Monday, 29 December 2008

Sources: Peel's fiscal policy

Peel’s Speech on the Corn Laws, 27th August 1841

Peel had been a leading member in the government of 1828 which had returned to the principle of a sliding scale on corn, as advocated by Huskisson and implemented by Wellington‘s ministry. In 1834 in the Tamworth Manifesto, Peel said that agriculture along with the other great interests should receive adequate protection, especially in view of the special burdens on the land, land-tax, tithe, poor-rate and malt-tax but he did not accept that the landowners should be regarded as a favoured body for whom the rest of the community should be taxed and he believed that the interests of industry and agriculture were interdependent. His support of agricultural protection was therefore based on expediency. He reserved his right to modify the existing law when he came to power. In 1842, as one of his first major acts of legislation, he passed a new Corn Law that almost halved the previous scale of protection. The following is an extract of his speech to parliament just after he had become Prime Minister. Hansard, 3rd series, volume LIX., columns 413-29.

‘I now approach the more important and exciting question of the Corn-laws. In order that I may make no mistake, allow me to refer to the expressions which I made use of on this point before the dissolution. I said, that on consideration I had formed an opinion, which intervening consideration has not induced me to alter, that the principle of a graduated scale was preferable to that of a fixed and irrevocable duty; but I said then, and I say now, in doing so I repeat the language which I held in 1839, that I will not bind myself to the details of the existing law, but will reserve to myself the unfettered discretion of considering and amending that law. I hold the same language now; but if you ask me whether I bind myself to the maintenance of the existing law in its details, or if you say that that is the condition in which the agricultural interest give me their support, I say that on that condition I will not accept their support.... If I could bring myself to think - if I could believe that an alteration of the Corn-laws would preclude the risk of such distress - if I thought it would be an effectual remedy, in all cases, against such instances of lamentable suffering as that which have been described, I would say at once to the agricultural interest, ‘It is for your advantage rather to submit to any reduction of price, than, if an alteration of the Corn-laws would really be the cure for these sufferings, to compel their continuance.’ I should say, that it would be for the interest, not of the community in general, but especially of the agriculturists themselves, if, by any sacrifice of theirs, they could prevent the existence of such distress. If any sacrifice of theirs could prevent their being the real cause of the distress - could prevent the continuance of it - could offer a guarantee against the recurrence of it, I would earnestly advise a relaxation, an alteration, nay, if necessary, a repeal of the Corn-laws. But it is because I cannot convince my mind that the Corn-laws are at the bottom of this distress, or that the repeal of them, or the alteration of their principle, would be its cure, that I am induced to continue my maintenance of them....’  

Greville on Peel’s 1842 Budget

‘On Friday night in the midst of the most intense and general interest and curiosity, heightened by the closeness and fidelity with which the government measures had been kept secret Peel brought forward his financial plans in a speech of three hours and forty minutes, acknowledged by everybody to have been a masterpiece of financial statement. The success was complete; he took the House by storm; and his Opponents (though of course differing and objecting on particular points) did him ample justice. A few people expected an income tax, but the majority did not. Hitherto the Opposition have been talking very big about opposing all taxes, but they have quite altered their tone. It is really remarkable to see the attitude Peel has taken in this parliament, his complete mastery over both his friends and his foes. His own party, nolentes aut volentes, have surrendered at discretion, and he has got them as well disciplined and as obedient as the crew of a man-of-war. This great measure, so lofty in conception, right in direction, and able in execution, places him at once on a pinnacle of power, and establishes his government on such a foundation as accident alone can shake. Political predictions are always rash, but certainly there is every probability of Peel’s being Minister for as many years as his health and vigour may endure ... There can be no doubt that he is now a very great man, and it depends on himself to establish a great and lasting reputation.’

From Greville, Memoirs, 13th March 1842

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Disraeli: a study in opposition 1841-1845

Disraeli[1] made his maiden speech in parliament on 7th December 1837, in a debate on MPs’ privileges. It was another challenge to Daniel O’Connell, the previous speaker, and was hooted down by jeering O’Connellite Irishmen, though not before its extraordinarily elaborate and affected language had caused much hilarity. After that unpropitious beginning, Disraeli avoided publicity for most of the rest of the parliament, generally supporting Peel and attacking the free trade agitators. However, he did urge respect for the Chartist movement. Feeling unable to satisfy the financial expectations of the electors of Maidstone, he sought a cheaper seat for the 1841 election; his friend Lord Forester secured him the nomination at Shrewsbury.

When Peel became prime minister after the 1841 election, Disraeli sought office from him; unsurprisingly, he did not get it. He continued his support for Peel in 1842 and 1843, seeking fame by attacking the foreign policy of the late government. He blamed the economic depression partly on the Whigs’ warmongering extravagance and failure to sign a commercial treaty with France. He projected himself as an authority on the needs of British international trade, urging a reversion to the historical policy of commercial diplomacy and reciprocity. He went to France in late 1842 in order to make connections at the court there which would assist his claim to be promoting a new entente with that country. His contacts there, supplied through Bulwer, Count d’Orsay, and Lyndhurst, gained him an audience with Louis Philippe.

