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In the years 1750 to 1850 Britain experienced important social, political and economic changes, partly due to the major increase in population over this time. Politically, in the 1780s, the British government had to deal with the potential threat of revolution (the French revolution occurred in 1789), the loss of the American colonies, as well as having to try to disguise the fact that the King was not in the best state of health. There was an increased demand for manufactured goods and pressures on the agriculture industry to provide enough food for the labouring population.
The economy prospered in Britain as a whole, but for many individual labourers the social standards fell and there appeared an increasingly evident divide between rich and poor.
The political state of Britain in the 1780s was admired across Europe and was seen as a good model for governing a country, yet only five percent of the population was able to vote, and power still lay in ownership of the land.
Elections were often corrupt due to the fact that most electorates were very small (40% of English boroughs had electorates of fewer than 100), bribes were not uncommon, and there was no voting register.
There were no defined parties in the House of Commons in this decade, although from around this time the Tories and the Whigs, two disorganised ‘groupings’, evolved which were comprised of MPs who held similar values and thus supported similar causes.
The monarch had an important role in politics, particularly in terms of who was appointed Prime Minister.
It was important for any political figure to have the support of the king, for example, the appointment of Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister in 1783, was largely due to the patronage of the George III as Pitt himself was not popular in the House of Commons.
Compared the state of other European countries in the 1780s, the government had a stable hold over the population of Britain, demonstrated by the control Pitt and George III managed to retain over Britain at the time of the French Revolution in 1789. This was a dangerous time for the British government as there was a threat that revolutionary ideas could spread to the public causing serious political concern and instability for George III and Pitt.
The economy of Britain in the 1780s was thriving. Due to the Industrial Revolution there was a rapid increase in the demand for manufactured goods, creating new labour opportunities for many. Due to the expansion of the population, the 1780s also saw a growing demand for consumer goods, items such as cloth, pottery, and leather, which in turn led to economic prosperity for the country as a whole. The labouring population however found themselves inhabiting the slums of the cities, experiencing cramped living conditions, bad sanitisation and certainly not prosperity, which resulted due to the mass exodus from the countries to the cities in pursuit of work. Despite the industrial advances, farming was still the main source of British economy in the 1780s, however, the agricultural industry had to rely on foreign imports during this period as it could not deal with the huge demand from the ever increasing urban population.
Although Britain remained largely reliant on using horses for transport in the 1780s, the introduction of an extensive canal network helped the transportation of bulky goods around the country.
Throughout the 1780s the population was increasing; the life expectancy grew, birth rates went up and death rates down, suggesting a higher standard of living. Socially this showed Britain in a good light, but for many quality of life was not high. The bulk of society made up the labouring population, the skilled and unskilled workers, including those who went to the urban areas in an attempt to find employment. These people were vulnerable to unemployment and exploitation, and living, as many of them did, in the urban slums, they did not experience a fall in the death rate or the absence of killer diseases such as cholera.
The middle classes were a group which had to earn a living, but were educated and skilled in some kind of profession, for example doctors or lawyers. They prided themselves on their hard work and moral living, particularly in comparison to the aristocracy, ideas expressed by Jeremy Bentham during this decade. Above this portion of society were the gentry, the landowners and finally the monarch, in that order. None of these groups had to work to earn a living, they generally owned land to a lesser or greater degree which they utilized in the most profitable way.
In conclusion, the politics of Britain was respected yet corrupt: controlled by the upper classes and used to their own advantage. The industrial revolution was largely responsible for the economic prosperity which occurred at this time, the prosperity which led to the increase in social standards across the country. This social improvement cannot be denied or ignored; however, it must be remembered that vast numbers of the population were still exposed to poverty and hardship despite the supposedly esteemed government and the economic upturn.
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