Sunday, 18 January 2009

Disraeli and Bentinck: partnership in opposition

Disraeli’s position had been transformed by the events of late 1845, which 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. Disraeli seized the initiative against him with a stinging attack (22nd January), accusing him of betraying ‘the independence of party’ and thus ‘the integrity of public men, and the power and influence of Parliament itself’. Now, suddenly, he was no longer alone, as Lord George Bentinck and Lord Stanley took the lead in organising party opposition to the repeal, while in the constituencies there was an active protectionist campaign. In his speeches on the subject in 1846 Disraeli reiterated his earlier arguments in favour of the historic policy of multilateral tariff reductions through treaty diplomacy. But his greatest contribution to the movement against Peel continued to be his scathing attacks on the latter’s inability to uphold the principles of the territorial constitution on which Toryism must rest. This was expressed most devastatingly in his famous denunciation of Peel’s career as a ‘great Appropriation Clause’ in his speech on the second reading of the repeal bill on 15th May, which roused the back benches to extraordinary fervour. Later in the month he lied to the Commons in denying Peel’s charge that he had sought office from him in 1841, but Peel was unable or unwilling to capitalise on this, a mark of his powerlessness to deal with Disraeli’s invective. As the session continued, Disraeli had hopes of a coalition between protectionist Tories and some Whigs and Irish MPs in defence of a compromise tariff. But Corn Law repeal passed the Lords in late June. On the same night the leading protectionists, including Disraeli, voted with the opposition to defeat Peel’s Irish Coercion Bill, on the grounds that the lack of necessity for it had been demonstrated by the long delay in promoting it. Peel resigned and Disraeli’s fame was assured.

Lord George Bentinck[1] (1802-1848) was born on 27th February 1802 at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, the fifth child and second surviving son of William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, fourth duke of Portland (1768–1854). Bentinck was sent neither to school nor to university but picked up a patchy education in the intervals of roaming freely about Welbeck.. Plainly unsuited to peacetime military life, he was wafted into politics in 1822 as Canning’s private secretary and would have accompanied his uncle to India as his military secretary if Lord Londonderry’s suicide had not opened Canning’s way to becoming Foreign Secretary.

In 1828, he succeeded his uncle Lord William Bentinck as MP for King’s Lynn, a borough where the family had much influence and for which he sat uninterruptedly until his death. He greatly admired Canning and behaved in exemplary Canningite fashion after Canning’s death: he refused to support Wellington’s ministry after William Huskisson and the Canningites resigned from it in 1828, voted for Catholic emancipation in 1829, and generally supported the Reform Bill. His independence and close friendships with Edward Stanley (later fourteenth earl of Derby) and the fifth duke of Richmond led him in 1834 into the ‘Derby Dilly’ for which he acted as an unofficial whip. Like most of its members, he was soon absorbed into the Conservative opposition; he consistently supported Sir Robert Peel but refused office, offered to him through Stanley, when Peel formed his ministry in 1841. Politics, however, came a very poor second to Bentinck’s growing interests in racing.

Bentinck’s short, turbulent, but influential political career has no parallel in British history. Pitched unwillingly into the leadership of the protectionist cause in the Commons in April 1846 some three months after Peel’s plan for repeal of the Corn Laws was known, he suffered at first from the grave disadvantage that he was wholly inexperienced at this level. Before February 1846, he had never spoken in a major debate although he had taken an active part in 1845 in defence of the landed interest as a member of John Bright’s select committee on the game laws, subjecting witnesses who were critical of the laws to searching and well-informed cross-examination. With his indifferent education, he was ill-matched against opponents of the calibre of Peel, Russell, and Cobden, and even contemplated bringing a lawyer into parliament to put the protectionist case on his behalf. But apart from his high station, he possessed other advantages. He was wholly fearless and no respecter, as was already evident, of persons or feelings.