In a memorandum to the French king, Disraeli talked of organising a party of youthful, energetic Tory back-benchers in pursuit of a policy sympathetic to France. Though nothing came of this notion as such, it showed his susceptibility to the excitement of high intrigue with a group of youthful men of independence and vision. A small group of such men was in fact forming on the Tory benches, inspired by George Smythe, Lord John Manners, and Alexander Baillie-Cochrane. This trio had been at Eton and Cambridge together and had a romantic attachment to the ideals of chivalry, paternalism, and religious orthodoxy which had become fashionable in some landed and university circles in reaction to reform, utilitarianism, and political economy. Disraeli did not adopt all of the specific enthusiasms of Young England, as the group came to be known in 1843.

But by the end of the session Disraeli was accepted as a fertile contributor to its activities in the house, and some of the group’s enthusiasms rubbed off on him, especially a respect for historic religious ideals evident in Sybil. Over the winter of 1843–1844 Disraeli wrote Coningsby, his most effective and successful novel to date, a vibrant commentary on the political and social worlds of the 1830s. Featuring the three friends, it gave considerable publicity to the idea of Young England, contrasting its ideals with Peel’s lack of principle. Published in May 1844, it quickly sold 3,000 copies, for which Disraeli received about £1,000. In 1843, Disraeli offended the Conservative leadership by his vote against the Canada Corn Bill and his speech against Irish coercion. Early in 1844 Peel rebuked him by omitting him from the list of MPs to be summoned to the official party meeting at the start of the session. Over the coming months Disraeli made three speeches containing pointed and sarcastic criticism of the party leadership, such as his attack on its inability to tolerate dissent over the sugar issue.

In October 1844, Disraeli, Manners, and Smythe made successful addresses to young artisans at the Manchester Athenaeum, testifying to the impact made by Young England. While in the north, Disraeli also collected observations about industrial life which he used in Sybil, the novel which he wrote over the winter of 1844-5 and published in May 1845, again to considerable interest; it too sold 3000 copies. But Young England broke up in 1845, partly owing to a difference of opinion on the government’s proposals for the Maynooth seminary and partly because of parental pressure on Smythe and Manners not to be disloyal to the party. Meanwhile, Disraeli’s abuse of Peel was mounting. In late February he made a celebrated, extended, and neatly vindictive assault on Peel’s shiftiness, described by one onlooker as ‘aimed with deadly precision’, yet delivered with Disraeli’s normal ‘extreme coolness and impassibility’. On 17th March he declared that a ‘Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy’. His opposition to the Maynooth grant (11th April) was similarly based on the argument that Peel cared nothing for Tory principles and sought to extend the ‘police surveillance’ of Downing Street to entrap Irish Catholics, when they required independence and respect. By the end of the 1845 session Disraeli had become a celebrated orator. He undoubtedly helped to stimulate the questioning of Peel’s trustworthiness on the back benches. Yet he stood essentially alone, without allies, and in such circumstances his capacity to tolerate abuse and short-term political injury is testimony to his remarkable self-confidence and self-reliance. Disraeli’s position was transformed by the events of late 1845 that brought Peel to the Commons in January 1846 as an advocate of repealing the Corn Laws, in defence of which the vast majority of Tory MPs had been elected in 1841.


[1] Valuable studies of Disraeli include: W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle The life of Benjamin Disraeli, 6 volumes, 1910–20, R. Blake Disraeli, 1966, Disraeli’s reminiscences, ed. H. M. Swartz and M. Swartz, 1975, Benjamin Disraeli, letters, ed. J. A. W. Gunn and others, 1982-, R. Vincent Disraeli, 1990 and P. Smith, Disraeli: a brief life, 1996.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The question of Ireland: Seeking conciliation 1844-1845

With the receding threat of repeal from late 1843, there were now opportunities for a new approach to Irish matters. The government recognised that coercion could not be maintained indefinitely. However, the options available to Peel were limited.  Economic grievances were thought to be beyond the scope of government action. Peel was opposed to state aid for Irish railway construction. Nor was the government willing to introduce any major alteration to the Irish land system especially if that meant interfering with property rights.  A settlement of the religious question was also largely beyond the government’s powers. The Conservative party could not alter the Church of Ireland without serious electoral consequences. Former Whigs like Stanley and Graham had originally joined the Conservatives partly because of the Whig attack on the Irish Church in the 1830s and it was unlikely that they would reverse this position.

Despite these limitations, the government was determined to pursue a policy of conciliation. Graham described the necessity of this approach in grim terms: ‘If Ireland be not reconciled to Great Britain, she will destroy us and open a break in our defences through which our enemies will ultimately triumph.’ The Union could only be assured by winning the good will of the majority of Catholic Irishmen. Conciliation of Catholic Ireland proceeded on several lines: appointing Irish Catholics to posts in the Irish administration; improving clerical and secular education facilities; and, attempting a reform of the Irish franchise and revision of the laws regarding land occupation

The government offered more positions of political responsibility to Irish Catholics. Irishmen and especially Catholics were often excluded from official circles in Dublin. In 1843, W. Smith O’Brien argued that Catholic Emancipation could never be fully realised as long as religion remained a bar to office. Of the major posts in the Irish administration at this time, twenty-three were held by Protestants and three by Catholics. Peel recognised the justice of this criticism and in the summer of 1843, in a series of letters to de Grey, urged that Catholics be appointed to vacant positions. However, de Grey was jealous of the patronage power in his hands and resentful of any interference. Irish Protestants would be unlikely to support a policy that favoured Catholics, while there was no guarantee that Catholics would accept the government’s belated generosity. When Peel persisted in the appointment of John Howley, a Catholic barrister to a judicial position, it was clear that religion had been the reason for his appointment. Protestant opinion was outraged that more qualified Protestant Tories were ignored while Catholic opinion denounced it as a ‘shallow artifice’ that was ‘insulting’ to Ireland. This was not a promising beginning to conciliation.

