The Georgians - Restraint, Revolution And Reform



Amanda Foreman examines the formative years of British politics when the most important structures of British life - still valued and recognised today - were established in the shadow of revolution.

Amanda invites us to enter the world of the political elite in London's luxurious St James' Square. Here, political heavyweights would gather for a season debating and defining British politics. Against a backdrop of decadence, they went about the serious business of crafting the structures of politics and society so familiar to us in the 21st Century.

The Georgians continuously tested where true power lay - in the Monarchy, or in Parliament. At Buckingham Palace with the keeper of the Queen's pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Amanda discovers how a monarchy imported from Hanover styled themselves as a constitutional monarchy that showed deference to the structures of British politics.

But this wasn't just a power play by ambitious politicians, it was part of a reforming attitude exemplified by calls to reform Parliament and make it more representative of the people. No 18th century figure embodied the development of this political modernity more than Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher and politician, who Amanda encounters with MP Jesse Norman.

The struggle for power was a struggle for control of the people, made more pressing in a climate of fear as revolution took hold across the channel in France. But, as Amanda shows, local-level politics in Georgian Britain was a type of 'soft power' that eased tensions.

Producer: Katherine Godfrey

A Whistledown production for Radio 4.

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In the final part of a series examining the political impact of the Georgian era, Amanda Foreman looks at politics on the ground as she considers the structures of British life that created both control and freedom. She asks why Britain experienced political evolution, not revolution.

In 1832 the British political elite voluntarily chose to weaken its own power for the first and only time in history. This was the result of the Reform Act, which added 130 new seats to Parliament and almost doubled the number of people able to vote in general elections.

While riot and rebellion was rife and often met with violent backlash from those in power, Amanda argues that the Georgian elites placed emphasis on freedom through a strengthening of the apparatus of control in politics and the law and that ordinary people could exercise political influence even without the vote.

Meeting radicals in Newcastle and evangelical conservatives in the Mendip hills, Amanda examines how the ordinary disenfranchised man and woman increasingly invested in politics and civic life through a combination of local-level political interaction, seemingly non-political actions such as philanthropy, and direct rebellion - thereby avoiding heads on sticks and, instead, transforming how the elected related to the people.

The series examines the formative years of British politics when the most important structures of British life we value and recognise today were established - and all in the shadow of revolution. It paints a picture of the Georgian legacy, one where decadence and scandal takes a backseat to proto-democracy and social reform.

Producer: Katherine Godfrey

A Whistledown production for Radio 4.