Radicals, Tories or Monomaniacs? The Birmingham Currency Reformers in the House of Commons, 1832–67

Authors


  • This article draws on research undertaken for the the History of Parliament Trust's 1832–68 section. Earlier drafts were much improved by the comments of Clyve Jones, Philip Salmon, Paul Seaward, Kathryn Rix and an anonymous referee. A shorter version of this article was presented at the ‘Emergence of the West Midlands: Culture, Communities and Change, 1779–1918’ conference, held at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham, 1 Apr. 2012, my attendance at which was facilitated by funding from the History of Parliament Trust.

Abstract

Benjamin Disraeli described Thomas Attwood as a ‘provincial banker labouring under a financial monomania’. The leader of the Birmingham Political Union, Attwood's Warwickshire accent and support for a paper currency were widely derided at Westminster. However, the themes of Attwood's brief parliamentary career were shared by the other men who represented Birmingham in the early- and mid-Victorian period. None of these MPs were good party men, and this article illuminates the nature of party labels in the period. Furthermore, it adds a new dimension to the historical understanding of debates on monetary policy and shows how local political identities and traditions interacted with broader party identities. With the exception of Richard Spooner, who was a strong tory on religious and political matters, the currency men are best described as popular radicals, who consistently championed radical political reform and were among the few parliamentary supporters of the ‘People's Charter’. They opposed the new poor law and endorsed factory regulation, a progressive income tax, and religious liberty. Although hostile to the corn laws they believed that free trade without currency reform would depress prices, wages and employment. George Frederick Muntz's death in 1857 and his replacement by John Bright marked a watershed and the end of the influence of the ‘Birmingham school’. Bright appropriated Birmingham's radical tradition as he used the town as a base for his campaign for parliamentary reform. He emphasized Birmingham's contribution to the passing of the 1832 Reform Act but ignored the currency reformers' views on other matters, which had often been at loggerheads with the ‘Manchester school’ and economic liberalism.

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