The collapse of Sir Robert Peel's Conservative government, following the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, began a complex re-arrangement of British political parties; one that took more than a decade to complete. Paradoxically, by rejecting Peel, the remaining Tories held the advantage of unity in their desire to protect agricultural interests and the established Anglican Church while their foes were divided. Could the more liberal MPs, a majority in the House of Commons, form a cohesive party?
The largest group, the Whigs, centred round a small number of interrelated aristocratic families, who prided themselves on a tradition of opposition to autocratic royal authority, willingness to embrace reform and limited religious tolerance. Generally, but not reliably, the Whigs were supported by the Radical MPs, themselves not a united faction. The Radicals included middle class manufacturers such as John Bright and Richard Cobden, who had organised the Anti-Corn Law League, but also utilitarian followers of Bentham, the keenest proponents of limiting and rationalising the state, and the advocates for the still disadvantaged dissenting religious communities. Next came those Irish MPs, nominally Whig or Radical, who followed their own agenda, reflecting the tensions created by the peculiarities of Irish land tenure and a predominantly Roman Catholic population.
Peel’s followers, who confusingly referred to themselves as Liberal-Conservatives and prided themselves on inheriting the best of the ministerial experience from 1841-46, held the balance of power. While Peel lived, there could be no question of his hundred or so MPs returning to the Tory fold, but equally most Peelites had no enthusiasm to join the Whigs.
Outside the factional leaderships and the small coterie of professional but unsalaried politicians ambitious for ministerial places, MPs allegiances to their local community were often stronger than to party. After 1832, electoral victory depended on the registration of supporters and, perhaps more importantly, preventing the enrolling of opponents.
However, organising registration depended more on local elites than the limited resources that party whips provided to constituency campaigns. As a consequence, many MPs thought themselves to be independent supporters or opponents of the government and assessments of party strength should be considered only as indicative of the positions in the Commons.
Drawing together such diverse groups of potential supporters with limited ideological harmony required strong but sympathetic leadership. Lord John Russell accepted the challenge and, in 1846, formed the last purely Whig administration. Short, shy, delicate, bookish but bold, Russell was the embodiment of Foxite Whiggism. The Radicals respected Russell for his integrity and reforming record in the Grey and Melbourne governments, while Peel preferred to sustain Russell in office rather than the protectionists.
Initially successful, the government gained modest ground in the 1847 general election. The Free Trade agenda was extended and in 1849 the Navigation Acts, which restricted the nationality of ships carrying British Trade, were abolished. Ministers supported factory legislation restricting the hours of textile workers and began to broaden the government’s public health role, despite opposition from the more laissez-faire Radicals to both measures. Russell increased government spending on education but his 1847 Act exposed the arguments between supporters of Anglican Church Schools and their non-conformist opponents who sought purely secular state education, which Liberal Democrats have still not resolved.
The 1848 revolutions which overturned governments in continental Europe, were echoed in the great Chartist demonstration in London and a futile Irish uprising, both easily contained. The Irish rebellion was a symbol of despair in the face of the catastrophic potato crop failures that caused a famine in which an estimated one million died and more than a million emigrated from Ireland. Torn between a belief that they should not intervene and a humanitarian desire to minimise starvation, the government did open up food supply and create public works employment but too little, too late. Contemporaries condemned both their interference and its ineffectiveness.
Throughout 1850 Russell attempted to shore up his weakening position by reaching out to Radicals and non-conformists as illustrated by his failed attempt to introduce an electoral reform bill. Reform bills repeatedly divided liberals. Why? Despite its anomalies, some MPs saw the 1832 Act as a final settlement, and many more feared that the votes of the uneducated classes would threaten established community leaders. With no secret ballot, smaller tenants and labourers were open to influence by their landlords. Any substantial extension of the franchise could be expected to lead to a redistribution of seats away from the smaller boroughs, where Whigs predominated. Even among Radicals, universal manhood suffrage was not considered a realistic goal and intermediate settlements were difficult to negotiate.
Russell then made two serious mistakes, the Durham Letter and sacking Palmerston.
Reacting to an announcement from Rome in autumn 1850, Russell wrote intemperately to the Anglican Bishop of Durham, condemning as Papal aggression the appointment of Catholic bishops to geographically titled English Sees. He pushed through the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill to outlaw the practice. While the legislation was ineffective, Russell had alienated both the high minded, High Church Peelites and the bulk of Irish MPs, dependent on Catholic voters.
Lord Palmerston, Russell’s Foreign Secretary, was a Whig only by adoption having broken with the Tories in 1828, largely over Catholic emancipation. Often represented as the quintessence of the John Bull spirit ruddy faced, combative and nationalistic Palmerston was a more complex politician, perennially concerned with the European balance of power; his bluff geniality disguised effective management talents. He endeared himself to the public through skilful press manipulation, loudly proclaiming British interests and favouring the replacement of autocracies overseas by constitutional governments. This brought him into conflict with the Royal Family who were attempting to re-establish an active rather than merely ornamental monarchy and held more positive views of fellow monarchs.
