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Signatures of Conservatism: Petitioning, Popular Politics and Campaigns against Reform in Britain, 1780-1918

Miller, Henry (2021) 'Signatures of Conservatism: Petitioning, Popular Politics and Campaigns against Reform in Britain, 1780-1918.', Historia y Política, 46 . pp. 149-174.


Accounts of mass petitioning in Britain, and indeed other nineteenth-century polities have generally focused on the deployment of petitions within progressive, reformist or liberal campaigns and social movements. In the British case, classic examples include anti-slavery, radicalism, Chartism, free trade, and women’s suffrage. Yet the new forms of mass collective petitioning that emerged in the late eighteenth century are best regarded as neutral technologies rather than the exclusive property of liberals and radicals. Many of the largest mobilisations of petitions and signatures to Parliament and other authorities in the nineteenth century came from conservative, tory, loyalist, anti-reform or reactionary campaigns, seeking to resist major constitutional changes or oppose the demands made by progressive movements. The defence of the established churches of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales consistently mobilised tens of thousands of petitions and millions of signatures, as did opposition to granting rights to Catholics and Protestant Dissenters. To give another example, protectionist interests resisted free trade. An analysis of these campaigns reveals that conservative petitioning was generally reactive, responding to proposed changes and opponents rather than attempting to set the agenda. The practice of petitioning within such petition movements made greater use of established bodies, such as clergy and the church, and was rather slower to develop new forms of association and adopt the new modes of mass petitioning than their opponents. For example, for a long time conservatives continued to emphasise the respectability and quality of signatures and petitioners, even after numbers had become increasingly important in the public debates over petitions on key issues. The use of petitioning to resist change was also significant in maintaining conservative identity during a period (after 1830) when the Tory or Conservative party was weak. Overall, the engagement of conservatives shows how they adapted, if not to democracy, then to popular politics in the nineteenth century.

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Date accepted:14 November 2020
Date deposited:19 February 2021
Date of first online publication:30 November 2021
Date first made open access:01 February 2022

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