For Peel, the key to conciliation lay with the Catholic clergy. It had been prominent in the repeal agitation and Peel was determined to win their loyalty to the Union. By late 1843, Peel, Graham and Stanley were agreed that the state must bear a greater responsibility for the education and maintenance of the clergy. This meant a review of ministerial policy towards the Maynooth seminary. It had been established in 1795 by the Irish parliament for training Catholic priests as a means of luring them away from their traditional training in French or Spanish seminaries, a potentially subversive education. After the Union, the practice of supporting Maynooth from public funds continued but by the 1840s the amount allocated was clearly inadequate. Fixed in 1808 at £9,250 annually, it had not been raised since. Successive governments had neglected the facilities and educational standards at Maynooth and this alienated the clergy who studied there. The decision to review Maynooth was a reversal of opinion. In 1842, Lord Eliot had urged an inquiry into Maynooth but the cabinet had turned down his suggestion with Peel expressing reluctance to disturb the ‘existing tranquillity’. O’Connell’s repeal meetings had ruffled the religious calm and Peel’s initial argument could no longer be advanced. However, the whole issue required a delicate balancing act.

Peel’s most immediate concern was ministerial divisions over Maynooth. In cabinet meetings in early 1844, Goulburn and Graham expressed some reservations while Gladstone was wholly opposed to any increase in the Maynooth grant. His problem was that in 1838 he had written The State in its Relations with the Church in which he established the principle that the state was bound to support the established church and no other and Maynooth violated that principle. Gladstone feared that his reliability would be impugned if he agreed to a change in the grant and he threatened resignation if the government persisted. Unable to resolve its differences, the cabinet postponed the decision.  With action on Maynooth stalled, Peel began to send Ireland what Disraeli termed ‘messages of peace’. The Charitable Bequests and Donations bill was introduced in 1844 placing Catholic clergy in Ireland on a more equitable financial footing with Anglican clergy. While the Church of Ireland was well endowed, Roman Catholic clergy were dependent on a voluntary system of customary offerings and dues given by their often impoverish parishioners. Existing law and practice hindered private endowment of Catholic chapels by ensuring that the Board of Charitable Donations and Bequests were Protestants. The proposed bill guaranteed an equal voice on the Board and encouraged private endowments to Catholic institutions. The bill had an easy passage in Parliament with the Whig leader Lord John Russell supporting it.

However, in Ireland the legislation encountered opposition from the repeal leaders who feared that it would detract from repeal by removing genuine grievances. Campaigning among the clergy, they argued for non-cooperation with the new Board. To deflect the campaign, the Irish executive entered into direct negotiations with the Catholic hierarchy. Earl de Grey had resigned in May 1844 on grounds of health and was replaced by Lord Heytesbury, a career diplomat who had no interest in promoting either side in the sectarian dispute. He won the confidence of the Catholic hierarchy largely because it had petitioned the previous Whig government for just those concessions contained in the Act. It could scarcely refuse what it had so recently sought. After protracted discussions, a majority of the hierarchy agreed to cooperate in the execution of the legislation. It was an important victory for the government’s policy of conciliation.

The government fared less well in two other attempts at conciliation.  It attempted to reform the Irish franchise in April 1844 by enfranchising the £5 freeholder and remedying defects of the legal machinery. This proved highly contentious. Conservatives thought the bill would promote democratic tendencies by lowering the county franchise. Irish liberals and repealers, on the other hand, feared it would place the newly enfranchised rural poor at the disposal of their landlords on election day. This combined assault doomed the bill to failure and it was withdrawn in June 1844.  A second failure related to land occupation. In November 1843, the government appointed a commission to consider the law and practice of land occupation in Ireland. Known as the Devon Commission after its chairman, it worked through the 1844 session conducting interviews and collecting evidence in Ireland. It published its findings in 1845 in four massive volumes. Though the Commission revealed little that was new, it drew together much information. Based on its report, the Compensation of Tenants (Ireland) Bill was introduced by the House of Lords by Lord Stanley in June 1845. It required landlords to compensate tenants for their improvements in building, fencing and drainage should they be ejected before they had gathered the fruits of that improvement. A salaried Commissioner of Improvements, resident in Dublin, would supervise tenant applications. Reaction to the proposal was instantly unfavourable and in mid-July Peel withdrew the bill.

