CHAPTER THREE

REFORM AND FREE TRADE

IN 1830 THE LIBERAL FORCES IN EUROPE STIRRED AGAIN. THE JULY Revolution in France set up a constitutional monarchy under the house of Orleans. The new King, Louis Philippe, was the son of the Revolutionary Philippe Égalité, who had voted for the death of his cousin, Louis XVI, and himself been guillotined later. Louis Philippe was a wiser and more honourable man than his father. He was to keep his uneasy throne for eighteen years, and he also kept his head. Encouraged by events in Paris, the Belgians rebelled against the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in which they had been incorporated by the peace treaties of 1815. Britain had played a big part in this arrangement. It had long been British policy, and still is, to support the independence of the Low Countries and prevent any of their provinces from passing under the control of a menacing Power. The twentieth century needs no reminding of the great wars that have been fought with this as a leading cause. In 1815 an enlarged united Netherlands had seemed a promising experiment. After all, it at last realised the dreams of the first William of Orange in the days of Queen Elizabeth. But the Dutch and Belgians were divided by language, religion, and commercial interests, and these barriers could not easily be overcome. The Belgians demanded autonomy, and then independence. Much diplomatic activity ensued before a peaceful solution was eventually found. Meanwhile a wave of revolts spread across Germany into Poland. The Europe of Metternich and the Holy Alliance was severely shaken, though not yet overturned.

These agitations on the European continent, largely orderly in character and democratic in purpose, were much acclaimed in England; and their progress was closely and excitedly studied. The Tory Government and the Duke of Wellington alone seemed suspicious and hostile. With some reason the Government feared that France might annex Belgium or establish a French prince in Brussels upon a new throne. Wellington was even suspected of intending to restore the Kingdom of the Netherlands by armed force. This was not true. The preservation of peace was his chief care. But Opposition speakers were pleased to attribute to him an aim he did not profess, and the rumour was enough to inflame the hot tempers of the times. Poverty in the villages and on the farms had already led to rioting in South-East England. In the growing towns and cities industrial discontent was driving men of business and their workers into political action. Turmoil, upheaval, even revolution, seemed imminent. Instead there was a General Election.

At the polls the Whigs made gains, but the result was indecisive. The Whig leader was Earl Grey, a friend and disciple of Fox. It is given to few men to carry out late in life a great measure of reform which they have advocated without success for forty years. Such was to be Grey’s achievement. He had held office briefly under Fox in the Ministry of 1806. For the rest, since the early years of the younger Pitt he had been not only continuously out of office, but almost without expectation or desire of ever winning it. Now his hour was at hand. Grey was a landowner who regarded politics as a social duty, and much preferred his country estates to the lobbies of Westminster. He had however made careful study of the insurrections on the Continent, and realised that they were not as sinister as Wellington thought. His judgment on home affairs was also well directed. He and his colleagues perceived that the agitation which had shaken England since Waterloo issued from two quite separate sources—the middle classes, unrepresented, prosperous, respectable, influenced by the democratic ideas of the French Revolution, but deeply law-abiding in their hunger for political power; and on the other side a bitter and more revolutionary section of working men, smitten by the economic dislocation of war and its aftermath, prepared to talk of violence and perhaps even to use it. An alliance with the middle classes and a moderate extension of the franchise would suffice, at any rate for a time, and for this Grey prepared his plans. He had the support of Lord John Russell, son of the Duke of Bedford, who was a man of impulsive mind, with a high devotion to the cause of liberty in the abstract, whatever the practical consequences might be. With them stood Henry Brougham, expectant of office, an advanced politician who had made his name as the defender of Queen Caroline. Brougham was fertile with modern ideas, and a friend of leading Radicals and newspaper editors.

Parliament met in November. There were some who hoped that the Tories would do again what they had done over Catholic Emancipation and, after a rearguard action, reform the franchise themselves. One group of Tories was convinced that a wider electorate would be more staunchly Protestant. Others were in touch with the popular associations which were campaigning for reform. But Wellington was adverse. To the House of Lords he said, “I never read or heard of any measure . . . which in any degree satisfies my mind that the state of representation can be improved. . . . I am fully convinced that the country possesses at the present moment a legislature which answers all the good purposes of legislation, and this to a greater degree than any legislature ever has answered in any country whatever. . . . The representation of the people at present contains a large body of the property of the country, and in which the landed interest has a preponderating influence. Under these circumstances I am not prepared to bring forward any measure of the description alluded to.” When he sat down he turned to his Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Aberdeen. “I have not said too much, have I?” He received no direct answer, but in reporting the incident later the Foreign Secretary described Wellington’s speech briefly. “He said that we are going out.”

