In this term paper we will discuss about the politics and reform in Britain during 1832-1850.
1. Term Paper on the Politics and Reform in Britain (Structure of Politics):
An essential part of the explanation for all of them, in their strengths as well as their limitations, is to be sought in the structure of politics after the passage of the First Reform Act.
Grey’s Government had intended the Act to remove the ‘illegitimate’, but not the ‘legitimate’, influence of the aristocracy; to enfranchise ‘property’ and ‘intelligence’, or ‘the middle classes’, but certainly not to create a democracy or even to give the new voters more than a share of power with the aristocracy; and to restore or modify: but by no means to destroy, the ‘balance of the constitution’.
Even within the framework of these aims the Act had a less radical effect than many had expected. Though the most rotten boroughs were destroyed, aristocratic influence in the Commons remained strong, to the point that there were still about 60 English and Welsh M.P.s who were nominated by individuals, mostly peers.
In the House of Commons elected in 1832 sat 217 baronets or sons of peers, and the figure fell only to 180 by 1865. The Whig Cabinet formed by Melbourne in 1834 was the first to contain more members of the Lower than of the Upper House, but its ‘commoners’ included Palmerston the Irish peer, a baronet and several close relatives of peers. Not until 1858 did a Tory Cabinet have more members of the House of Commons than of the Lords.
If the grosser forms of corruption at elections declined, and the enormous expenses exceptionally incurred before 1832 are not paralleled afterwards, abuses like the bribery and ‘treating’ of voters, the creation of voting qualifications and the impersonation of electors remained common.
A contest in a specially expensive borough like Yarmouth might cost each side £ 10,000, and £ 2,000 to £ 5,000 for each side was not abnormal in a borough. County contests could cost even more. Between 1832 and 1850 a total of 69 results of elections in individual constituencies were set aside because of proved corruption.
In terms of the balance of the constitution the Act did not at first seem to have reduced royal power.
As Professor Gash puts it:
By contrast [to George IV] William IV was a cauldron of energy. In his short reign of seven years, he twice dismissed a Ministry; twice dissolved Parliament for political purposes before its time; three times made formal proposals to his Ministers for a coalition with their political opponents; and on one celebrated occasion allowed his name to be used, independently of his political advisers, to influence a crucial vote in the House of Lords.
In 1839 Victoria, by making difficulties about appointing Ladies of the Bedchamber acceptable to Peel, prolonged the life of the Whig Government. The Upper House, though chastened immediately after the passage of the Act, soon became obstreperous again, rejecting some Whig measures and drastically amending others; and by its mere existence it discouraged and moderated proposals of reform.
However, it is not right to lay the chief stress on the continuity between unreformed and half-reformed politics. The contrast was in fact very great, partly as a result of the actual provisions of the Act, more because the Act was the outward sign of important shifts and changes of attitude.
One specific and quantifiable effect of the Act was particularly significant: the increase in the number of constituencies contested at General Elections. At least twice as many more than ever before, and over two-thirds of the total, 277 out of 401, were fought in the first Election after the passage of the Act.
Though the figure declined pretty steadily thereafter down to and including the Election of 1859, it never again fell as low as before Reform. This change reflects both the political enthusiasm of the ‘thirties and the fact that more constituencies were now uncertain in their allegiance, because more electors were free either to choose between ‘influences’ or to follow their opinions.
The Reform Act for Scotland contributed much in this connexion, giving that country, hitherto one vast rotten borough, ‘a political constitution for the first time’. In Ireland also, by the combination of Catholic emancipation and Parliamentary reform, however grudging, the independence of the electorate was notably increased.
The effect of these changes was considerable. Under the unreformed system Commons majorities would scarcely have been returned, as in the General Elections of 1835 and 1841, against a Ministry supported by the monarch. In the second case the conversion of a majority of 1 into a majority of 91 was achieved by an impressive swing of public opinion.
