Magazine article The Spectator

'Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906', by David Cannadine - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906', by David Cannadine - Review

Article excerpt

The 19th-century belonged to us, according to David Cannadine's ambitious new history. Jane Ridley is mesmerised by it

David Cannadine was a schoolboy in 1950s Birmingham, which was still recognisable as the city that Joseph Chamberlain had known. In the 1960s the town planners demolished much of Victorian Birmingham. The bulldozing of 19th-century cities coincided with -- and helped to cause -- a boom in Victorian history, led by Asa Briggs. As a postgraduate student at Cambridge, Cannadine wrote a thesis on Birmingham's 19th-century aristocratic landowners. Since then, there has been a torrent of academic research on 19th-century history, and this has had a 'deadening and dampening effect'. The Victorians have gone out of fashion. Historians have migrated to the rich pastures of the 18th century or the newly available archives of the 20th.

So much has been written about 19th-century Britain that a new interpretation seems almost impossible. But in this magnificent Penguin history, Cannadine pulls it off. At first sight the book seems conventional enough. This is a narrative history. It is also a political history. As Cannadine explains, the vital feature of 19th-century Britain was the extraordinary importance of Parliament. Other countries had parliaments, but none were as enduring or as prestigious as Westminster.

Most histories of 19th-century Britain begin in 1815 and end in 1914. Cannadine's account, by contrast, starts in 1800 with the Act of Union with Ireland, which created the United Kingdom, and ends with the Liberal landslide election of 1906; both dates are landmarks in Britain's parliamentary history. But this is not a clichéd textbook story of the triumph of democracy and reform. Nor is it an insular, inward-looking narrative of Westminster high politics. There is something else going on here. Cannadine begins his history in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars with France. Throughout the book the story of Britain's relations with Europe and with its expanding empire is integrated into the narrative of domestic politics. This is a global history, a spellbinding account of Britain's rise and fall as a great power.

Starting the story in 1800 shifts the conventional perspective. The Act of Union with Ireland, as Cannadine points out, was an expedient forced upon Prime Minister Pitt by the war with France. It seemed the only way to prevent a rebellion in Ireland or a French invasion. It pleased none of the Irish. Nor was the Younger Pitt's strategy of fighting the French by defeating them at sea, and financing coalitions of the continental powers on land, a success. The co-alitions always broke apart and Napoleon's domination of the land seemed comprehensive. Not until Pitt had fallen did Britain begin to win.

The Napoleonic War of 1803-14 was the only major conflict in recent history where Britain had no strong political leader; merely a succession of mediocre prime ministers. These included Spencer Percival, the only British PM to be assassinated, and the second-rate Addington ('Pitt is to Addington/As London is to Paddington') -- though Cannadine reckons that the latter has been much underestimated. The war was a triumph for Britain's military-fiscal state. It was financed by massive borrowing, made possible by a buoyant wartime economy and a sophisticated banking system. Military success was enabled by the efficiency of the Whitehall bureaucrats, overseeing ships, weapons and supplies. For France, by contrast, the war was an economic disaster. The result was that Britain, whose future had seemed in the balance in 1800, emerged in 1815 as the strongest and richest power in the world.

The 1830s was the hinge decade. As every schoolboy used to know (but doesn't any more), the Whig government under Lord Grey bowed to the people and pushed through the Great Reform Bill. This was the prelude to a decade of reform, of sustained legislative engagement with contemporary issues, which was something entirely new. …

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