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1867 and the Rule of Wealth

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Parry, JP 


This essay examines the widespread concern in the 1860s and 1870s with ‘plutocracy’ – the political and social power of commercial wealth. It argues that we should not interpret either the pressure for parliamentary reform in the 1860s, or the consequences of the 1867 act, simply in terms of a contest between aristocracy and democracy. A third element, the growing influence of commercial men, was very widely noted before and after 1867, with differences of opinion about whether this would more favour the aristocracy or the democracy. Anxiety about plutocracy fuelled much of the pressure for reform, from both Cobdenite radicals and academic Liberals; this last group in particular was preoccupied with the possible parliamentary dominance of unimaginative and materialistic money men. On the other hand, opponents of reform were sceptical that a new electoral settlement would halt the rising influence of money. They were proved right, not least because the 1867 reforms increased the cost of winning a seat. The three parliaments elected in 1868, 1874, and 1880 were dominated by commercial men, and there was even more alarm about plutocracy than before 1867. While this was interpreted in different ways by different groups, on the whole it benefited the Conservative Party and Conservative argument significantly more than it helped the Liberals. The Liberal Party found it difficult to agree on whether the political influence of commercial elites – a group with which it had once been identified – was now excessive, and what, if anything, could be done about it. This was to become a major problem for the left.



1867, aristocracy, bribery, class, commerce, corruption, democracy, plutocracy, reform

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Parliamentary History

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