Another important development to which the Act directly contributed was the growth of party organization. The requirement that voters be registered brought into existence ‘registration societies’, in each constituency one Whig and one Tory. There had previously existed in many places at election times unofficial committees of notabilities backed by a paid agent, but it was a novelty, outside advanced constituencies like Westminster, for any permanent organization to be set up to concern itself in any way with the mass of electors.
However, these new societies had no voice at all in the choice of candidates or in prescribing policy. Their existence contributed in turn to the formation of new political clubs in London, the Carlton for the Tories in 1832 and the Reform for the Whigs in 1836, superseding for political purposes White’s and Brooks’, too frivolous and social for the years after Reform.
The increase in the number of constituencies where traditional local influences did not dominate gave greater opportunities for intervention by the party leaders in elections. It became usual in the more open constituencies for the Carlton and the Reform Clubs to have some say in the choice of candidates and to form the channel by which contributions to the expenses of electioneering were made from party funds, money entrusted by wealthy supporters to the discretion of the leaders and their agents.
Parties, however, developed more in this period than can be explained by the operation of the Reform Act. The importance of party divisions in Parliament was growing. It has already been pointed out that during the debates on Reform the ‘non-political’ M.P. virtually disappeared. From 1835 to 1845 political groupings in Parliament were further simplified: apart from a handful of Radicals, all M.P.s were attached either to the Whig or the Tory Front Bench.
After 1845 there were a greater number of Parliamentary parties, Perlites and Protectionists as well as Whigs, rather than a reversion to the situation where many Members were truly ‘independent’. These parties displayed a degree of solidarity remarkable in view of the fact that many M.P.s still owed their seats to their local position regardless of their party affiliation.
This development can only be understood by taking into account other factors of more general importance: the growth of the organs of public opinion, associated with the improvement of communications, and a fundamental change of attitude to politics.
In sheer circulation figures the Press prospered greatly between about 1832 and about 1850. The Times, easily the largest daily, sold nearly 40,000 copies a day in 1850. The total number of stamped newspapers sold in the British Isles in 1829 was 33,000,000; in 1850, in England alone, the figure was just double.
Some semi-political weeklies of an original character founded in the 1840s did particularly well: by 1850 Punch (1841) was selling 30,000, the Illustrated London News (1842) 100,000, the News of the World (1843) 56,000 a week. Of the hundreds of stamped provincial newspapers, none of which were dailies until the late 1840s, a few like the Leeds Mercury, the Stamford Mercury and the Manchester Guardian sold as many as 10,000 copies a week.
The Northern Star’s unstamped 50,000 were astonishing, and did not last. The impact of the Press is notoriously difficult to gauge. It is clear that each copy of a newspaper was usually read by many people, partly because the cost was so high, even after the stamp duty had been reduced from 4d. to 1d. in 1836.
No contemporary seems to have doubted that The Times, with exceptional circulation, exceptional coverage and exceptionally good sources of information, was uniquely influential. Its great period runs from the 1820s to the 1850s. Other newspapers copied much that it wrote. Great men competed for the Editor’s ear, and provided him with confidential information.
Its ‘leaders’ were treated with enormous respect. It was common for politicians to remark that The Times amounted to a fourth estate of the realm. But no satisfactory conclusion was ever reached on the question whether the Press formed public opinion or reflected it.
Obviously, it did both. But most conspicuously it informed people. The knowledge of public affairs which a reader of The Times could have in this period was greater, though less up-to-date, than any reader could now acquire from English newspapers.
Parliamentary debates were printed in full, whole ‘Blue Books’ (Parliamentary Papers) were published; detailed despatchers from abroad appeared unaltered. The reader of The Times was in most respects better-informed than the Prime Minister himself could have been a few years earlier.
Parliamentary leaders were ambivalent in their attitude to the Press and to other forms of public expression of opinion. The early years of Grey’s Ministry were a period when on the one hand Whig politicians publicly associated themselves with the Birmingham Political Union, though only with great trepidation, and on the other hand prosecuted with vigour those who published unstamped newspapers.
