The Victorian Legacy in Political Thought

by Catherine Marshall (Volume editor) Stéphane Guy (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 376 Pages


The Victorian era was one that teemed with multitudinous and sometimes opposing visions of polity yet rarely questioned the very existence of the State. What might be called the pragmatism of the elite gave rise to a form of democratic compromise, allowing the growth of political ideas that may still be found in contemporary political thought.
Have reformist, socialist, liberal or utilitarian ideas avoided the dogmatism of twentieth century politics or paved the way to other forms of ideology? To what extent has the organization or gradual obliteration of the State been influenced by evolutionary theories, the quest for effective government and expertise or, more generally, refusal of the past? What was the impact of Victorian thinkers and ideas on the mutation of contemporary political ideas? Have we reached a post-Victorian period or are we still using a Victorian rhetoric as well as Victorian theories? Have we not, also, reached a stage in which retrieving some of those ideas might help to solve some of our contemporary political problems? The essays presented in this book all attempt to answer some of these questions and try to show how nineteenth century thought and culture have shaped British modern political debate and, for some, still continue to do so. It will prove useful to academics and the general public interested in contemporary politics as well as the history of ideas and political philosophy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Catherine Marshall & Stéphane Guy
  • 1. Part I (Mis)construing the Victorians
  • 2. Part II – Succeeding (to) the Victorians
  • 3. Part III – (Mis)using the Victorians
  • 3.1. The Victorian roots of the contemporary political paradigm
  • 3.2. The Victorian age vs. the post-war consensus
  • 3.3. A multiform legacy: the test of periodization
  • Part I: (Mis)construing the Victorians
  • Bentham in the Twentieth Century: A Survey of the Times Literary Supplement: Emmanuelle de Champs
  • 1. General Overview
  • 2. Victorian Values and the Industrial Revolution
  • 3. The Genealogy of British Liberalism
  • 4. Bentham and the Philistines
  • 5. The Bentham Committee and the New Bentham
  • 6. An Enduring Legacy?
  • Bibliography
  • Primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Thomas Carlyle’s Legacy, Past and Present: Catherine Heyrendt-Sherman
  • 1. Carlyle’s Legacy through Others
  • 2. Periodical Rediscovery and Controversy over Carlyle’s Legacy
  • 3. Carlyle’s Legacy Today, Actual and Prospective
  • 3.1. Denunciation of social inequalities
  • 3.2. The right to work and receive fair wages
  • 3.3. “The terror of ‘Not succeeding’; of not making money”
  • 3.4. Carlyle’s vision of progress: a peaceful, green and humane world
  • Bibliography
  • Books
  • Articles
  • Negative Liberty and Mill’s Libertarian Reputation: A Reconsideration: Gregory Claeys
  • Introduction: Mill, Autonomy and Negative Liberty
  • 1. Josiah Warren and the Sovereignty of the Individual
  • 2. Mill and Liberty
  • 3. Mill’s Later Victorian Reputation
  • Bibliography
  • Whig Thought: Historiographical Perspectives: Aude Attuel-Hallade
  • 1. Herbert Butterfield and the National Whig History: An Ambiguous Legacy in the Historiographical and Political British Tradition
  • 2. The “Herbert Butterfield Problem”: the Paradoxes in Butterfield’s Historical Thought
  • 2.1. The Intellectual Objectives of The Whig Interpretation of History and of The Englishman and his History
  • 2.2. Political action and Providentialism in Butterfield
  • 3. A Historical Myth to Serve Politics
  • 3.1. Butterfield and the French Revolution: Rupture and the “Myth of Continuity”
  • 3.2. Butterfield’s “Conservative Whiggism”: a Burkean or a “Macaulyan” Heritage?
  • 4. English Exceptionalism
  • 4.1. “Little England”
  • 4.2. The Persistence of the Whig Paradigm in Contemporary Political Narrative and Historiography
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Part II: Succeeding (to) the Victorians
  • The Legacy of British Idealism in Political Thought and Today’s Problems of State Building: Michael Henkel
