding ironies of the 19th century that a period renowned for its sense of self-progress was littered by historicist design. The Victorians were drawn passionately to the past, particularly the medieval past. "Don't you dote upon the Middle Ages, Mr Carker?" Mrs Skewton inquires in Dickens's Dombey and Son. "Such charming times! . . . So full of faith! So vigorous and forcible. So perfectly removed from the commonplace! If they would only leave us a little more of the poetry of existence in these terrible days!" In the face of industrialisation and urbanisation, medievalism became the dominant cultural motif. The dreamy images of communal solidarity and chivalric valour conjured up by Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe entranced a nation beset by tales of urban horror and labour unrest.

At the 1851 Great Exhibition, which marked the pinnacle of Britain's industrial self-confidence, pride of place was given to a medieval court designed by Pugin. When Victoria celebrated the success of the exhibition, supper was served in a crypt fitted up as an old baronial hall, with waiters dressed in medieval armour. The medieval mania surpassed itself with the Eglinton Tournament - a farcical day of jousting, archery and chivalry acted out by fashionable young toffs at the Earl of Eglinton's Ayrshire seat.

Popular interest in the past extended into the roots of Britishness. Victorian ideas of nationality were not, as the historian Linda Colley contends, simply a product of the Napoleonic wars which neatly knitted the nation together as a patriotic, Protestant and unified kingdom (an idea of the "construction" of Britain that has influenced much lazy thinking on patriotism in new Labour circles). It was far more racially oriented, around Britain's Saxon heritage. King Alfred became a cult hero and the attributes of liberty, self-government and stability were liberally ascribed to a Teutonic temperament. In contrast, the Norman conquerors were depicted as despotic, Catholic and "foreign".

This vision of two races, "between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy . . . who are formed by different breeding, are ordered by different manners", transferred into an analysis of class relations. In Disraeli's Sybil, or the Two Nations, the story of a Norman aristocracy whose wealth is built upon the plunder of Saxons reduced to factory hands, the two tribes become "the rich and the poor". The depiction of the working class as oppressed Saxons under a Norman yoke made its way into Chartist literature and then into Marx and Engels's epic narrative of class struggle.

Yet socialism, the 19th century's most celebrated ideology, imported from France by Robert Owen, was by the 1840s discredited as hopelessly utopian and sexually disgraceful, a philosophy of spiritual discovery and communal living that was just one of the many eccentric ideas circulating in the vacuum left by the collapse of Christianity. When socialism reappeared in the 1880s, it was again championed by those looking for a new religion of humanity - there was little political programme affixed to it.

Communism ("scientific socialism") was a very different beast, as it had developed the idea of a proletarian class bred by the industrial revolution and posing an instinctive threat to property relations. But by the 1870s, both Marx and Engels were dismissing their Communist Manifesto of 1849 as a historical document - a product of the 1848 revolutions with little political currency. Only at the end of the century, following G B Shaw's translation of sections of Das Kapital, did communism properly enter the British political blood.

Yet far from Fabian drawing rooms, in the provincial council chambers, a different form of socialism triumphed. In Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain municipalised the gas and water companies, providing him with resources for libraries and galleries as well as slum clearance. Impressed by Baron Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris, Chamberlain cleared the centre of Birmingham and laid out an entirely new urban plan. In Leeds, the councillors of the "new era" adopted a similar approach to urban living that lasted well into the 20th century. For the young Alan Bennett, growing up in 1940s Leeds, with "the arms of the City of Leeds embossed on public library books . . . fixed to lamp-posts and public buildings", the experience of such civic pride was comparable to growing up "a 15th-century citizen of Florence or Venice".

Municipal collectivism entailed a thoroughgoing attack on private property and vested interests; it was a direct affront to the sacred cows of liberal political economy. Despite parliamentary legislation on employment and housing and the 1867 extension of the ballot, it was in the cities that real social progress was made. Yet few Victorians regarded this as socialism. As Sidney Webb's councillor, who "walk[ed] along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water, and seeing by the municipal clock in the municipal market that he is too early to meet his children coming from the municipal school", famously remarked: "Socialism, Sir . . . don't waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities . . ."

The age of Victoria was not an era of stifling conservatism and cant. It was a turbulent century of socialism, illuminism, idealism and Methodism; of such intellectual giants as Carlyle, Ruskin, Tennyson and Macaulay; of the art of Turner, Burne-Jones and Waterhouse; and the political vision of Palmerston, Gladstone and O'Connor. It was a terrible, fascinating and creative age, one that deserves greater appreciation than the 20th century ever provided.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.