Wellington hoped that the Whigs were too disorganised to form a Government, but his own party was even more disunited. Those who had followed Canning would have nothing more to do with the Tory “Old Guard,” and now made common cause with the Whigs. A fortnight later the Tories were defeated and King William IV asked Grey to form a Government. With one brief interval the Whigs had been out of office for nearly fifty years. Now at a bound they were at the summit of power and influence.

They were confronted with an ugly scene. French threats to intervene in Belgium made it imperative but unpopular to increase the military estimates. The Chancellor of the Exchequer failed to provide an effective Budget. Law and order were breaking down in the south-eastern counties, and Lord Melbourne, the new Home Secretary, acted decidedly. Over four hundred farm workers were sentenced to transportation. The Radicals were indignant and disillusioned. Only Parliamentary Reform could save the Government, and to this they now addressed themselves.

A secret Cabinet committee was appointed to draft the scheme, and in March 1831 Lord John Russell rose in the House of Commons to move the first Reform Bill. Amid shouting and scornful laughter he read out to their holders a list of over a hundred “rotten” and “pocket” boroughs which it was proposed to abolish and replace with new constituencies for the unrepresented areas of the Metropolis, the industrial North, and the Midlands. To the Tories this was a violation of all they stood for, an affront to their deepest political convictions, a gross attack on the rights of property. A seat was a thing to be bought or sold like a house or an estate, and a more uniform franchise savoured of an arithmetical conception of politics dangerously akin to French democracy. Many Whigs, too, who had expected a milder measure were at first dumbfounded by the breadth of Russell’s proposals. They soon rallied to the Government when they saw the enthusiasm of the country, for the Whigs believed that Reform would forestall revolution. The Tories, on the other hand, feared that it was the first step on the road to cataclysm. To them, and indeed to many Whigs, English government meant the rule, and the duty to rule, of the landed classes in the interests of the community. A wider franchise would mean the beginning of the end of the old system of administration by influence and patronage. Could the King’s Government be carried on in the absence of these twin pillars of authority? It was not altogether a vain question. After 1832 Britain was to see many unstable Ministries before the pattern was changed by the rise of disciplined parties with central organisations and busy Whips.

Radical leaders were disappointed by what they conceived to be the moderation of the Bill, but in their various ways they supported it. There was not much in common between them. Jeremy Bentham and James Mill were philosophical advocates of democracy and middle-class education; William Cobbett was a vigorous, independent-minded journalist; Francis Place, the tailor of Charing Cross, and Thomas Attwood, the banker of Birmingham, were active political organisers. But they were all determined that the Bill should not be whittled away by amendment and compromise. Agitation spread through the country. There was no economic crisis to distract public attention from the one burning issue or to shake the popular belief that an extension of the right to vote and a redistribution of seats to accord with the Industrial Revolution would cure all national ills. A cataract of journals and newspapers appeared in support of the cause. To avoid the tax upon the Press, a relic of the repressive legislation of 1819, weekly news-letters were sent through the post.

In the House of Commons the Tories fought every inch of the way. The Government was by no means sure of its majority, and although a small block of Irish votes controlled by O’Connell, leader of the emancipated Catholics, was cast for Grey the Bill was defeated. A roar of hatred and disappointment swept the country. Grey asked the King for a dissolution, and William IV had the sense to realise that a refusal might mean revolution. The news caused uproar in the Lords, where a motion was introduced asking the King to reconsider his decision, but as the shouting rose from the benches and peers shook their fists across the floor of the House the thunder of cannon was heard as the King left St James’ to come in person to pronounce the dissolution. The Tories stormed. One of them, jumping to his feet, shouted to the jubilant Whigs, “The next time that cannons are heard they will not be firing blanks and it will be your heads that they will carry off.” “Those who were present,” wrote Greville in his memoirs, “tell me it resembled nothing but what we read of the Serment du Jeu de Paume, and the whole scene was as much like the preparatory days of revolution as well can be imagined.”

