Thursday, 2 October 2008

Peel’s ‘Hundred Days’: December 1834-April 1835

King William IV dismissed Melbourne’s[1] government in November 1834. It had only been in power since July when Earl Grey retired but the king did not like the direction of its policy towards the Irish Church. Initially he turned to Wellington. Wellington was reluctant to form a government, largely because he believed that prime ministers must carry authority in the House of Commons and recommended that the King turned to Peel. Peel became Prime Minister on 9th December 1834 on his return from a family holiday in Italy.

Peel had little choice but to accept the royal summons though he privately regretted the King’s hasty action. Peel’s strategy of waiting and allowing the Whigs to discredit themselves had been thrown into disarray by what was, in effect, a royal coup. This was designed perfectly to stimulate the Whigs’ historical antagonism towards the monarchy and draw hem closer together. The result of this was that the King had forestalled the process of ministerial disintegration and deprived Peel of his best hope of constructing a viable alternative government. The King’s action hampered Peel in other ways since it quickly became clear that Lord Stanley and the other former Whig ministers were not prepared to join a government still seen in the public eye as ‘reactionary’ in character. This meant that he had to rely on the existing Conservative MPs to establish his ministerial team and a number of posts were given to Ultras. One Whig diarist, not without justification, characterised Peel’s ministry as ‘undiluted Toryism’.

Peel’s authority, as leader of the Tories was the result of his appointment as Prime Minister by the King. He did not become Prime Minister because he was leader of a party in the Commons. This reinforced his view of the executive nature of government. He was the ‘King’s minister’ first, leader of the Tory party second. This was an important distinction and was to prove central to his decisions during the ‘Bedchamber crisis’ in 1839 and the crisis over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1845-6.Peel’s minority administration lasted just a hundred days ending in April 1835. He could not guarantee to pass legislation, especially after the agreement between the Whigs and O’Connell’s Irish MPs[2] (the ‘Lichfield House compact’), and believed that failure to do so would weaken the executive authority of government. The Conservatives returned to opposition.

The Tamworth Manifesto

Peel’s achievement in the 1830s was to make the Tory party more relevant to the needs of society without significantly broadening the parliamentary party. To do this he had to link the interests of property, whether landed, industrial or commercial, firmly to the maintenance of the Constitution. The minority administration of 1834-5 gave him the opportunity in his direct appeal to the new electorate in the Tamworth Manifesto of December 1834. It was Peel’s intention to start to convince the country and the electorate that there was a difference between his brand of conservatism and that of his predecessor, the Duke of Wellington. Norman Gash saw this as ‘an unprecedented action on the part of a government’. Published election addresses were not uncommon but the originality of the Tamworth Manifesto lay in its appeal to the nation.

‘I gladly avail myself also of this, a legitimate opportunity, of making a more public appeal -- of addressing, through you [his own electorate in Tamworth], to that great and intelligent class of society of which you are a portion, and a fair and unexceptionable representative -- to that class which is much less interested in the contentions of party, than in the maintenance of order and the cause of good government....’

This was a direct bid for the uncommitted middle class voter to broaden Tory appeal. Peel accepted that the Reform Act was ‘a final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question’. He promised that the Conservatives would undertake a ‘careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical’. Where there was a case for change, he promised ‘the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances’.

‘With respect to the Reform Bill itself, I will repeat now the declaration which I made when I entered the House of Commons as a Member of the Reformed Parliament, that I consider the Reform Bill a final and irrevocable settlement of a great Constitutional question -- a settlement which no friend of the peace and welfare of this country would attempt to disturb, either by direct or insidious means.....if, by adopting the spirit of the Reform Bill, it be meant that we are to live in a perpetual vortex of agitation; that public men can only support themselves in public estimation by adopting every popular impression of the day -- by promising the instant redress of anything which anybody may call an abuse, -- by abandoning altogether that great aid of government -- more powerful than either law or reason -- the respect for ancient rights and the deference to prescriptive authority; if this be the spirit of the Reform Bill, I will not undertake to adopt it. But if the spirit of the Reform Bill implies merely a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper, combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances -- in that case, I can for myself and colleagues undertake to act in such a spirit and with such intentions....’

