A Letter to my Uncle: the Early 19th Century “Ultra Tory” MP, Michael Sadler
Dear Michael Thomas Sadler MP
I am your great-great-great-great-great nephew. You lived in a time — in most respects — unrecognisable from the one I live in now, although in other respects, one with striking parallels.
You were a Tory MP (1829–1832) in the days of the rotten boroughs, when the burgeoning industrial cities had no parliamentary representation whilst rural constituencies with tiny electorates might return several MPs sponsored by the landed-gentry. In your case, it was the Earl of Newcastle under Lyme who chose you (despite your ‘broad Yorkshire dialect’ and ‘lack of social polish’) and who was known for threatening enfranchised tenants with eviction if they did not vote for his chosen candidate.
Not only that but you were an Ultra-Tory MP; a member of a ‘party within the party’ (sounds familiar…) that broke away from the mainstream Tory party over Catholic Emancipation, with particular relevance to Ireland.
You were vehemently against granting Catholics the right to take seats in parliament, fearing that it would fundamentally undermine protestant constitutional supremacy (and you voted against similar measures in relation to British Jews), that ultimately brought down the government of the day.
You were against the Reform Acts (this, a decade after the Peterloo masacre) that would eventually abolish the rotten boroughs and broaden suffrage to the towns and cities (even though these reforms were still painfully moderate by today’s standards) and when you eventually U-turned on this later, demanding the electoral reforms go even further, some have suggested that it was driven more by self-interest than on principle.
And yet, along with your friend, the “Tory-radical” Richard Oastler , you were also strongly against changes to the Poor Laws that forced those in receipt of relief to enter the workhouses (‘Prisons for the Poor’ as Oastler called them).
You were also the person responsible for introducing legislation into parliament that would eventually see the regulation of working conditions in the rapidly burgeoning textile mills and factories, a job that Lord Shaftsbury completed (and therefore is the one credited for it) after you lost your parliamentary seat.
Your initial attempts to place restrictions on the number of hours children could work in the factories, the ban on anyone under the age of nine from working in them at all, heavy fines for employers who broke these rules or whose unsafe working conditions caused injury, and the requirement that all child workers were provided with at least a ‘rudimentary’ education, were initially thwarted. But at the subsequent parliamentary enquiry that you chaired (agreed with the government as a temporary compromise), you gave priority to hearing from the factory workers over the owners — unprecedented at that time — something that caused great consternation amongst the ruling class, and triggered a national debate that, in my view, facilitated the eventual reforms.
The Michael Sadler who was a member of the emerging industrial middle classes, a business owner, a sectarian Protestant to a puritanical degree and a member of a faction of Tory MPs deemed to be on the ‘extreme right’ of the party was the same Michael Sadler who — when he stood as MP for Leeds after the first Reform Act was passed — was escorted into one of the debates by a procession organised by the local Short Time Committee. The Short Time Committees were one of the precursors to the Trade Union movement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, you were defeated in the 1832 General Election, because you were acting directly against the interests of your electorate (which of course despite the Reform Bill still excluded the working class), and it’s reported that 100,000 gathered at a Manchester rally in support of you and Oastler in the wake of this defeat.
But why am I writing to you?
Here in 2018, and since the vote to leave the European Union, I have found that U.K. politics has become increasingly tribal, whether it be the hard-line Brexiteers of Jacob Rees-Mogg versus Twitter’s pro-EU “FBPE” brigade; the neo-liberal Blairites versus those that believe that any criticism of Jeremy Corbyn amounts not only to an attack on him, but a conspiracy to undermine the very essence of what he stands for.
At the moment there seems to be little room for complicated answers in politics. On all sides of the political debate, those with the most simplistic views are shouting louder than ever before. Our views, confirmed by our unchallenging echo-chambers, are shaped by oversimplified ideologies that fail to take into account the complexities of the real world — and it’s difficult to get more complex than the real world of Brexit. When there are attempts to reach out to the other side, this often takes patronisingly cringe-worthy forms like , on my own ‘side’, the decision to name the campaign for a second Brexit referendum the ‘People’s Vote’ and ‘metropolitan elite’ Remainers attempting to ‘reclaim’ the words ‘metropolitan elite’ (and appearing even more ‘metropolitan elite’ by doing so).
For me, you encapsulate the complexity that I wish we would embrace today.
I am a Remainer in favour of a vote on the final Brexit deal. I am pretty sure you’d have been an ardent Brexiteer and dead against a ‘People’s Vote’. And whilst you’d have disagreed vehemently with the laissez-faire disaster-capitalist economics espoused by the most hard-line leavers [although your protectionist beliefs mean I’m sure you were in favour of the Corn Laws that prevented the poor from being able to afford a loaf of bread], you’d have sympathised with many of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s nativist principles and beliefs in English exceptionalism. [Let’s put aside the fact you’d have considered Rees-Mogg ineligible to sit in parliament on account of his religion.]
Had you lived today; had you been a parliamentarian today, I imagine that I’d have disagreed with you on most things. However your views of the Poor Laws, and your tireless work on factory reform makes categorising you a somewhat difficult task. Your career, that to some could be thought of as resembling early ‘One Nation’-ism whilst to others, will have echoes of the hard-right Tory ERG, suggests that it is difficult to ‘put you into a box’.
Whilst your swings from one extreme to another hardly made you a ‘centrist’, the challenge of categorising you reminds me of the importance of complexity, of compromise and of finding common ground with opponents: principles that I feel are currently in short supply.
And who knows, perhaps another parallel I’ll be able to point to in the not-too-distant future is that it will be issues pertaining to Ireland (in our case over the so-called ‘Northern Irish backstop’ — let’s just say a lot has happened since your time) that yet again causes a British government to fall.