Religion, Power and Parliament: Rothschild and Bradlaugh Revisited
The British parliament in the nineteenth century reflected the increasingly democratic stability of the British state in a century that saw numerous convulsions on the European continent. It embodied the majesty of British law, the idea that all adult males who dwelt in Britain shared the universal rights of a true-born Englishman, including the right to speak on the affairs of the nation. The repeated attempts of the Jewish Baron Lionel de Rothschild and the atheist Charles Bradlaugh to take their seats after having been lawfully elected to parliament showed, however, that barriers remained against those who were in some way considered 'un-British'. The debates that the perseverance of both men engendered inside the parliament reveal how strongly the conservative British establishment clung on to what it considered to be the Protestant national character. To make British laws, one had to be British in more than citizenship. In essence, it was a debate about British national identity in an increasingly 'liberal' world. The eventual inclusion of both Rothschild and Bradlaugh marked a further shift away from religious conformity as a measure of 'Britishness' as the century drew to a close.