Just as, the extension of the franchise to the middle classes had been coupled with its withdrawal from the working classes, so the reduction of the stamp duty in 1836 was partly intended to separate an enlarged respectable legal Press from a better-controlled gutter Press.
In 1839 the Commons abandoned discussion on petitions, which before 1831 had had priority over other business and had enabled popular opinion to be expressed in the House. Yet the rise of the Press could not be resisted without unacceptable measures of repression. The only recourse was to compete in publicity.
The House of Commons published its own division lists from 1836, in order that they should be accurate. Publication of Parliamentary Papers grew rapidly. There was a more modest increase in the numbers of speeches made outside Parliament by politicians, especially Brougham and Peel.
As it happened, although the Septennial Act was not repealed, two royal deaths and the Reform Bill crisis made five General Elections necessary between 1830 and 1837, inclusive. Although the precedent set by the 1831 Election, a national appeal on a single issue, was not followed up, Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto’ of 1834, putting a programme before the whole electorate, marked a recognition by Conservatives that electioneering was now less localized, and more concerned with issues and prospects of legislation, than before.
And politicians felt and responded to the pressure of opinion more than were strictly necessary for the sake of electioneering. Joseph Parkes, who as the Whigs’ party organizer, knew as much as anyone about the mechanics of registration, ‘influence’ and corruption, nonetheless urged supporters of the Municipal Corporations Bill to agitate.
Nothing, he said, was more effective in persuading the Cabinet to live up to its declared intentions and the Lords to give way. While almost the same sort of people were returned to Parliament in 1832 as previously, they tended now to think of their role as M.P.s in a new way, partly because constituents could in more cases call them to account for their sins of omission and commission, and partly because of a change in the general public attitude to politics.
It now seemed natural and necessary for the Government to put forward large measures of reform. General legislating came to be regarded as the principal function of Parliament. Its sovereignty was now applied to great ends.
A symptom of this development was the supersession of Select Committees of the House by more specialist and powerful Royal Commissions, on whose often sweeping recommendations many of the principal measures of the period were based. Signs of such a shift of approach had been evident before the Reform Act, and had contributed to its passing; the fact of its passage in its turn encouraged demands for other reforms.
This greater concern with issues and legislation would seem, incidentally, to have intensified party feeling. But the current of reform carried all parties with it. Whigs adopted the name ‘Liberals’, as their party became a progressive coalition between the old aristocratic Whigs who continued to dominate Cabinets, men of similar views but lower social position, and genuine Radicals.
And Tories became ‘Conservatives’, promoters, in the words of the Tamworth Manifesto, of ‘a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper, combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances’. Peel and Wellington called off the House of Lords when it seemed to be compromising their position as moderate reformers.
Obstreperous though they could still be, most peers recognized that the manner of the passage of the Reform Act made it a victory for the Commons over the Lords. The use of the threat to create peers was never forgotten, nor the King’s dramatic drive to Westminster, the ceremonial guns booming, to dissolve, Parliament in 1831 before the Lords could pass a motion of protest.
It was pointed out, of course, that the country could not have a revolution every year. But that consideration was as likely to make the Lords give way as the Commons. Before 1831 a defeat in the Upper House had been more certain to bring a Ministry down than a defeat in the Lower. After 1831 defeats in the Lords never caused a Government to resign. The balance of the constitution had decisively shifted, and the Upper House did not attempt to restore it until after 1886.
As regards the monarchy, the initiatives of William IV and Victoria were incautious in that they served to demonstrate its weakness. The Governments installed by William IV in 1832 and 1834, and that prolonged by Victoria in 1839, failed to survive against the wishes of the Commons and the electorate. The strength of parties was such that their leaders could reject suggestions for coalition and maintain themselves in office even with only a small majority.
The Conservative Peel proved less sympathetic to royal interventions than the Whigs. After the Election of 1841 the Queen, under the tutelage of Prince Albert, decided for the future to act impartially between the parties. In 1845 she abandoned the exercise of the monarch’s personal electoral patronage. Perhaps, if these decisions had not been taken, the confusion of parties in the 1850s would have permitted effective royal initiatives.
