Now this, for me is the most exciting stuff – the 19th century, where the world really changes – or at least notices that it’s changed, a century of reform, and some great names of British politics. I give you Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Salisbury. The century of Empire and colonialism, social and political reform, the forging of a modern state. If I believe what I am hearing it seems to have fallen out of fashion in schools – or if the twitter complaints are to be believed. From the age of 15 I did little else in history terms, and it was a lot of fun. Well maybe a bit of Nazis too.
We are going to start off by setting the scene a bit with a bit of political poetry. On that, the next episode will be about a poet of a similar brand, one William Wordsworth. It’s not me, because I have a tin ear for poetry, but it is by Martin Vaux of the Three Raven’s podcast. It’s about Wordsworth life, poetry, and a bit about his political journey. I hope you will enjoy it.
But now, back to Shelley. I feel I have quoted this before, and if so sorry. It’s like my anecdotes – I’ve run out of new ones so like any self respecting parent I simply make everyone listen to them again; I know when I’m doing it to the fam, because I can see the brains dribbling out of their ears, but I can’t see you, so sorry.
Anywho, here he is, the great Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
There’s more where that comes from what do you think eh? Eh? Pretty Hard hitting piece of political poetry. That was inspired by the battle of Peterloo, 1819, a mass meeting in Manchester to hear Henry Hunt the orator argue for political reform, as celebrated in Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo, which is pretty accurate in many way, but which unfortunately falls into the worthy but dull category as a film in my humble. At St Peter’s Field in Manchester, 60,000 ordinary men and women assembled super peacefully, with their packed lunches, but as a result of panicky gentry magistrates looking on, were charged by the local militia with 17 killed and hundreds wounded. It is the precursor of a century of popular protest and reforming movements, and the rise of collective trade and agricultural unions.
More of that later. But Peterloo was the expression of the political response of the gentry class to the end of the Napoleonic wars, and the bacillus of the French Revolution which had slipped into the world’s blood stream. Lord Liverpool presided over a Tory administration from 1812, and has suffered from a hatchet job delivered by the best in the business, I speak of Benjamin Disraeli, who we shall from here on in refer to as Dizzy, and who I believe to be the most quotable man in British history, beating Winston Churchill into a pulp. Don’t shout at me. Here we go then, in his novel Coningsby, he describing Liverpool as
The arch mediocrity who presided rather than ruled over this cabinet of mediocrities…he was peremptory in little questions and great ones he left open.
Ouch, and if you will, burn baby, burn. At school and to modern historians the almost universal response to Dizzy is that this must be too hard – after the man stayed at the top of Dizzy’s greasey pole for 15 years between 1812 and 1827. But I agree with Dizzy. He might have been a nice man or impeccable personal life, but he resisted everything and achieved nothing particularly notable as far as I can see.
Generally though, his administration is divi’d up into a period of repression, as a post war depression gripped Britain, and then a more liberal period from 1822-1827. But on the two key issues of the day, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform he delivered less than constipation. Both things would come afterwards; indeed the first would come from a man with a greater passion for conserving the past than the National trust, the Duke of Wellington. It’s difficult to be more conservative than the iron Duke.
Until the rise to power of Peel and reform, the first third of the century feels very much like a continuance of the last. It is true to say that party in parliament is a considerably more solid and identifiable factor; but independency is still very much a force. So for the 1812-18 parliament, there were 253 out and out Tory supporters, 149 Whigs; about 150 waverers inclined to one side or the other, and 102 out and out independents, who saw voting on each issue for its own merits as an article of faith. A ratio of 7:4:2. The social composition of the commons was resolutely landed – about 60% of MPs for both parties were landed or closely related to landowners; Whigs had more support in towns and large counties where a popular votes was more effective.
When Liverpool died in 1827, intending to bequeath his name for a London railway station, there was much scrabbling around for a successor; George IV, the king formerly known as the Prince Regent, hit on the Duke of Wellington as PM with Robert Peel as his deputy and leader in the house of Commons. There were pressures ladies and gentlemen; pressured for Religious toleration. It’s normally catholic emancipation that get’s the headline here, because of the burning danger of rebellion in Ireland, but the same injustice was still visited on protestant dissenters.
So it is then time to introduce you to the emerging Tory party, which under its next leader can probably be called the Conservative party, but let’s hold our hand from that exciting moment. Wellington defined the Tory party in 1827, as he approached the problem of reform, like this:
Our party consists of the Bishops and clergy, the Great Aristocracy, the landed interest, the magistracy of the Country, the great merchants and bankers
You might notice a fundamental change in this from the 18th century – the death throes of the of great Whig aristocracy and their domination of the party of reform; the old tradition of family factions probably died when the followers of Lord Grenville, Pitt’s partner in Government in 1801, joined Liverpool’s Tory party. Whiggism retained some of its grander members the Earl Grey is one who we’ll talk about in a short while – but increasingly the Whigs relied on non conformists and industrialists. As ever, the Whigs also had their wings as it were; William Cobbett was a rural radical advocating political reform as the only way to resolve the poverty and inequality that had arrived with industrialisation and the post war depression, and he had a group around him; there were then liberal Tories who had followed George Canning and found a home with the Whigs; and the Irish voted as a group, but generally faute de mieux, supported Whigs or liberals, since the Tories would never willingly reform Ireland’s governance. And finally a few traditional Whigs remained. Changes were therefore in place that would covert Whigs to Liberals.
So parties of course held a range of viewpoints. Famously, Disraeli remarked that
England does not love coalitions
He was referring to governments of course; but by definition, parties are coalitions; groups of people with views, motivations and priorities that can differ widely, but with which each group can live with.
The main problem in Wellington & Peel’s Tory Coalition was mainly the Ultras – the backbench Tories, backwoodsmen is a suitable phrase, absolute rock solid in their views that nothing that was, should change; absolutely glued to the supremacy of the Anglican church, opposed to any kind of emancipation, and certainly not for Catholics. They were often very safe from political challenge, coming from rotten boroughs and some of the most conservative English counties. The supporters of Wellington and Peel hung around the centre and supported the government; and then there are the wets, the ‘liberals’ as the Tories would have it, who advocated mild reform and free trade. In 1828, the pressure from Dissenters finally brought down the walls, and the Test and Corporations Act was repealed, removing the last remaining exclusions from public office for Dissenters; actually the Ultras could live with that, because it had been a dead letter in practice for ages. Catholic emancipation though was quite another matter.
