Monday, 27 October 2008

The 1841 election

The 1841 election was a major triumph for Peel. It produced a victory for the Conservatives by more than seventy seats (a majority of 76) and was also the first time in British electoral history that a party with a theoretical parliamentary majority had been replaced by another with a majority. The critical issues were what kind of Conservative party had the electorate chosen and what was the significance of the victory for the role of ‘party’?

The general election of 1841







281 21 22 43 367
Whig/Liberals 190 8 31 62 291


471 29 53 105 658


Percentage of seats won by Conservatives in each country

















The analysis of the election by type of seat appears to support the conclusion that Peel broadened the Tory base. The Conservatives won almost as many seats in the English and Welsh boroughs as the Whigs and this was a notable achievement for a party grounded in the land. However, a closer look at the types of boroughs is important. Only 44 of the seats won in English and Welsh boroughs were in paces with electorates over 1000. In the 58 largest boroughs, the Whigs won almost three times as many seats as the Conservatives and Peel’s party suffered a net loss of two seats compared to its performance in 1837. These larger boroughs were concentrated in the industrial midlands and north where Peel was seeking to broaden the party’s electoral base. But it was here that the Conservatives did least well. The larger towns where the Conservatives did have some success were older ports and commercial centres like the City of London, Bristol and Hull rather than industrial centres like Manchester and Leeds.

In general, the Conservatives did best in those boroughs that were little changed by the 1832 Reform Act. Several of these were still old-style ‘rotten boroughs’ where the patronage of a substantial landowner, rather than electoral popularity, was the decisive factor. Many had little to do with industry but were market towns whose economy was dominated by farming. In addition, there were only contests in 47 per cent of the country’s constituencies, considerably less than in the elections in 1832, 1835 and 1837 which the Whigs had won, albeit with reduced majorities.  The Conservative majority was based on small boroughs and especially the counties of England. The Whigs were all but wiped out in the English counties winning only 20 (14 per cent) of the 144 available seats. By contrast, Ireland and Scotland returned Whig or Whig-allied majorities of roughly three to two. The Conservatives hardly made any showing in the Scottish boroughs.  The Conservatives won in 1841 because they had majority support where the seats were thickest on the ground in southern England and not where the electorates were more numerous or changed by recent industrial and commercial developments. The Conservatives were the party of rural England, were not strong in the United Kingdom as a whole and the Conservative party remained dominated by old-style Tory opinion. Not surprisingly, a large number of Conservative MPs elected in 1841 were fervent Protectionists.

Peel did not advertise his unease about Protection to either the voters or his own supporters. He relied on his growing reputation as an expert in financial and commercial issues to give him votes in the towns while encouraging rural Tories to act in defence of the Corn Laws. Tory votes appear to have been cast overwhelmingly for the party most likely to protect landowners and the Protestant Church. Peel had a broader vision, though he did little to inform potential Tory voters of his real intentions in economic policy, but his party’s creed was far narrower. The 1841 election was a victory for Protectionist Toryism not Peelite Conservatism. Yet much of Peel’s policies as prime minister from 1841 to 1846 ignored this fundamental distinction. It was not long until differences within the Conservative party began to appear.

Why did the Conservatives win in 1841?

The strength of Conservative Party organisation and Peel’s leadership were important in explaining why the Conservatives won in the 1841 elections but the Whigs made important tactical errors. The Select Committee on Import Duties that reported in 1840 argued that tariffs on certain good should be reduced to stimulate consumption and, ultimately revenue. In their 1841 budget the Whigs reduced duties on corn, sugar and timber. The attack on this policy by Peel resulted in a defeat in the Commons for the government and the calling of another general election.

Peel is credited with the Conservative victory in 1841. Without his leadership many contemporaries and later historians believed that the Tories could have been assigned to permanent opposition[1]. He skilfully exploited middle class reaction against the Whigs and in his hundred-day ministry of 1834-5 gained support and respect for his administrative ability and statesmanship. He managed to distance himself from the ultra-Toryism of the early 1830s and in the Tamworth Manifesto offered a new ‘conservative’ vision of politics that accepted the constitutional settlement of 1832 and promised to support reform of proven abuses. His political philosophy of constitutional stability was explained further in speeches in Glasgow in 1836 and London in 1838 (Merchant Taylor’s Hall speech) and proved popular. Peel’s parliamentary performance during the 1830s was an important element in this revival. His grasp of economics let him capitalise on the growing economic problems the Whigs faced after 1838.

There were, however, three other pressures at work over which Peel had little or no control.  First, the Whigs were far from being dominant after the 1832 General election. Forty MPs who has supported the Reform Act moved to the Conservative benches between 1832 and 1837. The Irish appropriation issue led to the resignation of four Cabinet ministers in June 1834 two of whom, Edward Stanley (later Earl of Derby) and Sir James Graham, became Conservative supporters by the late 1830s and ministers in the 1840s. The relationship between the Whigs and the Radicals was fragile and it was Conservative votes that permitted Melbourne to resist radical pressures. Even so Tory propaganda, especially in the late 1830s, stressed the Whigs’ inability to control the radicals’ wilder excesses.

Secondly, the unexpected frequency of general elections during the 1830s also aided the Conservative cause. Peel used William IV’s invitation to form a government in late 1834 to request the dissolution of Parliament giving the Tories an opportunity to regroup. A further election was called on the death of William IV in 1837. A new monarch must have a new parliament[2]. These gave those voters, concerned that the Whigs wished to push reform further and threaten their position as property-holders, the opportunity of voting Tory.  Finally, the electorate was disillusioned by the Whig government. This was not the result of the Whig failure to reform but because they were increasingly seen as reflecting all the worst aspects of the unreformed system especially their lethargy, incompetence and, after 1839, their reliance on royal patronage to survive. Worst of all for a propertied class raised on the principle of sound finances, the Whigs failed to manage the country’s finances effectively running up a deficit of £7 million by 1841.