  • Introduction: The Fate of British Idealism from the Time of Queen Victoria up to the Present Day
  • 1. Political Thinking in British Idealism: Bernard Bosanquet
  • 2. Bosanquet’s Political Thinking as a Living Legacy: on the Problems of State Building
  • 3. Fukuyama’s Theory of State Building
  • 3.1. Aspects of Stateness
  • 3.2. Effective Organization and Social Capital
  • 4. Some Aspects of Bernard Bosanquet’s Theory of the State
  • 4.1. Bourgeois Society
  • 4.2. From bourgeois Society to the Political State: Good life, Liberty & General Will
  • 5. Citizenship, State Building, and the Western Civilization of Freedom
  • Bibliography
  • Welfarist and Moral Justifications of the Strong State: Reconciling Hobhouse’s and Bosanquet’s Perspectives on the Role of the State: Maria Dimova-Cookson
  • 1. Hobhouse on Liberty and the Welfare State
  • 2. Hobhouse’s Critique of Bosanquet’s Idealism
  • 3. Bosanquet’s Moral Defence of the State
  • Bibliography
  • A Forgotten Hero of British Social Democracy? The Historical Significance of Edward Caird: Colin Tyler
  • 1. Frank Field’s Saints and Heroes
  • 2. Balliol, Beveridge and Caird
  • Bibliography
  • Archives consulted
  • Idealism and Religion: The Legacy of Victorian Debates: Andrew Vincent
  • 1. The British Idealist Movement
  • 2. Robert Elsemere and Religious Anxiety
  • 3. Three Pressures on Late Victorian Transcendent Religion
  • 4. Philosophical Theology
  • 5. Kantianism and Immanentism
  • 6. A Modern Corollary: an Awareness of What is Missing
  • 7. Kantianism Redivivus
  • 8. A Rediscovered Kulturkampf
  • Bibliography
  • Mark Bevir and Victorian Idealism: Jean-Paul Rosaye
  • Bibliography
  • Victorian Idealism – Then and Now: Mark Bevir
  • Bibliography
  • Part III: (Mis)using the Victorians
  • Margaret Thatcher’s “Victorian values”: A Reappraisal: Christian Auer
  • Bibliography
  • Margaret Thatcher and Conservative Feminism – A Rehabilitation of Victorian Values: Françoise Orazi
  • 1. Thatcher and “Feminist Policies”
  • 2. Conservative Feminism
  • Bibliography
  • The Victorian Prison Revisited? The Antecedents of British Penal Policy, 1993–2010*: Neil Davie
  • 1. Hard Labour, Hard Fare and a Hard Bed?
  • 2. The Un-Victorian Prison
  • Bibliography
  • New Labour’s Discourse on Social Cohesion and the First Fabians’ Paradoxical Legacy: the Case of Anti-Social Behaviour: Marie Terrier
  • 1. Anti-Social Behaviour: Meaning and Implications of a New Concept
  • 1.1. Uneasy Definition of a Successful Concept
  • 1.2. Justification and Debate
  • 2. Continuities and Differences with “Anti-Social” for the First Fabians
  • 2.1. Anti-Social, Selfish and Idle
  • 2.2. Nature and Origin of Anti-Social Behaviour
  • 2.3. The Community and the State
  • Bibliography
  • The Lib-Lab Roots of New Labour: Yann Béliard
  • 1. New Labour and Lib-Labism: A Few Signposts
  • 2. Distrust of the poor
  • 3. The Cult of Community
  • 4. Aversion to Social Conflicts
  • Bibliography
  • Primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Social Policy Serving the Economy: A Victorian Legacy: Jean-Paul Révauger
  • 1. The Victorian model as a permanent feature of British social policy
  • 2. The Beveridge Moment: norm or accident?
  • 3. The Victorian legacy in contemporary social policy
  • 4. The harder the fall.
  • Bibliography
  • The “Problem” of the Poor: Welfare Reform in Contemporary Britain and the Legacy of Tocqueville’s Mémoire sur le paupérisme: Christine Dunn-Henderson
  • 1. The Mémoire
  • 2. The Modern System… and Contemporary Reform
  • Bibliography
  • Conclusion: Beyond the Victorian Legacy: Noel O’Sullivan
  • 1. Beyond the Victorian Legacy
  • 1.1. The liberal concept of the political as an order of rights based on a rational ideal of justice
  • 1.2. The discourse theory of the political
  • 1.3. The agonal concept of the political
  • 1.4. The postmodern concept of the political
  • 2. The three aspects of the concept of the political
  • 2.1. The standpoint from which the political is studied
  • 2.2. The content or focus of the study of the political
  • 2.3. The need to relocate political concerns within the broader framework of a theory of practical wisdom or prudence
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors


