Thursday, 30 October 2008

Two more Chartist biographies

David Shaw: John James Bezer, Chartists and John Arnott, National Charter Association, (Lulu), 2008, 165pp, £7.84, paper, ISBN 978-1-4092-2526-3

It really has been a bumper year for biographies of leading Chartists with Paul Pickering's study of Feargus O'Connor, Stephen Robert's on Thomas Cooper and Arthur O'Neill and we now have David Shaw utilising the material on his website www.gerald-massey.org.uk to produce biographies of two less well-known figures, John James Bezer and John Arnott.  The book utilises and revises material from the website and the result is a book that, for the first time, allows us to look at Chartism through the lives of less prominent figures and provides a model that other historians could use.

The book divides into two uneven parts: Bezer is accorded over 130 pages while Arnott is allocated twenty-four, a result of the greater amount of material available on Bezer.  Much of the material on Bezer is made up of his autobiography, originally published in 1851 in the Christian Socialist, but not readily available to historians.  Unlike other 'Chartist autobiographies', it was not written after a passage of decades but merely years and this gives it a radical edge perhaps lacking in both Cooper and Lovett.  What is especially interesting about Bezer is that he ended up in Australia and this, often forgotten, episode in his life is examined in detail.  John Arnott, by contrast, is less well documented and David Shaw has done well to collect together virtually everything that is extant in his life especially his poetry, such an important element in Chartist rhetoric. 

Although much of this material is already available on the website, it is extremely useful to have it available in book form and at such a reasonable price.  It is to be hoped that David Shaw will publish other gems like this.

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76) and was also the first time in British electoral history that a party with a theoretical parliamentary majority had been replaced by another with a majority.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

  England

Wales

Scotland

Ireland

Total

Conservatives

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

Total

471 29 53 105 658

 

Percentage of seats won by Conservatives in each country

 

%

Number

England

59.7

471

Wales

72.4

29

Scotland

41.5

53

Ireland

41.0

105

 

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’être 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.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Source: Peel on ‘Conservative principles’, 1838

Peel had identified what he called ‘Conservative principles’ in a letter to Henry Goulburn in 1833. In 1834, he had published the Tamworth Manifesto in which he stated his political views. In this extract, Peel again defines what he means by Conservative principles.

‘Sir Robert Peel ... We feel deeply and intimately that in the union of the conservative party in the country is one of the best guarantees for internal tranquillity and the maintenance of our ancient institutions... By that union we shall best be enabled to maintain the mild predominance of the Protestant faith in this country and in every part of the United Kingdom. By that union we shall be enabled and by that alone to promote what we call conservative principles. If you ask me what I mean by conservative principles... I will, in conclusion, briefly state what I mean...

By conservative principles I mean, and I believe you mean, the maintenance of the Peerage and the Monarchy the continuance of the just powers and attributes of King, Lords, and Commons in this country. By conservative principles I mean, a determination to resist every encroachment that can curtail the just rights and settled privileges of one or other of those three branches of the state. By conservative principles I mean, that co-existent with equality of civil rights and privileges, there shall be an established religion and imperishable faith, and that that established religion shall maintain the doctrines of the Protestant Church. By conservative principles I mean, a steady resistance to every project which would divert church property from strictly spiritual uses

By conservative principles I mean, a maintenance of the settled institutions of church and state, and I mean also the maintenance, defence, and continuation of those laws, those institutions, that society, and those habits and manners which have contributed to mould and form the character of Englishmen, and enabled this country, in her contests and the fearful rivalry of war, to extort the admiration of the world, and in the useful emulation of peaceful industry, commercial enterprise, and social improvement, have endeared the name of England and Englishmen in every country in the world to those who seek the establishment of liberty without oppression, and the enjoyment of a national and pure form of religion, which is at once the consolation of the virtuous man, and is also the best guarantee which human institutions can afford for civil and religious liberty. (The right honourable baronet then sat down, and the cheering, which had been frequent throughout his speech, was renewed with increased energy and enthusiasm.)

Lord Stanley rose and said... my right hon. friend has truly told you that our union is founded upon higher and more enduring motives. It is founded upon the strongest motives that can actuate private feeling, or influence public conduct. It is founded upon a sense of common danger, and a conviction of common interest; not the sordid, base, personal interest or profit of the individual, but a common conviction impressed upon our minds that danger is threatened to the interests of the country, and that union is the only means by which the danger can be warded off, and our institutions preserved.

The Peel Banquet at Merchant Taylor’s Hall, May 12th 1838.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Why did the Conservatives become more electable?

Between 1835 and 1841 several things helped the Conservative Party to become more electable.

Improvements in electoral management

Improvements had certainly been made to the Conservatives’ organisational machine though it is difficult to asses its precise impact on the revival of the party’s electoral fortunes. Party organisation probably played an invaluable but subsidiary role enabling the Conservatives to capitalise on the shift of public opinion away from the Whigs after 1832. Peel’s direct involvement was minimal and the initiative in the 1830s came from men with a previous track-record in party management. Joseph Planta, William Holmes and Charles Arbuthnot formed the nucleus of the so-called ‘Charles Street Gang’, named after the address of the office they had established at the end of 1830, from which whips’ notes were sent out to MPs and attempts made to influence the press. The Charles Street Gang was instrumental in founding the Carlton Club in 1832, which soon became the party’s headquarters.

Shortly after the 1835 election, Francis Bonham persuaded Peel that a committee was needed on a permanent basis and became, in practice, the party’s first full-time election agent. Peel continued to improve the organisation of the party and refine its policies. The permanent committee was chaired by Granville Somerset with the aim of co-ordinating the party’s electoral affairs. The functions of the committee were confined, in practice, mainly to gathering information from the various localities, for the guidance of national leaders, suggesting suitable candidates for constituencies and providing modest subsidies to deserving candidates from a small, secret election fund. There were limits to what Bonham could do since interference in constituency affairs would be deeply resented by local landowners and activists accustomed to financing and controlling their own local affairs.

Peel recognised that party politics would dominate Parliament and frequently met with Bonham and his whips to work out clear political strategies though he rarely communicated this to his supporters in the Commons. He appointed able chief whips such as Sir George Clark in 1835 and Sir Thomas Freemantle in 1837. The result of this work could be seen in the general election following William IV’s death in 1837. The Conservatives gained thirteen seats and reduced the Whig’s majority to just over 30

The development of registration

Developments in party organisation at local level counted for much more than the tentative efforts of the central election committee. The impetus for change came from the requirement of the 1832 Act that a register of electors must be compiled in each constituency and updated annually. In many of the boroughs and also in a few counties, local Conservatives formed Registration Associations employing a local solicitor to ensure that the names of Conservative supporters were placed on the electoral register while challenging the eligibility of known opponents. Peel recognised the value of registration work at local level and of its long-term implications for the conduct of politics and government at the centre. Peel’s attitude to registration is revealed in a letter to Charles Arbuthnot in November 1839[1]

‘The registration will govern the disposal of offices and determine the policy of party attacks; and the power of this new element will go on increasing, as its secret strength becomes better known, and is more fully developed. We shall soon have, I have no doubts, a regular systematic organisation of it…’

‘Crossing the floor’

Peel’s political skills meant that moderate Whigs such as Sir James Graham and Stanley and their supporters, who had left the Whig government in 1834-5, could be drawn into political alliance. During the period 1835-40, nearly 60 Whigs ‘crossed the floor’ and joined the Conservatives. This significantly strengthened Peel’s front bench with Stanley, Gladstone and Graham as a strong debating team undermining the credibility of the Whig government.

Peel’s reputation

Peel’s reputation as a responsible opposition leader was a valuable political asset for his party, providing reassurance to moderate public opinion that the Conservatives could be safely trusted with the governance of the country. Yet the party that Peel built up in opposition was scarcely a new entity, despite the widespread use of the term ‘Conservative, as a resurrection of the ‘Tory party’ of professional administrators and country gentlemen that had been evolving under Lord Liverpool in the early and mid-1820s. It is also important not to exaggerate Peel’s role in encouraging the growth of party organisation during the 1830s. In fact, he was distinctly uncomfortable with the implications for the ways politics was conducted, of relying on electoral machinery to assist him into office.