Peel committed himself to moderate reform. He offered to look at the question of church reform in order to preserve the ‘true interests of the Established religion’.

‘Then, as to the great question of Church reform. On that head I have no new professions to make. I cannot give my consent to the alienating of Church property, in any part of the United Kingdom, from strictly Ecclesiastical purposes...With regard to alterations in the law which govern our Ecclesiastical Establishment.... It is a subject which must undergo the fullest deliberation and into that deliberation the Government will enter, and with the sincerest desire to remove every abuse that can impair the efficiency of the Establishment, to extend the sphere of its usefulness and to strengthen and confirm its just claims upon the respect and affections of the people.’

This was designed to convince the Ultras that Peel was a committed member of the Church of England. His minority administration achieved nothing in legislative terms except setting up the Ecclesiastical Commission. Peel’s basic message was that the Conservatives would reform to conserve or preserve but this did not convince all his opponents. The Manifesto was seen as too liberal by some but the majority of the Ultras were prepared to go along with Peel albeit warily. They had little alternative. It sought to broaden Tory support in the country and convince dissidents within the party that Peel had taken account of their interests. This was accompanied by the gradual introduction of the term ‘Conservative’ in place of ‘Tory’. The Conservative MP for Sudbury, Sir John Benn Walsh, wrote in his Chapters of Contemporary History in 1836 that

‘A Conservative is a man attached upon the principles of the English Constitution, to the Established Church, to our mixed institutions.... The Conservative party, therefore, includes all those shades of political opinion, from the disciple of moderate Whig principles to the most devoted champion of ancient usages who agree in these two points -- attachment to King, Lords, Commons, Church and State, and a belief that there is a pressing danger of these institutions being overborne by the weight of the Democracy.’

The 1835 election

At the end of December, the dissolution of Parliament was announced and the general election followed in January 1835. If William IV had hoped that he might be able to use the royal prerogative, as his father George III had done in 1784 and 1807 to consolidate the position of his chosen minister, he was to be disappointed. The result of the 1835 election was a serious blow to William’s authority.

The 1835 election saw considerable gains for the Conservatives. The party won over two-third of the seats it had contested though it only stood in 60 per cent of the country’s seats. However, it failed to obtain an overall majority. The Conservatives won all 29 county seats and were the largest single party in the Commons with 273 seats. This success might be partly attributed to the reorganisation of the Conservative Party undertaken by F.R. Bonham[3]. Peel’s hopes of attracting support from disaffected Whigs were dashed when the Whigs made a post-electoral agreement, known as the Lichfield House Pact, with Irish and Radical MPs. Peel’s government fell over its proposals for Irish church reform and the Whigs, under Lord Melbourne, formed a new ministry.

The Ecclesiastical Commission

Peel was not in power long enough to implement any substantial legislation though his government did announce plans to legalise nonconformist marriages and commute English tithes (measures passed by the Whigs in 1836-7). Of particular importance was the establishment of the Ecclesiastical Commission that produced valuable results after the fall of the ministry and exemplified the spirit of his ‘Conservatism’. The Ecclesiastical Commission consisted of senior churchmen and Anglican politicians, including Peel, whose task was to prepare bills ready to present to Parliament to tackle the abuses that had been shown to be widespread in the Church of England.

The Church of England had been an easy attack for radicals for some years and publications such as John Wade’s Black Book had exposed some of the worse examples of personal greed and nepotism.  At one extreme, especially in the upper levels of the Anglican hierarchy some individuals were amassing fortunes through holding several lucrative appointments. At the other, many Church livings did not provide an adequate income to support Anglican clergymen. This was one reason why pluralism was so common with clergymen holding more than one Church living that inevitably led to the problem of non-residence. In 1815, over 40 per cent of parishes in England and Wales did not have a resident vicar and in a quarter of these there was not even a curate to act as caretaker.  The feeble Anglican presence in many of the expanding industrial towns, Peel believed accounted for the remarkable progress of Nonconformity in recent decades.

