By Bethany Drysdale
For many American viewers watching episode 5, the subject of 1830s British politics might seem a bit overwhelming. It helps to understand what was happening within the political culture of the United Kingdom and how it compares to our own system in the United States. I will attempt to sort out some of the bigger ideas presented in the episode and explain them in their real life context. It is important to consider the time in which Anne Lister lived and worked. She was progressive in some ideas, but very conservative in others. This leads us, as viewers, to see a different perspective of her in the second season.
Anne and Ann are Tory supporters, associated with the color blue. In the opening scene, the town is listening to Tory candidate James Stuart-Wortley. The band, adorned in yellow, plays over his speech, making it impossible for anyone to hear him. Anne would have had a vested interest in James Stuart-Wortley for several reasons. Firstly, he was a relative of Lady Stuart de Rothsay, who’s husband was Ambassador to France. Anne Lister socialized with the Ambassador and his wife while she lived in Paris prior to the events of season 1. We also hear the Stuart name again when Anne is in London in season 1 with Mariana, before she visits Copenhagen. Secondly, the Stuart family was very wealthy and established landowners, who would have opposed the Reform Bills that were being pushed by the Whig party into the 1830s. The Whigs, associated with the color yellow, pushed for social reforms and more power to the electors in Parliament.
The Reform Bill of 1832 is mentioned a few times in season 1. Mr Abbott makes reference to it, when he says he is, “to the right of the issue.” This statement indicates he too is a Tory supporter and a conservative. Prime Minister Earl Grey presided over the Reform Bill, that allowed more men the right to vote, but expressly prohibited women from voting. Anne makes reference to this in season 1 as well. She comments about how her and Miss Walker’s male tenants can now vote, but they as landowners could not because of their sex. At the time, only upper and middle class landed aristocratic interests were considered. However, once the bill was passed it redistributed the representation of members of Parliament by population and not by powerful families. I would not be until 1918 when women, over the age of 30 AND owning land, could vote.
The Whigs, with their success in passing the Reform Bill, looked to make more changes in the name of progress. They hoped make factories and mines safer for child labor as well as adult workers. As Anne inquired in season 1 about coal pits, the Whigs proposed the Factory Act of 1833 that would limit the number of hours a child under the age of 13 could work. Anne was a business-minded woman, wanting to make a profit as cheaply and efficiently as possible. A Royal Commission would be appointed in 1840 to reveal the terrible conditions miners worked in, much to the horror of the general public when the reports were released. This episode shows the beginning of what would come in the years ahead.
Despite the gains by the Whigs, they could not hold power for very long. By 1834, Whig leaders were decisively split on the question of Ireland. They looked to Lord Melbourne to lead them. He was unable to unite the Whigs and the Radicals in a common purpose, allowing for the Tories to keep a hold on government policy.The King dismissed Parliament and forced an election in 1835. A Tory (or conservative) applied to all those who strove to conserve the constitution in Church and state against the progressive Whigs and their radical allies. The King appointed Sir Robert Peel in Parliament to lead the Conservative Tories.
To summarize British politics at the time, Tories wanted the monarchy to influence government policy, while the Whigs wanted Parliament to have more power. Landowners, like Anne and Ann, as well as their wealthy, aristocratic friends supported the Tories, and working class merchants and businessmen supported the Whigs. Even today, the leading parties in London are similarly divided. Much like our own two major parties in the United States, the Republicans tend to be more wealthy and upper class, while the Democrats are made up of labor unions, working class and minorities.
As mentioned in season 1, the Reform Act of 1832 then allowed more men to vote, however they still had to own property worth at least £10. Yet many of the working class men were still too poor to vote and the growing unrest against the wealthy landowners was demonstrated with riots across the country. Most notably in Halifax, the unrest led to storefronts damaged and homes of leading families being vandalized. The proximity of Shibden Hall above the town, meant that the Lister ancestral home was spared the destruction caused by the angry citizens. But Anne Lister was not immune from scrutiny, as we saw at the end of the episode. The mock marriage announcement was deliberately intended to call out her “unusual” living arrangement with Ann Walker. Anne leaned heavily on her male tenants who could vote, to vote for the Tories.
What is interesting to note about the election of 1835 was the rise of the Radicals, the far left of the Whigs. We can recall third parties in our American system that split votes between the two major parties, thereby not getting the desired outcome. One could argue that the US Presidential election of 1992 which saw 3 candidates (Bush, Clinton and Perot) in a head to head to head race would be a good comparison to this episode. The biggest difference is in the episode, this three-way race was that two of the three would be elected. Each voter would be allowed one vote, and the top two candidates would represent Halifax in the House of Commons. The Radical candidate was defeated by only 1 vote, and just like in recent elections, the terms voter fraud and corruption were on the minds of the lower class.
Whig candidate Charles Wood won the majority with 336 votes, Tory James Stuart-Wortley came in second with 308 votes, Radical Edward David Protheroe narrowly missed his opportunity with 307 votes. The Tories gained seats in Parliament, which I’m sure made Anne very pleased, even if it meant the poor of Halifax remained angry and festered sincere resentment towards the Listers and Walkers and Rawsons and the rest of “the tribe.”
This topic is one that I have a personal interest in studying. My own ancestors were the Wood family of Yorkshire. I am a distant relative of Mr Charles Wood, the Whig candidate. Throughout my life, I have studied politics and my family connection to social justice. I hope this short essay will help others understand what happened in 1835 as well as the realization that no matter how many years ago that happened, some things never change.
Carter and Mears, “A History Of Britain – The Victorians and the Age of Empire” (2011) Stacey International, London
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