For Peel and Wellington though, it was critical. Daniel O’Connell was a Catholic Irish nationalist, elected to parliament in 1828; and he mobilised opinion over the indignity that he was disbarred from representing his constituents at Westminster – because of his religion.
As is common during most of the 19th century, reform only came from the Tories when under enormous pressure, dragged, kicking and dragged screaming. Peel and Wellington feared civil war in Ireland, and a threat to the Union. Peel therefore took a Catholic Emancipation bill through parliament. In so doing, not for the last time he split his party; the Ultras refused to support their government, and Wellington and Peel were forced to rely on the Whigs to get the bill passed. The Tories were split, Wellington’s government fell and crucially the coherence of the Tories was shattered, leaving them in a much worse position to resist further reform.
A good traditional Whig, Earl Grey, therefore came to power. You need to remember that the Whigs had been in the political wilderness now for decades. Although they were far from being radicals, without the Whigs, the truth was that there could be no reform; and Grey felt a personal and dynastic responsibility to answer the constant and long standing demand for change from the people. Peel on the other hand might be a relatively moderate even liberal Tory, but he resolutely opposed parliamentary reform, no matter the vast changes wrought in society by industrialisation.
The resulting battle for parliamentary the reform act was therefore theatre. Pressure for reform had been continuous, waxing and waning since the days of Wilkes in the 1760s. The late 1820s and 1830s were a very bad time economically, with great deprivation; around my parts in South Oxfordshire there was the phenomenon of the Swing Riots, as a mythical leader Captain Swing encouraged rioting and the smashing of agricultural machinery which had put people out of work and destroyed a social contract between Gentry and parishioners. Political Unions were formed all over the country to campaign for reform, such as the Birmingham Political Union, with riot and campaigning from Radicals such as the likes of Cobbett. But there was a more traditional impetus for reform also – the Whigs had seen their age old fear of royal and government repression confirmed by the Liverpool administration’s response to the post Napoleonic depression, of which Peterloo was just one example. They felt a clarion call from history; as one historian wrote
‘Whigs believed that their party had a special and hereditary mission to secure the people’s freedom
In March 1831 a bill was introduced into the Commons; after stormy debate it passed its first reading. So far so good, but the second reading was a riot – 608 members turned up to vote, unheard of figures for which St Stephens Chapel was completely unsuitable. Like a bunch of pilchards in a tin. The Second reading passed by just one vote. It was way too tight – the government felt unable to carry on with such a slim majority. Grey asked William IV for a dissolution and election; on hearing the news the public fury and interest was intense – there were riots all around the country and societies pumping out pamphlets supporting or condemning reform. But when the counting was all done, the results of the 1831 election confirmed that the country demanded parliament reform itself; the Tories were swept away, with only 235 seats to the Whigs’ 370. In the Commons at least, Grey had a mandate, and in his view, a responsibility to introduce reform.
So, into the commons the bill went again, and this time by September 1831 the bill was passed, with a majority on the third reading of over 100. Job done, surely, time to put the feet up and crack open the port, spend the weekend hunting with the Quorn Hunt. After all, Lords and Commons had been like peas in a pod throughout the 18th century, working together, linked by family and regional relationships. And could they reject a bill with such overwhelming public support? Surely that would be a suicidal impossibility. Well since you mention it, yes it could. The Lords Spiritual in particular voted against it almost to a man. The second reading in the Lords failed by a comfortable margin, of 41 votes.
Well, you will not be surprised to learn that riots erupted; so much so that rioters controlled Bristol for three days. In Nottingham, rioters lit fires and attacked Woollaton Hall. This still happens a lot in Nottingham these days too. It’s just that now they call them Stag Dos. Things were so bad, that Lord Grey cancelled with his meeting with the Quorn Hunt. And for a traditional 19th Century aristocrat, it takes something apocalyptic to do that.
The Commons would not back down; it raised the stakes, proposing and passing a motion of confidence in the government. The constitution was in danger of collapse; who then would rule, commons and the people, or Lords and Aristocracy. Armed with this vote of confidence, Grey wanted to introduce the same bill again, to push the noses of the Lords to the grindstone of reality. To do so, the king, William IV, would have to come out publicly in support – Grey needed him to prorogue parliament, to get round a rule which prohibited introduced the same bill twice in the same session. William had the good sense to oblige, and another message was thus sent to the Lords.
So, into the lords went the Reform bill – for a third time. Now the will of the people had been demonstrated in every possible way. Not even the Lords could simply vote the bill down. But they were not ready yet to admit defeat. So, they resolved to kill the bill through a thousand cuts – a series of amendments to emasculate it.
There was but one play left for Grey. This bill must pass, and must pass as it stood; there had been compromise enough anyway. So he asked William IV to create enough Whig peers to get the bill through parliament. For the king, this was too far, a constitutional outrage against the proper leaders of society. It was too much. He refused.
It was crisis time. Grey resigned, and his cabinet with him. Chaos. Mayhem. In what became known as the Days of May, William asked Wellington and Peel to form a government to dig him out of this hole and defend the ancient constitution. But could Wellington and Peel find enough supporters in the Commons to form a government? Revolution was in the air, there was general panic, and an organised run on the bank of England to under the slogan “Stop the Duke; go for gold!”. Wellington had to accept defeat – and he refused.
William had nowhere to turn, except a level of repression that was inconceivable. There was nothing for it. Grey was recalled, the Ultras in the Lords finally accepted their defeat, abstained from the vote, and the Great Reform Act because law in 1832. Grey and the nation breathed a huge sigh of relief and Grey wrote that
I have kept my word with the nation’
Hopefully he did now crack open the port and head out for that cancelled appointment with the Quorn, but I do not know.
