Victorian Pan Secessionism: Birmingham’s Civic Gospel

by Spencer Pearson

Could a tiny group of determined people challenge the power of the state and enact a revolution in a major Western city?  And might such a revolution have such far reaching consequences as to change the nature of Western society as a whole?  Is it even vaguely credible that such an event could happen?  When we consider the vast advantages of the establishment in Western political systems, of the ignorance and apathy of the majority of the population, of the hegemony of orthodox thought the answer must surely be no.  There is but one fact which stands contrary to that assessment; that’s exactly what happened in the British city of Birmingham in the second half of the Nineteenth Century.

In an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1890 Birmingham was described as “the best governed city in the world”.  By the time Harper’s offered that assessment the City Council had bought out the city’s water and gas supply (in 1899 it would add its electricity supply), built a network of schools, libraries, baths and public parks, redeveloped a huge section of the city centre and demolished extensive areas of slums.  Perhaps more significant than these physical projects was the creation and dissemination of the idea which made them possible,  the “civic gospel” which held that the community must look to itself to provide for its needs rather than petition the central government to fill them.

Birmingham is not an insignificant community, these events did not take place in some backwater.  It is, officially and in many other respects, the “second city of the UK” preceding more internationally recognised British cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester.  In the 1870’s, when the civic gospel really began to take hold, Birmingham’s population was over a third the size of New York’s. Moreover this was a city which held a significant place in the still expanding British Empire as the centre of engineering, technology and armament production (the Detroit of the first two thirds of the 20th century might be a good analogy for Americans).  And yet even though its fortunes were so bound to the Imperial project an elite within it seriously contemplated a future in which the city was effectively a semi autonomous city state.  Moreover they were able to convince a sufficiently large section of the city’s population of that ideal that they were able to achieve significant progress towards that goal.

If such a degree of community organisation, radicalism and success is barely conceivable in today’s Britain then the story of how it was achieved is more incredible still.  The origins of the “civic gospel” lie within “nonconformist” Christian communities (i.e. Christians not part of the Church of England) in the city during the first half of the 19th century.   These Unitarian, Baptist, Congregationalists and particularly Methodist communities were a distinct and visible minority within the city, regarded with some hostility by the mainstream Anglican and minority Catholic population as unduly ostentatiously pious (think Ned Flanders).  In 1791 this hostility was strong enough to ignite a pogrom in Birmingham in which many dissenters homes and businesses were burned by mobs apparently lead by state agents.  Never the less these “dissenter” communities’ theologies stressed the need for “good works” and social activism and this religious, rather than political, ideology motivated the development of the “civic gospel”.

The political obstacles which faced these civic revolutionaries were daunting.  Many none conformists had been excluded from certain professions and educational opportunities by law until the repeal of the Test Acts in the 1820s, only a generation before the rise of the civic gospel.   As a result many none conformists had entered into commerce, many of which were extremely successful.  However this meant that there was little or no formal academic knowledge within the communities and no tradition of the operation of the mechanisms of power or the methods of political control used at the time.  This meant that the would-be revolutionaries faced an established local elite which knew how to play the game while they themselves were rank amateurs.

Even more problematic is that there existed no local government to be co-opted in the sense we know it today.  Throughout the first half of the industrial period the growth of industrial cities outstripped provision for their governance.  So many substantial cities had less developed local government (and national representation) than small towns lucky enough to have fairly sophisticated arrangements left over from the Medieval period.  In Birmingham it took until 1838 for a Town Council to be established and not until 1852 did that Council finally get control of all aspects of the city’s governance.  The objective of taking over these institutions was made rather more challenging by the fact that the franchise was restricted to a fairly small part of the electorate, and those that had the vote tended to pay the local taxes and were therefore inclined towards “fiscal conservativism”.

The civic radicals had not only to contend with “conservatives” on the “right” but with the rising socialist movement on the “left”.  19th Century socialism was intently focused on issues of class and, for the most part, saw social, economic and political reform as being a national and international struggle rather than a local one.  The concept of the civic gospel relied on community unity regardless of class and thus was in opposition to, and competition with, more radical forms of socialism.

To sum up the original cadre of the civic gospel back in the 1830’s,40’s and 50’s had to overcome the problems that they largely didn’t have votes, they didn’t know how to win elections, they didn’t have any established support base (indeed they were largely from an unpopular minority), for much of the period there were no elections to win and they faced an entrenched conservative local elite on one hand and an alternative socialist radical movement on the other.  By comparison the problems facing modern radicals are tame.

Between the 1840’s and the 1860’s, in the space of a mere 20 years, the civic radicals constructed the most sophisticated political organisation ever seen in British politics, an organisation which succeeded not merely in taking power but dominating the politics of the city of Birmingham for decades afterwards.   This political machine is known to history as “the Birmingham caucuses”.  The basic aim of the caucus system was to persuade people to use their votes “en bloc” rather than have them dissipated between radical candidates.  This was particularly important because candidates during this period were not formal candidates or one or other party, leading to campaigns focused on personality rather than policy.  Eventually this caucus system would become so organised that in multi seat wards (where for example the first, second and third placed candidates are elected) the caucus could return all its candidates with all receiving almost the same number of votes.  The discipline of the caucuses made them hugely effective in elections, more so than the simple number of people within them.

