The United Kingdom entered the 1840s with Viscount Melbourne as Prime Minister and Victoria as queen.
Melbourne ruled in a circumspect fashion. His attitude was no disasters. He wanted stability and avoided foreign controversies.
There was bitter antagonism between the Anti Corn Law League and those who wanted the Corn Laws retained. Conservative landlords formed the Anti League which campaigned against the Anti Corn Law League.
The Anti League unrepentantly argued that keeping the price of corn high was desirable. As more people left the land and started to work in secondary economic activity this argument wore thin. The Corn Laws were affecting most people negatively. The country become less agricultural and more industrial. Evidence abounded that the Corn Laws were unpopular. There were large demonstrations for the laws to be scrapped. John Bright was an MP who was a very active in the Anti Corn Law cause. His rousing oratory and moral indignation was a great aid to the movement. Cobden was another firebrand of the Anti Corn Law League. This was an issue that everyone could understand and definitely impacted on the working class. It was an example of class discrimination. This law hurt the majority and benefited a minority of landowners. The claim that it worked to the advantage of agricultural labourers did not convince. The Anti Corn Law League was well financed and had offices on Fleet Street in London. As well as proletarian members it had middle class members some of whom were prosperous businessmen. The ACCL received occasional windfalls when wealthy members donated large sums. They supported the ACCL out of compassion but also because they believed it would lead to free trade which would help their businesses.
The Anti League suffered a setback when most Whigs came out for abolition of the Corn Laws. Radicals used the Corn Laws to galvanise working class support. Many radical notions were too abstract to gain much support but everyone understood the price of bread. The Anti League accused rich ACCL members of only supporting that cause because they wished to slash wages.
Sir Robert Peel championed the Corn Laws. This was an article of faith for Conservatives. He would later have to extricate himself from his fulsome defence of the Corn Laws. Peel had shown a penchant for embracing losing causes – not quite lost causes when he embraced them. It was impossible to make a career in Tory politics at the time without advocating retaining the Corn Laws.
At this time a man was elected for Buckinghamshire named Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli was originally Jewish but had converted to Christianity as a child. Benjamin Disraeli’s father Isaac D’Israeli had had a row with other worshippers of Bevis Marks Synagogue. Because of this he stormed out and had his children baptised. Isaac remained outside any religion for the rest of his life. Isaac also dropped the apostrophe from his surname. Isaac was independently wealthy and was an amateur scholar. Isaac Disraeli’s father had made a fortune in the hat trade. The family was of Italian origin. Like most Anglo-Jewry at the time they were Ashkenazim.
Benjamin did not go to a well known school or to any university. In his 20s he lounged around his father’s extensive library. He tried his hand as a hack. It appeared that he would follow in his father’s footsteps as an intellectual diletante. He had a few failed business ventures. It was an unpromising start. Undaunted by these handicaps he sought a political career as a Tory. He was a Londoner who strove to reinvent himself as a Conservative squire. Disraeli had made many attempts to enter Parliament. He had suffered several defeats and had to overcome ethnic prejudice. Disraeli;s two younger brothers went to Winchester and then university. They led bland lives as civil servants.
Disraeli attempted to take the House of Commons by storm with a stunning maiden speech. In fact he performed abysmally. It was a terrible debut. He was determined not be mundane. But showiness was not something Conservatives of the time appreciated. Disraeli had brilliance and a dangerous streak of showmanship. His confident exterior barely disguised his inner lack of self-assurance. That was why he was impelled to act – to act the Tory, to act the imperialist etc…. He gave the party a certain razzmatazz that it lacked from the Sir Bufton Tufton types who dominated the backbenches.
Despite Disraeli’s initital setback he was eventually able to gain a reputation as a fine orator. His witticisms were much appreciated on the Conservative benches. He was a relentless deliverer of anti-Whig philippics. He was an effective propagandist. He penned a series of novels – Sybill, Tancred and Vivian Contarini. His Young England series of novels laidout his idealised neo-mediaeval vision. Disraeli emphasised his compassion for the lower orders. He believed that aristocrats and the working class should help each other. This was his conception of Toryism. The upper and the lower class must unite against the middle class which was represented by the Whigs. His ideology seems fanciful and self serving. Mediaeval times were the heyday of the upper class because the monarchy was weak. But the Middle Ages was no age of gold for the working class. The Whigs represented the upper class almost as much as the Tories. the Tories had done precious little for the working class.
Disraeli’s novels are best known for his statement on the ”two nations.” He said the two nations were as alien to each other as the inhabitants of two different planets. The wealthy had a duty to help the needy. This gave birth to the expression ”One Nation Conservatism.” Those Conservatives who wish to assist the working class are One Nation Conservatives. This has often been dismissed as nonsense by opponents of the Conservative Party.
Disraeli made no secret of his Hebraic origins. It could hardly be hidden unless he changed his name. He regarded Jews as a most aristocratic people.
Disraeli bought a house in Buckinghamshire called Hughenden Manor. He set himself up as a benevolent landlord. His aristocratic wife brought him a goodly dowry but no children.