Bentinck was transparently sincere in believing that protectionism was right both in principle and policy. He regarded the Conservatives’ electoral victory in 1841 and the modified protection given by Peel’s corn law of 1842 as committing the party and government to a policy that was now threatened by Peel’s new course. He had been unswervingly loyal to Peel and had taken no part in earlier protectionist mutinies. ‘I keep horses in three counties’, he is reported to have said, ‘and they tell me that I shall save £1500 a year by free trade. I don’t care for that. What I cannot bear is ‘being sold’.’ He convinced himself that Peel must make ‘atonement’ for breaking the unwritten code of aristocratic honour. More practically, he believed, as he told Stanley (20th January 1846), that if one section of the aristocracy, Peel and his followers went in for ‘political lying and pledge-breaking’, the legitimacy of aristocratic predominance would be gravely damaged. These views, combined with an energetic single-mindedness and an insistence on political consistency, formed the explosive imperatives of his politics.

Uncompromising and authoritarian, he could be vindictive in his combativeness. His ferocious attacks on Peel and his ‘paid janissaries’ and ‘renegades’, most notoriously the unjust charge on 8th June 1846 that Peel had ‘hunted’ Canning to his early death, increased the already high temperature of debate in the Commons. Although his probity and reforming reputation were vindicated on the two occasions when opponents (Lord Lyndhurst in August 1846, Lord John Russell in June 1848) accused him of bringing into politics the disreputable methods of the turf, he readily admitted that if Lyndhurst used the rapier, he himself wielded the broadsword and the bayonet, as in his censure of Prince Albert for giving the crown’s personal sanction to corn-law repeal. His style, consciously different from Peel’s nuanced pragmatism and the equivocal passivity of his own leader Stanley, emphasised the protectionists’ commitment to clear-cut policies; and his methods had the desired effects of implicating his party in his hostility to the ‘Arch Traitor’ and of perpetuating the schism among the Conservatives. He stamped on every attempt at reconciliation, notably Lyndhurst’s improbable ‘grand junction ministry’ of July 1846 in which he was to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. His mission was to purify the Conservative Party by removing all taint of Peelism. Benjamin Disraeli saw him as a modernised Whig of 1688. He called himself a ‘disciple’ of Pitt, whom he saw as far from holding ‘the cold blooded Philosophy of the Political Economists’, a political pedigree reasonable in a former Canningite and with the added attraction of reaching back well beyond Peel[2].

Bentinck made up for inexperience by readiness to take advice, most conspicuously from Disraeli who quickly made himself his lieutenant and whose ‘political biography’ of 1852, despite its flawless hero and its calculated silences, is an indispensable source for the protectionists’ strategies between 1846 and 1848, the more so given the dearth of Bentinck’s papers: these were available to Disraeli but many were apparently destroyed by Portland, though he kept some of his son’s letters to him. Bentinck may not have known Disraeli when he peremptorily refused in 1834 to accept him as a fellow candidate at King’s Lynn. Their acquaintance began in 1842 when Bentinck gave Disraeli a half interest in a filly called Kitten which proved worthless. The friendship of ‘the Jockey and the Jew’ was unlikely and unclouded. The vital trappings of landownership at Hughenden were supplied by Bentinck and his brothers with a loan of £25,000. Disraeli advanced considerably under Bentinck’s patronage and repaid it by real admiration at the time: he described Bentinck privately to Lord John Manners as ‘the only head of decision & real native sagacity, that we possess’ and noted his increasing maturity as a politician[3]. Others whom Bentinck consulted were J. C. Herries, Thomas Baring, and the ‘railway king’ George Hudson, while Richard Burn of Manchester, editor of the Commercial Glance, and H. C. Chapman, a Liverpool ship-owner and protectionist, provided much commercial and political information. Of a piece with the modernity of his interests in railways (he was a major shareholder in the London and Birmingham Railway), agricultural improvement, and navigation and drainage schemes for King’s Lynn and the fens was his keen interest in the newspaper press, and he maintained particularly close links with C. E. de Michele, proprietor of the Morning Post.