The editors offer grateful acknowledgement to Professors Franck Lessay (University of the Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris III) and Noel O’Sullivan (University of Hull) for their constant support and for having provided the inspiration for this collection of essays. From both sides of the Channel, they have guided us and helped our reflection on the subject throughout the years. May they receive our warmest thanks.

Our University – Cergy-Pontoise University – through our research centre – the CICC –, the University Trust, and our Faculty, have also greatly eased our work through the funding given for the conference which inspired this work and for the great contribution given to the publication of this book.

At our research centre, Arkiya Touadi provided invaluable support by guiding us through the funding system, helping to make the project come through at every single stage and by being such a thorough and devoted colleague.

We also benefited from the invaluable help of a team of students in the Master’s degree in Publishing and Communication studies in our University – Gladys Caré, Élodie Fiette, Iris Munsch and Tania Pruvost – who took on our project with great care. Our special thanks go to Iris Munsch who finalised the work, a year after it was started, and did so with great patience, rigour and consideration. We extend these warmest thanks to Professor Joanna Nowicki and Dr. Luciana Radut-Gaghi, who agreed to take on the project with their students and who were both generous with their time. We are also most grateful to Sylvie Kleinman for the faithful translations of three of the contributions.

Last but not least, we want to thank the contributors of this book for their patience and for their most fruitful collaboration. Through their work, we have been able to understand the Victorian legacy better and it is to them that we dedicate this work.

Catherine Marshall & Stéphane Guy

Cergy-Pontoise University,

October 2013.

← 9 | 10 → ← 10 | 11 →



The idea for this collection of essays became a reality when, as two Victorian scholars in France, we felt that the political ideas which came into existence in the Victorian period – most especially in the second half of the 19th century – were either misunderstood, misused or ignored in British contemporary political thought. To our minds, most of the political and social ideas of the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century in Britain still rely heavily on the ideas framed in the 19th century and should be acknowledged as such.

Certain contemporary political terms are used along with certain values, with a misunderstanding as to what was originally meant at the time. The use of a Victorian rhetoric hides the fact that there is often no recognition of the importance of Victorian sources and how they could be of use to contemporary political thinkers, if used properly.

Even if the perception of the Victorian period has gradually changed over the last twenty years, thanks to the works of a number of scholars, there are still certain perfunctory misunderstandings and mistakes, mostly in political discourses and in the press. In order to separate the present-day perception of the 19th century from what was really meant in the context of the period, we tried to map out what the 19th century gave the 21st century in terms of political and social ideas and if what was given was truly Victorian – or only a perception of it.

20th and 21st century thinkers – political ones especially – often refer to the ideas of the 19th century as a means to their end and, in doing so, give us an understanding of the 19th century which is either blurred or subjective. It is either a misinterpretation of the reality of the 19th century or, more often than not, an interpretation of ideas taken out of their context.

The ultimate aim of this collection of essays is to try and pinpoint where the Victorians and their ideas have left their legacy and how our lives are still based – or not – on a Victorian past. ← 11 | 12 →

The papers presented in this book cover the political and social dimensions of the Victorian legacy, often extending to culture and religion. Some were given at the time of an international conference on “The Victorian Legacy in British Contemporary Political Thought” organised at the University of Cergy-Pontoise (France) on June 9–10, 2011, by the two editors of this book. After the conference, it became clear that a book could be published on the subject and new contributors – mostly British scholars – joined in and participated in the project, giving it much more substance.

The three parts of the book cover the ways in which the Victorian period and some great Victorian authors have been interpreted or misinterpreted (Part I). The book then focuses, in Part II, on the philosophical legacy of Victorian thinkers and shows how the modern concept of the State in many ways has been inherited from 19th century reflections on the links between knowledge, religion and morality. The contributions focus mostly on the significance of British Idealism and are the reflection of the growing interest which has been given to this philosophy in the last 15 years. 1 Part III finally seeks to examine the Victorian legacy in modern day politics: how does the age interact not only with theory but with current political discourse, programmes and parties? In the historical and conceptual framework sketched in the two previous parts, it attempts to explore the implications of the Victorian past for practical politics, social policy and the role of the State as it is perceived by the general public through government decisions and orientations.

1.Part I (Mis)construing the Victorians

The first part of the book is a snapshot of the legacy of five main Victorian figures: the legal and political philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the critic and historian Thomas Carlyle, the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill and two Whig historians and politicians, Thomas Babington ← 12 | 13 → Macaulay and Lord Acton. The four essays presented all reconsider the influence of these Victorian figures on the 20th and 21st centuries.