In Ireland the Repeal Association was far from dormant. O’Connell campaign relentlessly.
There were mass meetings. These were jolly gatherings but there was no mistaking the passion people felt for the cause. Some said this presaged revolution.
O’Connell attempted to fuse Catholic identity to the Repeal cause. In this he was largely successful. The corollary of that is that most Protestant opinion was permanently alienated.
By the mid 1840s the Repeal campaign was running out of steam. O’Connell – then in his 70s – was also increasingly frail. There was no successor to fill his shoes. Some people grew frustrated with O’Connell’s constitutionalism and formed Young Ireland. This was a revolutionary group dedicated to totally separating Ireland from Great Britain by armed force.
In 1846 the potato blight was discovered. At first the full extent of the calamity was not understood. Assistance was forthcoming from Parliament in the form of Indian meal. This was insufficient. The soup cooked for the starving was also not particularly nutritious.
Famine relief works were ordered. In Clare this included tearing up roads only to rebuild them. Piers were constructed and so were railway lines. The Famine came just before Ireland had the sort of transport network that would have moved food more quickly.
1847 was the worst year of the Famine. Hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation or Famine fever. Their debilitated state of health meant that people easily succumbed to diseases that they would have otherwise beaten. It is difficult to say how many people the Famine killed. It was a contributory factor in many cases but perhaps not always the decisive one. 800 000 is one of the more conservative estimates. People have sought to capitalise on the Famine for political gain and they tend to inflate the number of deaths by a factor of two or three.
Hundreds of thousands of people emigrated. Emigration out of Ireland was already high and rising. The Great Hunger led to an especial spike in emigration. The emigrants moved to the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. In the case of Great Britain this was transmigration rather than emigration since they were moving within the same realm. Within Ireland there was a move from west to east. The Atlantic Coast was the most severely affected region.
In grotesque contrast to the suffering in Ireland in Great Britain an exhibition was being planned. Large sums of public money were to be expended on it.
PEEL’S GREAT MINISTRY
In 1841 Peel became Prime Minister of a Conservative Government. Although his party was officially called Conservative the nickname Tory has always stuck.
In 1845 the Whig leader, Lord John Russell, announced that his party intended to abolish the Corn Laws. The Whigs had been moving in that direction for some time so it did not come as a shock.
Peel was a political mastermind. He coagitated about the Corn Laws. He realised that they were unfair and untenable. They must be got rid of. He could only do this with the aid of the Whigs. Most of his party would scream blue murder if he called for the Corn Laws to be abolished.
Gladstone was coming to the same conclusion. He incrementally reduced duty on corn. It got to the stage where abolishing it altogether would make minimal difference. He gallantly joined Peel on this issue. But they were never politcal soulmates.
In 1846 the Irish Famine broke out. Sir Robert was at first doubtful of the reports. These seemed histrionic. He felt the situation could not be as severe as described. Nevertheless the paucity of potatoes in Ireland made it an opportune moment to announce that the Corn Laws should be scrapped so that food would become affordable for the malnourished people of Ireland.
Sir Robert declared that he Corn Laws must be abolished. To soften the blow he did not plan to do so in one fell swoop. The Corn Laws would be phased out over three years. This would allow farmers to adjust. As was predicted most Conservatives were horrified. Two-thirds of them split with him. They were scornful of him as a turncoat. Peel explained how the Corn Laws were ludicrous. Crystalline logic fell on deaf ears. His forceful speeches were met with Tory guffaws. Conservatives then spoke to vent their fury.
Some marvelled at Peel’s courage in admitting he had been wrong for years. He reconciled his current attitude with his old one. The Corn Laws had been right for a former time but they were not right for the 1840s.
There was hectic activity in which a deal was reached between Peelites and Whigs.
The Conservatives would be moribund if they did not accept that the Corn Laws could not be revived. This was so with Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Act. Some Conservatives were woefully reactionary. Those steeped in rural Toryism had a mythical attachment to the Corn Laws.
Benjamin Disraeli led the charge against Peel. He savaged Peel in the most scathing language permitted in Parliament. This was more than tinged with opportunism. But his biting oratory delighted the Conservative backbenches. He basked in celebrity. His total lack of scruple is notable. Sir Robert was dogged in maintaining he had done the right thing and for the right reason. Conservatives said he had had previous. He had form in that he had performed a volte face over Catholic Emancipation. He had made an unconvincing show of opposing the Great Reform Act. Many suspected he spoke against it for presentational reasons. One it was passed he acted with indecent haste to say that he accepted the GRA.
Disraeli had made a name for himself. He was the blatant choice for the new Conservative leader in the House of Commons. Political parties then had two leaders – one in each House of Parliament. He had a flair that most of the rump of the Conservative Party lacked.
