Sunday, 4 October 2015

Sir Robert Peel: (1) pressure group politics

'Sir Robert Peel', by William Pickersgill
Public domain

The age of Peel

The enfranchisement of the great industrial centres was clearly a hugely important potential change, but in the short term the Reform Act did not transform politics. In particular, the aristocracy continued to play a dominant role and did so until the growth of mass politics at the end of the century. Most prime ministers sat in the Lords. There were, however, some notable exceptions.

The dominant politician of the 1830s and 1840s was Sir Robert Peel and some historians have described the period as 'the age of Peel'.  Unlike most Victorian politicians he came from a manufacturing background. His most significant achievement was to modernise the Tory party in the wake of its stunning defeat in 1832. But having built up his party, he proceeded to destroy it when he repealed the Corn Laws in 1846.  

The political parties

Neither political party could ignore the implications of the Great Reform Act, and in the 1830s they reinvented themselves. The Victorian political division of Liberals and Conservatives came into being.

The Conservatives: the Tamworth Manifesto
In 1834 Peel was installed by the William IV after he sacked his Whig prime minister, Lord Melbourne, against the wishes of a large Commons majority. (This was the last time a monarch dismissed a prime minister.) In December he called a general election. During the campaign he issued an election address to his constituents, the Tamworth Manifesto. The manifesto was recognised at the time as an important constitutional innovation, the first time a prime minister had come out with a full political programme.

The manifesto was addressed to
‘that great and intelligent class of society … which is far less interested in the contentions of party, than in the maintenance of order and the course of good government’.
He accepted the Reform Act as a
‘final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question’
and declared himself in favour not of
‘following every popular whim, promising instant redress of every alleged abuse, abandoning respect for ancient rights and prescriptive authority’,
but of
‘a careful review of institutions, both civil and ecclesiastical’
‘the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances’.

Peel therefore promised reform in order to conserve the essentials of the constitution. It was also designed to give the Tories, increasingly calling themselves Conservatives, a broader basis of support.

In 1838 Peel told his followers at a great Conservative party banquet in Merchant Taylors Hall: 
'You are supported by the clergy, the magistracy, the yeomanry, and the gentry of the country, as well as by the great proportion of the trading community.'
However this was too optimistic; the party remained an uneasy coalition of country squires who distrusted democracy and most forms of industrial change, and the moderate reformers who occupied positions of influence. Though Conservative strength grew very substantially between 1835 and 1841, far more of this support came from rural and small-town England than from the industrial North or the rest of the country.

The Liberals: the Lichfield House Compact 

The Whigs actually won the 1834 election, but were seriously demoralised by the loss of seats - a very worrying result after their triumph of 1832. In February 1835 leaders of the Whig, radical, and Irish opposition groups met at Lichfield House in St James’s Square to concert their forces. This enabled them to  use their parliamentary majority to get rid of Peel. In April, Melbourne’s government returned shakily to office, though it lost power in 1841.

The 'Lichfield House Compact' marked the beginnings of a long-term alliance between the Whig aristocrats and the various pressure groups well to their left, such as the radicals and the Irish MPs. In retrospect it marks the beginnings of the Liberal party, which was always an uneasy coalition.

Pressure-group politics

The age of Peel is marked by the emergence of two great pressure groups, the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League.

The Chartists

There are some useful web sites on Chartism. I have my own detailed account here.

The first truly working-class political movement sprang out of the sense of betrayal left by the Reform Act. The peaks of activity coincided with troughs in the economy. 

In May 1838 the 'People's Charter' was published, an idea rooted in the myth of Magna Carta. It contained the Six Points, that were adopted at a rally in Birmingham: 

  1. manhood suffrage
  2. annual parliaments
  3. the ballot
  4. payment of MPs
  5. equal electoral districts
  6. the abolition of property qualifications for parliament

There is a good short article on Chartism in the November 2013 edition of History Today. The following quotation highlights its cultural importance.
'Though its demands hinged upon universal male suffrage, the Charter attracted the support of hundreds of thousands of men and women. Chartism became for a time the structure within which a majority of industrial workers pursued their political and cultural activities. The new-born child of Chartist parents might be received into the movement at a ceremony prided over by one of its leaders and possibly given his name. They might attend a Chartist Sunday School, while parents might immerse themselves in the political and social life of the local branch of the National Charter Association: the father in an affiliated trades union and the mother in a Female Charter Association. In many towns she could shop at a Chartist co-operative store and her husband support Chartist candidates in local elections…The family's main source of national news would be a Chartist weekly paper, probably the Leeds-based Northern Star.'
The Newport Rising: The most violent event involving the Chartists occurred on the night of 3/4 November 1839 when some 7,000 colliers and ironworkers led an armed march on Newport, a monster demonstration to protest against the arrest of a popular Chartist leader. But the march was mismanaged and the attack on the town did not take place until after daybreak. The Chartists were fired on by a company of the 45th Foot. Twenty-four people were killed or died from their injuries (more than twice the death toll at Peterloo). 125 were arrested and twenty-one were charged with high treason. The leaders were sentenced to death, but as a result of a series of meetings and demonstrations throughout the country, the  sentences were commuted to transportation for life.