The first article by Emmanuelle de Champs, “Bentham in the Twentieth Century: A Survey of the Times Literary Supplement” draws on the critical articles published in the Times Literary Supplement in the 20th century to analyse the representation and evolution of the understanding of Jeremy Bentham’s thought throughout that period. The use of a non-academic periodical allows the author to show how Bentham was considered and written about for a wider audience and how the utilitarian subtext has remained alive, however faulty. As Emmanuelle de Champs points out, if Bentham’s studies have been renewed through the work of a number of scholars since the 1960’s, one of the enduring questions which remains in the minds of conservative thinkers when analysing Bentham is whether or not the Victorian period corresponded to a highlight in individual utilitarianism and if so, how to consider utilitarianism in British political thought. The conclusion shows how Bentham’s thought still deeply divides historians of political ideas as he remains a controversial figure either not taken seriously or not fully understood. In that sense, this first essay already points to the great misunderstanding of some of the contentious Victorian thinkers and to how Benthamism has become a word, at worst, devoid of its true meaning and, at best, as analysed out of context.

The second essay by Catherine Heyrendt-Sherman on “Thomas Carlyle’s legacy, Past and Present” considers Carlyle’s thought as it was passed on through the works of a number of others, whether literary figures, political or philosophical ones, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Using Thomas Carlyle’s core work Past and Present (1843) and its description of what an ideal society should be, Catherine Heyrendt-Sherman considers Carlyle’s greatest legacies, i.e. the denunciation of social inequalities, the right to work to receive a fair wage, the refusal of a money-dominated world and the defence of a humane world in which responsible behaviour flourishes for the best of all. Carlyle, whose reputation has, over the years, suffered from ups and downs, is retrieved from a form of benign historical neglect to be considered more fully for his real contribution to the history of political thought.

The reputation of John Stuart Mill, the great liberal thinker of the 19th century, had also not gone uncontested during the 20th century. Gregory Claeys in his essay on “Negative liberty and Mill’s Libertarian ← 13 | 14 → Reputation: A Reconsideration” focuses on the misreading of John Stuart Mill and most especially the common idea that there could be two different John Stuart Mills, that of On Liberty (1859), and that of his other major works, Principles of Political Economy (1848) and Utilitarianism (1863) to quote only those. Gregory Claeys focuses on the description often given of John Stuart Mill as an advocate of negative liberty and how it has become a mantel for all types of libertarians since the second half of the 20th century. By shedding light on what Mill truly meant by the “sovereignty of the individual”, the author investigates how and why John Stuart Mill’s theory has been misunderstood. Gregory Claeys also clearly demonstrates how over the years the interpretations of Mill by some thinkers have been misused by others, adding to the inability to distinguish Mill’s true meaning from Mill’s interpretation by others. The essay rediscovers the true John Stuart Mill, setting his political thought back into the context of the time and undoing the wrongful interpretations which have research on Mill’s thought over the last century.

The last essay by Aude Attuel-Hallade, “Whig Thought: Historiographical Perspectives”, concentrates on how the 20th century Cambridge scholar Herbert Butterfield understood and used the legacy of the Whig political thought, as it was presented in the writings of the two Victorian Whig historians and politicians Thomas Babington Macaulay and Lord Acton. Aude Attuel-Hallade, by pointing out how wide a meaning the term “Whig” still encompasses, allows present day readers to understand how the interpretation of history is necessarily a construction of the human mind. The Whig interpretation of history as it was defined by Butterfield in his two seminal works The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) and The Englishman and his History (1944), pervades the British way of thinking – even if it was challenged by Butterfield himself and by other historians over the last 20 years. The Whig story remains a comprehensive interpretation of the British politics and history which is most difficult and, indeed most dangerous, for any present-day politician to ignore.

As a whole, these four essays, by focusing on some of the core Victorians and the misinterpretation of their ideas and works, sets the stage for the study of the Victorian legacy. ← 14 | 15 →

2.Part II – Succeeding (to) the Victorians

This second part, on the legacy of the Victorians, focuses on the sources of British Social Democracy and on the ways in which the Victorian State was forced to adapt to the changing circumstances of the 20th century. Referring to the political legacy of the Victorians also implies a questioning of the moral role of the State and, partially linked to it, of the role of faith in the actions and the decisions of citizens. What had initially been, in this second part of the book, an attempt to seek out and define the forms taken by political legacies in the present time, slowly took the form of the acknowledgement of the role of British Idealism on such questions. The academics who contributed to this part give us an insight into the precursors of Social Democracy in Britain and the ways in which they dealt with State building, the role of the State, the development of Social Democracy, the intellectual legacy of religion and how British Idealism itself is being reinterpreted by modern political thinkers.

