The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain


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Jonathan Parry

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Liberalism was the dominant political force of Victorian Britain. Between 1830 and 1886 a coalition of anti-Conservatives known at various times as Whigs, Reformers, and Liberals was in office for over forty years and lost only two out of fourteen general elections. This book presents the first modern overview of Liberal government during its nineteenth-century heyday. Arguing that Liberalism was a much more coherent force than has generally been recognized, Jonathan Parry gives an account of its rise and fall, in the process reinterpreting the pattern of political development during this period.

After a review of the origins of Liberalism before 1830, Parry examines in turn the strategies of successive Liberal leaders from Grey to Gladstone and Hartington. Parry argues that nineteenth-century Liberalism tried to maintain the rule of a propertied but socially diverse, rational, and civilized elite, in the belief that this was the best means to administer the state economically and equitably and to promote an industrious and virtuous citizenship. Because of the widespread popularity of the economic, foreign, and religious policies followed to, this end, and because of the flexible, sometimes cynical, presentational skills of Liberal leaders, the Liberal party became the most popular party for much of the century. After 1867, however, Gladstone's idealist religious temper diverged from the Liberal mainstream and led in 1886 to the destruction of the party as the natural ruling body in England.

Jonathan Parry is Lecturer in History at Cambridge University and Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Pembroke College.

"This impressive study of Victorian politics is built around a challenging thesis: that Gladstone, far from being the creator of the Liberal Party, was in fact a maverick who stumbled into the leadership of an already flourishing Liberal Party and, through his zealotry, restless ambition and ignorance, single-handedly proceeded to destroy it. . . . Parry's interpretation is put forward with great skill and eloquence, so much so that it seems likely to become a new orthodoxy. . . . A provocative book. . . . One of the most stimulating accounts ever written of Victorian politics."—G. R. Searle, London Review of Books

"The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain is a bold, as well as a capable and rewarding book. . . . [It gives] the period an unusual shape and orientation that deserve close scrutiny. . . . The book succeeds ultimately because it has a viewpoint and a personality. . . . It seeks to impose meaning when others have often been content to chronicle. . . . His book ought to attract a wide audience and re-open some serious discussion about the identity of nineteenth-century Liberalism." —Michael Bentley, Times Literary Supplement

"The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain is an outstanding work of mature reflection and sustained analysis. The scale and significance of its subject are commensurate with the massive erudition and incisive intellect of its author. Parry has notably expanded our understanding and deepened our appreciation of ministerial and parliamentary Liberalism."—Bruce L. Kinzer, Albion

"Parry's high Palmerstonian and Hartingtonian construction of the Liberal identity will not go unchallenged in the debate which will take its rise from this major re-evaluation, the product of immense reading and thought, and a tough, tenacious and rewarding endeavour to explain the principles and practice of Liberal government in the Victorian era in the terms that its practitioners employed and understood."—Paul Smith, Parliamentary History

ISBN: 9780300067187
Publication Date: April 24, 1996
392 pages, 6 1/4 x 9 1/2