In 1850 Palmerston blockaded the port of Piraeus to back Don Pacifico, a Gibraltarian with dubious claims for compensation after anti Jewish riots in Athens. Palmerston routed his opponents including Cobden, Bright, William Gladstone and Peel (who died in a riding accident shortly afterwards), in the Civis Romanus Sum speech, arguing that, like the Roman, a British subject was entitled to government protection wherever he went. When Palmerston informed the French Ambassador that Britain approved Louis Napoleon’s coup detat of December 1851, without advising either the Prime Minister or Queen Victoria, it proved the final straw. Victoria prevailed on Russell to sack Palmerston who, two months later, secured his tit for tat by defeating the government on an amendment to the Militia Bill. Russell’s quarrel with Palmerston soured party unity for seven years.
A minority Conservative Government succeeded Russell, led by Lord Derby who called a general election in July 1852. Derby survived his failure to secure agricultural protection but the collapse of Disraeli’s budget, mauled in debate by Gladstone, brought a crisis resolved by the formation of Peelite leader Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government. At this time Derby’s son, Lord Stanley, estimated the composition of the Commons as
Derbyites (i.e. Conservatives) 300 nearly
Whigs probably about 170
English Radicals 80
Irish Radicals (Brigade) 60
Although Aberdeen brought together all the non-Conservative forces, his coalition did not create political stability. Despite reduced numbers, the Peelites retained the balance of power and dominated the cabinet, taking six out of thirteen posts. Russell, who became Foreign Secretary, deeply resented the under-representation of the Whigs. Gladstone, inevitably, took the Exchequer while Palmerston as Home Secretary proved more of a reformer than expected, passing a Smoke Abatement Act and ending transportation of convicts to Tasmania.
The 1854 Crimean War, fought in alliance with France against Russia in defence of the Turkish Empire, wrecked the Aberdeen coalition. Following The Times revelations of inadequate preparation and execution of the campaign, Russell concluded that government policy was indefensible and resigned. The Radical MP JA Roebuck tabled a motion for an inquiry into the war and defeated the government in January 1855. Russell’s timely exit had further alienated potential supporters, leaving Palmerston as the inevitable war leader. Those leading Peelites not excluded by the roles they had played in the administration of the war resigned from the government when Palmerston accepted Roebuck’s motion. A Congress at Paris achieved peace in 1856.
But Liberal disunity continued as Russell attempted to rebuild his following and the Peelites sought retribution for their perceived ill treatment in 1855. Twice there was a trial of strength. In 1856, the navy bombarded Canton in retribution for the seizure of the British ship Arrow. While the incident looked like a replay of Don Pacifico, this time Palmerston misjudged the House but on his defeat immediately called a general election. He had not misjudged the country and increased his majority while his Radical critics, Cobden and Bright, lost their seats. The second test was in 1858 when a plot to assassinate Napoleon III proved to have been hatched in Britain. In answer to French demands, Palmerston sought to toughen legislation through a Conspiracy To Murder Bill. This kowtowing to foreign demands gave Pam’s enemies the opportunity they needed and he lost the debate.
During the ensuing Derby minority government, whose principal achievement was the rationalisation of Indian government after the 1857 Mutiny, Palmerston and Russell at last resolved to work together. After refusing, yet again, Derby’s offer of office, the remaining Peelites slowly recognised that they had no realistic alternative but to ally with the Whigs and Radicals. The blanket, which covered these fumblings towards marriage, was the mutual agreement to support Italian independence from Austria. After the 1859 general election, the reconciliation of Pam and Johnny was made manifest at a well-attended meeting in Willis’s Rooms, St James Street and agreement was reached to table a motion of no confidence in Derby’s government. The Liberal party dates its foundation from this meeting.
At its formation, Palmerston’s 1859 government had no better expectation of longevity than its predecessors but, by including all factions and in better proportions than Aberdeen, Palmerston had built secure foundations. Despite his age, Pam proved well able to smother Russells hankering for Reform and channel Gladstone’s administrative energies. With Cobden’s help Gladstone concluded a major trade agreement with France, which, although it reduced the risk of war, did not reduce Palmerston’s desire for expenditure on better coastal defences. By reducing the paper tax despite Palmerston’s opposition, Gladstone helped popularise newspapers. He also established the Post Office savings bank.
Palmerston’s antipathy to domestic innovation and nationalistic outlook made him an attractive premier for the Conservatives who offered only muted opposition. Indeed most of the government’s problems were of its own devising. Palmerston’s sham threats of military action to preserve Schleswig Holstein for the Danes, undermined British influence in future European disputes when Bismark successfully called his bluff. The American Civil War of 1861-65 caused serious economic hardship in the Lancashire cotton trade and Gladstone rashly expressed admiration for the Confederacy. While neither Palmerston nor the Radicals ever shared his views, Britain risked war with the North over a number of diplomatic incidents.
Nevertheless, the government won an increased majority in 1865 though Palmerston died shortly afterwards. Seen either as Russell’s final premiership or Gladstone’s first foray in leadership of the Commons, the Liberal government of 1865-66 was not successful. Once more Russell, now in the Lords, misjudged the appetite of his own colleagues for reform and Gladstone displayed a lack of empathy which was to be a continuing feature of his otherwise inspiring leadership. Derby and Disraeli employed slicker tactics in 1867 to carry a Reform Bill, which was more radical than desired either by Conservatives or the majority of Liberals. But it was Gladstone who benefited from this dishing of the Whigs. Through his espousal of Irish Church disestablishment, he re-united the party and won the General election of 1868.
November 2003 – Tony Little is a pension fund manager and has been a student of Victorian politics for more than thirty years. He is Chairman of the Liberal History Group.