In order to construct an organisation capable of mobilising and directing a large section of the population a large base of activists was required.  Over time the caucuses constructed an elaborate system of organisation with each electoral district electing its own committee and members of the executive.  On the campaign trail different sections of each electoral districts membership would employ different tactics aimed at winning support from different sections of the community.  The effect of this was to create an informal hierarchy within each caucus with different individuals and groups competing to gain influence within it by delivering votes.  Large numbers of highly committed and involved activists were thus recruited with the caucuses and their federation itself becoming a parallel political system to the democratic intuitions they sought to control.

These caucus organisations were more than a mere means to an end.  They were part of the ethos of the civic gospel itself; the idea of society with an active local political life at its centre was as much the aim as the construction of public works.  Moreover that political life was to be democratic, meritocratic and above all local.

The example of Birmingham’s civic gospel is highly relevant to late modern pan secessionism.  It demonstrates the essential viability of the concept within large communities as well as the smaller ones it is more commonly associated with.  It also demonstrates how, as in the concept of National  Anarchism, smaller organic and autonomous units can be united under a larger conception of the community.  Just as National Anarchism envisions a metapolitical, even spiritual, concept of the nation outside of the actual mechanisms of governance the caucus organisation of the proponents of the civic gospel demonstrates how organisational autonomy can be married to a sense of commonality of interest at a wider level.

The history of the civic gospel also offers strong evidence for the potential of local identities and affiliation.  The caucus organisations were able to out compete classical socialist alternatives by appealing to a sort of civic patriotism and by offering a strategy which appeared more achievable than “the international revolution”.   At a street level it is fairly obvious why a concrete plan to demolish a specific slum and build a specific housing project via control a local institution is more saleable than the proposition to tear down capitalism at a continental or global level and institute a utopia.

Another salient point here is the nature of those who undertook and executed this revolution.  The leadership, and to a great extent the foot soldiers, of this revolution were not political radicals hyped up on any grand political ideology.  These were businessmen, frequently lacking elite level educations, these were practical people more skilled in organisation than they were debate.   Once presented with a viable strategy, all be it one which appears to us to be incredibly ambitious, their skills in “people management” and in basic logistics and bureaucracy were able to implement it.  These were not people who were interested in finding petty issues or arcane differences which could be used as an excuse for inaction.  On the contrary these people were used to brokering deals and reaching compromises as a basic skill of commerce.  I would suggest that this pragmatic attitude was the reason why this group were able to achieve so much more than rival radical groups who were, by conventional reckoning, far more politically sophisticated.

The Birmingham caucuses eventually disintegrated in the inter war period.  The reasons for this are as instructive for pan secessionists as the example of their achievements.  Whilst many of the preachers of the civic gospel focused on localism and frequently held up Early Modern Florence as their ideal others were less solid in their adherence to localist principle.  The caucuses had found it expedient to align themselves with the Liberal Party, and indeed where officially known as Liberal Associations.  Such was the success of their projects that many of the leading members of the organisation were recruited to serve in national Liberal governments, in particular the man most associated with the Gospel, one Joseph Chamberlain.  The Chamberlains became something of a dynasty within the Liberal Party eventually providing, in Joseph’s s son, a Prime Minster; Neville…….

This connection to the national Liberal Party was an obvious advantage in the mid and late nineteenth century.  However as the Liberal Party broke up, ironically largely over an ideological argument about the merits of nationalism as applied to Irish Independence in the last decade of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries  this became more of a burden than a boon.

The spectacular success of the gospel in Birmingham, and in similar movements in other Victorian British cities, was used as evidence for the potential of similar projects at a national level.  The “municipalisation” of the Liberal Associations of Birmingham became the “nationalisation” of the socialist Labour Party resulting in the state control of huge swathes of the British economy following the election of the Attlee government in 1945.  Thus what had begun as a local movement ended up contributing to a national and international one.

For pan secessionists the fate of the caucuses and the death of the gospel is both a warning and encouragement.   While the temptations of a larger political world proved too much and eventually doomed the enterprise it provides a powerful example of the effects of ideas “going viral”.

Today the caucuses and the civic gospel are barely remembered even in the city of Birmingham itself.   Birmingham today is the British poster child for deindustrialisation, societal collapse and multicultural fragmentation in much the same way Detroit is for Americans.  To research this essay I was forced to pull an actual book out of my stash (Asa Brigg’s Victorian Cities; footnotes are bourgeois) since there is very little anywhere on the net about this interesting episode in Birmingham and Britain’s history.  Perhaps this is because the achievements of the civic gospel stand outside the traditional right/left narrative or perhaps it is because there have been over the last several decades few with any interest in promoting it as an example of what they advocate.  However as the nation state continues to decline and community sovereignty becomes once again a viable and expedient option the strange history of Birmingham’s proto-pan secessionism might be rediscovered.

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