Now then the Great Reform Act. There are many aspects about the act which are really rather disappointing after all that huffing and puffing. It extended the franchise by but a smidge; to 650,000 people which given the rampant population increases, meant just 7% of the population had the vote. It was for that reason very disappointing to much of the Middle classes who had expected to be enfranchised and caused all that fuss to do so; and in the end only the upper echelons of the Middle Classes were rewarded. So I mean, really? That resentment would simmer and resurface PDQ in Chartism. Parliament remained firmly in the hands of the Gentry.
But the long and short is that despite this, it made an absolutely fundamental difference top politics and the constitution. You might note first of all how William IV had been forced to hop about to the PM’s tune; not even the monarch now could resist the will of the people as expressed in parliament. Much of that ancient custom and practice beloved of Burke – those pocket boroughs, rotten boroughs, weird franchises in out of the way places were all gone. Voting qualifications were now standardised across the country; the situation in Scotland, which had a tiny electorate pre 1832 now had 13% of its population with the vote – and was no longer the preserve of just a very few magnate families. The new industrial towns like Manchester were enfranchised, constituencies re-organised.
The new structure meant every constituency was now potentially up for grabs; I mean in practice, the gentry retained a very heavy influence but nothing was certain any more. That meant parties had to organise; while many equate the later 1868 reform act with the real start of parties, but I think you can see how much of an influence 1832 has. Local campaigning now becomes important, and Local Conservative associations form, partly because everything was now potentially fair game. And because the act had required voters to be registered on an electoral roll; the party which registered and mobilised their voters would win. Peel called party organisation
political power… a more powerful one than either the Sovereign or the House of Commons
Whigs had established the Reform Club in London as a centre; Wellington set up the Carlton Club in opposition. There was central co-ordinating of campaigning, but also of the formation and support for local associations. While we are on party organisation, let me just segue then into the Municipal Corporations Act of 19835, almost as important, though nowhere near as sexy, as the Great Reform Act, because it bust up all those closed boroughs and opened them up to elections and competition. Local government and politics was transformed, and became the beating heart of Victorian society. Local politics, was energised.
Back to the 1832 Act, wherein the number of multi member constituencies reduced by the way, down to 224 of them, which is still half the number in England – the 1885 act would finally do them in. Curiously, the greater focus on parliament now may have led to greater involvement in debate in the Commons. Before 1832 about 150 members who did most of the talking – that’s 23% of the members. After 1832 it climbs to over 300 members, or just below 50% and by 1886 you couldn’t shut the buggers up – 96% of members would speak. I suppose that’s as it ought. Part of the reason may be that Press reporting increases dramatically; speaking in the Commons now becomes the way of addressing the nation.
Party based divisions in the house become the norm, and the days of the independent MP are over; in the 1832-7 parliament only 27 MPs didn’t vote consistently for a particular party. Afterall, if you didn’t have a nice comfy borough in your pocket, you needed a party behind you to get your job back every election. The Great Reform act changed everything, and the path to modern party politics and the two party system firmly established.
Well the Whigs enjoyed a spell in power basking in the success of the Reform Act, handsomely rewarded. This is the government of course that abolished Slavery throughout the Empire, at massive cost which I think we paid off about 10 years ago. Lord Melbourne became PM in 1834, and reflected the changing composition and support for the party of reform when he noted that
People who talk much of railroads and bridges are generally Liberals
It hasn’t happened quite yet, but the Whigs are becoming the conservative wing of what will become the Liberal party. Over time, they’ll leak over to the new conservative party.
Having said that, a quirk of fate meant that William IV dismissed Melburne and asked the Tory Peel to form a government. Now Peel didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving long; but he wanted to show the world that even after the Reform Act kerfuffle, the Tories could form a credible party of government. And so we have Peels Hundred days, which were to prove less dramatic than Napoleon’s 100 days – but to be fair that’s a high bar. Which brings us to the 1834 election, where I might declare the arrival of the Conservative party. Honestly you could go earlier or later, but in that election Rabbie Peel produces something called the Tamworth manifesto.
Now Dizzy was to remark a while later that
In times of great political change and rapid political transition, it will generally be observed that political parties find it convenient to re-baptise themselves
He was a clever man was that guy, it is a phenomenon we will see many times. The Tamworth manifesto was Peel’s attempt to do just that. It was a statement of the aims and purpose of the new Conservative Party. It accepted that the reform act was a fact of life, and that they would not seek to overturn it. So in that much he might be said to have rejected Burke’s view of the hallowed constitution; but in fact he reinforced those principles next by rejecting reform for reform’s sake. He declared that he would resist the kind of change demanded by populism, and only reform as absolutely necessary to address abuses and deep problems. Essentially, Peel dedicated his party to the middle way; rejecting both the Ultras who would have no change come what may, and the reformers who would subvert the ancient constitution.
The other thing about the Tamworth manifesto, though, is that it is a centrally produced document which was then placed into the hands of every candidate. Now we are used to manifestos now, a platform which forms the basis on why we vote, and complain bitterly when it’s inevitably not implemented. The Tamworth manifesto is nothing like as detailed as that produced by modern parties such as Screaming Lord Sutch – actually does he have a manifesto? Monster Raving Loony is it? I think they may have a manifesto – I looked it up. They plan to support Levelling up by providing every household with a free spirit level, for example. The Tamworth Manifesto was less detailed – but for the first time a party had a platform, a standard statement. The conservative party had arrived.
Now the new name received something of a kicking; the Quarterly review wrote that a
Conservative is only a tory who is ashamed of himself
I have to say I’m not quite sure what that means. But I don’t think it’s a compliment. Disraeli doesn’t seem to have liked Peel, so he weighed in too, condemning Peel’s party as ‘Tory men with Whig measures’ and an ‘organised hypocrisy’. And it’s probably revealing that Tory remains to this day a short hand for Conservatives – no one uses Whig as a shorthand for Labour or the Liberals.
