The 2010 United Kingdom General Election: A Historic Clash of Class

In the aftermath of one of the closest elections in British post-war history, the United Kingdom 2010 General Election results saw the Conservative Party gain more seats than the previously-in-power Labour Party, ending their 13 year domination of British politics. This victory for the Conservatives and their necessary coalition with the Liberal Democrats comes with an impassioned outrage from a great many British and Northern Irish subjects.

Figure i: The 2010 United Kingdom General Election Results. Areas in blue voted Conservative, red for Labour, yellow for Liberal Democrat, and other colors for minor parties such as Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein.

A Clash of Class

Much of the antipathy is centered around the idea of an oppressive, privileged, upper-class Conservative Party coming to dominate British politics and ruining what progress the Labour Party may have made. Although Gordon Brown’s popularity waxed and waned, he was certainly an insightful leader, concerned with the well-being of the less fortunate in the UK and beyond. There are fears, legitimate or not, that the Conservatives may cut many of the middle and working class programs created during the 20th century, such as the National Health Service created by Nye Bevan.

David Cameron, the new Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, is often at the forefront of the criticisms. Accusations of Cameron are usually of the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing-type; that Cameron is fraudulent in his claims to be concerned with the middle and working classes. His opponents point to his upbringing as well as his policies to show these purported faults, and why his governance would be a disaster for the United Kingdom in the 2010s.

Figure ii: A Conservative Party billboard featuring David Cameron. The billboard is defaced with a common criticism of Cameron--that he attended the very exclusive and upper-class private school, Eton.

These criticisms towards the upper class are not restricted to politics; most societal hang-ups in Britain are centered around class, and have been for quite some time. But from where does Britain’s fascination with class stem? Do these class divisions extend back further than the Thatcher era, World War II, or even the Victorian Age? In actuality, the entrenched divisions between the upper class and middle and working classes are rooted much, much earlier: in Britain’s early medieval past. These inequalities essentially descend from the Norman Invasion of 1066. This installment of MediumHistorica will examine the roots of class conflict, beginning with William and the Normans, and tracing the shifts and changes throughout the course of British history.

Figure iii: An English-dubbed French production on the history of William I. The narrator appears to be of landed class (see: ascot), and makes a point to claim his direct lineage to a Norman noble and earlier Vikings (“the king of France invited ‘us'”). The narrator also takes great liberty with the historical accounts, such as claiming that a younger Harold swore the crown of England to William in Normandy; a theory highly disputed by historians.

William I: Progenitor of Class Inequality in Britain

In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, prepared for war and set sail in order to successfully take the crown of England. From the collapse of Rome and up to that point, England was a loose confederation of earldoms under the tutelage of recently crowned King Harold. While ignoring the complex rota of kings their shifting territories and allegiances prior to William’s arrival, it is important to mention that Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon King in the vast expanse of English and British history.

With the victory of the Normans and crowning of William the Conqueror came an England solidified as one kingdom, stronger than ever before. Soon after gaining sovereignty, William had the entirety of England inspected to every last detail; houses, farms, the number of sheep on each plot of land, and so on, were all meticulously documented in what was called the Domesday Book. William wanted nothing under his newly forged realm unaccounted for.

The problem was that, although England was technically united as one nation, there were two separate demographics now present on the island. The Anglo-Saxon residents who had resided in and defended England for 600 years were now the conquered subjects of a new, powerful, foreign-speaking minority. Norman soldiers  who helped William defeat Harold at the Battle of Hastings,were granted titles and huge tracts of land in England; thus initiating Britain’s modern system of heredity and land-holding elites.