The Maynooth question could no longer be postponed and it dominated the 1845 session. The fiercest opposition was not to the proposed increase in grant but from it being established as a permanent endowment outside parliamentary control. To Anglicans, this implied a revision of existing relations between church and state. Dissenting ‘Voluntaries’ disliked the bill because they opposed all religious establishments. This laid the basis for cooperation between Anglicans and Nonconformists in the Central Anti-Maynooth Committee, a powerful and extensive extra-parliamentary pressure group that deluged parliament with 10,000 petitions signed by over 1¼ million people condemning the Maynooth plan. Also opposed to Maynooth were those Conservatives within the party who were exasperated by Peel’s continued betrayal of implicit party pledges. Charles Greville reported that ‘The Carlton Club was in a state of insurrection…The disgust of the Conservatives and their hatred of Peel keep swelling every day’. He had already tampered with the Corns Laws and now threatened the dominance of the Church of Ireland.  Gladstone tendered his resignation In January 1845. In the early weeks of the session, petitions and public meetings hostile to the government increased in number. Peel, however, remained firm and was determined to ‘risk the fate of the Government’ on Maynooth.

Peel introduced the details of the Maynooth Bill on 3rd April 1845. It proposed a special grant of £30,000 for new buildings, putting of cost of repairs and maintenance under the Board of Works. He proposed raising the grant to £26,000 and confirmed that the new grant would be a permanent endowment. The response was immediate and the anticipated opposition became vociferous inside Parliament and in the country. For Sir Robert Inglis, MP for Oxford the proposal represented ‘the endowment of the Church of Rome’. Others objected to the removal of the Maynooth grant from annual parliamentary scrutiny. Peel especially took a beating, not least from his own back-benchers with Disraeli, who emerged as a dangerous critic of Peel’s style of leadership, calling him a ‘Conservative dictator’, accusing him of ‘cunning’ and ‘habitual perfidy’ and denouncing him as an unscrupulous middleman whose shameless borrowing of his opponents’ policies demonstrated his total lack of commitment to fixed political principles.  Peel relied on the support of a combination of liberal Conservatives, Whigs and Catholic Irish MPs to carry the bill and it passed its third reading with a comfortable majority. Without opposition support, the bill would not have passed since the Conservatives divided 149-148 against on the third reading. Peel recognised that the proposals would probably be fatal for the government but argued that they were right. Characteristically he would not compromise with Protestant Tories and, because he had Whig support, had no need to.  The more conservative agricultural wing of the party was especially angered by the bill. C. Goring, MP for Shoreham declared that the agricultural interest viewed the Maynooth grant with ‘regret and alarm’ and feared that the government would soon sacrifice the agriculturalists by repealing the Corn Laws just as they had sacrificed the Protestant church in Ireland. Goring was voicing the sentiments of a large section of the Conservative party whose loyalty towards their leadership was now at breaking point. Graham was not alone in believing that, though the Maynooth Bill passed through Parliament, the Conservative party would be ‘destroyed’ by its passage.

Peel encountered less opposition to his remaining conciliatory measure, the improvement of Irish education. Since 1833, Ireland had a system of national education involving the payment of state grants to any school provided it did not promote sectarianism. The number of national schools increased from 789 in 1844 to 2,637 in 1846. Both Anglicans and Presbyterians, as minority religions in Ireland, felt more threatened by this than did Catholics and expanded their own separate schools outside the national system. Opposition to the national system was extensive enough in 1841 to raise doubts among some of Peel’s colleagues as to the wisdom of its continuance. Both Stanley and de Grey thought it had failed but Peel disagreed. It was Peel’s affirmation of national education that assured its continuance. In May 1845, Graham introduced the Academical Institutions Bill to establish three colleges in Cork, Galway and Belfast to extend a university education to the Irish middle classes. Opposition to their non-sectarian nature was muted in England and there was little parliamentary opposition to the bill. There was far more opposition in Ireland with O’Connell and some Catholics wanting separate sectarian colleges. Peel recognised that the northern college at Belfast would effectively become a Presbyterian college and the two southern colleges Catholic, but he was unwilling to make them wholly sectarian. A compromise was reached with the Catholic hierarchy and it agreed to cooperate with the government in establishing the colleges. The bill received the Royal Assent on 31st July 1845.

It is clear that Irish policy shifted decisively during Peel’s ministry. Neglected at first, Ireland increasingly became the government’s most absorbing concern. Peel’s somewhat belated attempt at conciliation involved him in an ever-deepening commitment to satisfy Irish grievances. His remedy to the threat posed to the Union by O’Connell involved constructing an alliance between the British State and the Catholic gentry and middle classes of Ireland. To this end, he strove to ensure that Catholics obtained a fairer share of Crown patronage, improved opportunities in secular higher education and sought to inculcate business attitudes among tenant farmers. Whatever qualities these policies had, they were simply denied the time they needed to work on Irish social and cultural attitudes. Peel’s party was already in an ill humour before the potato harvest failed in the wet summer of 1845 and Peel and his ministers met in the autumn to consider what to do about the Corn Laws. Gladstone foretold with considerable accuracy the fatal importance of Ireland to the government when he wrote in 1845: ‘Ireland, Ireland! That cloud in the west, that coming storm, the minister of God’s retribution upon cruel and inveterate and but half-atoned injustice!’

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The question of Ireland: Peel responds

The strength of the repeal movement in the summer of 1843 caused growing alarm among its opponents. Opposition was also building in England to Peel’s inactive Irish policy. In May, a deputation of Protestant peers urged on Peel and Graham a proclamation against demonstrations in Ireland. By early June, The Times was convinced that Ireland was ‘on the verge of rebellion’ and by July harshly condemned the government ‘whose wits seem fairly to have departed in this crisis’.

