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February 20, 2018

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Take a lesson from Britain on how nation can unite

Recently I’ve been looking for examples of national comebacks — nations that were plagued by turmoil, inequality and polarization, but that managed to get their act together and emerge stronger than before.

I’ve been especially interested in the way Britain revived itself between 1820 and 1848. Its comeback has some humbling lessons for us today.

Britain was roiled by economic and demographic changes. There were financial crises, bad harvests and a severe depression. There was crushing inequality. The average life expectancy nationwide was 40, but in the industrial cities of Manchester and Liverpool it was around 28. There were widespread riots and government crackdowns. In 1819, 1,206 “radicals” were given the death sentence, though only 108 of them were executed.

The nation responded to the turmoil both from the bottom up and the top down.

There were, first, a series of social movements: There was the Clapham sect. This was a group of evangelical leaders, arising from the general religious revival, that sought to eradicate slavery, spread the faith, discourage indebtedness, build Sunday schools, reform behavior and basically spread what we now call Victorian morality.

There were the Chartists. This was a radical workers’ movement that hosted giant rallies across the country in three bursts. The Chartists cohered around The People’s Charter, which had six demands, including universal male suffrage, vote by ballot and equal electoral districts. In 1842, the Chartists presented a petition to Parliament with 3 million signatures.

Finally, there was the Anti-Corn Law League. This was the best organized and best funded pressure group in 19th-century Britain. It promoted free-trade legislation to reduce the power of the landed gentry, to make food cheaper for the working classes and to encourage international exchange and cooperation.

The social movements were impressive, but the key to Britain’s success was the way political leaders responded to them. Britain was blessed by a stable parliamentary system and by a legislative culture that valued deliberation and debate. Political leaders in both parties understood that the winds of change were blowing and they had better initiate reforms if they wanted to head off a revolution.

The political parties represented vested interests but were not particularly ideological. They were used to handing off the reins of power and then taking them up again. As a result, while they certainly had their bitter rivalries, they shared a common patriotism and understood that each party had a role to play.

The Whig Party dominated the 1830s. The Whigs passed the democratic Reform Act of 1832. This law wouldn’t pass muster by contemporary standards (it allowed only 1 in 5 adult males to vote), but it tackled the most corrupt practices of the old oligarchy. The Whigs also passed a series of other reforms, such as the Factory Act, which regulated workplaces, and the Municipal Corporations Act, which reformed local government. In his new book, “Victorious Century,” David Cannadine writes that this glut of reforms “meant the 1830s were the pivotal decade in the history of the 19th century United Kingdom.”

The Tories, led mostly by Robert Peel, controlled the government before and after. In a time of social decay, Peel personified rectitude and good character. “Peel brought to the job of prime minister a fine intellect and a Christian conscience, a broader range of outlook and connection than was common among the ruling elite,” Cannadine writes.

He turned his party into a moderate conservative party, endorsing Whig reforms and passing a bunch of his own. Over the course of his career, Peel reformed the criminal justice system to reduce the prevalence of the death penalty. He emancipated the Catholics, founded the London police force, reduced tariffs on wheat, sugar and ultimately corn. The government passed 442 railway acts between 1844 and 1847, resulting in more than 2,000 miles of new track, and it did it while running a surplus.

In 1848, worker revolutions swept across Europe, endangering regime after regime. But Britain was largely spared, because worker complaints had been at least partially addressed. Britain never fully healed its social divisions, but the nation cohered, and for the next 65 years it reigned as the greatest power on earth, the global center of science, trade and literature.

We Americans have not mobilized as the 19th-century Britons did in their moment of crisis. Americans have produced many small organizations but few compelling national movements. The Tea Party and Black Lives Matter come closest.

We have not passed a steady drumbeat of pragmatic reforms the way the Whigs and the Tories did. Over the past 15 years, the United States has managed to pass just a few major pieces of social reform — Dodd-Frank, Obamacare and I guess the Trump tax reform.

The biggest gap is in the realm of political leadership. The Victorian politicians had a stewardship mentality. They listened to the people, but stood slightly apart, deliberating, seeing governance as a shared professional responsibility. Our leaders come from a much broader swath of society, but they have lower standards of behavior, and less of a shared stewardship mentality.

So our revival is still in doubt.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.