Figure iv: Anglo/Norman society as explained in the Domesday Book

Despite the growing divisions between the Anglo-Saxon peasantry and their Norman overlords, there was never a full-scale rebellion from the former against the latter. William was a ruthless leader who never allowed dissidence to grow into open revolt. For instance, when Anglo-Saxons in the north around York showed resistance against his new leadership, William sent his armies and conducted a scorched earth policy, destroying homes and livestock. The cruelty shown in the north was a punishment for disobedience and a warning to the rest of his realm. The Anglo-Saxons willfully endured the Norman yoke, never to reestablish an Anglo-Saxon monarchy. The rule of a king from the same stock as the people died one violent day with Harold Godwinson on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066.

A Phantom Menace

Angevin Empire under Henry II around 1172

William I eventually passed on, but his initial conquest opened the door for generations of kings from Normandy and nearby who would come to rule England. Once the Norman male branch died off, the crown of England simply passed to a related family from a different region of modern-day France; that being Anjou. The Angevins took over from where the Normans left off, and after them the Plantagenets, then Lancastrians, and Yorkists. Those descended from the Anglo-Saxons, however, were restrained to peasantry. When feudalism slowly outgrew itself, the peasants transformed into a lower class.

The connection between the privileges of the nobility and landed classes to the arrival of the Normans was not a popular concept in Medieval England. By the 1500s, a new era of struggle emerged, distracting most away from any class concerns. Whatever feelings of injustice that British commoners could devote to their social standing was occupied with Henry VIII’s shocking religious crusade. The destruction of the Catholic Church in England plagued the island with religious conflict throughout the reigns of Mary I; Elizabeth I; James I; Charles I; to Oliver Cromwell and beyond. Concern over the inequalities of class initiated by foreign Norman invaders waned with the constant warfare in the 1300s and 1400s, as well as the ecclesiastical troubles England had experienced in the 1500-1600s.

However, towards the end of the 1600s a milestone in English history occurred that would placate religious strife on the island and set the stage for class discussion. The arrival and crowing of William of Orange as King of England began a new era Britain.

Another King from Across the Sea

Figure v: William of Orange

The turmoil between Catholics and Protestants, for the most part, ceased with the arrival of King William III in 1689. This new kingship would essentially create the spark for later discourse in regards to who was truly “English”. William was a protestant from Den Haag in the Netherlands who had assumed the crown of England; essentially putting an end to the Stuart restoration and their Catholic sympathies. Despite the Stuarts’ divisive sympathies to Catholicism, they were rulers from Scotland whereas William and his successive house of Orange-Nassau were foreign-born. England was, once again, subject to foreign rule. Although most were happy to have the religious question settled and a Protestant monarch securely on the throne (William banned any future possibility of Catholics obtaining the English crown), there was still the issue of William’s foreign birth.

Thus began an era of racial questioning as to who was English. In 1697, Daniel Defoe, famed author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote “The True-Born Englishman” in defense of William’s heritage. Defoe’s poem satirized those who claimed England was a place solely for Anglo-Saxon descendants. Some of the more notable passages read:

The Romans first with Julius Cæsar came,
Including all the nations of that name,
Gauls, Greeks, and Lombards, and, by computation,
Auxiliaries or slaves of every nation.
With Hengist, Saxons; Danes with Sueno came,
In search of plunder, not in search of fame.

Scots, Picts, and Irish from the Hibernian shore,
And conquering William brought the Normans o’er.
All these their barbarous offspring left behind,
The dregs of armies, they of all mankind;
Blended with Britons, who before were here,
Of whom the Welsh ha’ blessed the character.

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend’ring off-spring quickly learn’d to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.

‘Tis well that virtue gives nobility,
How shall we else the want of birth and blood supply?
Since scarce one family is left alive,
Which does not from some foreigner derive.

As the 1700s passed along and the Victorian age neared, England saw the rise of a new concept; albeit one that was perhaps a 600 or 700 year anachronism. This concept was Saxonism — the idea that the rightful inhabitants of the island of Britain were ones of Germanic, Anglo-Saxon heritage. This concept alienated the historic Normans and their descendants as outsiders, deepening the divide between the commoners and landed classes.  A clear example, and one of the most famous, is  Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Published in 1820, Scott’s story involving a Robin Hood of Locksley is centered around a Norman regime set against a heroic Saxon class. These themes of Norman vs. Saxon popularized by Scott remain prevalent in tales of Robin Hood even today.