Electoral growth

In the 1835 and 1837 general elections the Conservatives improved their position considerably. They increased their MPs by about a hundred in 1835 and added forty more two years later. By-election successes between 1837 and 1841 further improved their position. Between 1837 and 1841 they were only thirty votes short of the Whigs and their normal voting allies. After the 1837 election the Whigs were increasingly dependent on the support of Irish MPs (many of whom were Catholics) to remain in power. This worked to the advantage of the Conservative Party that could present itself as the party of Protestantism. In the 1841 election, the party won a total of 376 seats, giving them a comfortable overall majority of seventy.

In 1839, Melbourne was defeated by five votes over the Jamaican crisis[2] when the Whigs planned to suspend the Jamaican Assembly. The Whig government resigned and Queen Victoria reluctantly asked Peel to form the next government. Peel accepted the Queen’s invitation but only on condition that she sack those in her immediate circle of courtiers who were related to or associated with Whig politicians. She refused to sack some of her Whig ladies-in-waiting leading to the ‘Bedchamber crisis’[3] and she then asked Melbourne to form his third government in May 1839. In retrospect, Peel’s decision not to take power was a blessing in disguise. The Conservatives still did not command a majority in the House of Commons and the worsening economic crisis led to serious social unrest.

A disunited party?

The electoral tide may have been running in their favour but the Conservatives were not united either on principles or strategies.

For Peel, the major threat to his executive view of government during the 1830s came not from the Whigs but from the Radicals. They believed in extra-parliamentary pressure to achieve their aims and this was unacceptable to Peel. Defeating the Radicals often meant supporting the Whigs. On many issues, such as the poor law in 1834 and municipal reform the following year, Peel either actively supported the government or did not meddle. He sought to defeat the Whigs but was not prepared to do so at any cost: opposition remained constructive’. In particular he was not willing to ally with Radicals to bring the government down.

Many Tories believed that Peel should defeat the Whigs as soon as possible, if necessary with Radical votes. Peel’s approach during the ‘Bedchamber crisis’, when he refused in 1839 to take office because the young Victoria would not dismiss some of her ladies in waiting, seemed to some Tories to be arrogant. The House of Lords took a different line to Peel on some issues, especially on Ireland. Electoral victory had to wait until 1841.


[1] In the published edition of Peel’s correspondence, this is misdated to the year 1838. Its true date is significant since it was written after the ‘Bedchamber crisis’ and suggests that Peel had reluctantly come to the conclusion pressed on him by Sir James Graham and others that the hostility shown by the Queen to the opposition and her support for the Whigs meant that the only way the Conservatives could now obtain office was by removing the government by winning a general election and compelling the Queen to take them as ministers.

[2] The emancipation of slaves in 1833 had led to a worsening of the economic conditions for planters in Jamaica. The result was increased brutality against the former slaves to such an extent that the Jamaica constitution was suspended for five years.

[3] The Bedchamber issue was resolved in 1841 by the intervention of Queen Victoria’s new husband, Prince Albert.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Peel in Opposition 1835-1841

After the failure of his unintended months in government, Peel was inclined to bide his time and avoid any action that might lead to an immediate return to power. He was anxious that William IV should not attempt another coup against the Whigs since he believed that this would inevitably lead to defeat for the King and further damage to the constitutional authority of the Crown.

More ‘constructive opposition’ 1835-1837

In 1835 and 1836, Peel was especially concerned about the conduct of Tories in the House of Lords. There was a real danger that the attitude of the Ultras might put the Lords on a collision course with the Commons and this did not fit with Peel’s notion of opposition. This can be seen in the opposition of Ultras in the Lords to the Municipal Corporations Bill in 1835. Peel supported the measure recognising that it sought to establish an efficient and honest system of local government but he was unable to control the Conservative peers. Peel’s fear was that the actions of the peers might tempt the Whigs to resign and force a constitutional crisis. Fortunately, the Whigs proved willing to make some compromises and this proved sufficient for a settlement to be reached.

Peel, shortly before the crisis, had indicated his willingness to support reasonable measures of reform and his determination to avoid Conservative alignment with the Radicals and Repealers simply to embarrass the government. This represented a continuation of the ‘constructive opposition’ pursued in 1833-4 enabling acceptable reforms to be carried through while helping the Whigs resist unwelcome pressure from their own allies. The Whig party manager, Edward Ellice noted in 1836 that Peel ‘was as anxious as the most selfish adherent of the Treasury to keep the Gov’t in office’. In early 1837, the government was under pressure from radical motions on the secret ballot, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, repeal of the Septennial Act and the removal of bishops from the House of Lords and on each occasion the Whigs depended on Conservative support to defeat the Radicals.

The sessions of 1836 and early 1837 were encouraging ones for Peel and his friends. Conservative feeling in the country was gaining in strength, helped undoubtedly by the positive state of trade and agriculture. The relationship between the Whigs and their allies was often fraught and the cohesion of the opposition improving with the recruitment of Stanley and his associates brining Conservative numbers in the Commons almost up to 300. Peel and especially Wellington appear to have persuaded the more fanatical Conservative peers from launching a suicidal attack on the government. Even some Whigs recognised that Peel was holding back and waiting for Whig support to drain away before delivering the killer blow.  Modern research had vindicated Peel’s cautious strategy and shows just how successful he was in enticing moderate Whig MPs into Conservative ranks. Between 1833 and 1837, at least 31 MPs who had supported the Reform Act joined the Conservatives and only about a dozen of these were associated with Lord Stanley. Another seventeen MPs crossed the floor during the parliament of 1837-1841. Peel would have been entitled to feel that this movement of MPs from Whig to Conservative justified the effectiveness of his policy of refraining from violent opposition to the government.

Ending support for the Whigs 1837-1841

The death of William IV in June 1837 transformed the political situation. The ensuing general election brought further Conservative gains so that the opposition amounted to around 371 MPs (out of 658). However, the Whigs’ increasingly precarious parliamentary situation was compensated by the unswerving support of the new monarch. Unlike her uncle, who detested his ministers, Victorian held strong pro-Whiggish views and until 1841 she displayed a strong personal attachment to Lord Melbourne that the Whigs were able to exploit. This made Peel’s position as leader of the opposition extremely awkward. It was now difficult to square Conservative principles with opposition methods now that it was clear that the queen had no desire to be rescued from her Whig ministers. At the beginning of the 1838 session of parliament, the Conservatives seem further than ever from removing the government.

It was the Canadian rebellion in late 1837 and questions about the government’s handling of the affair that posed a real problem for Peel. Peel and Wellington were instinctively disposed to support the emergency measures including the suspension of the Canadian constitution. However, there were warnings from Conservative party managers that unless some hostile action was taken by the opposition front-bench, many back-benchers were likely to support a radical motion of censure. Peel still maintained that direct opposition attacks on the government were counter-productive but recognised that something had to be done to preserve opposition unity. His solution was to support an amendment to the radical censure motion while pledging support for measures necessary to suppress the rebellion. This was tactically sound since it enabled him to attack the Whigs for allowing the rebellion to occur in the first place much to the satisfaction of his own supporters while ensuring that the government was sure to survive. The Whigs consequently won by twenty-nine votes.

