Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Forthcoming publication

Three Rebellions: Canada 1837-38, South Wales 1839 and Victoria 1854

My latest work to be published in May is a major study of the context, causes, consequences and commemoration of three popular disturbances in the British Empire during the early years of Queen Victoria’s long reign. In the Canadas during 1837 and 1838, at Newport in South Wales in 1839 and at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, Victoria in Australia in 1854, thousands of largely working people took up arms against the forces of colonial rule and oppression. What characterised linked these three events was a popular form of constitutionalism, linked to British radicalism and especially to Chartism that sought constitutional and democratic change but which was denied by colonial oligarchies that sought to retain political power at the centre. All three rebellions failed when faced by the overwhelming force of the colonial state but, although defeated militarily they each played a significant role in the emergence of more responsive and responsible government. Today, the losers are better remembered than those who defeated them in 1837-1838, 1839 and 1854.

The book attempts something that has never been done before: a detailed examination of political developments in Canada, South Wales and Australia in the first six decades of the nineteenth century. It is based on a comprehensive examination of available materials and should appeal to both historians and general readers interested in considering how and why Canada and Australia, two of the most important white-settler colonies of the British Empire, achieved a form of self-government and why reform in Britain took much longer. It also provides analysis of the global impact of British radicalism and the ways in which its ideas were transposed to the colonies and modified in turn by that experience.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Sources: Crisis of 1845-1846: 2

An extract from Lord John Russell’s ‘Edinburgh Letter’ of 22nd November 1845

A heated debate had been raging since 1840 about whether the Corn Laws should or should not be repealed. In 1845 Sir Robert Peel decided that the legislation should be repealed and in this letter, Lord John Russell supported Peel’s decision. This meant that Whig MPs would vote with the Conservative government in the Commons’ vote



The present state of the country, in regard to its supply of food, cannot be viewed without apprehension. Forethought and bold precaution may avert any serious evils; indecision and procrastination may produce a state of suffering which it is frightful to contemplate...

Two evils require your consideration. One of these is the disease in the potatoes, affecting very seriously parts of England and Scotland, and committing fearful ravages in Ireland.

Another evil, however, under which we are suffering, is the fruit of Ministerial counsel and Parliamentary law. It is the direct consequence of an Act of Parliament, passed three years ago, on the recommendation of the present advisers of the Crown. By this law grain of all kinds has been made subject to very high duties on importation. These duties are so contrived that the worse the quality of the corn the higher is the duty; so that when good wheat rises to 70s. a quarter, the average price of all wheat is 57s or 58s., and the duty 15s. or 14s. a quarter. Thus the corn barometer points to fair, while the ship is bending under a storm.

This defect was pointed out many years ago by writers on the Corn Laws, and was urged upon the attention of the House of Commons when the present Act was under consideration.

But I confess that on the general subject my views have in the course of twenty years undergone a great alteration. I used to be of opinion that corn was an exception to the general rules of political economy; but observation and experience have convinced me that we ought to abstain from all interference with the supply of food...

Let us, then, unite to put an end to a system which has been proved to be the blight of commerce, the bane of agriculture, the source of bitter divisions among classes, the causes of penury, fever, mortality, and crime among the people....

Prince Albert’s memorandum on the Corn Laws 25th December 1845

This memorandum written by Prince Albert is a record of a conversation that he had with Peel concerning Peel’s views on the repeal of the Corn Laws. Peel had just resumed office as Prime Minister following his resignation on 5th December and the inability of Lord John Russell to form a ministry.

It is to his own talent and firmness that Sir Robert will owe his success which cannot fail. He said he had been determined not to go to a general election with the fetters the last election had imposed upon him, and he had meant at the end of the next Session to call the whole Conservative Party together and to declare this to them, that he would not meet another Parliament pledged to the maintenance of the Corn Laws, which could be maintained no longer, and that he would make a public declaration to this effect before another general election came on. This had been defeated by events coming too suddenly upon him, and he had no alternative but to deal with the Corn Laws before a national calamity would force it on. The League had made immense progress, and had enormous means at their disposal. If he had resigned in November, Lord Stanley and the Protectionists would have been prepared to form a Government, and a Revolution might have been the consequence of it. Now they felt that it was too late.