Saxonism continued well into the nineteenth century and became such a popular philosophy as to invade noteworthy areas of public society. For instance, in British politics, the historic Saxons became the demigods of democracy to Radicals and Chartists. These Members of Parliament were fixated on the racially centered ideas of Saxonism, and attributed all of Britain’s historic advances to a Saxon commitment to freedom. Conversely, the Normans represented the ills and oppression of Britain’s lengthy history. The Normans were tyrannical migrants from France; and France was England’s historic rival and was also linked to Catholicism (another historic rival); Catholicism was linked to Rome; and Rome was a Saxonist’s premier historic oppressor. The actual Saxons were Germanic, and thus never conquered by Rome: evidence to British Victorian Saxonists of their strength and democratic resolve.

Dr. Peter Mandler of Cambridge, expert on early modern and modern English national identity, confirms in a personal email some of the links during this period between the upper classes and the Normans. Mandler replies:

Patrick – Yes, the political valencies [of Saxon and Norman concepts] are strong. It’s partly of course that the landed elite was thought to be ‘French’ (even sometimes by themselves – the Seymour family started to call themselves St. Maur in the mid-19th century!), but also that [Saxonism] was an explicitly democratic ideology.

The progressive Radicals, who fought for political change in Britain, identified with some kind of vaguely allegorical Saxon democracy–which was unrealistic. Those of a more conservative disposition who favored the Monarchy and nobility linked themselves to a Norman heritage. But the Victorian Saxonists were no valiant group, fighting for equality against a privileged Norman elite. They, too, oppressed, and used their theories on race and lineage to marginalize a people beneath them. For the Saxon in Victorian Britain, his enemy was not only the Norman above him, but the lowly Celt beneath him.

Saxonism Dies, Leaves Ugly Legacy

Perhaps better saved for another topic, it is enough to say that the prejudices against immigrants from Ireland and the Scottish Highlands were much more commonplace among Saxonists than any vitriol against the nobility. But regardless, Saxonism became so prominent in Victorian Britain that when science began to flourish, it became a scholarly and serious area of study. The once innocent ideas of Saxonism combined with subjects like phrenology and anthropology to produce racial theories in England quite similar to those of the later Nazi Germany. Furthermore, the English had toyed with abominable social polices, such as eugenics: Saxonists even proposed that neighboring Ireland be cleansed from whomever was “Celtic”–convenient for them when the potato crop failed in the 1840s and removed 25% of the native population.

But as the century faded away, new discoveries were made that proved subjects like phrenology were inaccurate and baseless. The frightening advance of racial science in Nazi Germany would kill the issue in Britain completely. After the realization of the Holocaust and Germany’s Aryan policy, touting a pure, “Germanic” heritage in England was far from OK. As such, most in Britain have either forgotten or rejected the fact that current class divisions are, in fact, stemmed from the Norman invasion. The institutions and oppression introduced by William the Conqueror onto England created an enduring atmosphere of privilege, hierarchy and inequality that is still felt keenly to this day. A simply walk down the streets of Tang Hall in York, followed by a visit to Chatsworth or Carlton Towers in the country, will show that there are still class inequalities that are very real and have come to be a way of British life.

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2 Responses

  1. Wow. That was enjoyable. It’s always interesting to rethink the folklore that gets dusted off and reused at various points in history for specific ends/propaganda (i.e. Victorian Saxonism). I’d be happy for you to contribute to The Public Humanist some time–let me know some topics that interest you and your availability: hwood@masshumanities.org.

  2. I really enjoyed that! A brilliant read, some really interesting points on the demise of Saxonism in England following the war

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