The protectionist movement, primarily agrarian but involving shipping and colonial interests as well as commercial elements in the City of London, Liverpool, and elsewhere, with writers such as Archibald Alison, Charles Neave, and William Aytoun in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the contributors to the Quarterly Review under J. W. Croker’s editorship, and the lively satirists of Fraser’s Magazine to conduct a vigorous defence of protectionism on historical, social, political, and economic grounds, presented a formidable ideological challenge to Whiggism, radicalism, and Peelite Conservatism. Protectionists saw themselves as heirs of a broadly Pittite governing ethic. Paternalistic, patriotic, and anti-radical, they believed in a responsive state which, through its tariff and taxation policies, arbitrated between the needs of society and government. Their organicist system aimed at class integration; insisting on the interdependence of consumers and producers, they wanted to promote home and colonial markets for British manufactures as against the free-traders’ emphasis on export-led growth dependent on foreign demand. Bentinck fully shared these views, rejecting only the populist Protestantism of many protectionists.

By insisting in his first major speech on 27th February 1846 that Peel’s policies amounted to ‘a great commercial revolution’ that would damage domestic industry, shipping, and the colonies as well as agriculture, Bentinck tied his party to defending protection on the broadest grounds. He defended the corn laws pragmatically, arguing that their success had boosted farmers’ confidence and generated agricultural improvement and producing as a metaphor for his elaborate calculations about increased yields from applying guano (as to whose good quality as a fertilizer he was right). As a riposte to Peel, he argued that domestic production had more than kept pace with population growth. His handling of the statistics with which his speeches were loaded doubtless owed something to his racing experiences but also reflected his efforts both to match Peel’s and Cobden’s economic expertise and to convince a statistics-obsessed public. By his relentless exposure of the weaknesses in Peel’s case that the Irish subsistence crisis required repeal, his accusation that Ireland was a mere pretext, and his claim that Irish agriculture would be an early victim of free imports, he cast further serious doubts on Peel’s motives and judgement, at least among protectionists. Two-thirds of Peel’s party turned against him in the Commons. Bentinck’s tactics in the complex preparations for bringing Peel down on the Protection of Life (Ireland) Bill were skilful: he kept lines open to the Whigs in unsuccessful negotiations for a moderately protectionist Whig government in April–May 1846; and in refusing Disraeli’s advice to oppose the Irish Coercion Bill but holding the ministry to the alleged urgency of the measure, he put the irreconcilable protectionists in as strong a moral position as was possible. Revenge was now not the prime consideration. He feared, as he told his father (9th June 1846), that Peel might appeal as prime minister to the country and cause ‘a terrible division of the Conservative ranks…Out of office I think for a long time he will be nobody’. On 25th June, he and seventy protectionists joined Peel’s other opponents in defeating the government on the Irish bill.

Bentinck soon showed that his forte did not lie solely in destructive opposition. His programme of February 1847 for famine-stricken Ireland, centring on his ambitious railways scheme and including endowment of the Roman Catholic Church, tenants’ compensation, and taxes on absentee landlords, was a remarkable venture in constructive unionism and social engineering. The railway plan, by which Treasury loans of up to £16,000,000 repayable over thirty years were to be made to railway companies, was designed both to give employment to over a fifth of those half a million people currently employed on ‘unproductive’ public works and to provide Ireland with a modern transport system as a necessary stimulus to British capital investment. These social and economic objectives were linked to broader political considerations. The Union and the dominance of landownership in Britain were to be buttressed by identification with a thriving Irish economy reinvigorated in its social base and hooked into the British market. Although he received warm initial support from the so-called ‘Irish party’ of Whigs, Tories, and nationalists, his plan was wrecked by the eventual collapse of Irish unity, Whig and Peelite economic orthodoxy, and the fears of many of his own followers at the consequences of defeating the Whig government. Although Bentinck had put forward his railway scheme as non-partisan, Russell was right to make it an issue of confidence. It was a question, as Bentinck told his father (19th February 1847), of ‘whether Lord John Russell or I were to govern Ireland’.