These criticisms may have been somewhat unfair but Ireland was becoming a matter of deep anxiety, as cabinet papers indicate. Peel was especially concerned that the largely Catholic repeal meetings would result in a violent response from the Protestant Orange Society, banned in the 1830s that might bring Ireland to the brink of civil war. Peel’s government found itself in a difficult position in dealing with the repealers for two main reasons.  First, no laws had been broken. O’Connell warned his followers at virtually every meeting against violence of any kind. The suppression of peaceful meetings might alienate moderate Irishmen on which the government placed its hopes. Peel believed that nothing could be done without clear evidence of illegality. A second difficulty for Peel was divisions in the Irish administration. The Lord Lieutenant, Earl de Grey was unsympathetic to Irish aspirations and ultra-Protestant in his religion. Most of the other senior Irish officials were also partisan Protestants: for example, Edward Lucas, the Under-Secretary was an Irish Protestant landowner and Edward Sugden, the Lord Chancellor had advocated the exclusion of O’Connell from the House of Commons in 1828. By contrast, the Chief Secretary, Lord Eliot had a different outlook and believed that government policy towards Ireland should be more conciliatory. It is not entirely clear why Peel appointed men of different views to such sensitive posts unless he saw it as a means of establishing some balance between coercion and conciliation. The effect on the Irish administration was to give it a Protestant enough flavour to be distasteful to Catholics, yet Catholic enough in the person of Lord Eliot to alienate the most fervent Protestants.

It was Protestant fears of the repeal movement that led Peel to harden his attitude in 1843. If it could not act against the repeal meetings, it was still possible to send a warning to the repealers. In late May 1843, an Arms Act imposing tighter controls on the traffic in Irish weapons was introduced. Also, to the delight of the duke of Wellington, the cabinet resumed recruiting for the army. The belief that civil war was imminent in Ireland resulted in the total military establishment being reinforced to its highest level since 1829. By October 1843, there were some 34,000 troops there. These coercive measures did not stop the repeal meetings but did provide O’Connell with an attractive topic for his speeches.

Other actions, however, played directly into O’Connell’s hands. A minor civil servant was dismissed in late May for attending a repeal meeting and soon after Lord Ffrench, a Galway magistrate was relieved of his commission for announcing his intention to attend a meeting. By the end of May, fourteen magistrates had been dismissed and eventually the number rose to twenty-four, including several MPs. The Lord Chancellor, Edward Sugden was responsible and he had acted without official approval. The dismissals were universally condemned even by the anti-repeal Dublin Evening Mail and, although ministers supported Sugden in public, it was unhappy about his actions in private. The whole episode was undoubtedly damaging to the government and may well have driven some moderate men into the ranks of the repealers.

It was the growing militancy of the language of the repealers that gave the government the opportunity to act. O’Connell did not abandon the constitutionalist approach as the peaceful way of achieving repeal but increasingly his speeches contained military and separatist references. The last straw for the government was the announcement of a mass meeting at Clontarf for 8th October and it decided to act firmly. Since Lord de Grey, the Lord Lieutenant was in England, it was an easy matter for Peel and Graham to confer with him and this occurred on 3rd and 4th October. It was decided that the meeting at Clontarf should be suppressed, by force if necessary and that O’Connell and the Repeal Association leaders should be arrested and charged with treasonable conspiracy. The proclamation against Clontarf was announced on 7th October and O’Connell immediately acquiesced urging his followers to continue with the legal and peaceful means of achieving repeal. Within a week, he and several others were arrested but the trial was postponed until February 1844. Initially found guilty, O’Connell was released in 1844 on appeal to the House of Lords on the grounds that the jury had been packed with Protestants. But the damage had been done and the repeal movement, without its leader, was significantly weakened. It never again reached the heights of 1843 and finally collapsed in 1848, a year after O’Connell’s death.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The question of Ireland

During the 1810s and 1820s Peel was regarded as the champion of the Protestant Constitution and, in many respects the contrast between this and his approach to governing Ireland after 1841 is remarkable. The extraction of Catholic Emancipation from Wellington’s government in 1829 had forced a reappraisal of Peel’s thinking about the nature of the Irish problem. This led him towards a more ‘liberal’ perspective grounded on the principle of allowing free-play between the forces of Protestantism and Catholicism in the province. Events in the early 1830s made it clear that Ireland was still not reconciled to the Union with Britain and Daniel O’Connell put himself at the head of a campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union. The Whigs temporarily contained the problem after 1835 by establishing a working political relationship with O’Connell but in 1841 Conservative electoral victory prompted a renewal of the repeal campaign.

Fiscal and social issues posed numerous difficulties for the government but Peel was reasonably confident that solutions could be found. However, ministerial confidence seemed often to be more uncertain when faced with the issue of Ireland[1]. The administration of Irish policy fell into three distinct phases[2]:

  1. The first phase, extending from 1841 to mid-1843 was characterised by what may be termed benign neglect.
  2. Under the pressure of Irish events, however, the second half of 1843 witnessed a reversal of ministerial inactivity as the passage of an Arms Act and the dismissal of Irish magistrates initiated a policy of coercion.
  3. The third phase, from 1844 to the end of the ministry, was characterised by conciliatory legislation as Peel sought to promote the welfare of Ireland through the passage of important educational and religious measures.