Excited elections were held on the single issue of Reform. It was the first time a mandate of this kind had been asked of the British people. They returned an unmistakable answer. The Tories were annihilated in the county constituencies and the Whigs and their allies gained a majority of 136 in the House of Commons. When Parliament reassembled the battle was shifted to the House of Lords. Wellington rose again and again to put the case against Reform. “A democracy,” he declared, “has never been established in any part of the world that it has not immediately declared war against property, against the payment of the public debt, and against all the principles of conservation, which are secured by, and are in fact the principal objects of the British Constitution as it now exists. Property and its possessors will become the common enemy.” Most of his political experience had been gathered in Spain, and he was oppressed with memories of revolutionary Juntas. Reform would break “the strength which is necessary to enable his Majesty to protect and keep in order his foreign dominions and to ensure the obedience of their inhabitants. We shall lose these colonies and foreign possessions, and with them our authority and influence abroad.” On the night of October 7, 1831, the critical division took place. The peers were sharply divided, and it was the twenty-one bishops in the Upper House who decided the issue; they were against Reform. Thus the Tories triumphed. The Bill was defeated and a new constitutional issue was raised—the Peers against the People.

Next morning the newspapers, bordered in black, proclaimed the news. Rioting broke out in the Midlands; houses and property were burned; there was wild disorder in Bristol. The associations of Reformers in the country, called Political Unions, strove to harness enthusiasm for the Bill and to steady the public temper. Meanwhile the Government persevered. In December Russell introduced the Bill for the third time, and the Commons carried it by a majority of two to one. In the following May it came again before the Lords. It was rejected by forty-four votes. There was now no question of another dissolution and Grey realised that only extreme remedies would serve. He accordingly drove to Windsor and asked the King to create enough new peers to carry the Bill. The King refused and the Cabinet resigned. William IV asked Wellington and Peel to form an administration to carry Reform as they had carried Catholic Emancipation, and thus avoid swamping the Lords. But Peel would not comply; he was not prepared to assume Ministerial responsibility for a measure of which he disapproved. Feeling in the country became menacing. Plans were made for strikes and a general refusal of taxes. Banners and placards appeared in the London streets with the caption “To Stop the Duke Go for Gold,” and there was a run on the Bank of England. Radical leaders declared they would paralyse any Tory Government which came to power, and after a week the Duke admitted defeat. On the afternoon of May 18 Grey and Brougham called at St James’ Palace. The King authorised them to draw up a list of persons who would be made peers and could be counted on to vote for the Whigs. At the same time he sent his private secretary to tell the leading Tories of his decision and suggest that they could avoid such extremities by abstaining. When the Bill was again introduced the Opposition benches were practically empty. It was carried by an overwhelming majority, and became law on June 7, 1832.

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The new electors and the Radicals were not content to stop at extending the franchise, and during the next five years the younger politicians forced through an equally extensive reform of public administration. The Whigs became more and more uncomfortable, and Grey, feeling he had done enough, retired in 1834. The new leaders were Lord Melbourne and Lord John Russell. Russell was a Whig of the old school, sensitive to any invasion of political liberty and rights. He saw the need for further reforms in the sphere of government, but the broadening paths of democracy did not beckon him. Melbourne in his youth had held advanced opinions, but his lack of any guiding aim and motive, his want of conviction, his cautious scepticism, denied him and his party any theme or inspiration. Personal friendships and agreeable conversation mattered more to him than political issues. He accepted the office of Prime Minister with reluctance, genuinely wondering whether the honour was worth while. Once in power his bland qualities helped to keep his divided team together. But his administration wore an eighteenth-century air in the midst of nineteenth-century stress.