Sir Robert has an immense scheme in view; he thinks he shall be able to remove the contest entirely from the dangerous ground upon which it has got - that of a war between the manufacturers, the hungry and the poor against the landed proprietors, the aristocracy, which can only end in the ruin of the latter; he will not bring forward a measure upon the Corn Laws, but a much more comprehensive one. He will deal with the whole commercial system of the country. He will adopt the principle of the League, that of removing all protection and abolishing all monopoly, but not in favour of one class and as a triumph over another, but to the benefit of the nation, farmers as well as manufacturers. He would begin with cotton, and take in all the necessaries of life and corn amongst them. The experiments he had made in 1842 and 1845 with boldness but with caution had borne out the correctness of the principle: the wool duty was taken off, and wool sold higher then ever before; foreign cattle were let in, and the cattle of England stood better in the market than ever. He would not ask for compensation to the land, but wherever he could give it, and at the same time promote the social development, there he would do it, but on that ground.

Letters of Queen Victoria, A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher (eds.), 1908, volume ii, pages 65-66

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Sources: Crisis of 1845-1846

Peel’s Memorandum, read to his Cabinet on 1st November 1845

Peel took office in 1841 on a platform of maintaining the Corn Laws, but by the beginning of November 1845 he had decided on their repeal. He had little support for the measure from his Cabinet and wrote a memorandum setting out his reasons for his change of mind.

‘If we can place confidence in the Reports which we have received, there is the prospect of a lamentable deficiency of the ordinary food of the people in many parts of Ireland, and in some parts of this country, and of Scotland. The evil may be much greater than present reports lead us to anticipate. Potatoes which now appear safe may become infected, and we must not exclude from our consideration the contingency of a great calamity.

With the documents we have in our possession, with the opinions of our own Commissioners as to the probable extent of the evil, the pressing entreaties from the Lord Lieutenant for instructions, the possible contingency that in the course of two months the evil may prove to have been much more extensive than any one has yet contemplated, inaction and indifference might involve the country in serious danger, and the Government in the heaviest responsibility.

I recommend, therefore, that we should in the first place adopt some such measures as were adopted at former periods of much more partial scarcity - that we should authorise the Lord Lieutenant to appoint a Commission for the purpose of considering the mode in which relief, when necessary, can be applied, through the means of employment where employment can be had.... It appears to me that the adoption of these measures, the advance or promise of public money to provide food or employ labour, on account of apprehended scarcity of food, will compel the assembling of Parliament before Christmas. .

I cannot disguise from myself that the calling together of Parliament on account of apprehended scarcity - the prohibition of export in other countries - the removal of restrictions on import (sanctioned, as in the case of Belgium, by an unanimous vote of the Chambers) - the demand for public money, to be applied to provide sustenance for a portion of the people - will constitute a great crisis, and that it will be dangerous for the Government, having assembled Parliament, to resist with all its energies any material modification of the Corn Law. By material modification I mean of the law as it applies to the import of barley, oats, and wheat.

There are reasons - very good ones, under ordinary circumstances -for dealing specially with colonial grain, or with maize, or with rice; but I greatly fear that partial and limited interference with the Corn Law, under the circumstances under which Parliament will assemble (if it be assembled) at the latter end of this month, will be no solution of our difficulties.

Supposing it were granted to me, for the purpose of argument, that the suspension of the Corn Law is inevitable, the question arises, shall the suspension take place by an act of prerogative, or by legislation at the instance of the Government? In favour of suspension by prerogative, there is the argument that it is done at once, that it is decisive for the time, that it prevents all that suspense and stagnation which will follow the notoriety of facts as to the potato crop, the meetings of the Cabinet, the notice in a few days of the summoning of Parliament. It gives the earliest notice in foreign countries, and it gives to the proceeding the character of an act done on an urgent necessity, which no human foresight could have guarded against.

The objections to it are - that it compels instant decision by the Cabinet - that it imposes upon us the necessity of proving that there could be no delay. It may justly be said, Parliament, after much deliberation, sanctioned an elaborate and comprehensive system of Corn Laws. The Crown has the power to summon Parliament by a notice of fourteen days. Why should the Crown, by the stroke of a pen, abrogate laws so fully considered by Parliament, instead of summoning Parliament at the earliest period, and inviting Parliament to do that which it is the proper province of Parliament to do? There is this advantage also in doing whatever it may be necessary to do in the ordinary constitutional mode. It gives us some further time for consideration.