But, as with the Lords, it was not until after the end of the period that the Queen again became, an active partisan, and then in circumstances in which she could achieve little.
Each of the reforms of 1832-50 was the result of a particular balance of forces. Among the strongest of the forces there remained the House of Lords, the Church, the Tory party and the landed interest, almost as closely-related as before. But all these elements were subtly changed during the struggle over the Reform Bill and after its passage.
They became more aware of other forces of society and more willing to compromise with them. In extending the electorate and redistributing the constituencies, the Act expanded the ‘Establishment’. But more notable than this physical broadening was the mental broadening brought about by the crisis. The essential change that took place between 1827 and 1832 was the weakening of inertia. Reform acquired momentum.
2. Term Paper on the Politics and Reform in Britain (Municipal, Police and Law Reforms):
It was hardly possible to reform Parliament without reforming borough corporations. This was done for Scotland in 1833, England and Wales in 1835. In the latter case, Radical and Nonconformist demands for better representation interacted with the growing fear and disgust felt by the Government and the landed gentry at the disorder endemic in towns.
The preparatory Royal Commission was biased but persuasive. This was the classic instance when wrecking amendments made by the House of Lords were disowned by Peel for the Conservative party in the Commons and the country, and abandoned. The measures were drastic. Almost every old corporation was swept away.
The only notable exception and that of course of great symbolic importance, was the City of London, which remains to the present day unreformed. In all the boroughs concerned, wholly new elective councils were set up.
The franchise was in appearance much more liberal than the Parliamentary, since all householders might qualify, but the additional requirement of three years’ payment of poor rates was so restrictive that in some places fewer people could vote for their town council than for their M.P. Women were explicitly excluded.
There was a property qualification for membership. A third of the council was to be elected each year, and in addition aldermen were to be co-opted by the council. The Act required each council to appoint two salaried officials, a town clerk and a treasurer, and permitted it to appoint stipendiary magistrates.
The measure allowed room for development. Councils, subject to the control of the Privy Council, might ‘make such Bye Laws as to them shall seem meet for the good Rule and Government of the Borough’; they could levy a rate; provision was included for the councils to take over, by agreement, the powers of improvement commissioners; and it was made comparatively easy for the Act to be extended to towns previously unincorporated. Manchester and Birmingham soon had their charters and corporations.
By 1850 a reasonably efficient system of police was established in London, the towns and half the counties. In so far as there was a public demand for this reform, it came from the propertied classes, and there survived even among them a good deal of distrust of the police.
However, no one doubts that standards of public order and behaviour were raised as a result of the change. It was partly the institution of the police which made contemporaries willing to stomach the mitigation of the law’s severity. The highest figure for death sentences passed was reached in 1831: 1,549 in England and Wales.
For death sentences inflicted the worst years were 1816-1822, when the average was over 100. In the next decade the average was 58, and in 1831 it was 52, that is, 1 in 30 of the sentences. In 1832 the penalty was abolished for a number of offences like forgery and cattle-stealing, and in 1837 for several more, so that few crimes other than murder remained capital.
In 1838 the total number of death sentences was 126, of which 6 were carried out. After that year no one was hanged in nineteenth- century England except for murder. The accepted alternative punishment for serious crime was transportation to Australia. It was used so freely that in 1836 about 52,000 persons were serving terms.
By 1850 objections from other Australians, together with revelations of the conditions in which the convicts worked, had much restricted the practice. In consequence, it was more necessary to build prisons in England, and in the late, thirties and ‘forties about forty were erected. Prison inspectors were first appointed in 1835.
Other enormities of the unreformed period were being eradicated. The pillory was abolished in 1837. Flogging in the armed services was still considered necessary, but at least the number and permitted severity of floggings was much reduced between 1830 and 1846. Bear-baiting and similar sports were made illegal in 1835. These reforms are among many which rendered the country more civilized.
