chapter  4
20 Pages

The executive, Parliament and the public

The two principal features of Britain’s domestic history in this period – the evolution of a mixed system of government dominated by a propertied elite and a rapid expansion of commerce and consumption – were accompanied by a third – the gradual, if uneven, growth of various forms of largely ‘non-elite’ or ‘popular’ political activity. It used to be thought that elite and popular politics were discrete spheres of activity with little contact between them but as Professor Dickinson has made clear in his masterly survey of popular politics in eighteenth-century Britain published in 1994, this was far from the case. In fact, there were many points of intersection and in summary form, the types of popular political activity that had most impact on the executive and Parliament were as follows. First, the opinion of parliamentary electors, particularly at general elections but also as expressed in ‘Instructions’ to candidates or MPs on how they should act on specific issues in Parliament. Second, various forms of influence exerted by groups with specific economic, social, religious or moral objectives. This was a broad category that included: the (usually discrete) influence of City institutions; the more overt lobbying by groups representing particular professions and sectors of the economy; the widely organised campaigns of the religious sects; and the more spontaneous forms of protest generated by formal county and borough meetings or by direct action. And third, the opinions expressed in the various forms of print – principally, books, periodicals, pamphlets and newspapers – to which we might add those articulated in coffee houses, pubs, reading rooms and the like. It is to the impact of these various forms of politics involving those other than the propertied elite on executive and parliamentary government that we now turn.