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The Radicals were a loose parliamentary political grouping in Great Britain and Ireland in the early to mid-19th century, who drew on earlier ideas of radicalism and helped to transform the Whigs into the Liberal Party.


The Radical movement arose in the late 18th century to support parliamentary reform, with additional aims including lower taxes and the abolition of sinecures.[1] John Wilkes's reformist efforts in the 1760s as editor of The North Briton and MP were seen as radical at the time, but support dropped away after the Massacre of St George's Fields in 1768. Working class and middle class "Popular Radicals" agitated to demand the right to vote and assert other rights including freedom of the press and relief from economic distress, while "Philosophic Radicals" strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the Popular Radicals. However, the term “Radical” itself, as opposed to “reformer” or “Radical Reformer”, only emerged in 1819 during the upsurge of protest following the successful conclusion of the Napoleonic War.[2] Henry "Orator" Hunt was the main speaker at the Manchester meeting in 1819 that ended in the Peterloo Massacre; Hunt was elected MP for the Preston division in 1830-32.

Radicals and the Great Reform Act

Radicals inside and outside Parliament were divided over the merits of the Whig Reform Act 1832. Some continued to press for the ballot and universal suffrage,[3] but the majority (as mobilised in unions like the Birmingham Political Union) saw abolition of the rotten boroughs as a major step towards the destruction of what they called "Old Corruption" or "The Thing": "In consequence of the boroughs, all our institutions are partial, oppressive, and aristocratic. We have an aristocratic church, an aristocratic bar, an aristocratic game-code, aristocratic taxation....all is privilege".[4]

The 1832 parliament elected on the new franchise – which raised the percentage of the adult population eligible to vote from some 3% to 6%[5] – contained some fifty or sixty Radicals, a number shortly doubled in the 1835 election, leading many to envisage a House of Commons eventually divided between Radicals on the one side and Conservatives (Tories and Whigs) on the other.[6]

In fact, the Radicals failed either to take over an existing party, or to create a new, third force and there were three main reasons. The first was the continuing strength of Whig electoral power in the half-century following the 1832 Act. The latter had expressly been designed to preserve Whig landlord influence in the counties and the remaining small borough[7] – one reason a radical like Henry Hetherington condemned the bill as "an invitation to the shopocrats of the enfranchised towns to join the Whiggocrats of the country".[8] Whigs were also able to profit in two-member constituencies from electoral pacts made with a more reforming candidate.[9]

Secondly, there was the wide body of reforming opinion inside (and outside) Parliament concerned with other, unrelated issues, including international liberalism, anti-slavery, educational and temperance reform, non-conformist disabilities.[10]

Thirdly, the Radicals were always more a body of opinion than a structured force.[11] They lacked any party organisation, formal leadership, or unified ideology. Instead, humanitarian Radicals opposed philosophic Radicals over the Factory Acts; political Radicals seeking a slimmed-down executive opposed Benthamite interventionists; universal suffrage men competed for time and resources with free traders – the Manchester men.[12]

By 1859, the Radicals had come to together with the Whigs and the anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party, though with the New Radicalism of figures like Joseph Chamberlain they continued to have a distinctive political influence into the closing years of the nineteenth century.[13]

Continuing agitation and reform

Following the First Reform Act, popular demand for wider suffrage was taken up by the mainly working-class movement, Chartism. Meanwhile Radical leaders like Richard Cobden and John Bright in the middle class Anti-Corn Law League emerged to oppose the existing duties on imported grain which helped farmers and landowners by raising the price of food, but which harmed consumers and manufacturers. After the success of the League on the one hand and the failure of Chartist mass demonstrations and petitions in 1848 to sway parliament on the other, demand for suffrage and parliamentary reform slowly re-emerged through the parliamentary radicals.[14]

By 1864, with agitation from John Bright and the Reform League, the Liberal Prime Minister Earl Russell introduced a modest bill which was defeated by both Tories and reform Liberals, forcing the government to resign. A Conservative minority government led by the Earl of Derby and Benjamin Disraeli took office and introduced the Reform Act 1867 – which almost doubled the electorate, giving many working men the vote – in a somewhat opportunistic party fashion.[15]

Further Radical pressure led to the secret ballot (1872) and the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883, followed by the Representation of the People Act 1884.[16] Progressive liberals like John Morley and Joseph Chamberlain continued to value radicalism as a unifying bridge between the classes, and a common goal.[17] However in 1886 Chamberlain helped form the breakaway Liberal Unionist Party that mostly supported Conservative governments. The long career of David Lloyd George saw him moving from radical views in the 1890s to becoming Prime Minister in coalition with the Conservatives in 1918. From 1900 and the rise of the Labour Party and the gradual achievement of the majority of the original Radical goals, Parliamentary Radicalism ceased to function as a political force in the early twentieth century.[18]


In June 2016, a new left of centre political party, The Radical Party, was registered with the UK Electoral Commission. The Party places itself in the tradition of British Parliamentary radicalism and promotes the view that progress towards a more equal and prosperous society can only be achieved through a transfer of power to the public through far-reaching constitutional reform and the adoption of a north European-style social market economy. The Party stood one candidate in Henley constituency in the June 2017 General Election [19] and again in the June 2018 Lewisham East by-election[20].

Literary echoes

  • Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), a social novel written by George Eliot, offered a positive view of an idealistic and well-educated committed Radical.[21]
  • Beauchamp's Career (1875), a satirical novel written by George Meredith. It portrays life and love in upper-class Radical circles and satirises the Conservative establishment.
  • Anthony Trollope offered a more shaded view in his outline for The Way We Live Now (1875), describing his anti-hero as "A scapegrace. Has glimmerings of Radical policy for the good of the people"[22]. The liberal author thus summarizes radicalism, speaking of the rural county of Suffolk: "The people are hearty, and radicalism is not quite so rampant as it is elsewhere. The poor people touch their hats, and the rich people think of the poor."[23]
  • The Difference Engine, an alternative history novel partially based on Sybil, or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli, which includes a fictional Industrial Radical Party.

Prominent Radicals

See also

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