One of Melbourne’s ablest colleagues was Lord Palmerston, who held the Foreign Office for nearly eleven years. Under the wise guidance of Lord Grey, Palmerston had secured a settlement of the Belgian problem which still endures. The Dutch and French were both persuaded to withdraw, Belgian claims to Dutch territory were abated, and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg was installed at Brussels as an independent sovereign. The neutrality of the country was guaranteed by international treaty. Thus was a pledge given which was to be redeemed with blood in 1914. Under Melbourne Palmerston did much as he pleased in foreign affairs. His leading beliefs were two: that British interests must everywhere be stoutly upheld, if necessary by a show of force, and that Liberal movements in the countries of Europe should be encouraged whenever it was within Britain’s power to extend them sympathy or even aid. There was a jaunty forthright self-assurance about everything Palmerston did which often gave offence in the staider chancelleries of Europe and alarmed his more nervous colleagues. But his imperturbable spirit gradually won the admiration of the mass of his fellow countrymen. He was in these years building up the popularity which later made him appear the embodiment of mid-Victorian confidence.

The Whig rank and file were perplexed and uncertain. Champions of political reform, they wavered and boggled at the sterner and more fateful issue of social reorganisation. In the past they had quarrelled with the Tories over constitutional issues—the limits of the royal prerogative, the position of the Established Church, religious toleration—but all this was now dead and settled, and the problems and perils of the Industrial Revolution glowered across obsolete party alignments. With the passing of the Reform Bill the Whig Party had done its work. Its leaders neither liked nor understood the middle classes. They looked on Radicalism as a fashionable creed to be held in undergraduate days and dropped on reaching maturity, and they perceived, uneasily and dimly, that they were being pushed from behind by mass agitation and organisation into strange and perilous paths.

Moreover, their hold on the country was by no means certain. Some quarter of a million voters had been added by the Reform Bill to the electorate, which now numbered nearly 700,000 persons. This meant that about one adult male in six had the vote. However, they by no means gave their undivided support to the Whigs. The strange habit of English electors of voting against Governments which give them the franchise now made itself felt, and it was with great difficulty that the Whig administrations preserved a majority with the help of O’Connell’s Irish votes. Their only hope was to unite with the Radicals, who, though few in Parliament, had the backing of the middle class and the Press, and whose strength was not truly reflected in the number of seats they held. But the Whigs hesitated. One of the few who favoured such an alliance was “Radical Jack”—John Lambton, Earl of Durham, Grey’s son-in-law. But his hot temper made him a prickly colleague. He soon left the Government, and later became absorbed in the problems of colonial government, greatly to the advantage of Canada and the whole Imperial connection. His early death removed all hope of domestic fusion between Radicals and Whigs.

Nevertheless the legislation and the commissions of these years were by no means unfruitful. The slaves in the West Indies were finally emancipated in 1833. For the first time in English history the Government made educational grants to religious societies. The Poor Law was reformed on lines that were considered highly advanced in administrative and intellectual circles, though they did not prove popular among those they were supposed to benefit. The first effective Factory Act was passed, though the long hours of work it permitted would horrify the twentieth century and did not satisfy the humanitarians of the time. The whole system of local government was reconstructed and the old local oligarchies abolished. Politics meanwhile centred on the position of the Established Church and the maintenance of order in Ireland, and it was their failure to deal with these issues and to balance their Budgets that in due course ruined the Whigs. Moreover, great forces were at work outside the House of Commons. A large mass of the country still remained unenfranchised. The relations of capital and labour had scarcely been touched by the hand of Parliament, and the activities of the early trade unions frightened the Government into oppressive measures. The most celebrated case was that of the Tolpuddle “Martyrs” of 1834, when six labourers from that Dorsetshire village of curious name were sentenced to transportation for the technical offence of “administering unlawful oaths” to members of their union. Public agitation eventually secured their pardon, but not until they had served two years in New South Wales. While unrest for many reasons spread, the position of the monarchy itself showed signs of weakness. The Whigs were not the men to bridge the gulf which seemed to yawn between official political circles and the nation.