It is possible for us to take this course - to separate today under the strong impression that the meeting of Parliament on some day not later than the 27th of November is inevitable - to have a meeting of the Cabinet finally to decide our course at the latter end of next week. If we then resolve on calling Parliament, to fix the day for the Council at which the day of meeting for the despatch of business shall be determined.

This course is possible, but it leaves unaltered the necessity of determining, before we resolve on calling Parliament, the course we shall pursue. We must make our choice between determined maintenance, modification, and suspension of the existing Corn Law.

In writing the above I have merely considered the question on its own abstract merits, without reference to mere party considerations, or our own position as public men, the authors of the present Corn Law. I am fully aware of the gravity of the considerations connected with this part of the question.’

Peel Memoirs, volume ii, pages 141-148

Goulburn’s letter to Peel on the proposal to suspend the Corn Laws: 30th November 1845

Henry Goulburn was Peel’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and had supported Peel throughout the 1841-1846 ministry. However, Goulburn was reluctant to give his support to Peel in suspending the Corn Laws. The following is Goulburn’s letter expressing his concerns to Peel.

‘I have such an habitual deference to the superiority of your judgement and such an entire confidence in the purity of your motives, that I always feel great doubt as to my being right when I differ from you in opinion. But the more I reflect upon the observations which you made to me a few days since as to your difficulty in again defending a Corn Law in Parliament, the more do I feel alarmed at the consequences of your taking a different course from that which you have previously adopted. An abandonment of your former opinions now would, I think, prejudice your and our characters as public men, and would be fraught with fatal results to the country’s best interests; and as I probably hear many opinions on a subject of this kind which do not reach you, the view which I take of probable consequences may not be undeserving of consideration - at least you will not misinterpret my motives in stating it.

I fairly own that I do not see how the repeal of the Corn Law is to afford relief to the distress with which we are threatened. I quite understand that if we had never had a Corn Law, it might be argued that we should now have had a larger supply in our warehouses, or that from the encouragement given by a free trade in corn to the growth of it in foreign countries, we should have had a larger fund on which to draw for a supply. But I think it next to impossible to show that the abandonment of the law now could materially affect this year’s supply, or give us any corn which will not equally reach us under the law as it

Under these circumstances it appears to me that the abandonment of the Corn Law would be taken by the public generally as decisive evidence that we never intended to maintain it further than as an instrument by which to vex and defeat our enemies. The very caution with which we have spoken on the subject of corn will confirm this impression. Had we always announced a firm determination under all circumstances to uphold the Corn Law, it would have been more readily believed that in abandoning it now we were yielding to the pressure of an overwhelming necessity which we did not before anticipate. But when the public feel, as I believe they do, great doubts as to the existence of an adequate necessity - when greater doubts still are entertained as to the applicability of the abandonment of the Corn Law as a remedy to the present distress - they will, I fear, with few dissentient voices, tax us with treachery and deception, and charge us, from our former language, with having always had it in contemplation.

So much as to the effect on our character as public men. But I view with greater alarm its effects on public interests. In my opinion the party of which you are the head is the only barrier which remains against the revolutionary effects of the Reform Bill. So long as that party remains unbroken, whether in or out of power, it has the means of doing much good, or at least of preventing much evil. But if it be broken in pieces by a destruction of confidence in its leaders (and I cannot but think that an abandonment of the Corn Law would produce that result), I see nothing before us but the exasperation of class animosities, a struggle for pre-eminence, and the ultimate triumph of unrestrained democracy.

Believe me, &c.,


Peel Memoirs, volume ii, pages 201-204

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

Thursday, 15 January 2009

The Corn Law debates

Peel was undeterred by protectionist anger and introduced the bill to repeal the Corn Laws on 27th January 1846.  Outlining his new tariff policy, he proceeded ‘on the assumption that protective duties, abstractedly and on principle’ were objectionable. In doing this, he widened the potential benefits of free trade from Ireland alone to the whole kingdom. He pointed to the falling crime rates and increased social stability in the country since the 1842 Corn Law.

The heart of the new proposal was the abolition of all duties in corn after February 1849 in order to allow the landed interest time to prepare for the change the laws. After this date all imported grains would pay only a ‘nominal’ registration duty of 1s a quarter.  Until then, there would be a duty of 10s per quarter when domestic corn was less than 48s per quarter, falling to 4s when the price rose to 53s and above. Although it was slightly less generous towards farmers than the original proposal in December 1845, the scheme retained its gradualist nature.  There was a great deal more to the proposal than Corn Law abolition. It immediately repealed duties on salt and fresh pork, live cattle, and all vegetables and reduced butter and cheese duties. The differential between colonial ‘free’ sugar and slave-grown sugar was further reduced.  Peel’s tariff reductions affected more than imported goods. As in 1842, he reduced or abolished duties on a range of manufactured goods including textiles, timber, shoes and soap.