Peel and Graham recognised, as early as 1841 that the policy of exclusion of Catholics from effective participation in the Irish political system provided an important sense of grievance. Graham believed that it was essential for ministers to pursue ‘an impartial and liberal policy…equal justice administered to Roman Catholics’. Peel was anxious to demonstrate the material advantages of Catholic Emancipation by encouraging the recruitment of ‘moderate’ and ‘respectable’ Catholics into the magistracy, the police, the legal profession and other walks of life. He justified this by reference to the alleged existence of a well-disposed mass of people who would be amenable to conciliatory measures. To follow a policy of exclusion risked turning these people into enemies of the Crown.

Initial inactivity 1841-1843

This view did not, however, become evident until 1843 and initially Peel neglected Ireland. In 1841, he mistakenly invited an ultra-protestant, Earl De Grey, to become lord lieutenant. He was unwilling to cooperate with the conciliatory approach and later even dismissed some Catholics from the magistracy. The initial inactivity of the government can be explained in several ways. First, the activities of the secret society of the Irish peasantry, such as the Rockites and Ribbonmen[3] were at a low ebb. Secondly, the influence of Ireland’s only national leader of stature, Daniel O’Connell, appeared to be waning. His Repeal Association, dedicated to the repeal of the 1800 Act of Union with Britain, seemed moribund. At the 1841 general election, O’Connell stood as a repealer for the City of Dublin and was defeated though he was later returned for Cork. There were only seventeen other repealers returned with O’Connell in 1841 and this represented a significant reduction in the thirty-eight repealers returned in 1832. Without the Whigs in office, it was perhaps inevitable that O’Connell’s influence should decline and it seemed to many in Britain (if not in Ireland) that the best days of the ageing O’Connell were over.

This was premature. O’Connell’s influence in Ireland remained high and in 1841 he became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin since the 1680s. He also had never ceased in his efforts to organise from the grassroots a National Repeal Movement. He worked closely with Richard Barrett, editor of The Pilot, a Dublin newspaper that became the unofficial mouthpiece of repeal. He also maintained close contact with John MacHale, the Catholic Archbishop of Tuan in planning the arrangement for repeal meetings and continually urged his supporters to secure the approval of the Catholic clergy whose influence on political issues was steadily increasing. By early 1843, O’Connell’s efforts bore fruit and in February he sponsored a repeal motion in the Dublin Corporation. The result, a vote of 41 to 15 in favour of repeal was sensational. The Anglican, Conservative and virulently anti-repeal Dublin Evening Mail reported on 6th March 1843 that repeal ‘had made an immense as well as a rapid stride…from the platform of a seditious assembly to the council-table of legitimate municipal government…’ The repeal ‘rent’ contributions to the Repeal Association increased and a national campaign of repeal meetings was organised in every county in Ireland. O’Connell reminded his audiences that Peel and Wellington had responded to public pressure in granting Catholic Emancipation in 1829 so why not again?

Addressing repeal 1843

O’Connell’s campaign acquired added momentum during the course of 1843. The repeal meetings were an unqualified success at attracting large crowds. In August 1843, there was a reported 200,000 to 300,000 present at Castlebar; 350,000 at Roscommon; and, at the largest meeting of all at Tara (the seat of the ancient Irish kings), one million. Even allowing for exaggeration (some estimated the number at Tara at 500,000), these were impressive gatherings, called ‘monster meetings’ by The Times. They seemed to give substance to O’Connell’s claim that Ireland was becoming one nation under the repeal agitation. Some of the most respected leaders in Ireland, both lay and clerical spoke at the meetings. O’Connell maintained that repeal did not mean separation from Britain but it did mean an Irish parliament and self-government. He argued that the Westminster Parliament had too often neglected Irish interests and that an Irish Parliament would abolish tithe rent-charges, revise the poor relief system and ensure security of tenure.

The aspirations of the repealers suggest why the movement should have suddenly caught fire in the summer of 1843. Recurring economic and religious grievances had come to a head and these supplied O’Connell with much of his support.   Economic trends detrimental to industrial development were especially worrying to Irish merchants. Unlike most other countries, Ireland was becoming increasingly rural. Few of its major towns, apart from Belfast and Dublin, grew between 1821 and 1841 and some smaller centres stagnated. The severe economic slump of the early 1840s revealed the inadequacy of Ireland’s resources. Whereas England had the means to overcome the depression, Ireland did not. Irish investment tended to flow outwards because of the better speculative opportunities available on the mainland. This led to under-investment in Irish infrastructure such as railways: by 1845, only 70 miles of line had been opened. Agricultural development faced as many problems as industry. Improvement was hindered by absentee landlords and insecurity of tenure discouraged tenant farmers from investing in even the simplest manuring and drainage practices. Economic cooperation between landlord and tenant in Ireland was made more difficult by divisions of interests and religion that more often made landlord and tenant bitter enemies rather than entrepreneurial partners as was the case in England.

