Radicals (UK)

The Radicals were a parliamentary political grouping in the United Kingdom 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 Catholic Emancipation and free trade. 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 middle class "Philosophic radicals" strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the "popular radicals".

Parliamentary radicals

The Whig Reform Act 1832 enfranchised the middle classes, but failed to meet radical demands, particularly for universal male suffrage. The mainly aristocratic Whigs in the House of Commons were then joined by a small number of parliamentary Radicals who continued to demand the vote for working class males, as well as an increased number of middle class Whigs. The popular demand for wider suffrage was then taken up by the working class Chartists. By 1839 the Whigs and Radicals in parliament were informally being called “the Liberal party.”

The middle class Anti-Corn Law League founded in 1839, led by Richard Cobden and John Bright, opposed duties on imported grain which raised the price of food to help landowners but harmed manufacturers. They sought working class support and attacked "feudalism", but disagreed with the leadership and tactics of the Chartists. After the failure of Chartist mass demonstrations and petitions in 1848 to sway parliament, widening suffrage was left to the Anti-Corn Law Leaguers and to the parliamentary radicals.

Formation of the Liberal Party

The parliamentary radicals were distinctly middle class; their radicalism consisted in opposition to the political dominance and economic interests of the traditional British elites, rather than to any affinity to socialism.

The Radicals joined with the Whigs and the anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party by 1859.

Parliamentary reform

Demand for parliamentary reform increased by 1864 with agitation from John Bright and the Reform League. The Liberal William Ewart Gladstone introduced a modest bill which was defeated by both Tories and reform Liberals, forcing the government to resign. Benjamin Disraeli took office, and the new minority Tory government introduced the Reform Act of 1867 which almost doubled the electorate, giving the vote even to working men.

See also

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