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Radicals (UK)

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The Radicals were a parliamentary political grouping in the United Kingdom in the early to mid-19th century, who drew on earlier ideas of radicalism and helped to transform the Whigs into the Liberal Party.


  • Background 1
  • Parliamentary radicals 2
  • Formation of the Liberal Party 3
  • Parliamentary reform 4
  • See also 5


The Radical movement arose in the late 18th century to support parliamentary reform with additional aims including Catholic emancipation and free trade. Working class and middle class "Popular radicals" agitated to demand the right to vote and assert other rights including freedom of the press and relief from economic distress, while "Philosophic radicals" strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the "popular radicals".

Parliamentary radicals

The Whig Reform Act 1832 enfranchised the middle classes, but failed to meet radical demands, particularly for universal male suffrage. The mainly aristocratic Whigs in the House of Commons were then joined by a small number of parliamentary Radicals who continued to demand the vote for working-class males, as well as an increased number of middle-class Whigs. The popular demand for wider suffrage was then taken up by the working-class Chartists. By 1839 the Whigs and Radicals in parliament were informally being called “the Liberal party.”

The Radicals' leaders included Richard Cobden and John Bright, and the middle class Anti-Corn Law League which they founded in 1839 opposed the existing duties on imported grain which helped farmers and landowners by raising the price of food but which harmed manufacturers. They sought working-class support and attacked "feudalism", but they disagreed with the leadership and tactics of the Chartists. After the failure of Chartist mass demonstrations and petitions in 1848 to sway parliament, widening suffrage was left to the Anti-Corn Law Leaguers and to the parliamentary radicals.

Formation of the Liberal Party

The parliamentary radicals were distinctly middle class; their radicalism consisted in opposition to the political dominance and economic interests of the traditional British elites, was broadly anti-authoritarian in nature, supporting freedom of trade and individual self-ownership.

The Radicals joined with the Whigs and the anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party by 1859.

Parliamentary reform

Demand for parliamentary reform increased by 1864 with agitation from John Bright and the Reform League. The Liberal prime minister Earl Russell introduced a modest bill which was defeated by both Tories and reform Liberals, forcing the government to resign. A Conservative minority government led by the Earl of Derby and Benjamin Disraeli took office and introduced the Reform Act 1867 which almost doubled the electorate, giving the vote even to working men.

See also

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