In addition, O’Connell built on the sense of grievance among Catholics. The established Anglican Church of Ireland ministered to the needs of around 20 per cent of the population and acceptance to this state of affairs was beginning to wear thin for Roman Catholics by the 1840s. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a revival of Irish Catholicism. Churches were repaired; cathedrals begun; parish schools were started and the National Seminary of Maynooth grew in importance. For many Catholics, the repeal movement was one way of demonstrating their faith. Though predominantly Catholic, the movement attracted some Protestant support among them Thomas Davis, a leader of the Young Ireland movement and William Smith O’Brien, MP for Limerick who joined the Association in 1843.


[1] Ireland is well covered by both general and specialist studies: F. S. L. Lyons Ireland since the Famine, Fontana, 1973 is a classic study of value for the period before 1850 for its opening section. L. M. Cullen The Emergence of Modern Ireland 1600-1900, Batsford, 1981 offers a radical interpretation of this period. Roy Foster Modern Ireland 1600-1972, Allen Lane, 1988 is an essential study worth reading in full. D. McCartney The Dawning of Democracy: Ireland 1800-1870, Helicon, 1987, K. T. Hoppen Ireland since 1800, Longman, 2nd ed., 2000 and G. O. Tuathaigh Ireland Before the Famine 1798-1848, Gill and Macmillan, 1971 are more focussed. W. E. Vaughan (ed.) A New History of Ireland, volume v, 1801-1870, OUP, 1988 is a very detailed study.

[2] R. C. Shipkey Robert Peel’s Irish Policy 1812-1846, New York 1897 provides a general account of Peel’s approach to governing Ireland. Donal A. Kerr Peel, Priests and Politics: Sir Robert Peel’s Administration and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland 1841-1846, Oxford University Press, 1982 is invaluable on relations between Peel and the Catholic Church.

[3] S. Clarke and J. S. Donnelly (eds.), Irish Peasants: violence and political unrest 1780-1914, Manchester, 1983 contains important material on this issue.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Gathering disaffection 1841-1845

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

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

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

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

The Corn question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Graham as Home Secretary

Sir James Graham (1792-1861)[1] brought untiring industry and a powerful administrative brain to the Home Office. He was faced with great problems: social unrest, Chartism, the emergence of the ‘condition of England’ problem and a campaign in Ireland for the repeal of the Union. But was he a ‘good’ Home Secretary? He reacted with great conscientiousness and zeal, but with distinctly mixed success but his record of legislative success was poor.

Graham described the strikes and Chartist activity of 1842 as ‘the mad insurrection of the working classes’ and sought to intimidate the agitators by a display of state power. He ordered troops to turn out around the country, urged magistrates to use their powers to suppress meetings, and presided over a policy of widespread arrests and special trials. Radical antagonism was naturally excited against him, and this was exacerbated in 1844 by an incident involving the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, who was living in exile in London. In the autumn of 1843 the Austrian ambassador in Britain, Baron Philipp von Neumann, had met Graham and asked him to locate Mazzini’s hiding-place. In March 1844, after further pressure from Neumann, Graham issued a warrant for the copying of Mazzini’s mail by the Post Office and agreed to pass to Lord Aberdeen, the foreign secretary, any information about suspected risings against the Austrian and other conservative regimes in the various Italian states, which Aberdeen could then communicate to the Austrians. By accommodating Austria in this way, Graham and Aberdeen hoped to get the pope to use his influence to dissuade the Irish Catholic clergy from fomenting the campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Mazzini and his friends discovered that their mail was being tampered with, and in June a parliamentary furore arose. Graham defended the right of governments to open mail for political purposes. This right was upheld by a secret committee which investigated precedents, though it also revealed that Graham had been unusually assiduous in opening mail, and in the summer of 1842 had issued twenty warrants to inspect Chartists’ letters. The affair excited public revulsion at ministers’ behaviour; tampering with correspondence, especially at the behest of an illiberal foreign government, was deemed despicable and un-English. Although he was less to blame than Aberdeen, Graham suffered much more criticism because of his autocratic reputation; there was a fad for correspondents to write ‘Not to be Grahamed’ on their envelopes.

Graham’s zeal in defending order upset Liberals but it also managed to offend many propertied Conservatives. He criticised magistrates for their complacency and inefficiency during the unrest of 1842 and unsuccessfully proposed to the cabinet the appointment of salaried assistant barristers at quarter sessions in order to quicken and tighten up the law and order process in the localities. Back-benchers retaliated, interpreting much of his legislation as overbearing and destructive of traditional liberties. With personal sympathy for him among MPs scant, his controversial bills foundered, such as his measure to establish a central council to standardise qualifications for the medical profession. The British Medical Association accused him of seeking despotic control. His worst set-back came in the field of education. Graham saw the promotion of religious education as one of the principal means by which the state could combat the threat of social unrest. In particular, he sought to reduce the danger of disorder in the turbulent industrial districts by establishing a better education for factory children. In 1843 he introduced a bill requiring factory employees under thirteen to be given three hours of instruction daily. But he included securities for an Anglican presence in the schools. Dissenters were indignant, a vast petitioning campaign ensued, and the bill was withdrawn.