The landowners lost their protection but were offered several things by way of compensation including the reduction on seed duties and the free import of maize and buckwheat. This would reduce the cost of fattening cattle and make stock farmers more competitive. Arable farmers would be provided with state loans at low interest rates to improve their agricultural practices especially poor drainage. Further compensatory measures included the assumption by the public treasury of certain expenses previously borne by the localities: the prosecution and maintenance of prisoners and the expenses of Poor Law medical officers, school-teachers and auditors. The highway rate would be reduced by consolidating local highway administration from 16,000 local authorities to only 600. The law of settlement that had allowed urban authorities to return the unemployed poor to their original rural residences during slumps in the economy was abolished. The lightening of these local taxes, paid largely by farmers, would, Peel hoped, make them more amenable to Corn Law repeal.

The tariff scheme in 1846 can be seen as the culmination of Peel’s attempt to bring orderly economic growth and social stability. It was a well-structured and complementary package that simultaneously reduced the cost of living, compensated the farmers and gave manufacturers cheaper raw materials. By reducing the threat from the Anti-Corn Law League, Peel also hoped to further reduce levels of public tension and class division.

The debate

Peel emphasised the social benefits of free trade and this gave his opponents reason to thin that the Irish famine was merely a pretext for Corn Law repeal. They did not believe that the potato blight was as serious as Peel maintained. Nor did they believe that the compensations offered would enable farmers to meet successfully the threat from lower prices of foreign agricultural produce on the domestic market. Most galling to the Protectionists was the change in Peel’s mind about the Corn Laws and the ‘treason’ to his party. During the debate on the Queen’s Speech, Peel candidly admitted that he had changed his mind and that he recognised that the proposals were ‘the worst measures for party interests that could have been brought forward’. Protectionists hinted broadly that Peel ought to resign his leadership of the party or, at the very least he should go to the country on the tariff scheme. Peel was, however, determined that the matter should be settled in Parliament and not at the polls.

The Protectionists did more than merely complain about Peel. On 9th February 1846, they implemented the Duke of Richmond’s implied threat of delay by moving an amendment asking for a six month postponement. The debate lasted twelve nights and culminated on 27th February with the first speech of Lord George Bentinck, soon to be the acknowledged leader of the Protectionists. He dismissed the ‘pretended’ potato famine and produced a mass of statistics to prove the protectionist case. At the end of the speech, Peel had a comfortable majority ob the first reading of 97 (337 against and 240 for). However, of the 337 who voted for the government, only 112 were Conservative. Two-thirds of his party had deserted Peel.

The Protectionists continued their delaying tactics but were unsuccessful in preventing the second reading in late March. During the third reading in May, the personal attacks on Peel grew in intensity and reached a climax with Disraeli’s speech during the final night of the debate. He declared that Peel’s political life was nothing more than ‘one great appropriation clause’ and that he had ‘traded on the ideas and intelligence of others’. He described the other Peelite ministers as ‘political pedlars that bought their party in the cheapest market and sold us in the dearest’. Disraeli’s voicing of genuine back-bench anguish could not overcome the Whig-Peelite combination and the bill was given its third reading in 15th May 1846 (majority of 98 but only 112 Conservative MPs voting in favour) and sent to the House of Lords.

While Corn Law repeal was making its tortuous way through Parliament, the government was also pushing ahead with other Irish measures.  In March, it introduced the Fever Bill that would create a Board of Health in Dublin to supervise the construction of fever hospitals and to provide medical assistance to those suffering from fever because of scarcity.  More controversial was the Protection of Life Bill that proved to be the most crucial measure in the session because it was this proposal that saw Peel’s defeat in the Commons and the end of his government. The Bill was introduced in the House of Lords in February 1846. Its aim was to pacify Ireland and it represented a retreat to the more coercionist policies of 1843. It was a harsh measure though no more than the Whig 1833 Act and there was little opposition in the Lords.