Bentinck was convinced that beyond the agrarian heartland that remained solidly protectionist in the general election of 1847, much support was waiting to be tapped in the urban and commercial worlds. He accepted that the status quo ante 1846 was not immediately realisable. The fiscal policy in his election manifesto (24th July 1847), a deliberate reply to Peel’s Tamworth apologia, called for a ‘revision and equalisation of taxation’ to put the overtaxed agriculturist ‘on a fair footing with the Manchester manufacturer’. Excise duties would be abolished and replaced by revenue duties on foreign agricultural and manufactured products; free colonial imports would be allowed; and ‘the mischievous and absurd restrictions’ of Peel’s Bank Charter Act of 1844 would be dealt with. This programme was designed to appeal both to landlords and farmers and to urban shopkeepers and small capitalists, and it foreshadowed Disraeli’s ingenious proposals after 1849. With some 230 MPs the protectionists formed the largest single party, but Bentinck did not last long as its leader in the Commons. He had made his freedom to vote as he thought right on religious questions a condition of becoming leader, and he was disgusted by the ‘No Popery’ cry raised in 1847 by many of the party including the whips, William Beresford and Charles Newdegate, with whom he was often at loggerheads. The same elements’ resistance to the Jewish Disabilities Bill, he told Disraeli (14th November 1847) was ‘the tea table twaddling’ of ‘a pack of Old Maids’ when ‘the greatest Commercial Empire of the World is engaged in a life & death struggle for existence’. Consistently with his support for religious toleration and his loyalty to Disraeli, he spoke and voted for the bill on 17th December 1847. On 23rd December, he resigned as leader without waiting, as he told J. W. Croker, to be ‘cashiered’, temporarily bitter at the degeneration of ‘the great Protectionist Party’ into ‘a ‘No Popery’, ‘No Jew’ Party’.

Overwork, the result of taking too much on himself, his habit of eating nothing after a light breakfast until he dined late at night at White’s, and recurrent, depressing bouts of influenza had damaged his health, as he recognised. Yet he continued as, in Manners’s phrase, ‘the bulwark of the [protectionist] cause’ and with a considerable body of support. Against the drive for further instalments of free trade, the protectionists’ well-organised resistance at least bought time for endangered interests to adapt to new terms of trade. Bentinck’s massive labours, often eighteen hours a day between February and May 1848 as chairman of the select committee on sugar and coffee plantations, finally allowed the bargain to be struck with Russell in August by which British-grown sugar was protected by a 10s differential duty until 1854; and his vigorous defence of the shipping interest helped to secure a year’s postponement of repeal of the navigation laws.

At the end of the 1848 session Bentinck went down on 11th September to Welbeck, and two days later saw the Derby winner Surplice beat Stanley’s Canezou to win the St Leger at Doncaster. On 21st September 1848, he set out to walk the five miles from Welbeck to stay with Lord Manvers at Thoresby. Last seen standing by a water-meadow gate, his head down as if reading, he died on the way of a heart attack. Curious local rumours of suicide or murder were dispelled by the autopsy which revealed ‘congestion over the whole system’, emphysema of the lungs, and a large muscular heart with the appearance of ‘irregular contraction’. He was privately buried on 29th September in the family vault in St Marylebone Old Church. British merchant ships in the Thames from London Bridge to Gravesend, in Liverpool, and in French and Dutch ports hoisted their flags at half-mast in tribute.


[1] The major sources for Bentinck are B. Disraeli Lord George Bentinck: a political biography, 1852, Benjamin Disraeli letters, ed. J. A. W. Gunn and others (1982-), volumes 4-5, The Croker papers: the correspondence and diaries of … John Wilson Croker, ed. L. J. Jennings, volume 3, (1884), pages 127–66, R. Stewart The politics of protection: Lord Derby and the protectionist party, 1841–1852, 1971, A. Macintyre ‘Lord George Bentinck and the protectionists: a lost cause?’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, volume 39, (1989), pages 141–65, F. W. Fetter ‘The economic articles in The Quarterly Review and their authors, 1809-1852’, Journal of Political Economy, volume 66, (1958), F. W. Fetter ‘The economic articles in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and their authors, 1817-1853’, Scottish Journal of Political Economy, volume 7, (1960), pages 85–107, 213–31, The Greville memoirs, 1814–1860, ed. L. Strachey and R. Fulford, 8 volumes, (1938), volume 6, pages 105–22 and N. Gash ‘Lord George Bentinck and his sporting world’, Pillars of government and other essays on state and society, c.1770 – c.1880, 1986.

[2] Disraeli to C. E. de Michele, 19th October 1847

[3] Disraeli to Manners, 26th December 1847

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