The road to democracy. The English in the 18th century were not forelock-tugging, Church-and-King types but an adventurous and eclectic people eager to embrace scientific progress and political change. Tristram Hunt on the foundations of the first modern

A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People?: England 1783-1846

Boyd Hilton <em>Oxford University Press, 784pp

For a long time now, uncomfortable gaps have disfigured the multi-volume New Oxford History of England. Chief among these are the years between the early 1780s and the 1840s - the epoch of industrialisation, the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. With the arrival of Boyd Hilton's A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? this historical void has finally been filled.

Hilton, a professor at Cambridge, has written a lively and wide-ranging study that is mercifully free of dry chronology. He trains his sights on a particular brand of conservative historiography. Jonathan Clark's enormously influential work English Society, 1688-1832, first published in 1985, portrayed the Britain of the "long 18th century" as a European-style ancien regime governed by monarchy, aristocracy and a totalising Anglican church. Clark argued against the "familiar picture of 18th-century England as the era of bourgeois individualism" by emphasising the influence of traditional institutions and highly conservative patterns of thought. His portrait of England as a highly religious, near-absolutist state was an attack on the prevailing "Whig" consensus, which viewed the country's progress towards democracy as seamless and inevitable.

Hilton disagrees. His "mad, bad and dangerous people" of the late 18th and early 19th centuries are far removed from Clark's forelock-tugging Church-and-King crowd. They are radical, eclectic and strikingly diverse. The extension of the franchise in 1832, which firmly established Britain on the path to democracy, was not, as Clark claims, a knee-jerk response to sudden internal difficulties, but the product of long-running intellectual and political trends. In his new book, Hilton explores these strands, using an impressive variety of sources.

The Oxford History of England series has always focused largely on high politics and state structures. These areas are certainly not neglected by Hilton, who includes studies of Pitt, Fox, Liverpool and Canning. (His nuanced inquiry into the nature of "Pittism" comes as a particular relief in the wake of William Hague's recent biography.) However, Hilton also extends his reach into the realms of social, cultural and psychological history, offering accounts of phrenology, mesmerism and even early 19th-century flagellatory literature. More prosaically, there is a welcome concentration on economic and business matters - something of a dying art in popular history - and a helpful use of page footnotes rather than cumbersome endnotes.

By deftly analysing the period's philosophy, religion and literature, Hilton suggests that the final two decades of the 18th century witnessed remarkable changes in English public and political culture. The historical monuments of the early Victorian era - the repeal of the corn laws, Chartism and high imperialism - are best understood as part of a broader 18th-century continuum. As such, Hilton's work forms part of a growing historiographical trend stressing the continuity between Georgian England and what was previously regarded as the stark modernity of the urban, industrial 19th century.

Within this architecture, the volume offers up numerous enriching insights. Not least is an earlier than usual dating of the aristocratic embrace of mercantile capital. Normally this marriage of convenience between impoverished nobility and an upwardly mobile "gentlemanly capitalist" class is located somewhere in the late 1800s. By highlighting the early fiscal and political autonomy of the upper middle classes, Hilton suggests that a rather different balance of power existed between land and money. The revived aristocracy of the age of Wellington no longer looks quite so secure.

Perhaps more provocatively, given the current debates over national identity, Hilton challenges the idea of a coherent Britishness being forged during the late 18th century. In contrast to the "constructionist" narratives of Linda Colley and others, this book questions whether the forces of Protestantism, empire and war combined to create a new British identity. Anti-French sentiment was directed more against Bonaparte than the French; the empire was as much about science and commerce as territory and militarism; the Scots and the Welsh embraced Britishness as a way of dealing with the English on equal terms within the Union. National identity mattered much less to the English. They might have subscribed to the notion of Great Britain in moments of bombast, but at moments of peril it was "England" that expected "every man to do his duty".

Some of the most engaging chapters in the book concentrate on Georgian England's vibrant, provincial dissenting culture. In marked contrast to Clark, Hilton guides us through the hid-den world of scientific and technical inquiry that was alive in the Literary and Philosophical Societies of Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle and Soho. Here was a profoundly modern, profoundly middle-class ethic of experimentation and debate which laid the foundations both for industrialisation and the more rigid scientific disciplines of the Victorian age.

Controversially - and quite rightly - Hilton also makes the case for the authenticity of sentiment behind the evangelical campaign for the abolition of slavery. As we approach the 200th anniversary of the 1807 outlawing of slave trafficking within the British empire, a decent understanding of William Wilberforce's sincerity (however riddled with other hypocrisies his stance might have been) will serve as a useful adjunct to explorations of guilt, reparations and historical apology.

The abortive Chartist insurrection of 1848 is Hilton's end point. Conceptually, he suggests, this was the last gasp of his mad, bad and dangerous people before the cloying conservatism of the Victorians took hold. "At once the myth of the country's essential soundness began to be cultivated, a belief (which the working class seems to have swallowed) that revolution was a foreign disease." It is a characteristically provocative sign-off to this comprehensive, intriguing and challenging volume that has proved well worth the wait.

Tristram Hunt's most recent book is Building Jerusalem: the rise and fall of the Victorian city (Phoenix)

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shamed