Which is more important in explaining the public support for Chartism: economic circumstances, or the tradition of radical politics?
To explain the rise of the chartist political movement and the public support it received we need to consider the two main contributing factors at the time. Historians like Asa Briggs, W.W. Rostow and Gareth Steadman-Jones take differing views on which was the most important explanation for the dramatic rise in public support for the chartist movement. Briggs agreed with an economic based reason and Steadman-Jones agreed with the radical new policies that Chartism offered being the main reason for the growth in support for the movement. This essay will explore these two views and try to identify which is the most important.
There is evidence of early political reformers dating back to the 1740's, all wanting universal male suffrage and many of them agreed with parts of the charter. But, due to the French revolution in 1789 and the ongoing war between France and Britain, political change was resisted in case any of these events were repeated. The war had left Britain facing harsh economic circumstances and deep political divides.
When Chartism was at its height economic issues were a major problem throughout the poor and working classes. These economic circumstances were a major factor in gaining support for the chartist movement. W.W. Rostow studied this connection to see whether this was a reoccurring theme. He gathered evidence to argue that economic problems caused tension in the lower and working classes. When economic pressures were low the tensions felt by the lower and working classes were low. This is shown in figure 17 graph of social tension 1790-1850 (Stevenson. J. (1978) Longman Atlas of Modern British History, London, Longman p.159).
Looking at the graph it shows well the peaks and troughs of the economic downturns fitted in with the protests for parliamentary reforms...