Saturday, 10 January 2009

Peel returns

A revised government

The failure of Russell to form a government transformed the prospects for the Peel ministry. Peel was not sorry to be required to carry on and, having been summoned again by his monarch, felt a heightened sense of duty to act as a national rather than a mere party leader. He was always inclined to suppose that if a thing was good to be done it would be better done by himself. Now he believed that, with the elimination of the only possible alternatives, he would resume power ‘with greater means of rendering public service’ than he would have enjoyed had he ‘not relinquished it’. Except for Stanley, who resigned, the cabinet now supported Peel coming round to Wellington’s view that ‘a good Government for the country’ was ‘more important than Corn Laws or any other consideration’. Peel was able to strengthen his cabinet. He brought Gladstone back into the cabinet as colonial secretary, though he had no seat in the Commons. Lord Eliot, former Chief Secretary for Ireland and now Earl of St Germain took the Post Office; Ellenborough was given the Admiralty; and Dalhousie, President of the Board of Trade since Gladstone’s departure was advanced to the cabinet. Palmerston observed to Russell that Peel had ‘on the whole mended his position by resigning, for he has gained some Good Recruits for his Cabinet, and having taken the benefit of the act, he is free from his former entanglements and sets up business as a new man’.

Protectionist opposition

Even before Parliament on 22nd January 1846, the Protectionists were mobilising. Lord Redesdale bitterly complained to Ellenborough of the ‘insane conduct’ of Peel. The Duke of Rutland wrote to Wellington that the ministerial change of policy on the Corn Laws was ‘dangerous’ because it was a ‘species of genuflexion’ towards the Anti-Corn Law League. Lord George Bentinck condemned Peel and his colleagues as ‘no better than common cheats’.

If anything even more outraged than members of the aristocracy were the farmers. They believed that the Conservative victory in 1841 had carried the pledge of protection. The countryside had voted overwhelmingly against the liberalisation of the Corn Laws proposed by the Whig government. For Peel to go beyond even the Whig proposal of 1841 and adopt the League’s demands for free-trade was intolerable. In December 1845, protectionist farmers, led by the Anti-League campaigned against Peel’s proposals. In meetings and through petitions, farmers brought intense pressure to bear to their MPs to stand firm on the Corn Laws. Peel was vilified in meetings and in local newspapers.

Protectionist pressure increased as the date for the parliamentary session approached. Over thirty local protectionist associations met in January and February. Some of these meetings decided to seek protectionist pledges from their MPs and several MPs who felt they could not uphold protection were forced to resign. Protectionist wrath among the electorate even struck down members of the government who had to seek re-election once they were given office. Lord Lincoln, for example, was severely beaten in a contest in which his father, the Duke of Newcastle, had used his influence against him. In addition to by-election defeats, the government was faced with protest resignations from some of the minor Household positions and from the Treasury and Admiralty.

It was a worrying trend, Peel admitted in a letter in late January and there is little doubt that Peel and his colleagues had seriously underestimated the strength of local protectionist sentiment. Peel had ignored the representatives of county constituencies and in doing so made a serious tactical error. His decision is hardly surprising since he had a very low opinion of their abilities. But by leaving the country MPs out of account during the policy discussions prior to the opening of Parliament, he placed them in an awkward position when they faced their constituents in the early days of the Corn Law debates. Since Peel had not consulted them or explained the reasons why repeal was necessary, they had little choice but to conform to their constituents’ demands. Peel’s treatment of his back-benchers in the early weeks of the crisis broke the majority’s loyalty.

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