Anyway, new innovation in party politics or not, Peel’s shiny bright Conservative Party got taken down a dark alley by the Whigs/liberals and were given a good working over behind the bons, and before you could say recycling, Melbourne was back. Victoria arrived on the throne in 1837, and is immediately very attached to Lord Melburne. I might observe that Victoria has a massive place in the national imagination and memory for her impressive public persona; but it is worth noting that her reign essentially sees the end of the monarch’s ability to independently use the prerogative in any substantive political arena.
By 1841, Melburne had largely run out of steam, and the party’s platform of free trade was unpopular; and we come to a defining event in the history of the new Conservative Party. Almost as soon as this shiny new car with it’s go-faster stripes was taken out of the showroom, its owner drove it straight at a wall and reduced it to wreckage. Peel’s 1841-1846 administration was the coming to age of the heir apparent in all his glory, and he had a thoroughly competent and talented cabinet – including for a while one William Gladstone by the way until he resigned. The 1841 election was a convincing victory, and it has a notable claim to fame. Remember I said ages ago back in the mists of prehistory, that no election ever over turned a government, because being in government meant you controlled patronage? Well 1841 is the first time an election overturned a government. It is a very notable moment – give it up, ladies and Gents, for 1841. Give it a big hand.
In a way, Peel’s administration was a continuation of the more liberal aspects of Liverpool’s years – careful financial management first and foremost, which led in 1842 to the re-introduction of income tax. I have to say that when I think of the phrase ‘nothing is certain except death and taxes’ it is inevitably income tax to which my mind turns – for both words really – and the thought of a world without it used to be strange before I got into history a bit more. Income tax in Britain was first introduced by Pitt in 1799 to finance the fight against Boney’s tyranny; and then with a shudder of relief was cancelled three years later. And now here it is again, and here to stay this time. That should be useful in some pub quiz, somewhere, sometime.
When thinking about Peel’s achievements it is important to consider also his reforms before he became PM – because despite his distinctly conservative frame of mind, and determination to only change what was absolutely necessary, it seemed to find an awful lot of things absolutely in need of reform. In the Pantheon of Victorian social reforms he definitely makes it to the marbles on the architrave, Elgin section or otherwise. In the 1820s, it is Peel that finally starts to unwind the Bloody Code of the 18th century – removing the death penalty from over 100 crimes. I think back then just looking at a sheep in the wrong way could have you strung up. I exaggerate for effect, but if you stole a horse you could be toast. He also had a lot of sympathy with the Prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, and started the process of legislating for the justice system to balance the aims of rehabilitation along with retribution and deterrence.
He famously started the police force in London, setting in train a long and happy tradition of slang names for the Police, starting off with Peelers and Bobbies, after Bob Peel’s name of course, rising to the heights of Rozzer from 1888 and the Fuzz from 1931. And there are others of course. The Victorians loved surveys – they weighed, measured and recorded everything, and the work of folks like Chadwick, Shaftesbury, Rowntree exposed the condition of the working poor and we get factory acts improving conditions and limiting working hours, and child protection acts through the Victorian era. Not all of it is good, such as the retrograde Poor Law Act of 1834 under the Whigs, and it’s definitely baby steps but it is a century of reform. Oh. And Peel starts the world’s first postage stamp service with the Penny post in 1840.
On a side note, I should of course mention that it is in Peel’s administration that the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt into what you see today, after much of the old place was burned to the ground in 1836. The first stone was laid by Sarah Barry, the wife of Charles Barry, the architect, and mainly done by 1860 though not fully until 1870. I’m not naturally a great fan of Victorian architecture, but they did a good job I think. From the outside at least. Don’t know what the loos are like.
Another fundamental to Peel’s policy was Free Trade. Peel was convinced this would boost trade and lower the cost of goods for ordinary people; and the Whigs and liberals on the opposing benches fully agreed with him, supported as they were by industrialists and larger boroughs. In the Conservative Party the status of their FaceBook page on the topic would have been ‘complicated’. As ever, Peel’s party remained a coalition; while the liberal wing was more focussed on national issues, financial probity and trade, at its core were those ultra backwoodsmen still, the Anglican church folks, the Huntin’ shootin’ drinkin’ brigade, gentry whose income relied entirely on land. The idea of Free Trade terrified and horrified them – it would strip away their one remaining privilege – the corn laws. The Corn laws imposed a tariff on imported grain, and it kept the backwoodsmen and their tenants in the money, paid for their third head, 6th finger, that sort of thing.
But in 1846 the issue become intolerable, and impossible for Peel to fudge any more, because in Ireland the Great Hunger was beginning; potato blight was threatening the lives of millions, and would indeed take the lives of a million, and lead to the emigration of a further million. Peel had been buying up corn to try to relieve the situation but at the same time trying to deal with the budget deficit that had lead to the introduction of Income Tax. His solution was to repeal the Corn laws, lower the price of corn and the bill was introduced in 1846.
It was a storm; the ultras found for themselves two very talented speakers in George Bentinck and an ambitious Disraeli. Disraeli had none of the reverence for Peel others offered him and Disraeli is one of the first politicians for whom party is all. For him what Peel was doing was liberalism, not conservativism. He dismissed Peel as a man who had appointed Tories to office, and then pursued Whig measures. There’s a famous quote at about this time on the same topic, which is normally applied to Disraeli actually in the 1868 Reform act. But it is in fact a reference to Peel, that he stole, with Free Trade and the abolition of the Corn Laws, policies that were really the hallmark of the opposing benches:
“The right honourable gentleman caught the Whigs bathing, and walked away with their clothes. He has left them in the full enjoyment of their liberal positions, and he is himself a strict conservative of their garments.”
Disraeli and Bentinck roasted Peel in debate. But Peel won the vote easily – because of the Whig support. In terms of Ireland, the repeal was an inadequate solution; his Whig successor Lord Russell had a more effective solution in soup kitchens which fed millions – but which, incredibly, on the basis of dogmatic purity and racist attitudes, were withdrawn after just a year.
Back in the commons, repeal of the Corn Laws was too much for the Ultras; they already hated Peel for his support of Catholic Emancipation, this was the end. It broke the party in two; Peel lasted just four months before he was forced to resign, the Peelites, about 100 of then crossed the floor of house to the Whigs, and the CP condemned itself to something like 4 years in government over the next 30 years, and all of those minority governments. The bright shiny new motor had been driven into the wall, and only the crash dummies were left in the party.
