Wednesday, 16 August 2017

How ‘liberal’ were the Tory governments of 1822-1830?

In the early 1820s, Liverpool made important changes in his Cabinet. Canning became Foreign Secretary after Castlereagh’s suicide and Peel replaced Sidmouth at the Home Office in 1822. Robinson took the place of Vansittart at the Exchequer and Huskisson became President of the Board of Trade in 1823. W. R. Brock suggested in 1941 that a ‘reactionary’ phase (1815-1821) when anti-reforming or ‘Ultra’ Tory ministers like Sidmouth suppressed liberties in defence of public order was followed by a ‘liberal’ one (1822-1827) in which ‘Liberal Tories’ like Huskisson, Peel and Robinson introduced reforms in fiscal policy, trade and the legal system. These were not cosmetic changes but for Brock represented a new style of politics. Castlereagh, Sidmouth and Vansittart supported repression abroad and high taxes at home. Canning, Peel, Huskisson and Robinson championed ‘liberal’ reforms at home and a ‘liberal’ policy abroad.


There are, however, several problems with this argument. What was ‘Liberal Toryism’? Brock admitted that ‘The name is artificial—that is to say it was not found in the mouths of contemporaries.’ John Plowright is rightly critical of Brock’s use of the ‘Liberal Toryism’, which ‘implies a political philosophy or system of thought that is peculiarly unsuited to the pragmatism of politicians such as Canning.’ How far did ‘liberals’ dominate government? The Cabinet after 1823 was one in which all shades of Tory opinion was represented. Liverpool provided continuity across the period 1815 to 1827 and he was certainly the only man who could hold together the Cabinet between 1822 and 1827. In addition, the ‘new’ ministers of 1822-1823 had already served in Liverpool’s government and the ministers associated with the policy of repression, except for Castlereagh, did not leave the political stage. Finally, the important division within the Cabinet after 1822 was not between ‘liberal’ and ‘ultra’ but between those Tories who supported Catholic Emancipation and those who opposed it. Liverpool sensibly made this an ‘open question’.[1] On this issue, Peel and Canning who Brock sees as ‘liberals’ stood at opposite poles.


If Brock’s argument about people can be challenged, what about changes in policy? Many of the ‘liberal’ initiatives of the 1820s were discussed or proposed between 1815 and 1821. Sidmouth had proposed some of the penal reforms later introduced by Peel. Canning’s foreign policy was a clear extension of his predecessor Castlereagh. Robinson’s fiscal and Huskisson’s commercial policies owed much to the general economic strategy and stimulus to trade agreed in 1819 and 1820. What was different in these years was the context. The revival of the economy from 1820-1821 and the decline in the mass radicalism meant that Peel, Huskisson and Robinson were operating in calmer times than Sidmouth and Vansittart. The focus was less on maintaining public order, more on making Britain’s economy prosperous. Brock’s argument focuses on Liverpool’s administration neglecting the three years up to 1830. Fiscal and commercial policies remained largely unchanged and Peel continued his reforms of the legal system with the introduction of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 under Canning, Goodrich and Wellington. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and Catholic Emancipation a year later represent a significant shift in policy towards constitutional change.


In practice, Liverpool’s administration was neither reactionary nor suddenly reformist in 1822. Any change of ministers, especially in the key positions is going to have an impact on the running of government. There was certainly an increase in the pace of reform and the presentation of policy by the government was improved. However, this did not mean that the substance of government policy and the principles on which it was based underwent radical change. The similarities of the years before and after 1822-1823 outweigh the differences.


Lord Liverpool’s incapacitating stroke in February 1827 and his resignation a month later released tensions over religion and constitutional reform he had managed to hold in check. Within three years, his party was in tatters, divided and without effective leadership, leaving the Whigs in power. When Canning became Prime Minister in April, leading Tories including Wellington and Peel refused to serve under him largely because he was a supporter of Catholic Emancipation. The 1826 General Election strengthened the ‘Protestant’ Tories[2] in the House of Commons and Canning had no wish to weaken his position by pursuing a policy unpopular in his own party. Canning was also viewed with suspicion by right-wing Tories in two other areas. He wanted to restructure the Corn Laws and to pursue a foreign policy that improved Britain’s global trading position. Both threatened protection and moves towards freer trade at the expense of farmers threatened to split the Tory party.