Initially, there was little opposition in the Commons apart from Irish MPs like O’Connell and other groups seemed to support the first reading. The Protectionists supported it because the ensuing debate would inevitably delay repeal. Lord John Russell did not favour the bill and was displeased by the Whig peers’ support for it. However, he did not want to jeopardise Peel’s government until after repeal was achieved. This led him to temporise during the early stages of the bill while reserving his options until the later stages. He recognised that should there be a conjunction of Protectionists and Whigs against the bill, the ministry would be defeated.

Corn and coercion absorbed parliamentary energies throughout April and May 1846. A well-founded rumour of a projected alliance between Irish Whig peers and Conservative protectionist peers was motivated by the growing distaste for the disorders in Ireland among the Irish peers. Desiring a coercion bill, they were willing to compromise on Corn Law repeal, if the Protectionists would support coercion. To counter this threat, Russell convened them at Lansdowne House on 23rd May and threatened resignation as party leader if they voted against Corn Law repeal and the revolt collapsed. Russell’s action had three important consequences: It gave the Whigs, for the first time in years, a party unity; removed the last obstruction to Corn Law abolition; and, removed any reason among the Protectionists for delay on the Protection of Life Bill.

When the debate on the second reading of the Protection of Life Bill started in the House of Commons in early June, Bentinck announced that the Protectionists had changed their minds and now opposed the legislation. On 25th June, the Commons voted against the second reading of the bill. An uneasy combination of Whigs, Irish liberals, Leaguers and Protectionists had turned out the Peel government by a vote of 292 to 219. Peel had the satisfaction of seeing half the Protectionists vote for the coercion bill. Their anti-Irish feeling had overcome the factious desire to oppose on this occasion.

The defeat left Peel with two alternatives: he could appeal to the country in a general election or resign. He chose the latter. In any case, the Corn Bill was safe having already received the Royal Assent. In his resignation speech on 28th June, Peel widened the breach with his former supporters by giving the whole credit for repeal to Richard Cobden, who was in their eyes no better than a demagogue. He ended with a prayer that he might leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of goodwill in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice[1].

The Protectionist tactic of trying to break Peel was probably the right approach for without Peel, it is unlikely that Corn Law repeal would have been successful in 1846. Of course, it was not his achievement alone. He was closely supported by Graham and, in the later stages of the debate Russell had lent timely assistance. But it was Peel who, since late 1845 when the first rumours of famine reached England, had provided the determination to relieve Ireland and it was this determination that won his cabinet to a policy of Corn Law repeal.


Retribution was swift and Peel did not hold office again. He did not regret his expulsion from office seeing it as a relief from ‘an intolerable burden’. Nor did he take an active part in Conservative party politics after 1846 despite numerous appeals from non-protectionist MPs to do so. In his last four years, he refused to lead his ‘Peelites’ and offered advice and support to the incoming Whig government, particularly on economic matters. He stood above the party fray, an elder statesman who had put the interests of the nation above all others. Peel’s legacy was an uncomfortable one for the ‘Peelites’, especially William Gladstone, whose careers dominated the next thirty years. The driving force of British politics had become the party system yet the Peelites were not ‘party men’. Like Peel, they found that their consciences did not always fit well with the need to play politics and take account of prevailing party opinions. Peel’s death, after a horse-riding accident, in July 1850 was universally mourned.

[1] Hansard 3, 87.1055

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.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Towards repeal

In the late summer of 1845, disquieting rumours of the failure of some of the Irish potato crop reached England. The potato blight was not limited to Ireland: the whole of central and Western Europe was threatened by it during the wet and cold summer of 1845, but the blight was more serious because of Ireland’s dependence on the potato as the staple diet of much of its population. Peel realised the significance of the poor potato crop in Ireland almost immediately. If potatoes should fail completely in Ireland and Europe and the wheat crop fall short in England, then a widespread famine might occur. Peel well knew the appalling consequences of famine as he had witnessed an Irish famine while Chief Secretary in 1817[1].

As late as October, some optimism that most of the potatoes in Ireland could be salvaged still existed. However, by the end of the month, it was evident that the failure was extensive. The government was faced with two problems: to find adequate supplies of food; and to create the machinery for its distribution. Both Peel and Graham recognised that the government must act quickly and that every barrier to the efficient transport of food had to be removed. The most obvious barrier was the restrictive Corn Laws.