The crash dummies were led by the odd couple. The was the Earl of Derby, an impeccably high church, grand aristocrat – though oddly with something with a Peelite political bent – he gave the 230 remaining Tories the look of solidity and gravitas. His companion was the son of a Jewish immigrant, Benjamin Disraeli, who would be our first PM from an ethnic minority though he was an Anglican by religion. He faced a certain amount of abuse for his ancestry; crowds often welcomed him with cries of ‘shylock’, which he dealt with always with self control and grace. But he did also remain very firm on the rights of practising Jews to be MPs. He once said to a fellow MP
Where is your Christianity if you do not believe in their Judaism?
He provided the charisma, fire and ideas, and it is he that would, re-baptise his party. Took him a while though; the pair of them were such relative unknowns, that when they had a brief few months in government in 1852, Wellington, 83 now sitting in the Lords and increasingly deaf gave them a name they’d rather not have had. Wellington of course had never heard of this parvenus, so every time the name of a cabinet minister was read out he barked ‘Who? Who?’. So very delightfully, the first Derby & Disraeli administration has gone down in history as the Who Who Ministry. I bet that really stung Disraeli, but then he would have the last laugh. Ironically their return to power would only come once they had dropped protectionism, and themselves put on Peel’s clothes. I think it’s in this 1852 ministry where rather laughingly Disraeli was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a man not noted for his grasp of figures. When someone asked him how he was going to cope he waved his hands and said ‘oh they do the figures for you’ which is probably true. This could also be the time he said
There are three kinds of lie; Lies, Damned lies and statistics
Or at least Mark Twain said it was Disraeli. No one’s ever been quite sure.
The split ushered in the years of High Victorian England, 30 years of prosperity, Imperialism, gunboat diplomacy and a lot of bonking on snooker tables and classic liberalism. Not necessarily in that order. But before we get to that. It’s worth a few reflections on this famous split, which is one of the defining events in British 19th century political history. However, this is almost certainly looking like my longest episode to date, and I don’t know about you – but I am cream crackered. So, I think we should have a tune to help put the bounce back in our collective bungee.
Ok, Peel’s split of the new Conservative Party. Firstly, it is like the end of one era and the start of another – the dominance of party politics. For Peel, a child of the 18th century tradition, politics was about doing the right thing – he didn’t have the other 18th tradition of feathering your own nest; am impressive bloke in many ways. So if Peel had to sacrifice his party on the altar of Policy, then that was what he would do. For Disraeli, politics was about doing the right thing in so far as it furthered the health of your party. There’s an anecdote about Disraeli having a conversation with a young new MP about some issue on which the MP was not sure how to vote, because of a conflict with his deeply held principles; at which Disraeli barked
Damn your principles. Stick to your party!
It’s a pretty clear indication that party politics are here, and they are here to stay. The other point I had in mind was about splits. In the 18th century its difficult to talk about splits because there’s nothing really to split from; so when the Rockinghamite Whigs stopped supporting Fox and supported Peel’s government instead after the French revolution, it was really more about shifting factions. Though there is a similarity there, because of course, while there are drivers like personal dislikes or ambitions, the main driver for significant splits was principle.
We have had splits before; which gives me a chance to tell you about the Derby Dilly; which comes in 1834 when the young Earl of Derby, still just Edward Stanley, left Russell’s Whig government with a handful of MPs to join Peel, over the funding of the Church of Ireland. Daniel O’Connell the Irish nationalist cleverly stole from a poem with a stage coach in it called the Diligence – the English had great fun naming their stagecoaches by the way –
‘down thy steep, romantic Ashbourne, glides The Derby dilly carrying six insides’
They were henceforth known as the Derby Dilly. Which is a good gag. Th 1846 split though was of a different order of magnitude entirely. Over 100 of the brightest and best leaving the party, consigning it to impotence and the political wilderness for 30 years. It is a seismic event which will live for ever in the consciousness of the CP, never to be forgotten and make loyalty to party a religion.
Along with party, comes the idea of a coherent opposition; from 1937, the leader of the Opposition even becomes an official, salaried position. That would have been a bizarre thought even at the end of the 19th century, but the idea of opposition being something which came as a role with a responsibility is definitely around. In the 18th century even, the Whig George Tierney took a hard line and said that
the duty of an opposition was to propose nothing, oppose everything and to turn out the government
John Hobhouse in 1826 cracked a joke at George Canning’s expense when he said
“It is said to be hard on His Majesty’s Ministers to raise objections of this character but it is more hard on His Majesty’s Opposition to compel them to take this course
Now it’s my memory from school days that the phrase ‘her majesty’s loyal opposition’ came from the fertile lips of Dizzy to general laughter, but I can’t find that so it must be a fake memory, a bit like my incredibly clear memory that I won Wimbledon. The idea is, that opposition is as solemn a political duty as government. I remember everyone laughing because Dizzy was the kind of guy that liked to big himself up. But there is an important point here; with a broadly two party system, there is a yin and a yang and they both have a part to play. Just to finish the aphorism storm, Randolph Churchill, Winnie’s Dad, made that very point when he said that
”The duty of an Opposition is to oppose”.
So the high years of liberalism is often referred to as a two party system, but it’s important to note that the Irish would remain a distinct party; they are closely aligned to the Liberals as I said but they will at certain times play a very important independent role, and certainly have an impact on Liberal policy. As a response to the Famine, the 1850 Irish franchise act was introduced which ironed out many inequalities between the English and Irish systems, and increased the number of MPs to 105 out of 650ish; normally 75 at least could be counted on to vote as a block. Scotland had 53 MPs and Wales 32 by the way; generally however in the 19th century, the Scot and the Welsh voted according to party rather than as a national block.
