Did the French Revolution influence a “protracted struggle” for reform in Britain?

The Contrast 1972” ‘Thomas Rowlandsn published this etching on behalf of the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers.’

The French Revolution has been acknowledged as having a significant impact upon British society, in terms of popular politics and reform of the electorate. The events in France incited both conservative and purportedly ‘radical’ sentiments in British reactions and provoked different arguments about what the British government did in terms of serving the interests of the people.

The French revolution engineered a cultural example of revolution and disturbance of societal order for the British. The influence of this was divided and provoked ideas of reform and change but also conservative reaction against this. This etching from 1792 is evidence an anti-reform sentiment was encouraged by the events. It is also an indication of its influence on conceptions of British national identity, in this example it characterises ‘British Liberty’ in relation to ‘French Liberty’. It condemns the radicalism of the French by unreservedly suggesting it’s both ‘treason’ and ‘madness’, it denotes that any individuals that are influenced by the events in France are un-British.  There was arguably a fear of revolution in Britain and an emphasis on the efficacy of the existing establishment from the political elite.

In contrast however, as a consequence of the way the French Revolution was remembered, it formed a cultural signpost of the power of the majority to demonstrate and resist the power of the elite minority. To understand the scope at which the revolution encouraged or influenced reform in Britain it is worthwhile to examine an individual’s contribution to change in politics, and how they may have been influenced by the events in France and to what effect. The Reform Act of 1832 that expanded the electorate is considered a milestone of reform and an accumulation of the influence of the French Revolution. Charles Grey campaigned for reform over a period of years before this Act was successful.

The French Revolution attributed to a fear of revolution that would condemn those who spoke of reform, evident in pamphlets of Edmund Burke, and condemned them as a ‘revolutionary’. The French Revolution did not create a universal indulging in the notion of liberty. In the example of Charles Grey, it arguably created a motivation and influence for him to campaign for reform but created resistance that meant these reforms took years to gain momentum. The process of political change was already on-going, as reflected by the 1832 Act, Keith Robbins summarises that “Grey’s intention to press on with ‘reform’ was not the product of panic. It represented the culmination of a long conviction that some change in the basic representation was necessary.”[2] It should not be assumed that the French Revolution in any way granted an instant gateway for political reform, it was a “protracted struggle”[3].

It is important to understand the influence of the French Revolution not in isolation from other events and experiences of the British people, which helped to orchestrate a welcoming of more ‘radical’ sentiments and reform. For example, the Industrial revolution has also been cited as a significant factor that encouraged a redefinition of the general population’s engagement with politics. Nancy LoPlatin links the emerging class-consciousness with the development of popular politics, and sees the French Revolution as part of that on-going change in politics [4]. Martin Hugh also acknowledges the ideological influence of the enlightenment on political thinking as part of this process of change [5]. The influence of the revolution was not confined to a short period, the process of reform occurred over a period of years, bills for reform were not an instant success, furthering the notion that the French revolution was one event in a series of changes in the British political mood. Grey’s 1832 Reform Act is an embodiment of this; it took several attempts to reach this achievement, but by no means signified the end of a need for reform of the electorate. The French revolution was an event that reflected as well as influenced change in the political mood of Europe.

[1]The impact of the french revolution on Pitt and the government (2016), http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/france/frevpitt.htm [accessed 2 November 2016]

[2] Robbins, K, Great Britain: Identities, Institutions and the idea of Britishness (London: Longman Publishing Group, 1997), p.153.

[3] Ibid.

[4] LoPatin, N, Political Unions, Popular Politics and the Great Reform Act of 1832 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998), p.5.

[5] Pugh, M, Britain: A Concise History, 1789-1998 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), p.19.


One thought on “Did the French Revolution influence a “protracted struggle” for reform in Britain?

  1. There is lots to enjoy in your blog post on the impact of French Revolution of 1789 on attitudes to reform in Britain and I particularly liked discussion on the image (etching) and also on Charles Grey.

    However, it occurs to me that you approached this blog post in the way you might an essay, and that you have introduced enough material for atleast 2 – even 3 – different blog posts. One on the image, one on Grey and one on class consciousness and the industrial revolution. Often the most successful blogs are those that have a clear and specific focus, for example, you could have focussed exclusively on the image and what it reveals about ‘Britishness’ in 1792.

    Close attention to detail is key to a successful blog – your opening sentences are rather confusing because they suggest that 1792 was before 1789 rather than after. Overall, though the written style is effective and referencing is very good.


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