Sir Robert Peel, on the other hand, was not slow to adjust the Tories to the new times and a speedy reorganisation of their machinery was set on foot. “I presume,” he declared in 1833, “the chief object of that party which is called Conservative will be to resist Radicalism, to prevent those further encroachments of democratic influence which will be attempted as the natural consequence of the triumph already achieved.” He made it clear that the Tories would support administrative changes which increased efficiency, but oppose any weakening of the traditional institutions of the State. A disciplined, purposeful, but not factious Opposition gradually took shape under his leadership. In the following year the party was heartened by a rousing election address which Peel had issued to his constituency. They took their stand upon an enlightened conservation of the best elements in the existing institutions in the country, and Peel showed considerable cleverness in revealing his desire to modify the whole position of the Established Church. The Nonconformist voters did not forget this in the coming years, for religion still counted in politics. As the great Acts of reform succeeded each other so further interests were antagonised and the Conservative sentiment in the country gradually rallied to Peel. In the elections of 1834 the Tories won a hundred seats, and for some months he presided over a minority Government. Then the Whigs returned, as divided among themselves as ever. They seemed to be playing with fire. They were arousing hopes that no Government could fulfil. The dangers of spasmodic and uncoordinated reform were borne in upon the middle classes by their fumbling leadership. The Whig coach was clattering down a twisting, unknown road, and many supporters alighted in the course of the journey.

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In 1837 King William IV died. Humorous, tactless, pleasant, and unrespected, he had played his part in lowering esteem for the monarchy, and indeed the vices and eccentricities of the sons of George III had by this time almost destroyed its hold upon the hearts of the people. An assault on the institution which had played so great a part in the history of England appeared imminent, and there seemed few to defend it. The new sovereign was a maiden of eighteen. She had been brought up by a dutiful mother, who was shocked at the language and habits of the royal uncles, and had secluded her in Kensington Palace from both the Court and the nation. Her education was supervised by a German governess, with occasional examinations by Church dignitaries, and a correspondence course on her future duties with her maternal uncle, King Leopold of Belgium. The country knew nothing of either her character or her virtues. “Few people,” wrote Palmerston, “have had opportunities of forming a correct judgment of the Princess; but I incline to think that she will turn out to be a remarkable person, and gifted with a great deal of strength of character.” He was right. On the eve of her accession the new Queen wrote in her diary: “Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station, I shall do my utmost to fulfil my duty towards my country; I am very young, and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.” It was a promise she was spaciously to fulfil.

By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne the Whigs had shot their bolt. The Court and the governing circles were isolated and unpopular; the middle classes were fearful of unrest and beginning to vote for the Tories. Meanwhile Lord Melbourne, who had little faith in law-making, with grace and pleasantness was doing nothing. On top of all this there appeared towards the end of the year the first signs of a great economic depression. Conditions in the industrial North soon became as bad as after Waterloo, and in May 1838 a group of working-class leaders published a “People’s Charter.” Chartism, as it was called, in which some historians discern the beginnings of socialism, was the last despairing cry of poverty against the Machine Age. The Chartists, believing, like the agitators for Reform before 1832, that an extension of the franchise would cure all their miseries, demanded annual Parliaments, universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, the removal of the property qualification for Membership of Parliament, the secret ballot, and the payment of Members. Their only hope of success was to secure, as the Radicals had done, the backing of a Parliamentary party and of the progressive middle classes. But they deliberately refused to bid for middle-class support. Their leaders quarrelled among themselves and affronted respectable people by threatening and irresponsible speeches. They had no funds, and no organisation such as the Catholic Association had found in the parishes of the Irish clergy, or the Labour Party was to find later in the trade unions. For a time England was flooded with petitions and pamphlets, but the ferment varied in warmth from one part of the country to another. Whenever conditions improved the popular temper cooled, and no united national movement emerged as a permanent force. The few unions which then existed soon deserted the cause and the more prosperous artisans were lukewarm. Agitation revived from time to time in the years that followed, culminating in the revolutionary year of 1848. But in the end the whole muddled, well-intentioned business came to nothing.

Peel drew the right conclusions. He discerned, much more clearly than the Whigs, the causes of the unrest, and, though steadfast against Radicalism, he believed that the remedy lay in efficient administration and an enlightened commercial policy. The younger Tories supported him, and like him were oppressed by the division of the country into “two nations,” the rich and the poor, as portrayed in the novels of a young Jewish Member of Parliament called Benjamin Disraeli. A small group of Conservatives were already seeking an alliance with the working men against the middle classes.