Now then we will get to the Liberals next, but before that it is worth talking about another working class movement, in the tradition I suppose of the old form of protest by petitioning, and the movement that led to Peterloo. In 1838, a Cornishman called William Lovett, who was working as a cabinet maker in London, created a People’s Charter with 6 political demands. Lovett was an enthusiast for a Welsh industrialist called Robert Owens, who tried to implement a form of utopian pre-socialism in his Lanarkshire mills in Scotland, with social support programmes and model communities. So many alleys I’d like to follow there – but I can’t. Not now. Later Darling. Anyway, the six points were these, in brief. A vote for every man; no women yet, sorry; a secret ballot, no property qualifications for MPs, payment for MPs; equal constituencies, annual elections. There’s detail, but that’s the headlines.
The movement was supported by the Irish Nationalists too, and it ran conventions from 1839, to organise and create petitions; on occasions, such as at Newport once, there were outbreaks of violence which were brutally repressed, but in general the movement was firmly moderate and non violent in its methods. But it was a mass movement, and wildly popular. In May 1842, a petition was presented under the leadership of a Charismatic Irishman, Fergus O’Connor to parliament with over 3 million subscribers; the petition was rejected, and the Northern Star paper reported that
Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes and sought for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW
Worth noting the Northern Star was O’Connor’s newspaper; not entirely an objective observer. The Leeds Mercurey on the other hand called it ‘The Chartist Insurrection’. In the difficult economic times of the 1840s, with multiple strikes going on, the protests and meetings continued under the leadership of O’Connor, and in 1848 it planned a meeting at Kennington Common in April – 200,000 were expected.
Now bear in mind that 1848 was known as the Year of Revolutions, which affected 50 countries, notably a revolution in Paris but also Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland. So the British government was laying eggs – 100,000 special constables were prepared. Alas it was a wet day, and all a bit of a damp squib. There’s a paper to be written there about the link between climate and rebellion. About 25,000 did turn up and form a procession through London, the petition turned this to have less than 2 million, and many were dodgy. O’Connor wa a rather dodgy character – flamboyant shall we say – and was basically on something of a power trip. Chartism faded away as economic good times appeared from 1850 to 1870, and as the radical William Cobbett had written
“I defy you to agitate a fellow with a full stomach
But let me make the point – William Lovett was damn right. All but one of his 6 points would be implemented one day, except annual parliaments, and anyway that was a rubbish idea.
Now then, the Liberals. The word Liberals has already been used, and it is apparently Lord John Russell, Liberal PM for a couple of administrations who started using the term from 1839, and its use gains currency. The Liberal Party tradition has it that the party was officially formed on 6th June 1859 at a meeting at the Willis Rooms in London, addressed by said Lord John Russell. Others would say that the real liberal party, no longer dominated by the traditional aristocratic Whigs was not formed until the departure of the ‘two terrible old men’ Russell and Palmerston. But really there’s no official start – it’s in pretty common use by the 1850s. As always the Liberal party is a coalition – incorporating Radicals like John Bright and Richard Cobden as well as neo-Whigs.
It’s worth defining what Classical Liberalism is, because it’s not really what we’d call liberal now. The focus is the old Whig idea of individual liberty – Liberty from encroachment by the crown – though by this time that’s a dead letter really – or other outside factors. Individual liberty must be protected by the rule of law, and policies to promote individual autonomy – so, freedom from the state for example, hence the tag of laissez faire government; just let it happen I’m busy hunting government as it might be called. Liberal very much does NOT mean state intervention by way of a welfare state, and will only start to be when New Liberalism arrives in the early 19th century. So it’s more about freedom of speech and free market economics were the mantra of the Liberal Party. But Classical Liberalism did encompass the idea economic freedom the removal of economic obstacles for individuals. And that idea will have an impact in promoting social reform to help those for whom disadvantage was an obstacle to economic success and independence; hence the Victorian mania for self help books. The Liberals were against war, on the basis that it got in the way of trade, but that didn’t stop Pam sending gunboats all over the place in the name of Pax Brittannica.
As to voting bases, we have become used to seeing party allegiance on class grounds, but class is not really the driver of allegiance until the 20th century. Religion remains a much more reliable identifier; non conformists in particular were very much associated with the Liberals – and Anglicans with Tories of course.
In a way I should admit, I am looking to get into William Gladstone here as the heart of 19th century liberalism. That is to largely sideline Russell and Palmerston really, and I am sorry for that. Palmerston was an old Whig really, involved in government normally in Foreign affairs – got us involved in horrors like the opium wars; the dedication to free trade led them down dark alleys. However, just to leaven that bread, he is also attributed with believing there was a moral dimension to foreign policy, supporting constitutionalists in the Iberian peninsular, Poland, Italy and Denmark. He was immensely popular though was Pam, thoroughly patriotic. My favourite anecdote comes from the occasion a foreign diplomat asked him, presumably fishing for a compliment, what nationality he would like to be if he was not an Englishman. Pam replied
If I were not an Englishman, I should want to be an Englishman
Good answer Pam. A modern politician wrote a book on Pam – Roy Hattersly; he wrote a line that I wish the modern Labour party would remember, that
He spoke for England, and in consequence people loved him’
And so they did. And the Liberal party new it full well and played the Pam card for all it was worth; the 1857 election was fought under the line
Are you, or are you not, for Palmerston?
Palmerston may have been one of the last Whig Grandees then, but he was thoroughly modern in his exploitation of the media; many of the national press were wined and dined and effectively in his pocket, hosted at grand events held by Lady Palmerston at Cambridge House in Piccadilly.
Well, we come to Gladstone then; or maybe Gladstone and Disraeli, the two go together like Hot Custard and Ice Cream. i.e. they are delicious together but can’t stand each other. Gladstone intensely disliked Disraeli, and pointedly didn’t turn up to his funeral actually. Dizzy meanwhile apparently quipped – I can’t quite believe this is true – quipped that
The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, that would be a calamity
Hah! He also referred to Gladstone as a man
Without a single redeeming defect.