The first essay is Michael Henkel’s article on “The Legacy of British Idealism in Political Thought and Today’s Problems of State Building” which focuses on the ways in which British Idealism still has a lot to offer to modern thinkers. The gist of the article is the importance of the role of the State in preserving a free society and how the renewed interest in Idealism can answer some of the main questions at the heart our present-day societies (not only Western democracies). Using both Bernard Bosanquet’s The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899) and Francis Fukuyama’s theory of the building of effective State structures in the 21st century, Michael Henkel compares the conclusions of the two authors to show that Bosanquet’s type of Idealism paved the way for 21st century citizenship by making citizens fully responsible for the working of their ever changing and complex political structures.

Along the same lines and also drawing on Bernard Bosanquet’s Philosophical Theory of the State (1899), Maria Dimova-Cookson takes on the great battle between Bosanquet and one of his fiercest critics, L. T. Hobhouse in his work The Metaphysical Theory of the State (1918). Concentrating on the two apparently contradictory conceptions of the State defended by L. T. Hobhouse – one of the most damaging critics of the Idealist political theory – and Bernard Bosanquet’s traditional political theory of Idealism, the author shows how a reconciliation of their ← 15 | 16 → ideas is possible. The Welfarist perspective of the State defended by Hobhouse can be accommodated by Bosanquet’s moral justification of it which then brings Maria Dimova-Cookson to show how, in present day politics, a new conception of the State could be understood thanks to Bosanquet’s Idealist stance. The article also shows the evolution of political theory throughout the 20th and 21st centuries through the work of both thinkers and how two different types of liberalism emerge from their theory.

Colin Tyler’s contribution focuses on the renewed importance of British Idealism on contemporary political thought and most especially on the important part that the British Idealist Edward Caird played in teaching certain main thinkers of 20th century Britain (Attlee and Beveridge in particular but many other social democratic figures). Colin Tyler uses the contemporary writings of the Labour MP Frank Field – most especially Saints and Heroes: Inspiring Politics (2010) – to show how Field has wrongly understood T. H. Green’s writings and how Edward Caird has been overlooked as the real influence on certain main actors of the Social Democratic debate in the 20th century. The inspiring conclusion given is that Edward Caird’s idealism could be an answer to the left’s lack of ideological compass in the 21st century and that the questions linked to the common good and to that of the duty of citizens in social democratic societies can still be renewed in such a light.

The three following papers concentrate on other aspects of British Idealism, i.e. the importance of the questions linked to religion and secularity in our modern world and on the role of metaphysics in a world which likes to do without.

Andrew Vincent’s “Idealism and Religion: The legacy of Victorian Debates” focuses on the late Victorian religious debate and on how Idealists and their critics have not yet solved the main debate agitating the 19th century, that of religion and reason. In an extensive introduction to Idealism and religion since the end of the 19th century, Andrew Vincent focuses on philosophical Idealism and how, if it has given many answers to the questions raised over religion in the 20th century, some are still unsolved forcing us to see in what ways the gap between religion and reason can ever be solved.

Focusing on the importance of metaphysics, Jean-Paul Rosaye, in an article entitled “Mark Bevir and Victorian Idealism: A Reappraisal” presents the ways in which British Idealism has been understood in Mark ← 16 | 17 → Bevir’s work over the last ten years. Jean-Paul Rosaye’s paper stresses how metaphysics is still capital, even if our century attempts to steer clear of it and he shows how Mark Bevir’s position, denying the necessity of an absolute, tends to deny Idealism its greatest force. The article also shows how British Idealism is discussed in the 21st century, proving that it is a philosophy to be reckoned with.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
polity pragmatism democratic compromise ideology
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 376 pp.

Biographical notes

Catherine Marshall (Volume editor) Stéphane Guy (Volume editor)

The two editors, Catherine Marshall and Stéphane Guy, are Senior Lecturers in British Studies, specialised in the history of ideas, at the University of Cergy-Pontoise in France. They are both members of the CICC (Centre de recherche en civilisations et identités culturelles comparées). Stéphane Guy is currently working on British socialism and the Fabian Society. Catherine Marshall is about to finish, along with Bernard Lightman and Richard England, a critical edition in 3 volumes of the papers of the Metaphysical Society (1869-1880).


Title: The Victorian Legacy in Political Thought