Sunday, 7 December 2008

Gathering disaffection 1841-1845

The issue of the growing division between Peel and his supporters and the rest of the Conservative party is made more difficult for historians because they know the end result, the division of the party over the Corn Laws in 1846. This makes it tempting to read growing division into every act of opposition to Peel’s policies after 1841 as an escalating series of events that culminated in the events of 1846.

  • Was there growing divergence between government and its supporters or was this simply a series of isolated incidents?
  • If there was growing divergence, what were its causes?
  • If it was simply a series of isolated influences, at what point did opposition prove terminal?
  • Was it simply the question of the Corn Laws?
The 1841 election and Peel’s character

It is generally accepted by historians that the 1841 election was a victory for Protectionist Conservatives rather than those who accepted Peel’s view of Conservatism. It is probably true to say that Conservative paternalist sentiments were expressed more forcibly in the 1840s than in the previous decade when the bulk of the party seemed content to follow Peel’s lead by voting for the Poor Law Amendment Act. Another reason why paternalism gained in political force in the 1840s was that in provided Conservative MPs with a potential defence against attacks from the Anti-Corn Law League. If landowners were to be accused of selfishly protecting their own incomes at the expense of urban consumers of bread through the maintenance of the Corn Laws, they could reasonably retaliate by citing the appalling working conditions, job insecurity and urban squalor endured by those who worked in the factories owned by supporters of the League. For many agricultural MPs support for Ashley’s ten hour amendment in 1844 arose, as Peel reported to the Queen ‘partly out of hostility to the Anti-Corn Law League’.

Peel’s attitude to his back-benchers did not help the situation. There was a perhaps inevitable conflict between Peel’s executive view of government and the notion of ‘independence’ held by many Conservative MPs. Peel could count on their support as long as he did not threaten their Protectionism and Protestantism. However, many Conservative MPs feared that their leader was leaning further and further in the direction of the urban Free Trade radicals and that he was approaching the ‘condition of England’ question almost exclusively from the viewpoint of cheap food, regardless of the consequences for rural society and the existing aristocratic elite.

The Corn question

The question of the Corn Laws proved the most damaging difference between Peel and Conservative back-bench MPs though its catastrophic consequences were in the future.  Conservative loyalty to Peel proved strong enough to withstand the strains imposed by the modified Corn Laws in 1842, though the duke of Buckingham and Edward Knatchbull resigned from the government but later in the session eighty-five MPs voted against the reduction of import duties on cattle.

In 1843, Peel believed that the best way to protect Canada from a future invasion by the United States[1] was to interest the farmers in the American mid-west in selling their grain to Britain. The Canada Corn Act granted wheat shipped from Canada a privileged position in the British market (above other colonies), and nobody could doubt that the greater part of all the wheat which would come down the St Lawrence river would have originated in the United States. The duty on Canadian corn reduced to 1s per quarter while United States corn could be exported into Canada at 3s per quarter. In 1843, the Protectionists scarcely knew what to make of the Canada Corn Bill but over sixty opposed it. They feared the consequences of opening the door to American grain, but they wanted to retain Canada and the bill was introduced by Stanley who was known to sympathise with their own views.

In 1844, there was a dispute with France over Tahiti which necessitated an increase in the defence estimates. The ministry was defeated by Lord Ashley on the ten-hour issue and by Philip Miles, MP for Bristol on its proposals to revise the sugar duties. Both defeats were reversed by the threat of resignation. The government planned to slash the tariff on foreign sugar grown by free labour from 63s per hundredweight to 34s plus 5 per cent, while leaving the duty of colonial sugar unchanged on 25s 3d. The question at stake for Conservative opponents was maintaining imperial preference for sugar grown in the West Indies and there was also an underlying concern about Peel’s commitment to protectionism in general. Miles’ amendment proposed that the tariff differential between colonial and foreign sugar should be widened by reducing the duty on colonial sugar to 20s. This attracted the support of many Whig and Radical free-trades as well as sixty-two Conservatives and the government lost by twenty votes.

Peel’s reaction to the show of Conservative defiance over the Sugar Duties was identical the ten hours crisis earlier in the session. He threatened to resign unless the Commons reversed its decision. A meeting of 200 alarmed MPs at the Carlton Club on 17th June expressed its appreciation of Peel’s service to the nation and his demand was duly complied with after 43 abstainers from the original vote attended the second vote and ten of the rebels stayed away. The tactic was effective, but it helped to accumulate resentment for the future. Many people, including Gladstone were dismayed by Peel’s uncompromising stance that appeared to be the product of personal disgust at the oppositional behaviour of Conservative MPs. The diarist Charles Greville went further and wrote that Peel’s behaviour in the Commons was ‘offensive and dictatorial, and people of all parties are exasperated and disgusted with it’. However, Peel had been advised by party managers that only about twenty MPs, men such as Disraeli, wanted to bring the government down, an assertion confirmed by modern research.

The ten hours and sugar duties defeats illustrated the difficulties in reconciling Peel’s executive view of government with Conservative back-benchers’ demands that they be allowed ‘independence’. MPs were prepared to give their support to Peel and his government since they wished him to remain in office. However, MPs in this period did not generally owe their election to the party machine and were difficult to discipline. Back-benchers could genuinely assert their independent judgement on specific issues. Peel, however, expected MPs to be loyal to the government and that this overrode their personal prejudices. In reality, given the state of party discipline in the 1840s, Peel was asked for more compliance than he had a right to demand.

It is important, at least to the end of the 1844 session not to exaggerate the seriousness of Conservative disunion. It had yet to develop into a terminal condition. The critical questions were: was there growing divergence between government and its supporters or was it simply a series of isolated incidents or what a later prime minister called ‘local difficulties’? Certainly before the end of the 1844 session, there were signs that Peel and his party had managed to patch up their differences and that a much better feeling existed. Peel was persuaded to use more conciliatory language at the end of the sugar duties debate and at the end of June 1844 he motivated his supporters with a powerful speech affirming that his government had no intention of reducing the level of protection to agriculture secured by the Corn Laws.

Then, in 1845, matters began to come to a head. The income tax was about to expire. But the economy was now in a position to benefit from further tariff reductions, and Peel chose, once again, to introduce the budget himself. On 14th February, he renewed income tax for another three years explicitly to enable him ‘to make a great experiment’ in reducing other taxes, ‘the removal of which will give more scope to commercial enterprise, and occasion an increased demand for labour’. Peel believed that the result of this ‘extension of industry and encouragement of enterprise’ would be ‘the benefit of all classes of the community, whether they are directly or indirectly connected with commerce, manufactures, or agriculture’[2]. But the distinguishing mark of this budget was abolition not rationalisation. The critical question was had Peel now dropped the mask and become a convinced free-trader? If so, what would happen to the Corn Laws? Nothing, perhaps, in that parliament, had it not been for Ireland.


[1] Relations between the United States and Canada had been difficult since the war of 1812-14. Rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837-8 had exacerbated the problem especially as the rebels received unofficial support from some of the northern American states, Establishing stability in Quebec and Ontario was a priority for the Colonial Office, under Lord Stanley and the ‘freeing-up’ of the wheat trade was seen as one way of achieving this.

[2] Hansard 3rd series, volume 77, columns 455–497

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