Helen Kingstone, ‘Noiseless revolutions? The Victorian roots of Theresa May’s rhetoric’

Helen Kingstone is co-Deputy Director of the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies, and Postdoctoral Research Associate at Leeds Trinity University. Her book Victorian Narratives of the Recent Past: memory, history, fiction is forthcoming with Palgrave

If you were tuning in to the UK news in early October, you would probably have heard snippets from Theresa May’s first Conservative Party conference speech as leader and Prime Minister. What might – or might not – have surprised you was how steeped it was in Victorian rhetoric.

In the course of the speech, May announced plans to revoke the supremacy of EU law in Britain via a ‘Great Repeal Act’. That grandiose name decisively sets it in the mould of the 1832 ‘Great Reform Act’. Why did she and her speech-writers make this choice?

It might be the celebrated gradualism of the 1832 legislation that attracts the Prime Minister at a time of crisis. Even though the successive and increasingly fraught reform bills of the early 1830s were feared at the time for their potential to stir up revolution, after the Act’s passing it took on an aura of sacred significance. By the time the second Reform Bill was being debated in 1867, some MPs like Robert Lowe argued against it on the grounds that the settlement of 1832 was “one of the most respectable institutions that any country ever possessed”. To change the voting threshold again, he believed, was ‘a declaration that any limit is of a temporary nature, and must speedily be swept away.’ As I show in my forthcoming book, that image of catastrophe was widespread in discussions of the 1867 proposals: Thomas Carlyle compared the bill to taking a rowing boat over Niagara Falls, while John Tenniel’s famous cartoon in Punch showed the Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli as a runaway horse, racing Britannia into a blind thicket while fox-hunting landowners look on nervously.

Sir George Hayter, Detail from the picture commemorating the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. It depicts the first session of the new House of Commons on 5 February 1833 held in St Stephen’s Chapel

 Theresa May’s list of Victorian references didn’t stop there. The same speech also described the EU referendum result as a ‘quiet revolution’. For anyone familiar with the Victorian historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, this directly echoes his 1828 Edinburgh Review article ‘The Romance of History’, in which he suggests that

a history, in which every particular incident may be true, may on the whole be false. The circumstances which have most influence on the happiness of mankind, the changes of manners and morals, the transition of communities from poverty to wealth, from knowledge to ignorance, from ferocity to humanity – these are, for the most part, noiseless revolutions. Their progress is rarely indicated by what historians are pleased to call important events. They are sanctioned by no treaties, and recorded in no archives. They are carried on in every school, in every church, behind ten thousand counters, at ten thousand firesides. The upper current of society presents no certain criterion by which we can judge of the direction in which the under current flows.

In this ground-breaking passage, Macaulay suggests that the most important processes in history are invisible ones, and questions whether political narratives (and the historical record more broadly) can ever offer an adequate representation of social change. The image of two oppositional currents in society might chime with British readers at the moment, though Macaulay’s idea of a ‘noiseless revolution’ does not map perfectly onto the EU referendum. The Brexit process will have to be ‘sanctioned by … treaties’ and will no doubt be ‘recorded in … archives’, making May’s reference rather optimistic.

In their time, both the hard-fought 1832 Reform Act and Macaulay’s challenge to history-writing convention were radical statements. For me, therefore, May’s appropriation of this rhetoric to serve her own agenda feels uncomfortable. But it’s nothing new: politicians and broadcasters seem to have a penchant for adopting and adapting Victorian precedents, often to support very different causes.

The decades that followed the First World War famously saw a backlash against the Victorian era. In the period of Lytton Strachey’s laconic, ironic and totally iconoclastic Eminent Victorians (1918), it was not in politicians’ interest to woo their voters with reminiscences of a lost golden age. This backlash proved persistent. The Victorian era had a post-Second World War scholarly revival – Victorian Studies was founded in 1956 – but this revival was slow to reach popular culture. Even when John Betjeman was campaigning to save St Pancras Station and the adjacent Midland Hotel in the 1960s, his cause was deeply unfashionable. Margaret Thatcher’s famous 1980s formulation of ‘Victorian values’ as hard-working and severe kept alive that stereotyped version of the era.

Margaret Thatcher reviewing Bermudian troops in 1990
Margaret Thatcher reviewing Bermudian troops in 1990

In the twenty-first century, attitudes have diversified, but tend to go either of two ways. The Thatcherite version of ‘Victorian’ still undoubtedly colours popular use of the term. Earlier this year, MPs responded to revelations on the working conditions at retail chain Sports Direct by describing it as a “Victorian workhouse”. The workhouse remains one of the most potent symbols of all that we reject in Victorian culture. A more self-congratulatory version of the same impulse underpins such programmes as the BBC’s 24 Hours in the Past series (which could equally have been titled Terrible Victorian Jobs), or the current series Victorian Slum.

However, these narratives – “aren’t we glad we escaped that?” – sit alongside almost simultaneous BBC programmes such as Victorian Bakers. This gives a very different version of the Victorians. Instead of the mud and chalk-adulterated bread of the slums, this taps into a cosy, nostalgic, curious vein of interest in the period. Instead of celebrating its demise, it investigates how we might recreate tiny, tasty fragments of it, preferably in currant-filled form.

While for the Spanish the ‘Golden Age’ lies in the sixteenth century, or for the Dutch in the seventeenth, for Britain the industrial and imperial boom of the nineteenth century makes the Victorian era into the nation’s lost zenith. It also, however, makes it rich ground for anyone who wants to foreground the deprivations and abuses at the heart of industrialized systems. The Victorian period is readily useable by both sides of the political spectrum.

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