Peel now found himself in an uncomfortable position. Before 1839, he refused to countenance another outright attack on the Whigs. He also rejected the advice of his chief whip that he should meet his MPs at the beginning of each session to explain the current situation to them. The problem of Peel’s uncommunicative attitudes with his MPs became apparent in March 1839 when 65 Conservative back-benchers, working in conjunction with Ultra peers, staged a rebellion over the government’s Irish Municipal Corporations Bill. They were already angry because Peel backed the Whigs’ Irish Tithes and Irish Poor Law Bills in the previous session. This appears to have stung Peel into adopting more aggressive action. In April, he defended the House of Lords after it had passed a motion of censure over Whig Irish policy and in May he condemned the Whigs’ handling of the crisis in Jamaica where the constitution had been suspended, despite his approval of an almost identical action by the Whigs over Canada. Peel’s inconsistency can only be explained by his need to appease his own supporters. However, his expectation was that the government would not be defeated and it did survive by five votes. In the event, the narrowness of the Whig victory provided the Whigs with an excuse for submitting their resignations.

The ‘Bedchamber crisis’ May 1839

On 8th May, Victoria, having been advised by Wellington that the new Prime Minister should be in the House of Commons summoned Peel. At his audience at Buckingham Palace, Victoria immediately made it clear that she regretted the loss of her Whig ministers, expressed her reluctance to grant Peel the dissolution of parliament and made it clear that she must not be asked to end all communication with Lord Melbourne. Though Peel replied that he was willing to do everything in its power to meet the Queen’s wishes, he went on to indicate that it was essential for him to have some mark of the Queen’s confidence in the form of some changes to the Royal Household. Many of the most senior positions were held by female relatives of the outgoing Whig ministers.

Whether this stipulation was intended by Peel as a test of the Queen’s commitment, the following day when he returned to her with his list of proposed ministerial appointments, he learned of the Queen’s refusal to make any changes to the personnel of her Household. Under these circumstances, Peel had little choice but to decline the commission. To the Queen’s delight, Melbourne agreed to resume his premiership. There are several different views of why Peel refused to take office.

A cynical view could argue that Peel did not consider that this was the right time to take over from the Whigs and deliberately raised the issues of the Household in the expectation that it would lead to a breakdown in negotiations. He had never intended the Whigs to resign on the Jamaica issue.  It is important to recognise that the Crown was still a potentially negative and obstructive force in British politics. This made it a legitimate concern for Peel that the Queen should not be surrounded at Court by Whig ladies. If Peel had formed a government in 1839, it would have been a minority one with no guarantee of a dissolution of parliament to bolster his support through a general election. In addition, he risked being undermined by the hostile influence of the Ladies of the Bedchamber, reinforcing the Queen’s prejudice against the Conservatives. The end result might well have been humiliation for Peel and the speedy return of the Whigs.  A third view suggests that since Peel only asked for some changes to her Household, it seems unlikely that he expected his requests to be rejected in such an uncompromising way. In this scenario, Peel may well have made a genuine effort to form a government and that the conditions he laid down were perfectly reasonable given the Queen’s obvious Whig sympathies. Though Peel may have been relieved when events enabled him to abandon his project, but he must have been concerned that relations between the Crown and the Conservatives were so frosty.

From Bedchamber to Downing Street 1839-1841

The Conservative party demonstrated their capacity for highly disciplined parliamentary action from late 1838. Conservative MPs were increasingly frustrated by Peel’s unwillingness to take office and his opposition to any systematic warfare against the Whigs. His reaction to these complaints betrayed his somewhat contemptuous view of the extent of most Conservative MPs’ political commitment and can be seen in his response to an article in the Quarterly Review:  ‘People very much mistake the constitution of the Conservative party who suppose that it will be held together under such a system of worrying and vexatious tactics…such a system does not very well consort with Conservative principles…After you had deducted the idle, the shuffling, the diners-out, the country gentlemen with country occupations, and above all the moderate and quiet men disliking the principle of a factious Opposition, we should find the Conservative ranks pretty well thinned…’

Whatever Peel’s views, he had little choice but to offer a more active and belligerent leadership unless he wanted to see the Conservative party becoming fatally demoralised. In this instance, it was a political rather than a principled response that was essential. The result was a motion of no confidence in the government with an uncharacteristically feeble performance by Peel who seemed to be more concerned with defending himself than attacking the Whigs. The government survived by a fairly comfortable margin of twenty-one votes. The matter did not end there and for the remainder of the 1840 session of parliament, there were continuing tensions within the Conservative opposition. There was renewed strain between Peel and Wellington who never had much in common. While Peel was inclined to offer support over the Irish Municipal Corporations and Canada Bills, Wellington, along with many other peers, wished to reject both. Although Peel made some concessions to Wellington over the Canada Bill, no concession was forthcoming on the Municipal Corporations Bill and Peel was powerless to prevent the Lords emasculating the legislation with amendments. It took considerable diplomatic work, especially by Sir James Graham in the 1840 autumn recess to restore relations between Peel and Wellington.

It was the Whig government in 1841 that allowed the Conservatives to unite with their proposals to deal with the growing budgetary deficit caused by declining revenue from indirect taxes at a time of acute economic depression. The Whigs proposed to cut import duties on timber and on foreign, but not colonial sugar thinking that lower tariffs might stimulate the volume of trade and so increase the tax yield to the Exchequer. They also announced a separate measure, the introduction of a fixed duty of 8s per quarter on wheat in place of the 1828 sliding scale.

The opposition seized on the sugar duties as offering the best target for attack. Many Whig back-benchers were hostile to a plan to benefit foreign sugar producers, many of whom used slave labour, at the expense of colonial growers who since 1838 had not. In addition, some Whig agriculturalists were alarmed by the Corn Law scheme and would be tempted to use the sugar issue to join forces with the opposition. On 18th May 1841, the Whig government suffered a devastating defeat by 371 to 281: 15 Whigs voted with the Conservatives and another eighteen abstained. This was followed up by a vote of no confidence and on 2nd June this was carried by 302 to 301 votes. The Whigs then announced that parliament would be dissolved.

It is difficult to see the defeat of the Whigs followed by the Conservative victory in the 1841 election as the outcome of an increasingly well-orchestrated Conservative opposition to the government since 1835. The Conservatives were beset by internal difficulties up to and including the 1840 session of parliament and Peel had serious problems with the very concept of Conservative opposition to ministers of the Crown who had the monarch’s confidence and support.

In May and June 1841, Peel found that his leadership was unavoidably identified with the issues that were fundamental to his more unreconstructed back-benchers. It was the determination to uphold the Corn Law that underpinned the Conservative attack on the Whig government, even though it was not the direct issue at stake in the crucial divisions in May and June. It was Protectionism not Peel’s notion of ‘constructive opposition’ that provided the unifying cause for Conservatives. However, in the excitement and enthusiasm of 1841, the fundamental differences of opinion between Peel and the majority of his party were concealed, at least temporarily. It does not follow that the Conservative victory at the polls should be interpreted as an overwhelming personal endorsement of Peel and the principles he had laid down at Tamworth.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Peel’s defends his acceptance of office: 24th February 1835

On 8th July 1834 Earl Grey went to William IV to ask for permission to resign his post as PM following a disagreement with Lord Wellesley over policy towards Ireland. The following day he announced his decision to the House of Lords. The Tories failed to form an administration but nevertheless, Grey refused to return to office. He was succeeded as PM by Lord Melbourne who relied heavily on Lord Althorp as his leader in the House of Commons. In November 1834, Earl Spencer died and Althorp succeeded to his father’s title and seat in the House of Lords, thus removing the mainstay of the government in the Commons.  The king, William IV, already was irritated by Melbourne’s government and chose to ask for the PM’s resignation.  He then asked the Duke of Wellington to advise him about a possible successor. Wellington suggested Sir Robert Peel as PM and then formed an interim ministry until Peel returned from holiday in Italy and formed his first ministry. The Whigs condemned the king’s action of appointing a minority ministry and criticised Peel for calling for a dissolution of parliament upon taking office. In his speech, Peel took full responsibility for those actions.

