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The Victorian shadow over the 20th century

Queen Victoria died in 1901, so why did the biggest issues of her reign dominate British politics into the 1980s and beyond?

A brooch commemorating Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897. Queen Victoria is surrounded by a gold frame, ribbons and laces. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Published: November 1, 2017 at 12:33 pm
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This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.


There were two very different versions of the 19th century, both of which exercised a large but contrasting influence on 20th-century British politicians. One iteration of this story took its standpoint in 1897, at the time of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, and catalogued the massive achievements of the preceding 60 years: unprecedented constitutional and political progress, with the ordered march towards democracy, as exemplified by the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1885; unparalleled social stability, compared to the turmoil and revolutions that characterised so much of contemporary Europe; unrivalled economic success as the ‘workshop of the world’, made plain at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and regularly proclaimed thereafter; and the creation and governance of the greatest transoceanic empire the world had ever known.

Here was an astonishing national narrative of gold and glory, of godliness and greatness, embodied and personified in that one short woman making her way to St Paul’s Cathedral for her earthly apotheosis in the summer of 1897. From this proud and confident perspective, late 19th-century Britain was the best of all possible worlds: so much so that the prime task of patriotic, conservative statecraft during the 20th century was to preserve it, to safeguard it, to get back to it, or to recreate it.

Consider Stanley Baldwin, the dominant figure in British politics between 1923 and 1937, and prime minister on three occasions. Born in 1867, Baldwin was a child of the Victorian world, and remained attracted all his life to the local, paternal regime that had thrived in his family-owned ironworks near Bewdley in Worcestershire. And it was this essentially late 19th-century vision – of politics, society and the economy – which he sought to articulate and advocate during his years of power. Baldwin’s public doctrine was genuinely and feelingly religious, and he delighted in Britain’s continued constitutional stability and in its further successful avoidance of European revolution. Above all, he stood for those two cardinal 19th-century virtues: respectability and public spiritedness.

So, too, did most of the other influential figures of the interwar years: George V as king and emperor of India, Sir Edward Grey and Lord Halifax in politics, archbishop Cosmo Lang in religion, Sir John Reith at the recently established BBC, and George

Macaulay Trevelyan in history. Like Baldwin, all of them were quintessential Victorian figures, both in their age and in their outlook. And like him again, they all believed that what was best for Britain and its empire during the 1920s and 1930s was to try to return to how things had been before the lamps had gone out in 1914, and before Queen Victoria had died 13 years earlier.

Or consider Winston Churchill, who became an MP while the queen-empress was still on the throne, who was 25 before she died, and who never ceased to delight in having grown up in what he later came to regard as the “august, unchallenged, tranquil glow of the Victorian era”. As befitted a man of his time and generation, Churchill remained all his life a unique amalgam of Gladstonian Liberalism (especially over free trade and social amelioration) and Disraelian Conservatism (particularly in the case of the monarchy, India and the empire). As Norman Rose observed in his biography, Churchill would have made a great Victorian prime minister.

But instead he was obliged to spend most of his political life in what he called the “woe and ruin” of the first half of the 20th century, where the key task was to try to defend imperial Britain from the many enemies that assailed it. There was Lenin and the “foul baboonery” of Bolshevism, which threatened order, stability and monarchy. There was Mahatma Gandhi, who threatened India, the empire and thus Britain’s continued existence as a great world power. And there was Hitler, who threatened liberty, democracy and (once again) national security and international greatness. Like Baldwin, albeit from a different perspective, Churchill regarded late 19th-century Britain as the best of all possible worlds, and he devoted his long life and exceptional talents and energies to trying to preserve or to salvage as much of that magnificent inheritance as possible.

Or think about, in more recent times, the outlook and attitudes of Margaret Thatcher. Born in 1925, she was not herself a late Victorian, but her father, Alderman Alfred Roberts, with his Grantham corner shop, and his ardent belief in self-help and self-improvement, emphatically was. And it was from him, as Thatcher so frequently recalled, that she learned those quintessential ‘Victorian values’ of thrift, sobriety, hard work, independence and self-reliance – values which she believed had made Britain great in the past, and values which she was determined would, under her own leadership, make the United Kingdom great again.

For Thatcher, as for Baldwin and for Churchill, 19th‑century Britain was indeed the nation at its zenith: as the virtues of self-help enabled the British to self-help themselves to the greatest empire the world had ever seen. And her whole political agenda was built around the notion of recreating this vanished golden age of national greatness: by rolling back the state, the civil service and the trade unions, so as to free up once again those innate but thwarted characteristics of entrepreneurial energy and wealth-creating zeal; and by reasserting Britain’s place in the world, as exemplified by the triumph of the Falklands War, when the gunboats were again sent out with an almost Palmerstonian relish and determination – and success.

These three prime ministers, all of them figures on the political right, were in thrall to the positive, upbeat, diamond jubilee version of British history. But for those on the left of the political spectrum, Victorian Britain looked very different, and much less admirable. In politics, 19th-century progress towards democracy had clearly been limited: at the death of Queen Victoria, one third of the male population did not have the vote, no women at all were enfranchised, and the House of Lords still wielded immense power. In social terms, there might be stability and order, but they came at a high price in terms of the subordination of women, the belief in racial superiority, and the cruelty and hypocrisy of the prevailing moral code.

As for the economy: great wealth brought with it corresponding greed, vulgarity and corruption (as searingly depicted by Anthony Trollope in The Way We Live Now); and amid so much plenty, there was also much poverty, as revealed in the social surveys conducted by Booth in London and by Rowntree in York. As for the empire, dominion over palm and pine seemed to its critics to be the negation of internationalism and personal liberty. It also made possible the exaltation of greed, power and exploitation to unacceptable levels – as exemplified by the bloodbath of the Boer War.