For Peel, it was essential for there to be ‘judicious reform’ to give ‘real stability to the Church in its spiritual character…I believe enlarged political interests will be best promoted by strengthening the hold of the Church of England upon the love and veneration of the community’.  Peel recognised that unless something was done quickly church reform might fall into the hands of politicians less sympathetic to the Anglican cause and possibly jeopardise the position of the Church as an Established body. By establishing a permanent body that involved the Church of England in initiating its own reform, Peel sought to encourage a greater sense of responsibility among Anglican leaders and hopefully shield the Church against further damaging attacks.  The Ecclesiastical Commission survived the change in government in April 1835 and over the next few years put forward a series of measures to reorganise Church dioceses and revenues, abolish many sinecures and combat the twin evils of pluralism and non-residence.

The end of the ministry

The new House of Commons assembled to 19th February 1835. The Conservatives accounted for some 290 of the 658 seats compared to 150 in 1832 thanks to by-election gains in 1833-1834, some defections from the Whig benches and the advances made in the January general election. This was clearly insufficient to keep the government in power unless it could attract additional support from wavering members of the Whig opposition or from the few remaining independent MPs.

The meeting of Whigs, radical and O’Connellites at Lichfield House the day before parliament met resolved to join in a concerted opposition to turn out the Conservative government. It was clear from this point that Peel could not remain Prime Minister for long. First, the Whigs and their allies succeeded in replacing the Conservative incumbent as Speaker with their own nominee. Secondly, the opposition carried an amendment to the Address, after the King’s Speech outlining ministerial plans by 309 to 302 votes. This showed that the majority of MPs were not prepared to give Peel and his ministers the opportunity to govern that they had requested. Further defeats followed confirming the inability of ministers to conduct even routine business in parliament. Finally, on 7th April 1835, Lord John Russell carried a resolution in favour of lay appropriation of Irish Church revenues by 27 votes. Peel resigned the following day.

Some leading Conservatives, including Wellington argued that the Conservatives were under an obligation to hold on to office as long as possible because they had the King’s confidence. Peel took a different view concluding that there was no prospect of converting the Commons minority into a majority and that his government’s position was untenable. Peel recognised that the succession of adverse votes posed a grave threat to the royal prerogative as the weakness of the executive meant that the Commons was being allowed to usurp many of the functions properly performed by the King’s ministers. He believed that by clinging to office the Conservatives would have given the Whigs the opportunity of building themselves into a disciplined party in order to deprive the King of his freedom of choice and compel him to appoint ministers he did not want. This was untenable to Peel who saw himself as an ‘executive’ politician who, when in office, served the King who had appointed him, not the House of Commons or a political party.

Peel’s problem in 1835 was he had not wanted the King to dismiss the Whigs in the first place. Once installed in office, he found himself saddled with a narrowly conceived ministry with which he was far from comfortable. Many of the old-fashioned Tories in his ministry were increasingly angered by the ‘Liberal principle’ and ‘Liberal measures’ of their leader. According to the diarist Charles Greville, an individual who did not particularly like Peel, he realised he was ‘not the Minister for them and they no longer the party for him’.

[1] L.G. Mitchell Lord Melbourne 1779-1848, Oxford University Press, 1997, pages 142-210 covers his government in the 1830s.

[2] Angus Macintyre The Liberator: Daniel O’Connell and the Irish Party 1830-1847, Macmillan, 1965 remains the essential study though it should be supplemented with Oliver MacDonagh’s two volume biography, The Hereditary Bondsman, Weidenfeld, 1988, and The Emancipist, Weidenfeld, 1989, reissued together as O’Connell, Weidenfeld, 1991.

[3] F.R. Bonham was the highly successful agent of the Conservative Party. Outside Parliament, Bonham skilfully reorganised the party’s electoral machine. Based at the Carlton Club, Bonham was crucial to Peel’s success in the elections in 1837 and 1841.

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