When Canning died in August 1827, he was succeeded by Frederick Robinson, Viscount Goderich who had been an able Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, he was a disastrous Prime Minister and resigned the following January. The king then turned to Wellington supported by Peel as leader of the Commons. To begin with, Wellington looked as if he could hold the Tories together but cracks soon began to appear. In May 1828, Huskisson and his allies resigned from the government over internal disagreements with colleagues. Wellington found his position weakened by the need to give way over Catholic Emancipation in 1829. ‘Protestant’ opinion within the Tory party was outraged. The death of George IV necessitated the 1830 General Election that, despite having granted Catholic Emancipation, was not a disaster for the government. However, Wellington’s opposition to parliamentary reform was. His statement on 2 November that the existing constitution was in need of no further reform was an attempt to unite his party but it had disastrous consequences. It united all those opposed to Wellington--Whigs, radicals, ultra and ‘liberal’ Tories. He no longer had the confidence of Parliament and resigned on 16 November 1830. The Whigs returned to government committed to parliamentary reform


How ‘liberal’ was the government’s reaction to the need for legal reform?


There were growing concern about the effectiveness of the legal system. In the civil courts procedures were out of date and cases were frequently subject to long delays. The criminal law was seen as harsh and juries often preferred to find prisoners not guilty rather than sentence them to death for minor capital crimes. There were over 200 capital offences and a further 400 that could lead to transportation. There was no regular police force and the state of prisons had been subject to harsh criticism by John Howard in the 1770s, Sir Frederick Eden in the 1790s and Elizabeth Fry after 1810.[3]


This led to demands for reform of criminal justice from the first decade of the century. Campaigners like Sir Samuel Romilly protested at the ‘lottery of justice’: there was uncertainty about the punishment for different offences and even when the death sentence was passed it was far from certain that it would be carried out. Judges had too much discretionary power and responded to different offences in different ways. Whig historians[4] of criminal justice have applauded Romilly and the other reformers who were able to get things done because of an increasing level of cross-party parliamentary opinion. The opponents of reform, however, had a strong case. They insisted that justice was not a lottery and that judicial discretion was sensible and conscientiously practised. Reformers could point to injustices but anti-reformers pointed to many examples that showed the system working with mercy and moderation. The problem for the opponents of reform was that moderate and influential Tories like Peel were sympathetic to the reformers’ image of justice.


Sir Robert Peel’s appointment as Home Secretary in 1822 led to significant reform of the legal system. It is, however, important to recognise that he built on initiatives from the earlier part of Liverpool’s government especially the recommendations of Sir James Mackintosh’s 1819 committee that the legal system was in need of reform to make it more acceptable, less archaic and fairer in its operation by removing out-dated laws. Peel’s reforms fell into two distinct types--reform of the legal system and more efficient policing. The prison system was reformed and central control was tightened. In 1823 the Gaol Act, followed by amending legislation the following year, tried to establish a degree of uniformity throughout the prisons of England and Wales. The legislation laid down health and religious regulations, required the categorisation of prisoners and directed magistrates to inspect prisons three times a year and demanded that annual reports be sent from each gaol to the Home Office. Many local gaols ignored at least some of these regulations and Peel reluctant to antagonise local sensibilities about independence, made no attempt to impose a national system of inspection. It was not until 1835 that the reforming Whig government of Melbourne, with Lord John Russell at the Home Office, established a prison Inspectorate of five with only limited powers. The creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 represented a new conception of policing. Full-time, professional and well organised, the police were intended to be the impersonal agents of central policy. However, the ‘new’ police often turned out to be very similar to the old, in personnel, efficiency and tactics. It was only later in the 1830s that legislation was introduced that would fulfil Peel’s intentions.[5]


How significant were the reforms Peel introduced? Compared to Lord John Russell, Home Secretary between 1835 and 1839, some historians argue that Peel merely ‘tinkered’ with the system by repealing statutes that were no longer used. Peel’s reputation as a prison reformer is also suspect as he simply put on the statute book in 1823 and 1824 legislation accepted by the government three years earlier. His introduction of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 built on his experience as Chief Secretary in Ireland where, in 1814, he had established an efficient police system. However, Peel established one important principle. He recognised that an effective legal system needed to operate within a framework of centrally determined policies and that, even if the administration of justice still lay largely at the local level there needed to be central supervision of the process.



How did the government react to demands for religious equality?


