Why Was There No British Revolution in Europe's 'Ageof Revolutions'?
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Julia Slay Revolutionary Europe: Essay 3 Why Was There No British Revolution in Europe's 'Age of Revolutions'? Revolution: n. overthrow of a government by the governed. Great change; complete rotation. From the dawn of the French Revolution to the mid 19th Century, much of Europe was characterised by political upheaval, social dislocation, economic recession and huge demographic change. Britain retained an isolation from such events, taking the course of fast industrialisation, mass urbanisation, and demands for the reform of parliament; despite the revolutionary backdrop in Europe Britain managed to escape the phenomena and its government remained intact throughout our period. It experienced no such 'revolution', that is, in the strictest sense of the word. It did however witness widespread rioting and rebellion such as that at Peterloo, and calls for a political overhaul of parliament. It is thus that we enter into the controversial historical debate over Britain in our epoch. While many contemporaries felt they were in the midst of a revolutionary situation, for example, Place, who states that '[w]e were within a moment of general rebellion'1 some historians, such as Christie, suggest that there was nothing of revolutionary potential or even significance in Britain, thus, nothing to avoid. The crux of the argument regards the very definition of a 'revolution', as it would be impossible to refute that Britain emerged from this period unchanged with regard to the nature of politics, social relationships and structures.
Hence, debate continues over whether or not the Chartists would even constitute the term of a political movement, let alone one which posed a serious revolutionary threat. Although their actions did indicate * example* a political tone - were any attempts made to gain power. As Rude has noted, 'there was no revolution because nobody of importance wanted one'5 , a quote which clearly illustrates the influence of class on the development and implementation of revolution. The nature of radical British movements, such as Chartism and the middle class demands for reform in the 1830's, must be examined in order to illustrate why there was no revolution in Britain while they simultaneously swept over the continent. Overwhelmingly, it is the internal weaknesses and shortcomings of individual groups as much as repressive government policies that rendered mass political activity a failure, a view supported by historians such as Holt and Thomis. Radical movements throughout our epoch stemmed largely from the economic conditions of industrialisation, such as the newly formed trade unions and the anti Corn Law riots which, as examined, produced a new set of class structures and relationships. Fundamentally, popular protest in Britain found itself in a minority position that lacked the mass support of a population which was overwhelmingly apolitical and apathetic. In order for a revolution to occur and be sustained, it must have widespread support which proved impossible in Britain due to the highly localised nature of much rebellion.
Revolutionary groups, societies and individuals posed a very real threat to Britain's stability during 'the age of revolution'. The Chartists in particular fused social and economic concerns with political demands, a threat embodied in the Newport uprising, while the middle classes pioneered for moderate reform continuously during these years. However, as Hobsbawn notes 'without profound social and cultural discontents, ready to emerge at a relatively slight impetus, there can be no major social revolutions'12 and it is certain that Britain in this period, did not have widespread and sustained discontent. Pockets of economic recession provoked insurrections which may have been interpreted by contemporaries as revolutionary and thus provoked a strong reaction by the government, but they lacked the arms, leadership, organisation and political ideology necessary to rebel. What was ostensibly revolutionary, such as Luddite activity, was only so due to an image of violence threatening to emulate the revolutions breaking regimes across the continent. Insurrections in the navy, and among industrial workers did show a potential for challenging British stability, yet Britain's path was one of reform - the primary reason behind its avoidance of revolution. As Rude accurately states, 'Revolutionary change granted by a government of its free will is not a revolution'13. Thus the changes which occurred throughout the period 1789-1848 do not literally count as revolutions because they do not involve an established power being overthrown, yet Britain did still experience an enormous transformation in society, politics and the economy throughout 'the age of revolution'.
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