So, for those on the left, 19th-century Britain was far from being an inspirational place. On the contrary, to its critics, it witnessed the worst of times rather than the best, and this in turn meant that the prime task of 20th-century statesmanship was emphatically not to preserve, safeguard or emulate it. From this more sceptical and hostile perspective, 19th-century Britain was an unpleasant, unhappy and unjust society, whose ills it was necessary to eradicate, and whose unfinished business it was vital to conclude.

Consider Asquith’s Liberal administration of 1908–14, which was preoccupied with trying to deal with issues and solve problems with which the late Victorians had conspicuously failed to deal or to solve. They had been unable to tame or reconstruct the House of Lords, which meant that Asquith had to pass the Parliament Act in 1911, depriving the Lords of its absolute power of veto on legislation. They had failed to address the problems of poverty, to which the Liberal government’s response was the provision of labour exchanges and old age pensions. The Victorians had not been able to solve the so-called ‘Irish question’, but nor could Asquith and his colleagues in the years just before the First World War. For a civilisation that seemed, from another perspective, so secure and so successful, the 19th century had bequeathed a great deal of unfinished business to its 20th-century successor.

Clement Attlee’s Labour governments of 1945–51 were even more determined than those of Asquith to cure the ills and to dismantle the legacy of the 19th century. In economic terms, they began with the presumption that Victorian capitalism did not work and had had its day. Hence their nationalisation of the great staple industries: coal, railways, iron and steel. In social terms, they believed that the cult of self-help and voluntarism had also had its day: hence the creation of the welfare state, with its national health service and cradle to grave provision. And in terms of political economy, they no longer believed in thrift or a balanced budget: hence their brave new Keynesian world where the aim was to spend your way out of economic trouble. John Maynard Keynes was,

indeed, the classic example of a son in revolt against parental Victorian values, preferring spending to saving, and sexual freedom to a rigid moral code. (As a biography of Keynes reminds us, his father once smoked a cigar, and enjoyed it so much he vowed he must never do it again.)

In terms of the British empire, Attlee’s government was no less anti-Victorian. For in giving independence to India in 1947, they not only unravelled the whole Disraelian and Churchillian fantasy of the Raj, but they also set in motion a process of imperial dissolution which meant that, within 50 years, the whole of the British empire, that very quintessence of Victorianism, would be rolled up, given away, and vanish into history.

The next Labour administration to occupy 10 Downing Street after Attlee’s – that of Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1970 – was in many ways as aggressively anti-Victorian as its predecessors. Wilson was pledged to modernisation: to demolishing the slums and schools and hospitals that seemed to be the squalid, inefficient and outdated legacy of the 19th century. He sought to replace the amateur and gentlemanly anachronisms of the boardroom with properly trained experts, the proponents of the white hot revolution in technology that would finally bring Britain out of the 19th century and into the 20th.

The Wilson government also presided over a series of fundamental reforms in the fields of abortion, divorce, homosexuality and the death penalty, which irrevocably overturned many of the most enduring legal underpinnings of the 19th-century moral code, and ushered in a new, post-Victorian society which (depending on your point of view) was either more tolerant than ever before, or more permissive.

It was also under Wilson that Britain’s great power status and imperial pretensions were finally given up: in part because of the accelerated end of empire almost everywhere (except Southern Rhodesia); in part because of the abandonment of a significant military presence east of Suez; and in part because the continued weakness of the economy and the pound sterling meant that Britain could no longer plausibly sustain a world role.

This is, of course, an argument that can be pushed too far. Attlee may have presided over a postwar Labour government that was in revolt against much of Britain’s 19th-century legacy, but in terms of his education, his military service and his outlook, he was in many ways as much a late Victorian as Churchill. John Maynard Keynes may have believed in fiscal liberation and sexual freedom as a necessary and overdue antidote to Victorian primness and sexual restraint, but he was also an exceptionally patriotic and public-spirited man, in what was, to the despair of his Bloomsbury friends, a recognisably 19th-century way.

Harold Macmillan was Conservative prime minister from 1957 to 1963, and liked to present himself as a late Victorian and Edwardian figure (he was born in 1894) committed to maintaining the greatness of Britain. But he was also ruthless and unsentimental in closing down much that remained of the British empire. And while Margaret Thatcher was the self-appointed champion of ‘Victorian values’, this was always a highly selective version of 19th-century conventional wisdoms (what about greed and hypocrisy, sexism, racism and imperialism?). She appointed more Jews to her governments than any prime minister before or since, and she was exceptionally tolerant of the moral failings and sexual lapses of her cabinet colleagues.

Insofar as any generalisations can be ventured about 20th‑century Britain’s view of the hundred years that went before, they are captured by the divergent verdicts of

Lytton Strachey, and George Macaulay Trevelyan. In his book Eminent Victorians (1918), Strachey argued that the 19th century was an era that it was good and indeed imperative to leave behind. For those who followed Trevelyan’s British History in the Nineteenth Century (1922), however, there was rather more to be said in favour of the Victorians – and much of their legacy that was worth preserving.

Yet despite these differences, the reality was that the main task of British statecraft until 1945, and perhaps even beyond, was to try to maintain the pre-eminent position in the world that Britain had established during the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1963 that the first British prime minister born after the death of Queen Victoria took office. It’s surely no coincidence that it’s only since then that Britain has de-Victorianised domestically, and has downsized and de-imperialised globally. For some, this is a cause for relief and celebration, for others it is a cause for sadness and regret. Both views inform our current debates, concerns, anxieties and hopes concerning Brexit. Either way, the 19th century has not yet finished with us, and nor have we yet finished with it.


Sir David Cannadine is the Dodge professor of history at Princeton University and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His books include Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy (OUP, 2017)


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