Hansard, 3rd series, volume XXVI, columns 215-227

‘I shall in the first place, refer to the circumstances under which the present Government was constituted. I shall defend the course which I thought it my duty to advise the King to pursue at the period of its formation and give accurate delineations of the measures which it is the intention of his Majesty’s Government to introduce; those explanations the House has a right to require, and I should shrink from that duty which is imposed upon me if I did not avow a willing disposition to afford them. I stand here as the Minister of the Crown - placed in this situation by no act of my own - in consequence of no dexterous combination with those to whose principles I have been uniformly opposed, and which whom I might frequently have made, had I been so inclined, a temporary alliance for the purpose of embarrassing the former Government. I stand here in fulfillment of a public duty, shrinking from no responsibility, with no arrogant pretensions of defying or disregarding the opinions of the majority of this House, yet still resolved to persevere to the last, so far as is consistent with the honour of a public man, in maintaining the prerogative of the Crown, and in fulfilling those duties which I owe to my King and to my country.

In vindication of the course which I have pursued, it is necessary that I should refer to the circumstances which preceded the dissolution of the last Government. I have been asked whether I would impose on the King in his personal capacity, the responsibility of the dismissal of that Government? In answer to this question, I will at once declare, that I claim all the responsibility which properly belongs to me as a public man; I am responsible for the assumption of the duty which I have undertaken, and, if you please, I am, by my acceptance of office, responsible for the removal of the late Government. God forbid that I should endeavour to transfer any responsibility which ought properly to devolve upon me to that high and sacred authority which the constitution of this country recognises as incapable of error, and every act of which it imputes to the advice of responsible counsellors. But whilst I disclaim all intention of shrinking from that responsibility, which one situated as I am, must necessarily incur; I must at the same time unhesitatingly assert, what is perfectly consistent with the truth, and what is due to respect for my own character, - namely, that I was not, and under no circumstances would I have been party to any secret counselling or instigating the removal of any Government. But although I have not taken any part in procuring the dismissal of the late Government, although I could not from circumstances which are notorious to the world, hold communication with any of those with whom I have now the honour to act, much less with the highest authority in the State, as to the propriety or policy of that dismissal, still I do conceive that by the assumption of office, the responsibility of the change which has taken place is transferred from the Crown to its advisers; and I am ready - be the majority against me what it may - to take all the responsibility which constitutionally belongs to me and to submit to any consequences to which the assumption of that responsibility may expose me...

I now come to the subject of the dissolution of the late Parliament, I have been asked whether I take upon myself the responsibility of the proceeding, and without a moment’s hesitation I answer that I do take upon myself the responsibility of the dissolution. The moment I returned to this country to undertake the arduous duties now imposed upon me, I did determine that I would leave no constitutional effort untried to enable me satisfactorily to discharge the trust reposed in me. I did fear that if I had met the late Parliament, I should have been obstructed in my course, and obstructed in a manner, and at a season, which might have precluded an appeal to the people. But it is unnecessary for me to assign reasons for this opinion. Was it not the constant boast that the late Parliament had unbounded confidence in the late Government? And why should those who declare they are ready to condemn me without a hearing, be surprised at my appeal to the judgment of another, and a higher, and a fairer tribunal - the public sense of the people? Notwithstanding the specious reasons which have been usually assigned for the dissolution I believe it will be found, that whenever there has occurred an extensive change of Government, a dissolution of Parliament has followed. In the year 1784, a change took place in the Government, Mr. Pitt was appointed to the office of Prime Minister, and in the same year a dissolution took place. Again, in 1806, when the Administration of Lords Grey and Grenville was formed, the Parliament, which had only sat four years, was shortly after the assumption of power by those Noblemen dissolved. It was on that occasion urged, that a negotiation with France having failed, it became necessary to refer to the sense of the country, but I never will admit that the failure of the negotiation with france could constitute any sufficient grounds for the dissolution of a Parliament which there was not the slightest reason to believe was adverse to the continuance of the war, or dissatisfied with the conduct of the negotiation. In the year 1807, another change took place in the Government by the accession of Mr. Perceval to power, and then again a dissolution immediately took place. In the year 1830, Earl Grey was called into office as Prime Minister, and shortly after the vote in the committee on the Reform Bill, the Parliament which had been elected in 1830, was dissolved in 1831. Hence it appears that in the case of the four last extensive changes in the Government, those changes have been followed by a dissolution of the then existing Parliament. The present, however, is I believe to be the first occasion upon which the House of Commons has ever proceeded to record its dissatisfaction at the exercise of the prerogative of dissolution.’

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Source: Sir Robert Peel’s address to the Electors of the Borough of Tamworth

Quarterly Review, vol. LIII, February and April 1835, pp. 261-287

This document is an editorial comment on the Tamworth Manifesto, published by Sir Robert Peel in December 1834. The manifesto was an appeal to the voting public after he had accepted office following the fall of Lord Melbourne‘s ministry.

It is common, we suppose, to all men, who find themselves involved in some unexpected and - as they think - undeserved difficulty or danger, to exhale the first impulses of vexation in reproaches against those, whose folly or wickedness have led to their embarrassment. But after this natural burst of indignation, no man of sense, courage, or prudence will waste his time or his strength in retrospective reproaches or repinings. He will consider his perilous position as a fact which cannot be undone, and he will turn his hopes and his energies towards the means which may be still left of delaying or diminishing the danger, and of seeking and improving the opportunities and chances of extrication and safety. Such should be, and such we are happy to think is, the spirit which now animates the Government and its supporters throughout the country. The Lords and Commons may regret the destruction of those venerable and convenient edifices in which for centuries they had held their sittings[1]; but they must be satisfied (for a time at least) with the new accommodation which is prepared for them; and they will endeavour to adapt, as well as they can, their ancient forms and parliamentary traditions to the new localities in which the business of the nation must – of necessity – be done. This is, as it appears to us, an apposite illustration of the duties of Sir Robert Peel and his administration. He must accept as a FACT – the change which the Reform Bill has made in the practice of the constitution, and endeavour, with anxious sincerity, to avail himself of all the good of which its friends consider it susceptible, and to palliate the mischiefs to which its adversaries may have thought it liable. There is no other common-sense mode of dealing with any of the fluctuating affairs of mankind, whether they concern individuals or societies; the mercantile speculations of a war are forced to seek new modes of employment when peace is restored. When the abdication of the house of Stuart became, in fact, irrevocable, the old loyalists transferred their allegiance to the house of Brunswick, and became the steadiest adherents of the Hanoverian dynasty. No event was ever so disliked, deprecated, and dreaded by the Sovereign, and the people of England, as the independence of the United States of America; but when the fact was accomplished, George III gave his ministers and his people an example, which they followed, of the most generous and cordial acceptance of the new circumstances of that most difficult and even mortifying case. When Sir Robert Peel entered the first reformed parliament, he undertook then the same engagement - neither more nor less - that he has since renewed by taking office - of doing the duties of a public station in the terms and spirit of a new constitution; and it has been admitted even by his political adversaries, that every speech he made, and every vote he gave, during the two sessions of that parliament, were marked by a fair admission of the new principles which had been introduced into the management of affairs. So far from endeavouring - as he might easily and effectually have done - to embarrass the reform ministry, and derange, and thus depreciate and damage the new system, it is notorious that it was mainly by the support of him and his friends in both houses, that the three successive ministries which composed the Government during the last session, were enabled to maintain their semblance of authority over parliament and the country.