It is hard to discover what are the precise significance and effects of changes in legal procedure. But much effort was devoted in these years, largely through Brougham’s initiative, to speeding up litigation and rationalizing the legal system.
Many of the worst absurdities and the longest delays had been eliminated before 1850. In civil cases obvious benefits accrued from the establishment of County Courts with jurisdiction where the amount at issue was less than £ 20. Previously almost all civil cases had to be heard in London.
3. Term Paper on the Politics and Reform in Britain (Factory Reform):
Children had always been put to work, in agriculture as in other industries. It was to the advantage of their parents, and was usually held to be to the public benefit. But the Industrial Revolution created conditions of child labour in many respects worse than had existed before.
Tiny children employed in factories and mines might be away from their parents, at night, for more than twelve hours on end, minding machinery under brutal discipline. Even if the machinery did not mangle them, their health was likely to be ruined before they reached maturity.
More remarkable, though, than the change in the conditions was the change in the public attitude to them. It became widely accepted that young children should not be employed in factories and mines at all, and that the hours of work of older children should be restricted.
But it was equally the common view that adults must be treated as responsible individuals capable of making a contract about their working conditions without assistance. Compromise legislation was made difficult by the fact that children, as mills were usually organized, seemed essential to the industry, and so limitation of their hours might in effect limit those of adults.
It was, on the other hand, still believed by many, understandably, given the vicissitudes of industry and the novelty of a fast rate of growth, that any restrictions placed on the recruitment of labour might make the difference between profit and loss to the manufacturer. In places like Manchester, after all, the number of labourers over the age of 20 was hardly greater than the number of those aged between 10 and 20.
What carried the laws controlling employment in factories and mines was a combination of many forces: the Ten Hours movement; humanitarian feeling, voiced by Evangelicals like Ashley, using comparisons with the conditions of West Indian slaves of whom Parliament took such care, and refusing to put profit before welfare; the ideas and experience of the more enlightened factory-owners, who themselves dispensed with child labour and found long hours unprofitable; and the willingness of the landed interest, especially the Tories, to put down up-start Radical manufacturers.
What made the laws more effective than earlier attempts, and progressively better, was the introduction in the 1833 Act of inspection of factories by professionals, and the successive recommendations of the inspectorate, once established. This was the proposal of one of the members of the Royal Commission, Edwin Chadwick, formerly Bentham’s secretary.
By 1850 a 10 hour day, or a 58 hour week, for women and for children under 18 had been imposed in textile factories, indirectly affecting many adult men also. Children under 8 might not work there at all. In the mines the employment underground of women and of children under 10 was absolutely prohibited by the Act of 1842. Other industries and trades were as yet virtually unregulated.
4. Term Paper on the Politics and Reform in Britain (Poor Law Reform):
What made it imperative to reform the Poor Law, from the point of view of Ministers, was the pressure of the landed interest to reduce the poor rates. It was the problem of the South and agriculture which dominated their thinking. Opinion generally concentrated on condemning the ‘Speenhamland system’ as the great abuse of the old law.
It was strongly held that employers should not be encouraged to pay low wages by the subventions available to their employees under the Poor Law, that it was ‘demoralizing’ to the labourer to have to depend on this charity, and that in order to ensure an adequate supply of labour in areas of economic advance there should be a free labour market.
To change the system it came to be accepted that centralization of Poor Law administration was necessary. This was largely as a result of the report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, set up in 1832, the first of the great Royal Commissions, which was very much influenced by Chadwick and other Benthamites.
The Poor Law Amendment Act, set up a body of three Poor Law Commissioners, with Chadwick as Secretary, who were independent of Parliament, whose tenure had to be renewed after five years, but who in the meantime had very large powers to control the administration of relief.
In particular they were required to divide the country into unions of parishes, like those few formed under Gilbert’s Act, in each of which the rate-payers were to elect boards of guardians who must provide adequate workhouses and administer relief through paid officials under the directions of the Commission.