The emergence of Conservative Party organisation also played an important part in reviving Tory fortunes. The Reform Act required voters to register and this provided opportunities for local supporters to organise and consolidate their party’s voting strength. Peel recognised the need for party organisation but was, at least initially, ambivalent in his attitude. He was suspicious of extra-parliamentary pressure and this meant that his relations with many local Tory organisations were not particularly close. By 1837 Peel was urging his supporters to ‘Register, register, register’ but others laid the foundations particularly the party agent Francis Bonham. The Conservatives won in 1841 because they were a much better organised national party than the Whigs.

Most historians have followed Norman Gash in accepting that Peel enjoyed a reputation as an outstanding statesman and able administrator. However, Peel’s qualities as a party leader have been questioned. In 1983, Ian Newbould argued that Peel won the 1841 election not with the ideas of the Tamworth Manifesto but with the protectionism of Old Toryism. There is some truth in this since it is misleading to suggest that the electoral victory in 1841 was a victory for Peel’s new Conservatism. In many respects, the election was a triumph for the Old Toryism of the landed classes who rallied in defence of the Established Church and, above all, the Corn Laws.

Many landowners were alarmed by the reform of the Church of England in the 1830s such as the Marriage Act 1836 and feared further concessions after the Litchfield House Pact of 1835. More importantly, the landed classes closed ranks in defence of the Corn Laws that they considered essential to maintaining the prosperity of arable farmers, especially in southern England. Most conservative MPs were forced to give pledges to defend the Corn Laws during the election campaign and the party won 157 country seats compared to only 22 seats secured by the Whigs. The Conservatives also did well in the smaller boroughs in which landed influence was significant but poorly in industrial areas and in urban constituencies with an electorate over 2,000. It is clear that, despite Peel’s energies and the new Conservatism, among many social groups the party remained pre-Tamworth in outlook and spirit.

Peel’s achievement in the 1830s was to turn the Conservatives into a viable party of government. He established a sense of direction and leadership and a belief that the Conservatives could be successful. He was, however, quite happy to leave the complex administrative work to others. There was also an element of luck, particularly the frequency of elections. He did not, however, fashion the party in his own image. It may be unfair to say that the Conservatives papered over the cracks of disunity during the 1830s but there were important divisions of principle between Peel and the Protectionist right-wing of the Conservative party that were to re-emerge, with disastrous consequences, after 1841.

What did the Conservatives win in 1841?

The outcome of the 1841 election reflected the resilience of the landowning elite that had quickly reasserted its influence in many constituencies where it had temporarily lost the electoral advantage after 1832. Parliamentary representation after 1832 was still heavily weighted towards the counties and small boroughs: half of the total English borough electorate lived in the sixteen largest borough constituencies but only returned 33 MPs. It proved beyond even Peel to alter significantly the character of the Conservative party. Even the ex-Whig MPs who had crossed the floor of the House largely represented the same sort of constituencies as their newly found Conservative friends.

The issues on which Conservative candidates campaigned in the three general elections between 1835 and 1842 were largely in defence of traditional interests and institutions. In the 1835 and 1837 elections, the issue of ‘the Church in danger’ was a potent weapon among Conservatives, enabling them to attract moderate opinion alarmed by the allegedly extreme position of the Whigs and their Radical and Irish allies. They claimed that the Whigs were vulnerable to pressure from their allies to introduce measures hostile to the Established Churches of England and Ireland such as the abolition of Church Rates (a bill was introduced in 1837 but did not pass) and repeated attempts to assert the principle of law appropriation of Irish Church revenues. There was a strong anti-Catholic thrust to Conservative attacks on the government for its connections with O’Connell and the Irish Repealers. Peel himself had confirmed that the raison d’ĂȘtre of the Conservative party was to uphold the institutions of the country in his rare public speeches in Glasgow and London in January 1837 and May 1838 respectively.

The growing confidence of the Church of England especially its successful campaign in 1839-40 that compelled ministers to drop their plan to reform the system of education grants[3] meant that the Church no longer seemed in any imminent danger by 1841. Whig proposals to introduce a lower duty on wheat provided Conservative candidates with an issue on which to campaign. Agricultural protection was an issue that united landowners and tenant farmers and it was these individuals who dominated the county electorate. However, the maintenance of the Corn Laws was also an important issue in many smaller and medium-sized boroughs. In the 1841 election, all the county and borough seats in Essex were won by protectionists, including one ex-Whig. In certain northern industrial towns such as Blackburn, the Conservatives argued that the ruin of agriculture that would arise from the loss of protective tariffs, would lead to urban labour markets being flooded by unemployed agricultural labourers, whose competition would force down urban wage-rates. The Protectionist message was put strongly and often successfully by candidates throughout the campaign. The Conservative victory in 1841 represented a triumph for the Protectionist position and the successfully elected MPs often held attitudes and prejudices at variance with the ‘Conservative principles’ advocated by Peel.

[1] In fact, Peel’s government between 1841 and 1846 was the only majority Conservative government until Disraeli’s second ministry between 1874 and 1880.

[2] This was the last occasion when there was a general election after the death of the monarch. The practice was ended in 1867.

[3] Had this reform been implemented, it would have directed State money away from Anglican schools and towards nonconformist schools.

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