In 1839 Melbourne offered to resign, but for another two years Victoria kept him in office. His charm had captured her affections. He imparted to her much of his wisdom on men and affairs, without burdening her with his scepticism, and she refused to be separated from her beloved Prime Minister. In February of the following year a new figure entered upon the British scene. The Queen married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The Prince was an upright, conscientious man with far-ranging interests and high ideals. He and the Queen enjoyed for twenty-one years, until his early death, a happy family life, which held up an example much in accord with the desires of her subjects. After the excesses of George IV and his brothers the dignity and repute of the monarchy stood in need of restoration, and this was Victoria and Albert’s achievement. At first the Prince found his presence in England resented by the political magnates of the time. They would not let him take a seat in the House of Lords, they cut down his annual allowance, and he was not granted even the title of Prince Consort until 1857. Nevertheless the patronage which he earnestly extended to science, industry, and the arts, and to good causes of many kinds, gradually won him a wide measure of public respect. As permanent adviser to the Queen, on all issues laid before her, he played a scrupulous, disinterested part. Wise counsels from his uncle, King Leopold, and his former tutor, Baron Stockmar, taught him the rôle and duties of a constitutional sovereign. Eventually the party leaders in England learnt to value his advice, especially on foreign affairs, though they did not always pay heed to it. The Queen was a woman of strong mind, who had begun her reign as a vehement partisan of the Whigs. Under Albert’s influence she came to perceive that in public at least she must be impartial and place her trust in whichever Minister could command a majority in the House of Commons. This did not prevent her from entertaining vivid likes and dislikes for her chief servants, to which she gave vigorous expression in private letters. Together the Queen and the Prince set a new standard for the conduct of monarchy which has ever since been honourably observed.

Peel, unlike Melbourne, had given the Queen an impression of awkwardness and coldness of manner; but at last in 1841 a General Election brought him to power. Before long he had won her confidence. His abilities now came into full play. He had absolute control of his Cabinet, himself introduced his Government’s more important Budgets, and supervised the work of all departments, including that of William Gladstone at the Board of Trade. Tariffs were once again reformed, customs duties greatly reduced, and income tax was reimposed. These measures soon bore fruit. In 1843 trade began to revive, prosperity returned, and the demand for political reform was stilled. Once again the sky seemed clear at Westminster. But a storm was gathering in Ireland.

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The immediate issue was the price of bread. To promote foreign commerce Peel had reduced import duties on everything except corn. Dear bread however meant either high wages or misery for the masses, and Peel gradually realised that cheap imported food could alone sustain the continued prosperity of the nation. Free Trade in corn seemed imperative, but the political obstacles were formidable. The Tory Party leaned heavily on the votes of the landowners, who had invested much capital in their properties during the Napoleonic wars. Peace had brought cheaper corn from abroad, and the cry for protection had led in 1815 to a prohibition of the import of foreign grain except when the price in the home market was abnormally high. The repeal or modification of this and later Corn Laws now overclouded all other issues. The landowners were accused of using their power in Parliament to safeguard their interests at the expense of the rest of the community. The enmity of the manufacturers and industrialists sharpened the conflict, for the Corn Laws not only caused great distress to the working classes, but angered many employers. Protection in their view prevented them from building up new markets overseas and from competing on fair terms in old ones.

Hostility to the Corn Laws had grown during the depression of 1838-42. An Anti-Corn Law League was formed at Manchester to press for their abolition. It soon exerted a powerful influence on public opinion, and produced two remarkable leaders and organisers who became the Free Trade prophets of nineteenth-century England, Richard Cobden, a calico printer, and John Bright, a Quaker mill-owner. The movement was strongly supported. There were large subscriptions to its funds. The new penny postage, introduced by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840, carried circulars and pamphlets cheaply all over the country. Meetings were held throughout the land. The propaganda was effective and novel: a few simple ideas hammered into the minds of audiences by picked lecturers and speakers. Never had there been such a shrewdly conducted agitation. Monster petitions were sent to Parliament. Cobden persuaded prosperous townspeople to buy forty-shilling freeholds in the county constituencies and thus secure a double vote. This so increased the number of Anti-Corn Law electors that instead of only petitioning Parliament from outside, the League started influencing it from within.