Thus for the first time, though for specified purposes only, an elective system of local government was established over the whole country, divided up on a fairly rationalist basis; the authority of the J.P.s was displaced; and Parliament delegated powers of interference in the localities unmatched since the days of Star Chamber.
It is important to realize that certain things which had been much canvassed were not done. The Royal Commission did not accept that the Poor Law should be altogether abolished, as had been proposed by Thomas Malthus in his influential Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). The law of settlement was only modified, and still acted as a discouragement to migration. Liability to rates was unaltered.
How relief should be administered was left to the Commission to decide. Its first object was to eradicate supplementation of wages from the poor rates, but it hoped also to dispense with all outdoor relief for the able-bodied and to restore the work-houses to their true function.
Necessarily, as the problem was viewed, the workhouse had to be made unattractive, ‘less eligible’ than the miserable working conditions outside. The intention was to deal with children, the sick and the aged in a different way in different buildings. The Commissioners failed to make provision of allotments for the poor, one of the obvious ways of relieving agricultural distress.
The Act, and the efforts of the Commissioners, was partially successful. Unions were established and built their workhouses. The ‘Speenhamland system’ was perhaps destroyed as far as official expenditure was concerned. The poor rates fell, and expenditure on poor relief was lower in every year between 1835 and 1850, except for 1848-49, than it had ever been between 1816 and 1834.
The administration was considered to have justified itself, and was very soon saddled with other tasks like registration of births, marriages and deaths, and vaccination. The guardians were more professional than their rivals, the J.P.s and the clergy, or their predecessors, the overseers, and better capable of collecting information and attending to detail.
On the other hand, the Commissioners found that they could not get all they wanted done. Even when what the Commissioners wanted was sensible, local boards of guardians might refuse to cooperate. Hence, special provision for children, the sick and the aged was seldom made.
Moreover, the Commissioners’ wishes were not always grounded in a realistic appreciation of the situation. ‘Outdoor relief’, it was found, was indispensable if the poor were to be kept alive and the country quiet. In the industrial districts it was the only possible means of coping with cyclical unemployment.
Here troops sometimes had to be called in to give effect to the Commissioners’ regulations even in modified form. In agricultural areas unemployment, if less severe, was more continuous and no more tractable. The wages of agricultural workers did not at first rise to offset the loss of the ‘Speenhamland’ subsidies.
More general opposition arose because the new authority was enforcing a callous law, insisting for instance on separating husbands from wives and parents from children in the workhouses. Many people simply resented centralization, system, uniformity and efficiency.
The opposition won a token triumph in 1847, when Chadwick was dropped from the Commission, which was replaced by a Board, headed by a Minister in Parliament.
5. Term Paper on the Politics and Reform in Britain (Sanitary Reform):
While he was still nominally Secretary to the Commissioners, Chadwick was actually working on health questions. His Sanitary Report of 1842 revealed the full horror of British urban life. He argued that the high incidence of disease and the high mortality in towns were due not so much to destitution as to squalor.
His remedy was not, as might have been expected, medical, but engineering: a continuous and adequate water supply, combined with an efficient system of sewers. This Report leaned heavily on Kay’s earlier work, and on the contribution of doctors trained in the Edinburgh medical school. But it was incomparably more thorough.
It became a bestseller and, reinforced by subsequent enquiries, both of Royal Commissions and private bodies, created a strong body of opinion, well placed rather than widespread, in support of a measure under which local authorities could be compelled to take proper action in this field.
In 1848, with another cholera epidemic threatening, the Public Health Act was passed. It set up a General Board of Health, of which the members appointed were Ashley (unpaid), Chadwick (paid) and Viscount Morpeth (in his capacity as a member of the Government).
This Board was to supervise the establishment and operation of local boards of health. Such boards were to be created either if one-tenth of the inhabitants of a locality petitioned to that effect, or if the death-rate in a locality exceeded 23 per 1,000.