Peel and Graham believed that it would be impossible merely temporarily to suspend the Corn Laws. Its suspension on the grounds of alleviating scarcity would imply that the government favoured scarcity as a general policy should it be re-imposed. This reason alone argued strongly for Corn Law abolition.  Nor would it be possible to open the Irish ports to unrestricted grain imports and yet retain their closure in England.  Finally, if grain was to be supplied to Ireland using public funds, the public would reasonably expect that the purchase should be made in the cheapest markets and this could only be done if import barriers were removed.

Convincing the Cabinet

Peel and Graham first briefed the cabinet on the situation in Ireland on 31st October 1845. The first of Peel’s recommendations was the creation of a committee in Ireland to coordinate famine relief. This was favourably received by the cabinet on 1st November and two days later Graham informed Heytesbury of the decision.

The Famine Commission (or Scarcity Commission as it was also called) would have wide investigative and remedial authority.  The Commissioners would include the Head of the Irish Constabulary and the Inspector of the Coast Guard who would use their forces in gathering information. The Head of the Board of Public Works would encourage employment of the peasantry on roads, bridges, and railway and drainage projects. The Commissary in Chief would be responsible for the purchase and transport of food. The fifth commissioner was the new Poor Law Commissioner who was responsible for the distribution of food from union workhouses. In a letter to Heytesbury, Graham left open the possibility of appointing some ranking public servant to a sixth position. Peel suggested an Irish Catholic and Robert J. Kane, a professor at Queen’s College, Cork was named.  Although there were inevitable delays and administrative problems in the early days of the Commission, it had solid achievements to its credit within a few months. These included the creation of depots for imported Indian corn or maize (£100,000 of corn was imported and released on to the market as a way of preventing prices rising too high), the collection of £100,000 from private government subscriptions and the employment of 12,000 labourers a day.

In November and early December 1845, cabinet discussion continued on Peel’s second recommendation: the abolition of the Corn Laws. Parliament was not in session and it was decided to keep the discussions on the Corn Laws secret. However, the frequency of the cabinet meetings made it obvious to the public that there was serious disagreement among its members. Stanley was the firmest opponent of abolition arguing that it was too drastic. Lord Lincoln feared that small farmers would be swept away by repeal. Goulburn added his doubts to those of his colleagues believing that the failure of the Irish potato crop was only a temporary emergency. Like Stanley, Goulburn also feared the effect of Corn Law repeal on the Conservative party; the rank and file would regard the leadership as traitors and the party would be broken.

Peel’s attempt to covert his cabinet colleagues reached a climax in the first week of December. In meetings on 2nd, 4th and 5th, Peel produced a memorandum that made specific new proposals altering the Corn Law. The revisions made in the 1842 Corn Law established a duty of 20s per quarter when the domestic price reached 51s per quarter; the duty decreased by 1s for every shilling rise in the domestic price until only a nominal 1s per quarter remained after domestic wheat reached 73s per quarter. Peel proposed retaining the sliding scale, but a reduction of the duty from 20s to 8s per quarter.  In addition, the duty would be reduced by 1s a year following 1846 so that within eight years there would be no duty at all and corn would be duty-free.  This was a moderate and gradual approach to free trade and it continued the trend of state policy towards corn imports followed by successive governments since 1828. However, it was not well received by the cabinet. Stanley and the Duke of Buccleuch threatened to resign and the remainder only supported Peel reluctantly. In the light of the response from his closest supporters, Peel recognised that it was very unlikely that he could carry through any relaxation of the Corn Laws through Parliament, much less their abolition. On 6th December, he tendered his resignation to the Queen.

A Whig interlude

In November and early December, the Whigs had been manoeuvring to take what political advantage they could of the divisions within the cabinet. They were concerned that Peel might ultimately decide to steal a march on the Whig position on the Corn Laws. To preclude this, Lord John Russell made his position clear in his Letter to the Electors of the City of London, the so-called ‘Edinburgh Letter’ on 22nd November 1845. In it, he announced his conversion of Corn Law repeal, with the strong implication that this was also the line to be adopted by the Whigs in the next parliamentary session (though he had not consulted his colleagues on the issue). By placing the Whig position first before the public, Russell could claim to have prodded Peel into action, if the Conservatives came to similar free-trade conclusions.