After the Newport rising the attitude of the government hardened. Police powers were reinforced and more troops sent in. Between June 1839 and June 1840 at least 543 Chartists were detained for periods of between a few weeks and a few years.

The Kennington Common petition: Following the failure of two previous petitions to parliament, a peaceful rally was planned for Kennington Common on 10 April 1848, followed by a procession to present the Petition to the Commons. 

The great Chartist meeting on Kennington Common
10 April 1848. A rare early photograph

Crowds from all over London assembled behind banners and marched to Kennington. It was claimed, with great exaggeration, that 5.7 million signatures had been appended to the Petition. (However, the actual figure, of c. 2m. was very impressive.) The petition was loaded into three cabs and taken to Parliament. But by 2pm the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, was able to inform the Queen (who was at Osborne) that the crisis was safely over. Faced with 4,000 police and 85,000 volunteer special constables the demonstrators dispersed. Chartism was not finished, but the movement had been wrong-footed and, as the economy improved in the 1850s, working-class agitation died down for a decade. 

The Anti-Corn Law League

This movement achieved a more important place in national life than any previous radical body. Unlike the Chartists, it represented the interests of an urban middle class. Unlike them, too it was well funded and had precise and limited aims. I have a more detailed post on the League here.

The Corn Laws were a generic term for a whole system of legislative protection of agriculture. In 1815 there was a prohibition on the import of foreign agricultural products until the price at home reached a high figure (80s a quarter in the case of wheat). In 1828 this absolute prohibition was replaced by a sliding scale of import duties. This legislation was not solely dictated by class interests – there was also the desire to be independent in time of war.

However there was a strong body of opinion, particularly among manufacturers, opposed to legislative protection for agriculture. 

On September 10 1838 the Anti-Corn Law League was founded in Manchester and became a national organisation in the following March. Two leaders soon emerged, the Rochdale manufacturer, John Bright, and Richard Cobden.  During its first year the League drew nine tenths of its funds from the Manchester district. Cobden said:
‘The League is Manchester’.
The Tory press treated the League as an agent of urban sedition.

John Bright
The League provided the rallying point for Radicals, replacing the campaign for the ballot. Behind their arguments lay a great deal of class hostility. The Corn Laws were the visible legislative symbol of the predominance of the landed interest. The fundamental target of the League was therefore political: the control of the aristocracy. There was also the strong humanitarian case for cheap bread and the belief, held passionately by Cobden, that free trade brought about peaceful co-operation between nations. 

The organisation of the League: Formal control rested in a council of the large subscribers. Each subscription of £50 carried one vote. The League organised lecture tours. It had a paper, 'The Anti-Corn Law Circular' – everyone who contributed a £ to the League received it free. Other copies were given away. The paper made a loss, but this was thought worth the price.

Women were involved in the movement. Cobden said:
‘We have obtained the co-operation of the ladies; we have resorted to tea parties’.
At Anti-Corn Law League bazaars customers could buy free trade handkerchiefs, breadplates, teapots and pin cushions.

The election of 1841

In 1841 the Whigs went down to electoral defeat after the Prime Minister, Melbourne, lost a vote of confidence. Peel’s Conservatives swept back to power with an overall majority of 367/291 and a lead in England of almost 100, winning more than 85% of the county seats. 

The election was the first in which one government was replaced by another solely by choice of the electorate – there would not be another until 1874.  The issue that emerged during the campaign was that of the Corn Laws. The Whigs had promised their supporters that they would consider the existing levels of protection for corn. This was ‘dynamite’ in the southern counties and many smaller boroughs.  Peel allowed the Tories to fight the election on the false prospectus of his staunch support for protection. Was he therefore elected on a lie? 

Cobden was elected MP for Stockport and in 1843 Bright was returned for Rochdale in a by-election. In the same year the Free Trade Hall in Manchester was built to house the increasingly large meetings of the Anti-Corn Law League. 
Richard Cobden,
MP for Stockport from 1841

The big issue of the day was therefore the debate between free trade and protection - and Peel had been elected on a protectionist platform.