Such a good line! Disraeli was the greater political showman and wit. Gladstone was incomparably the greater statesman. He’s a man with some difficult dichotomies; originally a High Tory who voted against the abolition of slavery, whose family were slave owners, but who became one of the greatest social reformers of the 19th century, and a man who recognised British mis government of Ireland for the outrage it was. He was a high Anglican, but one who attracted non conformists to the Liberal party – because he was intensely religious, and for him his morality and religion were central to his politics, the two were inseparable. That appealed to Non conformists. The intensity of his politics made him a polarising figure; as chancellor of the Exchequer he became known as the ‘People’s William’; but he was frequently derided in the Press, and was a very easy target for mockery and send up. Victoria adored Dizzy – but found Gladstone very difficult, apparently complaining that
He speaks to Me as if I was a public meeting
He was an advocate of a moral foreign policy, which got him into trouble when he famously delayed sending reinforcements to Khartoum in 1885. He was at once then called the GOM – or Grand Old Man; or the MOG – Murderer of Gordon. I suppose such polarisation is inevitable with such an intense man. I was interested to learn that Clement Atlee wasn’t a fan, disliking his overly ideological and moralising approach. Though many in the early Labour party saw him as their spiritual and philosophical ancestor.
He was an advocate of electoral reform, but it is a singular irony that it was not the Liberal party that passed the 1867 Reform Act, which many see as the start of the party system and of genuinely mass, popular politics. The more conservative element of the liberals, rebelled, and earned themselves the name, coined by the Radical John Bright, of Abdullamites. I learn the cave of Abdullam was the cave wherein David hid from Saul. I doubt very much if you called someone an Abdullamite in today’s House of Commons you’d get more than blank looks. Not sure I’d have got it either though to be fair.
Disraeli leaped at the chance of introducing an extended franchise. It is very unlikely that Disraeli was a genuine Reformer; but he and Derby had rebuilt this CP now, the average of two heads per MP had reduced a bit, they’d dumped protectionism in favour of Free Trade, and surely if they passed a reform act, which must happen sometime, he and his party would get the credit for it. So he did, and sat back for his reward at the election next year. When the electorate gave the CP a kicking, and Gladstone started his first term as Prime Minister. As a newspaper remarked
‘Disraeli passed the reform act and the country said Thank you Mr Gladstone’
Because of course they knew where the pressure for reform had come from. Interestingly, Disraeli resigned immediately as PM the result came in – he did not take the decision to the Queen to make, and this as the first time that had happened. This then became the convention. And another branch of the royal prerogative broke off and fell silently to the ground, unseen in the forest.
The 1867 Reform Act increased the electorate to 2 million, 30% of adult males, and gave full representation to the middle classes and to the better off urban working class. In Gladstone’s ministry in 1872 he passed the Secret Ballot Act, and on his next the Corrupt Practices Act, which banned treating at elections and limited expenditure for campaigning by parties. And we are in a much more modern looking world of politics, the power of the local oligarchies all but removed. In 1884 he passed a second reform act, which increased the electorate to 5.7 million, 40% of adult males now. In 1885 the distribution act almost completely abolished multi member seats.
The impact on party is fundamental. It was now pretty much impossible to be elected an MP unless you had a party machine behind you. The National Liberal club was formed in 1882, with a loose association of local organisations under the National Liberal Federation, but the Conservative Central office had been formed in 1871 by John Gorst, and that seems to have been a much more centralised and effective campaigning organisation. Both parties now became member organisations, connected to their network of local associations. The power therefore of parties over the voting and behaviour of its MPs tightened; the party whips had real power, since withdrawing of the whip essentially spelled the end of your career. MPs now were rarely local to their constituencies – though I think that had been the case for a while by the 1880s.
Gladstone and Disraeli have been described as the first professional politicians; this was what they did, and they employed professional techniques to do it. Gladstone has been described as the first railway PM, using the railways to campaign all around the country. In 1878 to 1880 he conducted a series of policy speeches in his constituency in Midlothian, which helped the Liberals win the 880 election; it’s a campaign which has been described as the first modern election campaign. Hundreds turned out for the speeches, crowds lined the railway stations where the train stopped, or even just passed through. His ministry sees the start of the tradition of a neutral, permanent and professional civil service and indeed of the Prime Minister’s office. 10 Downing street was for Disraeli just a place to live; for Gladstone it became the centre of a secretariat.
Gladstone’s first ministry unleashed a blizzard of legislation – local government, public health, education reform in 1870, with free school elementary education for all, funded by local taxation and run by local school board. The Women’s property act allowed women to retain property acquired after marriage would you believe, the Trade Union Act of 1871 made it legal for the first time to join a trades union – the Trades Union Congress, or TUC had been founded in 1868. There’s a whole load of it, too numerous to mention; certainly this ministry can stand up as one the greatest reforming periods in British history, comparable to the Labour government of 1945.
He also set a standard did Gladstone where policy and strategy came from the party leader rather than ministers, it became almost presidential, the leader was the face of the party. The problem with that is what happens when the leader runs out of ideas.
And by 1874, Gladstone and the ministry had largely run out of steam, and indeed probably the nation needed a pause anyway. Disraeli was able to exploit this with yet another of his memorable speeches in the Commons. Pointing out the Liberal front bench on the seats opposite in the Commons, he proclaimed
You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest. But the situation is still dangerous. There are occasional earthquakes, and ever and anon the dark rumbling of the sea.
The CP won a considerable majority at the 1876 Election and they were, at last back from the ruin of 1846. Disraeli was always confident. He had a feel that the Conservatives had nothing to fear from the middle and working classes; that the CP had an appeal around ambition, social status, patriotism and imperialism that would bring them to their door. It is Disraeli also to whom is attributed the concept of One Nation Toryish, although his novels actually only talk about Two Nations – but with the aim of bringing them together is the point. ‘The Conservative party is the national party of England’ he was fond of saying, and ‘the CP is a national party or nothing’.
Not sure Disraeli really knew what he was going to do with government though; he trod the boards of foreign policy with some vainglory at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, taking the credit for his foreign secretary’s work, namely the Marquess of Salisbury. He tapped into national fervour and his Queen’s good books by declaring her Empress of India, and he bought shares in the Suez Canal, which Anthony Eden was to regret 80 years later. And there was a mild dusting of social reform, enough to give some credibility to the Tories being a party of the people; but social reform was never really Disraeli’s thing.
