The assertion that the radical movement was never anything more than a marginal phenomenon in a broadly reforming polity is certainly bold; it is easy enough to pick holes in such statements when they are removed from their context and surrounding qualifications. Bearing this in mind, this essay will aim to avoid pedantry, instead taking a broader interpretation of the general argument that the statement points towards. In so doing, it will show that it contains more than a grain of truth, but that equally there is much more to the story than it suggests.
Efforts to avoid pedantry notwithstanding, some analysis of the meaning of the statement are necessary simply because it is so multifaceted. It is easy enough to pick a few key points in the period and assess whether, at these points, the British polity was broadly reforming and the Radical movement marginal. In summing these up, it is possible to pronounce whether the general trend conforms to that described in the statement, or not. This will, indeed, be the main approach of this essay.
[...] Reform was taking place, quite apart from the “radical” (parliamentary reform) movement: to argue otherwise would be to rely on a narrow and historical definition of reform. Indeed, where reform and radicalism are seen as separate entities, one might go so far as to argue that the term reform should only be used in reference to legislation with no linkage to the universalistic enlightenment ideals usually associated with radicalism. At any rate, it would appear that the situation described in the question was indeed the case before 1789, to some extent. [...]
[...] This helps to explain why radicalism was never a central pillar to British politics in the same way that conservatism was from the mid-1790s. There were clearly instances where it was a good deal more than “marginal” to the British polity, and it is overly simplistic and indeed outright wrong to suggest that reformist measures were used as a weapon against it in the period concerned. The fact is, the circumstances were such that Pitt and subsequent leaders did not need to. [...]
[...] This, then, is the reality of the Radical Movement as the 1790s progressed: a body pushed to “desperate measures” by the government, increasingly alienated from the wider population but perpetually a specter haunting the political elite. Clearly, to argue that it was marginalized would be premature, even if its importance was more subtle than it had been in the period immediately after the Revolution. This is important for the purposes of the question throughout the 1790s the movement was hardly marginal but of even greater importance, is that where the statement in the question seems to imply that reforms were used as a tool to marginalize radicalism, here repression was the principal instrument. [...]
[...] O' Gormann (MOO) writes about how whether or not the Radicals actually were a powerful force in British politics, Pitt's strenuous if temporary efforts to impede them (suspension of Habeas Corpus; Two show that they were perceived as such. In this sense, his fear of the Radical threat may have proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. Philp writes, it is fair to talk of the radicals losing the debate, it is so only if we also recognize that it is difficult to win a contest when the other side will not play”. [...]
[...] Clearly this zeal had worn off by the 1790s, but this was as much due to the failure of reform efforts long before the Revolution, as the Revolution itself. The failure of the 1785 parliamentary reform bill was a personal failure for Pitt, where he subsequently vowed not to promote reform without reasonable prospect of success”. That this was lacking is evidenced by the later repeal of the Electoral Registration Act in 1789. Pitt's principled opposition to slavery was similarly rebuffed by the Commons, although this occurred after the Terror in France had begun, when the context was very different. [...]
using our reader.