All this was not only fully admitted by the Whig ministries and their followers, but gratefully applauded as a high example of constitutional principle and practical prudence, - as long as it tended to maintain them in place; but when they see that the self-same line of conduct has enabled Sir Robert Peel to form and will enable him to maintain an administration - to their exclusion, - their eyes are suddenly opened to two very different and contradictory views of the case they at first discovered that his adhesion to the new system must have been a mere insidious pretence, to cloak the most opposite designs and now, when they see that the evidence of facts is about to disprove that calumny, they become suddenly interested in Sir Robert’s reputation, and grievously lament that so eminent a statesman should be ready to tarnish his political character by supporting measures, which - in their candour any kindness they pre-suppose - must be in contravention of all the principle of his earlier life; and thus they fancy they have established an inevitable dilemma - either Sir Robert Peel must set himself against public opinion, and be unable - or he must yield to it, and become unworthy - to maintain his position as first minister of the Crown. To both of these alternative objections the Address to his constituents is an annihilating answer. As to the past Sir Robert Peel justly says that the whole of his public life evinces a sincere, though not blind, deference to public opinion; and as to the future, he professes that the measures he may propose will be influenced, not merely by what any particular set of men may endeavour to set up as public opinion, but also by the paramount consideration of what may be really and permanently beneficial to the public interests. Public opinion is, after all, but a variable wind; and that pilot will never conduct his vessel to a port of safety who sets out with a determination to run before it, blow how it may. Sir Robert Peel has undertaken a navigation which can be successfully accomplished as little by invariably yielding to public opinion, as by habitually disregarding it. He must know that it is - as the wind to the ship - his primum mobile [prime mover; first cause], and that his course must be obedient to its impulses, though not always to its direction.

And it has been. always so. No minister ever stood or could stand, against public opinion. In that principle, the Reform Bill has made no change - but it has made a great and, we fear, most injurious change in the manner in which the principle operates. Formerly, the action, as well as the growth, of Public Opinion was gradual; and during the time that it was slowly acting on parliament, and through parliament on the government, it was also examining, correcting, and improving itself. The first burst from the popular spring is naturally somewhat turbid, and requires to be filtered before it becomes fit for use. By the various salutary impediments of the old system, the stream, at once moderated in its velocity and purified in its quality was rendered, not eventually less powerful, but more regular in its supply, and more wholesome in its effect. The Reform Bill has destroyed the ancient conduits and strainers, and brings Public Opinion to act upon the government with the rapid, turbulent, and uncertain violence of a flood! It behoves, then, the Public to recollect that, as the checks which used to mitigate their first impulses are gone, it becomes their duty to be more slow in forming, more moderate in expressing, and more cautious in applying, that irresponsible and irresistible Opinion whose action is now so sudden, and whose errors may be so irretrievable and so fatal. If those who possess so tremendous an instrument do not learn to handle it with proportionable care, temper, and discretion, they will find that they have been made powerful only to their own destruction....

The extraordinary anxiety, therefore, for the consistency of Sir Robert Peel now expressed by his political antagonists would be, in any circumstances, quite at variance with their own principles and practice and with the essence of that Reform which they are so proud of having introduced into our political system: but in this particular instance it is really surprising. It once before happened to Sir Robert Peel to be obliged to make an important concession to public opinion, backed as it was by a majority in the House of Commons - we mean in the case of Catholic emancipation. Was there then, on the part of the Whigs, such a morbid anxiety for the Right Honourable Gentleman’s consistency? On the contrary, did we not hear the concession then made of his former opinions applauded by every liberal in the country as one of the most generous sacrifices ever made by a public man? Were we not told that time and circumstances had so changed, that adherence to opinions which had, by such change, become obsolete, would have been the real inconsistency; and that statesman, to be, in the true spirit of the word, consistent, must adapt his judgment to the fluctuation of events in which he is destined to live? If we thought it worth while to press the argument ad hominem [literally, ‘argument to the man’; a logical fallacy]- home to individuals, we could show that the very same men who then went out of their way to eulogise Sir Robert Peel’s conduct on those grounds, are the very persons who have lately deprecated the possibility of any change in his opinions or conduct in consequence of the change of circumstances, in terms of the utmost virulence, and we will add - indecency. But with such persons discussion would be fruitless; and it is needless; their own idol, Public Opinion, has already done justice upon them; their idol, which, like those of the savages, they worship as long as it seems favourable to them, but are ready enough to revile, and even chastise, whenever they find its aspect to be inauspicious. We therefore satisfy ourselves with indicating the inconsistency of the argument, without descending to notice more particularly the worse than inconsistency of its advocates....

Sir Robert Peel’s Address is - in itself and independently of its topics - a proof that he accepts, and will - unfettered by old customs and traditions of government - endeavour to meet the exigencies of the times. When before did a Prime Minister think it expedient to announce to the People, not only his acceptance of office, but the principles and even the details of the measures which he intended to produce; and to solicit - not from parliament; but from the people - ‘that they would so far maintain the prerogative of the King as to give the ministers of his choice not, indeed, an implicit confidence, but a fair trial?’ In former times such a proceeding would have been thought derogatory and impugned as unconstitutional, and would have been both; but the new circumstances in which the Reform Bill has placed the Crown, by making its choice of ministers immediately and absolutely dependent on the choice of the several constituencies, and, in the first instance, quite independent of the concurrence of the assembled parliament, have rendered such a course not merely expedient, but inevitable. The day of the meeting of parliament might have arrived - the King and a majority of both houses might, as they certainly will, have the utmost confidence in Sir Robert Peel, and the firmest determination to support his administration - yet the Prime Minister himself might not be in parliament - some local or personal circumstances might have indisposed the particular constituency to which he had addressed himself - and where would have been the remedy? It had actually occurred to the late ministry to lose one of their Cabinet and their Attorney-General out of parliament, - one of their Secretaries of State, selected for that office (not more for his personal fitness than the expectation that he was sure of his re-election), had a narrow escape: and Lord Althorp himself, the favourite leader of the reformed house, would, we have reason to believe, have found his re-election exceedingly difficult, if in any new cabinet arrangement he had been driven to the necessity of appealing to his former Constituents. Sir Robert Peel’s Address does not complain of this new state of things, but, on the contrary, submits to it with equal dignity and candour, and is in itself, as we have already stated, a pledge that he adopts with frankness the new difficulties of his situation, and by frankness will endeavour to surmount them. He gives the system which he is called upon to administer, what he asks for himself and his colleagues, a fair trial. If the constituencies in general had unfortunately refused (as some have done) to ratify his Majesty’s choice, it might have been attributed to the neglect of the minister in not having laid before them the means and materials for a due exercise of their judgment. These considerations ought, we think, to satisfy, on the one hand, any who may have been at first startled by so unusual a ministerial profession of faith; and on the other hand, those who might suspect Sir Robert Peel of a bigoted attachment to ancient forms, and of an ignorance of, or indifference to, the conditions under which any minister must now be contented to enter and conduct the public service....

But although the fact and form of his Address be a tribute to the exigencies of the times and of his own personal position, Sir Robert Peel asserts that he abandons none of the great principles of his political faith, - he avows his determination to preserve unimpaired in essentials, the constitution in Church and State; and insists with great force and irresistible proof, that in the readiness he professes to correct acknowledged abuses, and to promote the redress of any real grievance, he is acting in perfect consistence with the whole course of his official life.

‘Now, I say at once that I will not accept power on the condition of declaring myself an apostate from the principles on which I have heretofore acted; at the same time, I never will admit that I have been, either before or after the Reform Bill, the defender of abuses, or the enemy of judicious reforms. I appeal with confidence in denial of the charge to the active part I took in the great question of the currency - in the consolidation and amendment of the criminal law - in the revisal of the whole system of trial by jury - to the opinions I have professed and uniformly acted on with regard to other branches of the jurisprudence of the country - I appeal to this as a proof that I have not been disposed to acquiesce in acknowledged evils, either from the mere superstitious reverence for ancient usages, or from the dread of labour or responsibility in the application of a remedy.’ :pages 7-8.

As the immediate influence of the Reform Bill on the expected elections must necessarily have been most powerful, we are not surprised that the Opposition in the absence of any other merit, should have made that their stalking-horse, and endeavoured to represent the present contest as being still for the Reform Bill and its consequences. Sir Robert Peel answers this sophism with equal truth and dignity: -

‘But the Reform Bill, it is said, constitutes a new era, and it is the duty of a minister to declare explicitly - first, whether he will maintain the Bill itself; and, secondly, whether he will act upon the spirit in which it was conceived. 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 to the peace and welfare of this country would attempt to disturb either by direct or by insidious means. Then, as to the spirit of the Reform Bill, and the willingness to adopt and enforce it as a rule of government - 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 any body 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.’ :page 8.