Disraeli was given a thumping by Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign at the next eclection, and died shortly afterwards. There seems to be general agreement that he cannot be regarded as one of our greatest PMs; Edward Young put it quite nicely when he said that he raised the esteem in which parliament was held by the people, and therefore was the Greatest MP ever. He does also say ‘single-handedly’, and I can’t follow him on that, what about Gladders for crying aloud. He was undeniably, however, a hoot, and when he died we lost a tremendously talented manufacturer of quotable quotes.
This period, from 1868 to 1900 roughly, has a profile of a ding dong – the ding of a Liberal administration followed by the dong of the Tories. No insult intended. And this ‘swing of the pendulum’ has become a sort of accepted and established fact about politics. Actually there are only a couple of periods where this happens consistently, so that’s a bit of a myth; one historian I read, figures that rather than that, its more usual that a period of intense reform is followed by a longer period of conservatism and retrenchment. But there are two periods of the pendulum; the Gladstone-Disraeli period, and the period after the second world war. I leave that thought with you for consideration.
Another thing I might mention about the 19th century is to remind you that it is the period when getting on your hind legs and giving free rein to your opinion takes off, as previously mentioned. So much so that there are procedures – sorry to inflict this on you, I know these are all arcane things about parliamentary procedure that should be swept away in a blizzard of modernity, but I do dearly love it.
So if you are about to make your maiden speech, you tell the Speaker; and when he calls you, you have to cover a few things – you must be uncontroversial, include remarks about your constituency and include a tribute to your predecessor, even if he or she was a complete stinker. In return, no other MP is allowed to intervene, so you get a clear run. Horatio Nelson, a military hero and genius of the navy if ever there was one, was less impressive in parliament. He was an opponent of Wilberforce let it be noted, and made rambling speeches so lamentable that I am told all his friends deeply regretted it every time he opened his mouth.
Right, an issue looms extremely large in British politics and in the end probably defines Gladstone. This is the Irish Question. Gladstone grew to be highly conscious of the failures of English and British rule in Ireland. He tried a number of things to mitigate the iniquities; disestablishing the church of Ireland, disestablishmentarian ism as it is know – longest word I think? The C of I was protestant of course, and Gladstone then used the endowments to alleviate poverty; and land reform to give greater redress to Irish tenants. But the popularity of Irish nationalism grew remorselessly, and under C S Parnell the Irish Home Rule League held a very strong influence in parliament that could not be ignored. Gladstone became convinced that the only way to arrive at a solution that preserved the Union was Home Rule, with imperial policy held in Westminster, all domestic affairs in Dublin. For Unionists this was both a threat to British culture, and just the ante room of Irish Independence. The Fenians in Ireland hoped for that too of course. Temperatures were not helped by the 1882 Phoenix park murders of Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke, Irish Secretaries.
It was an immensely divisive issue. For many in parliament, coercion not conciliation was the answer, and policy wobbled unhappily between the two. Opposition to Home rule was not confined to the CP – there was plenty within the Liberal party also, and of course unionists in Ireland. In 1886 Gladstone introduced his First Irish Home rule bill; it was defeated in the Commons; and 94 Liberals voted against it. Led by Lord Hartington and Birmingham’s favourite political son, Joseph Chamberlain, these Liberal Unionists as they called themselves, split from the party.
Interestingly, you can look at these MPs another way, as the old Whig wing of the Liberal party. The National Liberal Club was deeply split, most of the Liberal lords left with the Unionists. London smart society, following the known views of the Queen, practically ostracized home rulers. Hartington and Chamberlain sat uneasily on the Conservative benches. They propped up the following Conservative ministry despite this, and when Gladstone brought back a second Home rule bill and managed to get it through the Commons, they saw to it that the Lords threw it out. It was the end for Gladstone; in 1894 he resigned. He’s got to be considered one of our greatest PMs; 12 years as PM over 4 governments, he was the first professional PM, transformed politics into a national activity for the national good of all its inhabitants. His Liberal Party was very broad based, and fractious, argumentative, and sometimes self-destructive it might be, but the range of political views it accommodated has been described by one historian as ‘unique among its European contemporaries’.
So that brings us to Salisbury, and a complete change of pace. Salisbury who also served 4 terms and even more years as PM that Gladders, at 13 years. And yet I’m not going to spend more than a few minutes on him. I am sure I am being too harsh; but a bit like David Cameron, I’m sure he’s decent enough as a person, but it’s hard to see what benefits Salisbury brought to his nation because it’s just a black hole. There’s nothing really there.
Now that is harsh, he was after all competent enough, but honestly I’m not sure Salisbury would be that displeased. Here are various of Salisbury’s quotes about his political philosophy:
‘hostility of radicalism, incessant, implacable hostility, is the essence of conservatism’
Ok, nothing like keeping an open mind then.
“Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.”
I can imagine that the good marquess would have been a real source of energy and inspiration in the effort to build a better world. However, Salisbury saw Foreign policy really as the only proper place for his talents and that of someone as grand as a PM. Here’ is his view of foreign policy:
English policy is to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions
I’ve heard worse I suppose. But given this was the man who took us into the Boer war, I’d like to know his definition of both a collision or indeed a diplomatic boathook.
Enough I am sure I am being unfair, and should be more positive; but Salisbury seems like a throwback to an old aristocratic world, and not a great example of that either, a disappointment to his Cecil forebears. On that, one of the notable things about Salisbury was that he was the last Prime minister to sit in the house of Lords. The Commons were where the action was now – it was crucial to be in the Commons. It’s typical of Salisbury that he was not. He painted no vision of the future for his conservative successors to follow. The nicest thing I can say about him probably came from the mouth of Gladstone who was often a guest at Salisbury’s beautiful house at Hatfield describing him as
A model of political integrity…a most amiable, a most able man
Right that is it! I’ve not been complete and will have some tidying up to do next time about Joe Chamberlain and the precursors to the Labour party in the late 19th century, but I think I have delighted my audience enough for now!