In corporate towns the council was to be the board. Otherwise a special board was to be elected by ratepayers. The act did not apply to Scotland and the City of London. Under the instructions and inspection of the General Board, the local boards were given powers to enforce drainage, provide and maintain sewers, and compel the provision of privies. They could pave and cleanse streets, and provide a scavenging service. They dealt with nuisances, offensive trades, and meat inspection.
They were empowered to inspect and regulate common lodging-houses. Under certain limitations they could close burial grounds, provide or control water supplies, and provide public parks. They could raise a rate, and were given borrowing powers for the construction of works.
These powers, constituting a vast infringement on the liberty of individuals, were not wholly unprecedented, but they now became much more general and much more fully-used than before. Up to the end of 1853 182 towns had taken advantage of the Act.
6. Term Paper on the Politics and Reform in Britain (Free Trade and Repeal of the Corn Law):
The question ‘why was the Corn Law repealed?’ (Strictly, at first, suspended only) has aroused almost as much controversy as the question ‘why was Parliament reformed?’ At the time and since, people have believed that with Repeal the voice of public opinion particularly that of the industrialized provinces, institutionalized in the Anti-Com Law League, triumphed over the landed interest, hitherto secure in its control of Parliament. But this view is too simple.
The League was founded to bring together the hitherto scattered elements of an agitation of some years’ standing. Its headquarters were at Manchester, its leader was Richard Cobden. It campaigned for universal Free Trade, but with special reference to the Corn Law. Its formation marked the abandonment by most industrialists of claims to protection for themselves.
It also represented a deliberate diversion of agitation away from Chartism, the promotion of a middle-class alternative to the chimerical programme of the working classes. Its organization was most efficient, using lectures, petitions, pamphlets, newspapers like the Economist (1843), and buying up freeholds in order to win by-elections. Its petitions obtained nearly as many signatures as the Chartists’. Its funds, at least £ 250,000 altogether, were vastly greater.
This was the core of its arguments. Britain now depended on imports of food to support her population adequately. Since, by the operation of the Corn Law, food imports were not so large as desirable and so cheap as possible, some people starved and many went short in agricultural as well as industrial areas, while the home market for manufactures was reduced because unnecessarily high prices had to be paid for food, with consequent loss to manufacturers and additional hardship to their employees.
Again, with food imports limited, Britain’s total trade was diminished, because many countries could not pay for British goods unless Britain was paying them for food, among other products—hence a further reduction of her industrial out-put, profit and employment.
Agriculture must now take third place behind trade and industry, in the interests of the country as a whole, as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. However, farming would not in fact suffer seriously, because of the built-in protection afforded to it by transport costs and the general shortage of grain in Europe.
After the split in his party, Peel himself attributed Repeal to Cobden and the League. But this was to minimize his own role and that of others not connected with the League. It must first be realized that much greater contributions to Free Trade than Repeal were made by the Budgets of 1842 and 1845, with which the League had little to do.
These were to a large extent Peel’s own work, in line with the report of the Select Committee on Import Duties of 1840 and based on the proposals of civil servants, reinforced by the general conviction of almost all those who had studied the matter that tariffs did harm rather than good.
Successive Governments since Liverpool’s time had taken this view, and reductions in import duties had been made by the Whigs in the ‘thirties as well as by the Tories in the ‘twenties. Deficit led to reversal of this policy in 1840. In order to resume advance in the direction of general Free Trade, what was needed was the re-imposition of the income tax, to provide an alternative source of revenue.
This was what Peel carried through in 1842, with an exceptionally strong Cabinet and an exceptionally solid party behind him, and against the background of the economic crisis of 1837-42 and the deficit. In return for an income tax of 7d in the £ on incomes of over £150 per annum, he reduced 750 of the 1,200 duties.
More drastically, in 1845, 450 duties were repealed, and many others lowered. In 1842, before the Budget, customs duties yielded an average of over 30 per cent on all imports, as against over 60 per cent in 1822. The change over twenty years was partly due to remissions of duty, more to the great growth of imports of articles which carried less heavy duties, like cotton.