In private candour Disraeli recognised that Peel had been right to scrap the Corn Laws. To try to bring them back would result in an electoral fiasco. He had been Peel’s main antagonist and now it was seen that he was so for cynical reasons. The Tories would be forever dwindling if they did not accept the new dispensation. There could be no indulging reactionary folly. Disraeli was in the same position as Peel had been in the 1830s over the Great Reform Act. He would have to persuade the party to accept a change that it had bitterly oppose. Otherwise there would be no recovery in the party’s electoral fortunes. The most pig headed Conservatives wanted him to commit to reintroducing the Corn Laws. These manic reactionaries were a headache for Disraeli. Fortunately for him sanity eventually prevailed. The Conservatives were finally reconciled to the fact that the Corn Laws could not be resurrected. It would still take years of hard work to make the party electable again. Most of those who were left were knights of the shires types.
There was speculation – not all fanciful – that is Peel had given him preferment Disraeli would have joined him in scrapping the Corn Laws. Had Peel made him a crony then Peel would have won over a man who had become a dangerous enemy.
Sir Robert Peel left the Conservative Party. Up to a third of the party came with him. His followers were called Peelites. The Peelites sat with the Whigs. In time the Peelites and Whigs would formally amalgamate to form the Liberal Party.
Gladstone was the coming man in the Whig Party. He was not a jovial sort. He had a cold and superior manner. He was drily intellectual.
RUSSELL AS PRIME MINSTER
The Conservative Government fell in June 1846. Lord John Russell became Prime Minister. Russell was a lifelong Whig. His family had long been luminaries in the party. He had been one of the prime movers behind the Great Reform Act of 1832. He had then been known as Finality Jack.
Lord John had briefly attended Westminster School. He was obliged to leave owing to his poor health. He went to Edinburgh University but left before graduation. The fact that he attended this university was highly unusual especially as e was not North British.
Lord John Russell at first had a relatively easy time as Prime Minister. Whigs ranks were boosted by Peelites sitting on their benches. The Conservative in disarray. The Conservatives who were left were ragamuffin and bobtail. They tended to be the less perspicacious members of that party. They suffered from a chronic shortage of credible future ministers.
The abolition of the Corn Laws was a turning point in that it signalled the primacy of the monied over the landed interest, the United Kingdom was chiefly about industry and not agriculture. From then on the United Kingdom would import most of its comestibles.
Lord Russell’s main failure is his mishandling of the Irish Famine. He always wanted to economise. He cut off much of the relief to those stricken by the Famine. He believed in laissez-faire economic principles. This was part of his belief that the Corn Laws were an affront to commonsense. His asinine refusal to save people undoubtedly made the death toll much higher than it would have been. There was a gulf between his supposed logic and what needed to be done to prevent people dying of starvation. The public works required people to work for a week before they were paid. This was often too late. His notion that Irish property could pay for relief was divorced from reality. There were decent landlords who helped their tenants but there were also callous ones. The largest landlords did not live in Ireland and were not always fully aware of just how horrific the situation was. The dire circumstances in Ireland called for a drastic response. Lord John Russell’s icy indifference is a major blot on his ministry.
Charities sent money. Religious groups such as the Society of Friends saved people but after 1847 the government did precious little. Protestant missionaries are said to have offered soup to those who would convert. Those accused of selling their souls for a mess of pottage are known as soupers. Oddly help does not seem to have been solicited from the Catholic Church with its unequalled wealth.
The other prominent figure in the Whig Party at the time was Viscount Palmerston. Lord Palmerston’s title was an Irish title rather than a United Kingdom one. That is to say it had been created in relation to a place in Ireland prior to 1800. Therefore it did not give him an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords. There were Irish representative peers. He was not one of those. He was elected for a constituency in England. Despite his Irish title he hardly ever went to Ireland.
Viscount Palmerston attended Harrow School and Edinburgh University. He then went on to St John’s College Cambridge. There can be no doubt about his intellectual prowess. As the soon of a peer he was entitled to obtain a Cambridge degree without sitting any exams after three years residence in Cambridge University so long as he was not sent to prison in that time. He chose to sit exams anyway and passed with flying colours.
Lord Palmerston was a flamboyant and colourful figure. He had done more to sustain Whig morale in the dark days than the drab Lord Russell.
The Chartists continued their campaign in the 1840s. The collected enormous petitions with millions of signatures. They emphasised that they would use only peaceful means of campaiging. Their opponents sought to label them dangerous revolutionaries.
There was a monster meeting at Kennington Common in London. Estimates for the turn out vary from 10 000 to 300 000. Protestors always inflate their figures. Their enemies tried to downplay support for the protestors. There was more of a jamboree ambience than a revolutionary one. The Chartists stressed that they were about order. They wished to dispel the calumnies against them.
The Chartists agreed not to cross the Thames to present their petition. That could turn into an attempt to storm Parliament. Plenty of troops were on hand to prevent it.
Again the majority of MPs voted to not even hear the petition read out. In fact they were well aware of its contents.
People poo poohed the petitions. There were several false names such as Big Nose in it. The name of a Tory MP of antediluvian views was there. This could have been sabotage on the part of those who wished to undermine the Chartists.
It is surprising that the Chartists achieved so little in the short term despite mass support. In the long run all of their aims were realised except annual parliaments.