The Impact of Back Benchers in the Creation of Social Reform: The Indefatigable and Honourable Exertions of Mr Gilbert*

Ryland‐Epton, Louise (2020). The Impact of Back Benchers in the Creation of Social Reform: The Indefatigable and Honourable Exertions of Mr Gilbert*. Parliamentary History, 39(2) pp. 276–290.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1750-0206.12498

Abstract

During the 18th century, back‐bench members of parliament played a critical role in creating social policy. This article provides a case study of the political campaigns of the Lichfield MP, Thomas Gilbert, and his attempts at a comprehensive reform of the poor law in 1765 and 1782. These individual endeavours were energetic, sophisticated, but unallied to a particular agenda or based on Gilbert's original perspectives. Instead, he harnessed the power of local interests and extra‐parliamentary forces, particularly magistrates, through the adept use of print culture in his later campaign to form social policy based on a broad political consensus. A skilled political operator, he used these same methods to help navigate his bills through parliament. To better fit the context, the campaigns were moulded around political expediency and influenced by the development of Gilbert's humanitarian reputation and the burgeoning of the press, parliamentary reporting, and political debate. The political environments of 1765 and 1782 were, therefore, different, and broader trends influenced the two campaigns. This article demonstrates the importance of the press to political campaigning and suggests that to be successful (in social policy at least) a would‐be reformer was required to engage with a developing participatory political culture. However, given Gilbert's approach, the importance of ideology as a basis for social reform in an 18th‐century context is questioned.

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