...But there are considerations which must have their influence even with men who still profess adherence to party, if they also maintain, any regard to common sense and the practical welfare of the country. If the present ministers are to be displaced, by whom can they be succeeded? Does any Whig of the old school imagine that there remain of that party either leaders to compose an administration, or cumbers to support one? Four years ago, Lord Grey himself found it impossible - witness Lords Goderich and Palmerston, Mr Grant, and the Duke of Richmond - not to mention Lord Melbourne himself - all recent from an alliance with the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel. Above one-third of that Cabinet was composed of Tories, whose importance was acknowledged by their being placed in the most efficient offices of the administration. We need not insist on this point - we believe no man, who knows anything of the state of politics, can consider the composition of a Whig ministry as anything but an idle dream....Between the two cabinets there was but one important element in common - but one man, who, by his station in the government and the space he filled in the public eye, could have afforded any guarantee that even the general policy of the two administrations was likely to be the same; but, unfortunately, the personal deportment of that eminent but oblique-visioned man was in such violent contrast with the character of his office, as to afford a guarantee for nothing but uncertainty and emit embarrassment. The restless imbecility of some of that Cabinet - which, like a palsied hand, could not refrain from touching everything, and shook whatever it touched - was a little steadied by the supine and timid mediocrity of others, and so presented a less instant and immediate danger; but the explosive vigour and erratic activity of Lord Brougham had become to the sovereign and the country - even to those who had been his greatest partisans - a source of more urgent apprehensions; and to none, we really believe, more than to his own colleagues. If Lord Althorp had not been called up - if Lord John Russell had consented to postpone the question of the Irish church - if Mr. Ellice had retracted his resignation - nay, if the Cabinet could have agreed on the king’s speech - its doom was nevertheless already sealed; and the only speculation, either amongst themselves or the public, was, on what fine day or what odd occasion their ‘wildfire chancellor’ (as one of his former friends called him) might happen ‘ to blow them up.’ And although the death of Lord Spencer anticipated that catastrophe, and seemed to terminate the administration without the immediate intervention of Lord Brougham, yet no one can doubt that his extravagant proceedings had prepared both the king and the people to take the first opportunity of ridding themselves of a Lord Chancellor whose talents - precisely of the nature least suitable to the gravity and importance of his station - threw his colleagues into contempt, and his country into alarm.

If is, however, no more than justice to express our belief, that the irregularity of Lord Brougham’s course was not solely, nor perhaps even chiefly, occasioned by either personal eccentricity or a spirit of intrigue - much is, we think, fairly attributable to his political position, which had become so - what the French call - false as to be untenable; and the efforts which he was obliged to make to balance for himself on the unsteady pinnacle where he stood, looked to the vulgar below like the contortions of a posture master. Lord Brougham is a person of great, but in a peculiar degree restless and discursive, ability; and he had, in the heat of his zeal and the vanity of his supposed influence, mingled with himself in so many projects, and allied himself with so many persons, which and whom he found, on experience, to be wild and dangerous, that he was driven at last to an alternative between his consistency and his duty - between what he owed to his own indiscreet pledges on one hand, and to the safety of the constitution on the other. If Lord Brougham could have ‘screwed his courage to a sticking place’ [this quotation comes from Macbeth] he would not have been reduced to his present anomalous, and, for the moment, almost ridiculous isolation; if he had sacrificed his conscience to his popularity he would have still obtained the applauses of the numerous and noisy party which he had so long flattered; or if he had repudiated that hollow popularity to devote his conscientious, and (therefore more than ever) powerful exertions to the maintenance of the constitution, he would have won the confidence of the still more numerous and infinitely more respectable party, to which experience and reason had, it seems, begun to incline him. This we believe to be a not inaccurate view of Lord Brougham’s position; and we are not wholly without hope that the interval which has been allowed for him for thought and reflection may have tended to confirm him in his later and better dispositions. ...

This statement on our part was met in some of the Whig newspapers by a positive contradiction. We re-assert our belief of its general accuracy, and all that we have heard reported from every quarter makes us wonder at the temerity which thus denied its truth. We did not mean to state, that the members of the Cabinet were, at the moment of its dissolution, at actual variance with each other: though the lingering resignation of Mr. Ellice - a symptom which has not been sufficiently noticed - might have justified such a suspicion. But the variance, to which we then alluded, was prospective - we stated, not that it had occurred, but that it was inevitable - not that the Cabinet had discussed the Church question and divided on it, but that the sentiments of its members had been so far declared, that Lord Melbourne saw that whenever the question should be discussed, there would be found irreconcilable differences between opposite parties; and that it was in the prospect of such future, but inevitable differences, that the King did in November what he must eventually have done when parliament should have met. This is, we had reason to suppose and we still believe, a true statement of the case; every thing that has since transpired tends to confirm our confidence in its substantial accuracy, and we have seen, in some of the best-informed journals, certain details which corroborate our opinions; for instance, it has been stated - and never, that we have seen, contradicted - that Lord John Russell - the proposed leader of the House of Commons - was pledged to a measure of Church Reform, to which Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Secretary Rice had declared themselves hostile; and as Mr. Rice and Lord Lansdowne were certainly two of the ablest and most respectable members of the Cabinet, their secession on a question so vital, and on which their sentiments approached most nearly to those of the King himself, must have occasioned its dissolution. When parliament meets, we perhaps may have some further details on this subject, but we are satisfied that they cannot substantially differ from our general statement; and - however willing it may appear that individuals were, by any compromise or sacrifice, to cling to their offices - the common sense of mankind will confirm his Majesty’s judgment, that the early and spontaneous dissolution of that Cabinet was inevitable; and we really believe that no political annuity office - except perhaps the Globe Assurance - would have underwritten them for three months.

But in our present circumstances these discussions are idle, except so far as they may tend to prove that a Cabinet which died of a complication of disorders in November, cannot be restored to life and health in February. The administration of Lord Melbourne can be no more revived than that of Lord Grey - ‘Forward - Forward!’ - is the cry of the only party in the nation which even affects to regret the Melbourne bubble; and that party has pledged itself for a deeper game and bolder players. We do not deny that some members of the deceased Cabinet might take a part in a new combination, even of ultra-radicals. No doubt they might, and would - and with no personal inconsistency; and, as we have said before, such is the incurable blindness of party, that many who call, and some who think themselves, Whigs might lend their votes to the erection of a power in the state which not only intends, but professes to intend, to destroy that Constitution, in the establishment of which it has been the peculiar boast of the Whigs of former times to have had the chief share. We shall say a word or two more on this point presently.