Catholics and Nonconformists had long been subjected to discrimination because of their beliefs. In practice, the Corporation Act 1661 and the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678 meant that Nonconformists and Catholics had few political rights.[6] The campaign by Nonconformists for the repeal of this legislation began in the 1780s. The issue of Catholic rights was more complex and in 1801, William Pitt’s proposals for Catholic Emancipation were blocked by the king. The Catholic question remained unresolved throughout Liverpool’s administration. Between 1812 and 1827, an agreement existed that the cabinet would remain neutral on the issue and would not raise Emancipation as a matter of government business. This did not prevent individual ministers from differing on the issue.


The formation of the Catholic Association in 1823, led by Daniel [7] renewed Catholic agitation in Ireland and revived interest in Emancipation. Bills giving varying concessions to Catholics passed the Commons in 1821, 1822 and 1825 but the Lords rejected them all. While Liverpool was Prime Minister, the repeal of discriminating legislation was successfully resisted and he successfully contained differing opinions among his ministers. His resignation in early 1827 and the rapid succession of Canning and then Goderich meant that the Catholic question could no longer be avoided. It is ironic that the most ‘Protestant’ of Tories, the duke of Wellington first repealed the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and the following year conceded Catholic Emancipation.


In 1828 and 1829, Wellington was faced by a stark dilemma. He was aware that if he took any action that threatened the supremacy of the Church of England, he would face widespread opposition from his own MPs. A strong alliance of extra-parliamentary Nonconformists championed the well-organised campaign for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. Peel piloted the legislation through the Commons and in the Lords where the bishops overwhelmingly supported the proposal. Catholic Emancipation was, however, a different matter.


By 1828, resistance to Catholic Emancipation was crumbling. Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts established the principle that the constitution could be changed. When Huskisson resigned from the Board of Trade in May 1828, he was replaced by Vesey Fitzgerald, an Irish Protestant MP who favoured Catholic Emancipation. In the subsequent County Clare by-election, O’Connell stood against him and won. As a Catholic O’Connell could not take his seat in the Commons and Wellington and Peel were faced with two alternatives. They could use force to ban the Catholic Association, but there were insufficient troops in Ireland to do that or they could concede Emancipation. Calling a General Election on the issue would have solved nothing--the 1826 Election showed the strength of anti-Catholicism on the mainland--but it was likely that British rule in Ireland would be challenged if large numbers of ineligible Irish Catholic MPs were elected. Wellington concluded that Emancipation was necessary to prevent civil war in Ireland. Despite opposition in both Commons and Lords, Emancipation was easily achieved largely because Wellington could count on the support of the Whigs.


This undermined the Protestant basis of his government and split the Tories. By early 1829, the Ultras were a party within a party. The cost for Wellington and Peel was high. They had betrayed their party and although his ministry limped on for over a year it was barely supported by many Tories and vigorously opposed by the Whigs. Wellington hoped that things would improve before the next General Election scheduled for 1832-1833 but the death of George IV at the end of June 1830 ended this hope.


[1] ‘Open question’. Catholic Emancipation was such a divisive issue in the Tory Party that Lord Liverpool decided that his ministers could either support or oppose it. This meant that he could keep his Cabinet together.
[2] Protestant Tories’ opposed Catholic Emancipation. ‘Ultra-Tories’ were active in the Tory Party from the 1820s through to the 1850s. They opposed Catholic Emancipation and supported the Corn Laws but were on the losing side in every cause they championed.
[3] John Howard (1726-1790) and Elizabeth Fry (1750-1845) were leading champions of prison reform. Howard was especially concerned with improving prison sanitation while Fry was concerned with the treatment of women prisoners.
[4] Whig historians interpreted history as a process of improvement and saw the past through contemporary moral ideas.
[5] In the 1830s that legislation. The Municipal Corporation Act 1835 and the Rural Constabulary Act 1839 spread the new police into the provincial boroughs and enabled counties to establish police forces. The County and Borough Police Act 1856 completed the process subjecting the police to central inspection and allowing grants to police forces certified as ‘efficient’.
[6] The Corporation Act prevented Nonconformists being elected to town councils but they could be MPs under the 1678 Test Act because there was no requirement to take the Anglican Communion. The two Test Acts prevented Catholics from membership of either the Commons or Lords unless they took the oath of supremacy and allegiance and an anti-Catholic declaration condemning ‘superstitious and idolatrous’ Roman practices.
[7] Daniel O’ Connell (1775-1847) was known as ‘The Liberator’. He founded the Catholic Association in 1823 as a mass movement to campaign for Catholic Emancipation. In the 1840s, he campaigned for the repeal of the Act of Union.