In Ireland, the repeal movement revived in 1842 and a series of monster meetings was planned for 1843. Graham’s initial response was one of intense alarm at ‘the reign of Terror’, the failure of juries to convict offenders, and the unwillingness of the Irish executive to assert itself to uphold the law. This anxiety helps to explain the government’s decision to proclaim the biggest repeal meeting, scheduled for Clontarf in October 1843, and, a week later, to arrest the repeal leader Daniel O’Connell on a charge of conspiring to incite disaffection. Unwisely the prosecuting authorities had Catholics removed from the trial jury. O’Connell appealed against the conviction and eventually, in September 1844, the House of Lords overturned it, on the votes of Liberal judges. Graham was very bitter and believed that the authority of government in Ireland had been gravely wounded. By this time, assisted by Peel’s influence, he had come to see the need for legislative activity in order to counter the propaganda of the repealers. Strongly convinced of the potency of religion as a bulwark of social order, he was particularly keen to increase the Catholic priests’ confidence in British rule. The Charitable Bequests Act of 1844 aimed to improve the Catholic Church’s financial position and to draw the bishops into the habit of communication with government through membership of a board of commissioners. The same strategy can be discerned in the educational policy of 1845, featuring an increased grant to the Catholic seminary of Maynooth and the establishment of the Queen’s colleges, non-denominational university colleges for Catholics and Protestants to use together. However, only a minority of bishops, from the older generation, defied O’Connell’s wishes and participated in the running of the charitable bequests board and the colleges. By the autumn of 1845 the government still did not feel confident of the loyalty of the Irish people, and this was to be of major significance in the corn tariff crisis of 1845-6.

Graham and Peel shared a staunch but controversial loyalty to the principles of political economy. When factory reformers called for reductions in the length of the adult working day to ten hours, the government resisted, arguing that it would make British factories uncompetitive internationally. In 1844, the factory reformers defeated the government, and the twelve-hour day had to be reasserted by the calling of a vote of confidence in government, a manoeuvre which embittered relations with back-benchers. Graham’s refusal to compromise with those who criticised the severity of the 1834 poor law was similarly contentious.

Into this fraught atmosphere, in the autumn of 1845, came news of the failure of the Irish potato crop. Graham saw the famine as a dispensation of providence which it was man’s duty to rectify in order to preserve social peace. Moreover, on political grounds some gesture was necessary in order to reassure sceptical Irishmen of the government’s concern for their survival. But if the Corn Laws were suspended temporarily, the strength of public agitation would prevent their re-imposition, giving the impression that government had surrendered to popular pressure. Though in the 1830s Graham had defended the sliding scale, he and Peel had agreed since 1842 that the corn laws were politically and economically counter-productive and that, despite their significance for most Conservative back-benchers, they must be repealed in the near future if economic stagnation was to be averted. The famine provided the occasion. The decision to press ahead with the repeal of the Corn Laws demonstrated great long-term administrative wisdom and great short-term political inflexibility. It reveals the extent to which the experience of government since 1841 had engendered in both Peel and Graham a conviction of the superiority and sufficiency of their judgement, condescension towards those who lacked their knowledge of affairs, and an overpowering concern with public order. Throughout the crisis, they seemed, in Punch’s words, ‘two persons with only one intellect’. After months of high drama, the Corn Laws were repealed in June 1846, the Conservative Party split, and Peel fell from office. Lord John Russell formed a Liberal government, which was kept afloat by the hundred or so Conservative MPs who remained loyal to Peel. Inevitably these included Graham, who became the leading member of the group in the Commons after Peel’s death in 1850.

Temperamentally, Graham was a man of superficial contradictions. Arthur Gordon described him as ‘rash and timid’ and belittled his judgement on both grounds. This was a widely held view. Graham’s outlook was dominated by an often excessive concern with the maintenance of public order, property, and government authority. But his arrogant manner sat uneasily with a tendency to overreact to social instability, ambivalence about responsibility and a susceptibility to depression and self-doubt. Distrusting the excesses of public opinion, he was inclined to exaggerate its radicalism and force. He was an efficient manager of a desk, a major influence on the professionalising of Victorian administration, and a contributor to the Peelite-Gladstonian fiscal tradition, but he lacked the character, the vision, and the warmth to be a successful political leader. Although he had the advantage of a large and powerful frame, and the detail of his parliamentary speeches was often forceful, their delivery could be monotonous and feeble, while his wit rarely rose above biting sarcasm and he disdained to cultivate either fashionable society or potential political supporters. Hard-working and serious, he seemed to believe that political power could rest entirely on administrative ability. Disinterested, devout, and genuinely alarmed for the future of his class, his religion, and his civilisation, he threw himself into public service. He did not intend to belittle party, but party kept belittling him, as he saw it, and this he found intolerable. In the course Peel’s ministry, he alienated the bulk of both sides of the Commons.


[1] The major published sources for Sir James Graham are: C. S. Parker Life and letters of Sir James Graham, 1792–1861, 2 volumes, 1907, J. T. Ward Sir James Graham, 1967, A. B. Erickson The public career of Sir James Graham, 1952, A. P. Donajgrodzki ‘Sir James Graham at the home office’, Historical Journal, volume 20 (1977), pages 97–120, F. B. Smith ‘British post office espionage, 1844’, Historical Studies, volume 14 (1969-71), pages 189–203, D. A. Kerr Peel, priests, and politics: Sir Robert Peel’s administration and the Roman Catholic church in Ireland, 1841–1846, Oxford University Press, 1982 and D. Spring ‘A great agricultural estate: Netherby under Sir James Graham, 1820–1845’, Agricultural History, volume 29 (1955), pages 73–81.