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The question of whether Chartism was an economic or political movement is difficult to define. Joseph Stephens claims, “this was a bread and cheese question”, he talks of fighting for “the blessings of life”- clearly stating he believes Chartism is an economic movement. However he is giving a speech in Manchester, a modern and industrialized city, built around a mass of cotton factories. It was economic change that the Manchurian chartists were concerned with- being mainly proletarian protestors their lives depended on the factories, they were more concerned therefore with raising wages and improved living conditions.
They disliked the low wages, strict factory discipline, and being treated as second-class citizens. Primarily Chartists from Manchester were fighting an economic battle. However we question why the Charter didn’t include economic improvements for the working class, if this had been their motive. It could be argued that they wished to gain some political status prior to introducing economic factors into their charter; however this is assuming they will be successful enough, which was perhaps a bit over enthusiastic for the Chartists. We also have to consider that Chartism was a national movement- and that morals changed radically throughout the country.
Looking at where the Charter itself originates from we see London and Birmingham Chartists created the Charter together. In London the Chartists were much more politically minded, they were moral fighters, and clearly specified their aim was to raise political representation for working class citizens. However London Chartists were working in a less industrialised town than Manchester; the majority of Chartists were skilled craftsmen and weren’t as concerned with raising their living standards, rather to regain some independence within society. Birmingham was a fusion of both the London and the Manchurian views. They aimed to improve both economic (in the more industrial areas) and political status. The point I’m making is that the question of if Chartism was “a bread and knife question” is regionally challenged, with different conclusions applying to different areas.
When studying the conditions of working class life as a factory worker it seems inevitable that economic improvements must be an issue seriously considered. These proletarian protestors faced barbaric and cruel behaviour in workhouses- with no regulated hours. Workhouses were known as “poor law bastilles”, and the poor were treated as a crime after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. This Act aimed to cut poor rates-which working class struggled to fight against. It was difficult to revolt against their low pay with a high population of Irish workers who were glad to accept low rates due to worse conditions in Ireland. With high food prices after bad harvests the working class faced financial dismay. Taxation also fell mainly on the working class, with 16% of real wages being consumed with tax.
The real value of wages was diminished and industry suffered with high unemployment and higher food prices. It was no wonder the Manchurian Chartists revolted against their financial situation; the government had made it almost impossible to live with such appalling conditions. Living conditions and sanitation was dire, and the widening gulf between the rich and poor grew. As factory owners reaped in the success of the factories, the workers living conditions weakened.
After understanding the origins of the economic force behind Chartism we can start to try to comprehend if Chartism was “a knife and fork question”. It’s a difficult argument, but to define Chartism as an economic movement is understating their motives, it also misunderstands the loathing of the government from a working class perspective. The government had let the working class down after granting the middle class with enfranchisement in the 1832 Reform Act, a campaign working class had given massive support to. The Whigs attitude remained conservative, with no prospect of future reform for the working class; in fact changes being made actually hurt the workingman- like the Poor Law Act. Working class felt frustration, disappointment and disillusionment after the government’s constant neglect towards the working class situation. Therefore to claim Chartism was solely an economic movement would be to misunderstand the working class attitude.
In conclusion I don’t think you can define Chartism as either an economic or political movement. I think to claim it is an economic movement underestimates the depth with which Chartism was founded, but to ignore economic factors is naivety. There was a strong political force behind Chartism; with the majority of Chartists desiring increased political power. I think the main motive behind Chartism was desire to raise working class recognition within society. Regionally this motive was manipulated toward economic and political factors, however primarily the Chartist wish remained true; to raise working class recognition and status; pulling them out of the ‘second- class citizen’ category to stand as a political group alone.