But the great question which now hangs in the balance of debate is no longer one of Whig and Tory - of this party or that - of individual men - or even of particular - - the question is, shall we maintain the British Constitution - YES or NO? The very word Constitution implies stability. The Conservatives need no more expressive watchword - no safer rallying-point - it is itself our whole object and argument. On the other side, the cry is ‘Change, change!’ and the word constitution is, in their mouths, a solecism in language, a contradiction in principle, and a fraud in practice. In the wide variety of rights and interests which are mingled and combined in what we call the Constitution, can our opponents designate even one item, one single item, which is not menaced with change? - The Crown? The earliest feature of the present crisis was an insolent denial of the first of its prerogatives; and though the leaders of the opposition have not yet thrown off their allegiance to the monarchy, their followers and partisans profess the most audacious democracy! - The Church? We need not say what is intended for her; her property is to be the first battle-field, and her temples the first objects of assault! - The Laws, civil, criminal, ecclesiastical? All are themselves arranged and served with notice of trial for illegality, cruelty, and injustice! - Land? - Manufactures? Menaced with a deluge of foreign produce, by a pretended free trade, and a system of fraudulent reciprocity which is to be all on one side! - Colonies? Already in the crucible! - Public Credit? Questioned in its principle, and practice placed in nightly jeopardy! - The rights and properties of Municipal Corporations? To be seized, abolished, and confiscated! - The Universities? If permitted to survive at all, to be forcibly diverted from their proper objects, and compelled to violate the institutions of their founders and the consciences of their members! - The House of Lords? Bullied, denounced, and devoted to immediate mutilation and ultimate annihilation! - The House of Commons? - yea, the reformed House itself, and even the idolized Reform Bill, - threatened with a radical subversion by means of annual elections, vote by ballot, and (by a large and consistent class of reformers) universal suffrage! - Nay, the very integrity of the Empire is at stake; and a majority, we are told, of the Irish representatives are pledged to attempt the repeal of the Union! - and finally, and most fearfully of all, the Protestant religion itself is to be stripped of its established rights - its connexion with the state, coeval with the state itself, is to be forcibly dissolved - it is to become merely a tolerated sect, and its evangelical truth and divine doctrine are to be placed by law on the same level with popery, unitarianism, Judaism, and all the nameless varieties of dissent and infidelity! These are the prospects of the Movement, system. They are no idle fears - no visions of a timid fancy. Every one of these various inroads on the constitution, and several others too tedious and too odious to enumerate, have been openly stated, avowed, and advocated by one class or other of that now united and unanimous body, which has arrayed itself against Sir Robert Peel’s administration. Most of them have been authenticated by pledges entered on the notice books of the two last sessions. No individual, perhaps, contemplates, or would à priori approve, the simultaneous success of all these propositions; but every faction will pursue its own object, and by a compromise with the exigencies of each other, the whole will be driven to concur in the universal change. All who take a share in the battle will claim a share of the spoil. The enemies of the Throne - and of the Church - and of the Protestant Establishments - and of the Colonial system - and of Protecting Duties - and of the House of Lords - and of the Reform Bill - and of the Irish Union - and of ALL our other institutions, will, by what the mathematicians call the amotion of each part, arrive at the destruction of the whole…

If any reader imagines that this picture of our danger is overdrawn or exaggerated, we entreat him to look round in his own circle and see what is the character of the individuals within it who are most prominent in the present opposition. Are they persons respectable in their private lives and natural spheres, for industry, property, intelligence, moral conduct, or social consideration? Is it not, on the contrary, notorious, that - although several worthy and respectable people (particularly among the Dissenters) are what they fondly call Reformers, yet - the majority of those who distinguish themselves by the violence of their language and the extremities of their designs, are men whose private characters would give them no influence in society. They are either the votaries or dupes of their own personal vanity, surprised and rejoiced to find an occasion of notoriety - or the disappointed and soured objects of some degree or species of public disapprobation. Look at some of the men returned even to Parliament by the most numerous, and what are therefore called the most respectable, constituencies - are they men in any respect entitled to have a voice in me government of the country? Would they be admitted into a club which was nice in its selection? Might we not rather ask, as we happen to know an elector in one of the metropolitan boroughs did in speaking with a brother tradesman, ‘How can any men of common sense confide the care of their lives and properties to persons whom in their individual capacities they would not trust with ten pounds’ worth of their goods?’ One or two names might justify the indignant exclamation of Cicero - ‘O tempora! O mores! - Senatus hæc intelligit; consul vidit - hic tamen vivit - Vivit? - immò verò etiam in senatum venit - fit publici concilii particeps!’[3]

And what definite object, what limit is to be assigned to this feverish state of agitation, this delirious desire of change? Does not increase of appetite grow in all such matters by what it feeds on? Does any one believe that the House of Commons of 1831 would have read the Reform Bill a second time, by a majority of one, if it could have entered their imaginations that, within two or three years, that enormous, that overwhelming concession, at which the boldest Whig

‘Held his breath - For a time,’

should turn out to be not a sop, but a whet to the many-headed Cerberus of democracy; and that every privilege, every right, every establishment, every institution of the country, were to be assailed - and the assault defended and applauded - as the natural consequence of a measure which, they were told was to be a final and satisfactory adjustment of the constitutional balance? Would that some one would write the history of Concession! We can only indicate its genealogy - which is; like a Welch pedigree, in which Owen Griffith begets Griffith Owen, and Griffith Owen begets another Owen Griffith, and so on alternately to the end of the chapter. Agitation begets concession, and then concession produces agitation, and the new agitation is followed by another concession, and it by a fresh agitation - and so on, till there shall be nothing left to concede, and all is blind and indiscriminate Innovation, roaming, in vain for something else to devour, in a desert which it has denuded and depopulated. Can a nation exist in such a state of excitement, feud, worry, uncertainty, terror, and confusion, as England has undergone for the last four years; and as it is the object of the present coalition of Ultra-Whigs and Radicals to maintain, exasperate, and extend?

...The first great question now about to be decided is, whether the House of Commons is actuated by a like spirit of moderation, discretion, and justice; or is it resolved to strike without hearing and to rush at once into the chaos of general innovation? - which, in short, does it - intend - REFORM or - REVOLUTION?

We cannot - even after all the mischief which we predicted and have witnessed from the Reform Bill - we cannot bring ourselves to doubt that there still remain too much good sense, too much traditional attachment and too much rational respect for the principles of the constitution, to render possible the latter alternative. The day of such suicidal insanity may come - but we trust and believe that it is not yet arrived. We are aware that a considerable number of Members have, either in accordance with their own sentiments, or in the hope of propitiating certain classes of constituents, pledged themselves on the hustings to various extremities of reform, and - as a natural consequence - to an uncomprising hostility to the present administration. No doubt these gentlemen, with such of the Whigs as have made common cause with them, will form a very numerous and - as long as the question is only opposition to Sir Robert Peel - compact and unanimous body; but we hesitate not to predict, without making on meaning any individual allusions, that they will be found more deficient in ability, character, and social consideration, than any party, of anything like equal numbers, that ever marshalled itself in the House of Commons. On the other hand, there is a body, we believe, much more numerous, and certainly more distinguished for property, intelligence, respectability, parliamentary talent, and political experience, which professes its entire confidence in his Majesty’s ministers, and we are equally satisfied that the people in the country at large - taking the term people in its ancient and legitimate sense[4] - are in a still greater proportion disposed to Conservative politics.

But there is a third division - we cannot call it a party - in the House of Commons, which must be of great importance, and to whose conduct we look, not without anxiety indeed, but with a strong predominance of hope. We mean those who have not as yet indicated, or at least professed, a decided bias either towards the ministry or its opponents. The number of these gentlemen, we - who are certainly not in the secret of parliamentary parties - cannot even venture to calculate; but their intermediate position and their present independence invest them in this crisis with great consideration. Of them it may be generally said, that their principles and opinions tend rather to those of the ministry, while their personal attachments and predilections incline towards the Whigs. Indeed, in ordinary times and circumstances, we should not have hesitated to designate about two-thirds of them as moderate Whigs, and to have divided them in that proportion between the Government and the Opposition: but these are no ordinary times and circumstances blind and deaf must they be who can believe that it is the success of a party which is at stake. Would to God that we could persuade ourselves it were so! - We should then look on the conflict - not without interest, certainly - but without that painful, that absorbing anxiety which we now feel from the conviction, that the ensuing session - perhaps the next few weeks - will decide the fate of our monarchical Constitution, and of all the various interests which are, as we believe, inseparably connected and identified with it.