Russell hoped the Whigs would gain a useful political initiative and when, within two weeks of the publication of the Letter Peel resigned, it seemed that Russell’s gamble had paid off. Unfortunately, he had not calculated very accurately the results of his action. By committing himself to free-trade, he had alerted the Protectionists and if they were strong enough to bring down Peel, then there was no guarantee that they could not do the same to the Whigs. Russell was not only engaged in finding support for Corn Law abolition outside Whig ranks, but in negotiating among his Whig colleagues for a viable cabinet. He soon discovered that two colleagues, whom he considered as indispensable could not be in the same cabinet. Earl Grey objected to the inclusion of Palmerston at the Foreign Office suggesting the Colonial Office instead. Grey was such a prominent free-trade supporter that Russell could not omit him from any free-trade cabinet. It was similarly unthinkable not to include Palmerston and he was unwilling to take anything other than the Foreign Office. The result was stalemate. As Russell explained in a letter to the Queen on 20th December 1845, a division among his colleagues in a minority government did not augur well for its continuance. Peel hoped that Lord John Russell and the Whigs would form a government, pass repeal through Parliament and perhaps allow him to keep the Conservative Party together. Lord John Russell may have recently announced his conversion to repeal in his ‘Edinburgh Letter’ but he was unenthusiastic about forming a minority administration. Peel was again summoned by the Queen. The ‘poisoned chalice’ was passed back.

[1] Cecil Woodham-Smith The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849, Penguin Books, London, England, 1991, first edition, 1962 remains a graphic narrative. Christine Kinealy This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1997 and The Great Irish Famine, Palgrave, 2001 provide a more modern perspective.

Monday, 5 January 2009

1845-1846: A Crisis of Conservatism

The crisis of Conservatism began with the dispute over the Maynooth grant in 1845 and ended with the repeal of the Corns Laws in 1846 followed by the end of the Peel government. It is tempting to see the division of the Conservative party in 1846 as inevitable and the disagreements between Peel and his back-bench MPs from 1842 as steps towards the final confrontation. There were certainly difficulties between Peel and his MPs but this did not make division inevitable. Political parties have survived even when dogged by disagreement. What made the divisions of 1845-1846 different was that they concerned the issue of the Corn Laws.


Relations between Peel and his backbenchers had been difficult from the early days of his ministry. It was not simply a matter of differences on policy. Many Conservative MPs regarded Peel as insensitive to their interests and he made little attempt to court backbench opinion. He unadvisedly took the loyalty of Conservatives in Parliament for granted and was irritated when this was withheld. Peel managed his government but he made little effort to manage his party. The 1842 budget led to considerable criticism. Poor law and factory reform also resulted in back bench discontent. Over fifty Conservatives, largely representing northern seats opposed the extension of the poor law and supported the reduction of the working day to ten hours. These rebellions did not threaten Peel’s position in the early years of his government but the divisions within the party they represented were merely papered over. It was a normal and regular feature of parliamentary politics for MPs to vote against their leaders on issue that were not considered to be of major importance. This was not indicative of a general desire to bring Peel’s government down or represented a repudiation of Peel’s leadership.

In 1844 divisions widened further. Ninety-five Tories voted for Ashley’s amendment to the Factory Bill in March. In June, sixty-one Tories supported an amendment to the government proposal to reduce the duty on foreign slave-grown sugar by almost half while leaving sugar from the West Indies unaltered. Both amendments were carried and though Peel had little difficulty in reversing them his approach caused considerable annoyance. Peel believed that government defeats reduced his authority but was not prepared to reach an accommodation with the dissident MPs. He threatened to resign if they refused to support him. Reluctantly, but also because there was no alternative to Peel, they fell into line. However, on the Maynooth grant in 1845, 149 Conservatives voted against the proposal and 148 in favour. Party morale was at a low level by mid-1845 and party unity was showing signs of terminal strain. On Maynooth and then the Corn Laws[1], Peel pushed his party too far.

When did Peel decide to repeal the Corn Laws?

It seems likely that Peel seized on the opportunity provided by the potato famine to implement free trade policies on which he had already made up his mind. The critical question is at what point did he become converted to the ideas put forward by the middle class radicals of the Anti-Corn Law League? It is not possible to provide a definitive answer but Boyd Hilton may be right that Peel had accepted the intellectual arguments in favour of free trade in the 1820s long before the League came into existence and that by 1841 he recognised it was ‘theoretically correct’ that the Corn Laws would eventually have to be repealed. The moves to free trade in the 1842 and especially the 1845 budgets made the continuance of the Corn Laws increasingly untenable. Yet Peel did not announce his conversion to repeal until the end of 1845. Why?