Cobden and Bright’s thundering speeches against the landed classes reverberated through the nation. “Let them go on, and in a short time they will find themselves like the French nobility previous to the Revolution an isolated, helpless, powerless class—a class that, in their own inherent qualities, in their intellectual and moral powers, are inferior to any other classes of society. They not only cling to feudal abuses, but they actually try to put a restraint upon the supply of food for the people. They are warring against the progression of the age. They fancy that their feudal system is necessary to the existence of the community. Why, their feudal system has gone in France; it has gone in Germany; in America it has never existed.”

Peel, like Cobden and Bright, came from the middle class, and such arguments bit deeply into his mind. England’s trade and prosperity demanded the abolition of the Corn Laws, but at least half his supporters were landowners, and such a step would wreck the Conservative Party. By 1843 however Peel was determined to act. His position was very difficult, for some of his followers felt he had betrayed them once already over Catholic Emancipation. But he was sure of himself. Perhaps he believed that his personal ascendancy would carry the majority with him; but he needed time to convince his party, and time was denied him.

In August 1845 the potato crop failed in Ireland. Famine was imminent and Peel could wait no longer, but when he put his proposals to the Cabinet several of his colleagues revolted and in December he had to resign. The Whig leader Russell refused to form an administration, and Peel returned to office to face and conquer the onslaught of the Tory Protectionists. Their spokesman, the hitherto little-known Benjamin Disraeli, denounced him not so much for seeking to abolish the Corn Laws as for betraying his position as head of a great party. If Peel, he declared, believed in the measure he should resign, as a large section of his party was traditionally pledged to oppose it. The wilful destruction of a great party by its leader was a political crime, for the true working of English politics depended on the balance of parties and if a leader could not convince his colleagues he should withdraw. Thus Disraeli. But Peel maintained that his duty to the nation was higher than his duty to his party, and he believed it was his mission to carry the abolition of the Corn Laws. His private letters reveal his bitterness against the Protectionist wing of the Tories. “Protectionists indeed!—To close their eyes to the result of every commercial experiment that has been made, to find every one of their predictions falsified, to disregard the state of public opinion, to call the Corn Laws a labourer’s question, and yet listen to the appalling facts as to the condition of the labourers in Dorsetshire for years past; . . . to be willing to encounter the tremendous risks of two bad harvests and the recurrence of such a state of things in Paisley and Stockport as was witnessed in the winters of 1841-42; nor to see that the Corn Laws would . . . be swept away with dishonour on the demand of a starving population—this is to be a Protectionist! Thank God I am relieved for ever from the trammels of such a party.”

On June 25, 1846, with the help of Whig and Irish votes, the Corn Laws were repealed. Disraeli immediately had his revenge. Turmoil in Ireland destroyed Peel’s Government, and by a vote on the same night the great Ministry, one of the strongest of the century, came to an end. Peel had been the dominating force and personality in English politics since the passing of the great Reform Bill. Whether in Opposition or in office, he had towered above the scene. He was not a man of broad and ranging modes of thought, but he understood better than any of his contemporaries the needs of the country, and he had the outstanding courage to change his views in order to meet them. It is true that he split his party, but there are greater crimes than that. The age over which he presided was one of formidable industrial advance. It was the Railway Age. By 1848 some five thousand miles of railroads had been built in the United Kingdom. Speed of transport and increasing output were the words of the day. Coal and iron production had doubled. Engineering was making great, though as yet hesitating, strides. All the steps were being taken, not by Government, but by enterprisers throughout the country, which were to make Britain the greatest industrial Power of the nineteenth-century world. Peel had a practical sense of these vast developments. Free trade, he knew, was no cure-all for the pangs and anguish of a changing society. But the days of the land-owning predominance were doomed. Free trade seemed essential to manufacture, and in manufacture Britain was entering upon her supremacy. All this Peel grasped. His Government set an example of initiative which both the Conservative and Liberal Parties honoured by imitation in the future. Of his own methods of government he once said, “The fact is, people like a certain degree of obstinacy and presumption in a Minister. They abuse him for dictation and arrogance, but they like being governed.” High words perhaps, but they fitted the time.

Early in 1850, after he had watched with restraint and composure the totterings of his Whig successors, Peel fell from his horse while riding in the Green Park and was fatally injured. So died one of the great shapers of British politics in the Victorian Age.

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