We therefore do not blame the principle, though we may question the prudence and propriety of the design which has been avowed, of endeavouring to place a radical Speaker in the chair to the exclusion of Sir Charles Manners Sutton, who has filled that difficult station for eight parliaments, and eighteen years, with, as we have always understood, the unanimous approbation of jail parties - unanimous in that alone. The pretence under which this bold stroke of the Radicals for immediate ascendancy offers itself, is Sir Charles’s supposed preference of Conservative politics, evinced by his attending His Majesty’s Privy Council during the late interregnum. Let us say two words on this strange accusation, and the stranger arguments and consequences to which it leads. ‘We suspect, say the Destructives,’ Sir Charles Sutton of party predilection; - let us replace him, therefore, by the most determined party man among us. Sir Charles Sutton attended a routine Privy Council of Conservatives; let us put into the impartial chair an active member of the late Cabinet. No man who has once belonged to a party can quit it with honour - Sir Charles was a Tory eighteen years ago, and because he now seems to be a Conservative he is unworthy of re-election. Sir Charles is now, no doubt, as he has been during his long and distinguished pubic life, a Conservative; but he is no more so than he always bias been, when eight times elected, re-elected, and led to the chair by Lord Morpeth and Sir Francis Burdett, amidst the cheers of the Whigs, full as zealous in his praise as the Tories. ‘But the attendance at the Privy Council!’ The blunder - the absurd inanity, of this complaint - is really most extraordinary. It is notorious to every man, who even knows as much of public business; as the Court Circular supplies to the newspapers, that at those kind of Councils there is no deliberation on questions of confidential policy - nothing is or can be done but formal and ministerial acts, which the law requires to be passed by the King in Council - and that it is necessary to have a certain quorum to compose such Councils. At the season when these events took place there were very few Privy Councillors in town, and Sir Charles Manners Sutton would also have been absent, but the burning of the House of Commons having accidentally brought him up and kept him in London, he was summoned - as any other Councillor who happened to be in town would have been - to attend to compose a quorum to do the routine business of the country…..

The course, therefore, taken by the Opposition is in every way absurd, inconvenient, and unjust; and seems at first sight to be prompted by the blind exasperation of disappointing men; but the course is perhaps not quite so rash and thoughtless as it looks. They have reason to suspect that his Majesty’s Speech will contain so full, and so frank, and so satisfactory an announcement of the intentions of his government, as to render direct opposition to it very difficult; and they imagine, that if they could affront and defeat the Government by the choice of, an adverse Speaker, they would strangle the King’s Speech in its birth, and prevent the measures of his ministers from being, even communicated to Parliament and the country. This would be not merely to strike without hearing, it would be to strike in order that they might not hear. We know not whether our conjecture is just, but it is really the only one that we have been able to imagine for a proceeding that, on all other suppositions seems so unaccountable. Not that this motive would be less absurd than the other, but it is not so offensively palpable; and it seems to us to be a device of petty manoeuvre and small ingenuity which might be expected. Lord John Russell - who, on this occasion, by soliciting Mr. Abercrombie, in the name of the party, to give into this project, seems to announce himself as the new leader of their Opposition: by whom elected into that station which has been heretofore filled by Fox, Grey, Tierney, and Brougham, we have not heard - nay, it has been called even by Whigs as gross a case of self-election as any close corporation in the kingdom can show; and it is even said that one of the motives of the measure itself may be the opportunity which its announcement gives Lord John of jumping into a situation to which he never would have been invited. However that may be, and whether the object and intention be a personal injustice or a political juggle, we are equally satisfied that it will be signally defeated; and that it will tend most potently to increase the distrust with which all moderate men already view the radical coalition and to stimulate the anxiety of the public that the King’s servants should have a calm hearing and a fair-trial. Under all these circumstances we think we may venture, to assert, from this now avowed union between the late Ministers and the Radicals and their violent resolution to attack the Speaker on such ridiculous grounds, that the Government, if it be not Conservative, must of necessity be Radical in the fullest extent of the term. The choice is thus narrowed to Destructive or Conservative, and between these two broad principles the House of Commons is now called upon to make its election.

But it may be said, could there be no other Conservative government than that of Sir Robert Peel - might not, for instance, Lord Stanley be placed at the head of a combination more congenial to the Whigs and less formidable to the Radicals? The theory, of such a combination is absurd ex hypothesi, which rests on the basis of conservation - and it would be found, we are confident, utterly impracticable when brought to the test. Where, in such case would, Lord Stanley have to look for colleagues - to the Cabinet which he had so recently quitted, or to that which he had just declined to join? This difficulty (not to mention fifty others) seems to us insuperable. Lord Stanley might, if his principles would allow, join the Movement - or he may, if his delicacy will permit, join the Government; and in either event his co-operation would be powerful for evil or for good - but we cannot imagine any permanent intermediate space. If Sir Robert Peel fulfils his professions - as no one doubts that he will - by correcting all acknowledged abuses, and operating all salutary reforms, he will leave no man any resting-place between him and Mr. O’Connell; and after such repeated proofs as Lord Stanley has given of his resolution to maintain the Constitution in Church and State, we cannot bring ourselves to entertain any doubt whatsoever of the side on which his influence and his talents will be eventually employed. We can fully appreciate the feelings which induced him to decline Sir Robert Peel’s proposition; and although, on the whole, we wish that he had accepted it (which we certainly should not do if we thought it any way derogatory to his character, which, for public objects, we prize as much as any of his fondest friends), we must confess, that if he erred, he erred on the safe side of disinterestedness and delicacy, and that his support of the Constitution may be, for a time, the more powerful and effective for being given with the cordiality of private conviction, uninfluenced by any bias of official obligation. But Lord Stanley must be aware that he is too considerable a person to hang loose on political society, statesman may, for a season, content himself with giving a parliamentary support to a particular line of measures; but candour and honour, and indeed the necessities of political life, will soon force him to take an official responsibility in the councils which he thus approves. Events may hasten or retard Lord Stanley’s decision, but it must be made - and we confess that we look forward with considerable confidence and satisfaction to his taking, at no distant period, the only course consistent, as we think, with his honour and character. If we are not mistaken in our estimate of his Lordship’s principles and of the nature of the questions that must arise, every night of the session must show more strongly his concurrence with the administration and his divergence from their opponents; and, as we expect to find a general accordance between Lord Stanley and Sir Robert Peel, we shall hail with great satisfaction their union in official responsibility as an additional protection to those sacred interests which they are almost equally pledged to defend.

But however that may be, and limiting ourselves to the immediate prospect before us, we must urge, with the deepest sincerity and anxiety, upon any one who may be disposed to give any weight to our opinions - humble, no doubt, in authority, but as disinterested and as honest as those of Lord Stanley or any other man can be - that this is really the CRISIS of the fate of the monarchy - never, indeed, was that medical metaphor more strictly applicable - for we are now at the very point which is to decide for life or death. If Sir Robert Peel - by his personal character - by his public services - by his readiness to redress all real grievances, to correct all abuses, and to concede to public opinion all that can be conceded with safety and without dishonour - by the strict economy of which he and the most illustrious of his colleagues gave such practical pledges in their former administration - if, we say, his talents, his integrity, his conciliation, his liberality, his firmness, and the congenial spirit which pervades his Cabinet, cannot recommend - even for a fair trial - the Sovereign’s choice to the sanction of parliament, then shall we arrive at the final and fatal confirmation of all our fears. It will be no longer doubtful that government, according to the old practice and principles of the Constitution, has become impracticable, and that the monarchy is in imminent danger of subversion, and the nation itself of anarchy. Let those by whose votes these momentous questions are to be determined duty appreciate the awful responsibility of their decision, and recollect that they will have to render an account - not only to this or that weathercock body of constituents, but - to their consciences, their families, and their country - for a vote which - however the formal question may be shaped - must involve the security of their and our properties, liberties, and lives.


[1] The Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834. Some of the mediaeval tax tally sticks were being destroyed by burning them. The man responsible over-filled the furnace then left the building. A number of blazing tally sticks fell from the furnace (the door had not been closed properly) and set the building ablaze.

[2] We doubt whether Mr. Cobbett’s strong sense and English feeling would permit him to take an actual part in this living dissection but our readers will easily suppose something analogous from the hands of Mr. Warburton or Mr.Wakley, or some such professor of political anatomy.

[3] Shame on the age and on its principles! The senate is aware of these things; the consul sees them; and yet this man lives. Lives! aye, he comes even into the senate. He takes a part in the public deliberations.

[4] See Mr. Burke’s definition of a People as distinguished from ‘a multitude, told by the head’ in his Appeal from the new Whigs to the old, an essay whose reasonings, as well as its title, are wonderfully apposite to our present condition