First, he may have accepted the need for repeal but he was the leader of a Protectionist party. He needed time to persuade his supporters of the arguments for repeal. The Irish potato famine did not give him that time. It was the occasion rather than the cause of repeal that Peel would probably have preferred to put to the electorate in 1847 or 1848.  Secondly, Peel disapproved of extra-parliamentary pressure and viewed the Anti-Corn Law League with considerable suspicion. The success of the League, especially between 1841 and 1844, may have persuaded Peel not to move quickly to repeal. He saw it as his duty to act in the national interest and did not want to be accused of acting under pressure. The activities of the League threatened to divide propertied interests and Peel saw that social stability was essential if there was to be economic growth. Giving in to the League was not an acceptable political option.  Peel was also critical of the League’s propaganda especially its use of the language of class warfare. The strident, anti-aristocratic attacks by the League on landowners and the creation of a Protectionist Anti-League raised the spectre of commercial and industrial property being pitted against agricultural property. This, Peel believed, would significantly weaken the forces of property against those agitating for democratic rights.

Perhaps the nearest thing we have to evidence that Peel was nurturing a plan for repeal before the Irish famine and that this crisis merely hastened the timetable for action is provided by Prince Albert’s account of a conversation with Peel on Christmas Day 1845. Though this cannot be taken as conclusive proof of Peel’s intentions because he was speaking to the Prince shortly after the decision to proceed with the Corn Law, it is probably a good indication of what he had in mind. According to Peel’s original plan, the Conservative party was going to be persuaded to drop its commitment to agricultural protection before the general election due in 1847 or 1848, with repeal to follow sometime during the next parliament, probably in the early 1850s. Peel’s conversation with Prince Albert suggests that his decision was motivated less by the crisis in Ireland but by fears of how the crisis might be exploited by the radical supporters of repeal in Britain.

Certainly, in 1844-1845, the campaign of the Anti-Corn Law League entered a new and politically more threatening phase. Urban supporters of free trade were encouraged to purchase freehold properties in county constituencies so as to qualify themselves for the vote in parliamentary elections. This deliberate manufacturing of voters was concentrated in South Lancashire, North Cheshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire and Middlesex but by November 1845 there was a broader plan for challenging landed MPs in their county strongholds across the country. At the same time, the League responded to the famine in Ireland by demanding immediate repeal, a move Peel feared would succeed in persuading the British public that protection was somehow responsible for Ireland’s plight. This claim may be illogical and dishonest but it might, if it gained credence in people’s minds risk depicting the government as callous and defending the interests of landowners while Ireland starved. Peel was anxious to prevent radicals from using the current crisis to launch a class-based attack on landowners by promoting a wider settlement of the free trade issue that would appeal to the whole nation.

Peel may have not been prepared to repeal the Corn Laws if this could be seen as surrendering to external pressure but, by 1845, there were powerful practical arguments that repeal was in the national interest. The Corn Laws were designed to protect farmers against the corn surpluses, and hence cheap imports, of European producers. However, by the mid-1840s there was a widespread shortage of corn in Europe. Peel reasoned that British farmers had nothing to fear from repeal because there were no surpluses to flood the British market. The nation would benefit, the widespread criticism of the aristocracy would be removed and the landowning classes were unlikely to suffer. This was too sophisticated for the Protectionists. Their case can be seen, in retrospect, as narrow but contemporaries did not recognise this. For small landowners and tenant farmers, the most vocal supporters of protection, repeal meant ruin. Peel’s argument that free trade would offer new opportunities for efficient farmers made little impact.

Peel said later that ‘in the interval between the passing of the Corn Bill in 1842, and the close of the Session of 1845’ the opinions he had ‘previously entertained on the subject of protection to agriculture had undergone a great change’, and that ‘many concurring proofs’ had demonstrated to him that ‘the wages of labour do not vary [he meant fall] with the price of corn’. In 1844, he found himself unable to answer the arguments used by Cobden, and in 1845 he agreed with Graham, who said that, following the failure of the potato, ‘the Anti-Corn Law pressure’ would become ‘the most formidable movement in modern times’.

[1] The connection between Maynooth and repeal are clear. Of the 153 Conservative MPs who voted against the government at some stage in 1845, 133 voted against repeal and only twenty supported Peel.