But in 1842 customs revenue formed 46 per cent of total revenue, a higher proportion than at any time since before the wars with France. The poor, that is, paid relatively more of the taxes than previously. After Peel’s reforms the average import duty was 25 per cent, and the proportion of the revenue derived from customs around 40 per cent.
Among the duties repealed were many on raw materials, including meat; among those reduced were those on tea and sugar, hitherto very heavy. These changes must have contributed much to the revival of trade after 1842. They must also have improved the standard of living of the working classes.
The most striking development for which they must be largely responsible was a very rapid increase in sugar consumption. Per capita consumption of sugar in the ‘thirties and early ‘forties was visibly lower even than in previous decades. From 1839 to 1844 it never reached 17 lb.
The average from 1800 to 1809 had been 19 lb. In 1845 it was 19 lb. again, and thereafter rose almost uninterruptedly. In 1853 it reached 30 lb., and fell below that figure in only two later years. Peel was very conscious of the social implications of his policies. ‘Whatever be your financial difficulties and necessities,’ he said in introducing the Budget of 1842, ‘you must so adapt your measures. . . as not to bear on the comforts of the labouring classes of society.’ The Budgets of 1842 and 1845 are Peel’s greatest achievement, and the principal contribution of Governments to the better economic and social situation of the later ‘forties.
By comparison with the whole range of tariffs modified in these Budgets, the Corn Law was of lesser economic importance. But it was of enormous political importance. This had been true ever since its first enactment, but the League directed still more attention to it. Though its lecturers, pamphleteers and orators could argue a most convincing logical case for Repeal, they also indulged in unreasonable demagogy against the aristocracy, the ‘Establishment’ and politicians of the old parties.
The League succeeded in making the Corn Law the symbol of landed and aristocratic dominance of Parliament. Hence, it provoked a bitter and organized reaction. The Reform Act had much increased the number of county constituencies, and thereby strengthened the direct representation in the Commons of the agricultural interest, of the farmers as against the landowners.
In the Election of 1841, while Peel himself remained silent on the Corn Law, the Conservatives had won most of the counties because they were believed to be the party of agricultural Protection. Russell had made these certain by supporting publicly in 1839 the replacement of the sliding scale of 1828 by a fixed duty on corn, a policy to which the Whig Cabinet had finally agreed as an electioneering gambit in 1841.
As Peel unfolded his liberal policies, discontent grew within his party. He overcame it in modifying the sliding scale in 1842, on the sugar duties in 1844 as well as in 1845, and in 1845 on the increase in the grant to the Roman Catholic seminary at Maynooth in Ireland. But the same combination was building up as in 1829-30, of Protestant agriculturist Tories, suspecting betrayal by their leaders. In 1844 an Anti-League was founded.
Peel was privately convinced that Repeal was the right policy some years before 1845. What persuaded him to act was the outbreak of potato blight in Ireland in the autumn of that year, which threatened catastrophic famine. As Peel saw it, the Government must procure additional food for Ireland, and in order to do so must suspend the Corn Law.
There seems to have been no dissent from the view that suspension, in the political climate created by the League, meant effective Repeal. Russell’s Edinburgh Letter was based on the same calculation. But when Peel actually proposed the suspension he linked it with other measures: a further reduction of duties, this time on foreign manufactures; and drainage loans for farmers. Again, he showed a broader grasp than the League or the Whigs.
In order to understand how these decisions could be made and succeed, many factors have to be considered. Until the 1830s there was a large surplus of grain in Europe, more of which, but for the Corn Law, would have found its way into Britain, doubtless lowering prices.
There were difficulties, of course: the shipping was not always available, and bad harvests in Britain were often matched by bad harvests in Europe. But the main provision of the Corn Law was that excluding entry of cheap corn altogether.
British agriculture had been adapting itself to the post-war situation. The output of wheat was evidently rising, the output of meat more rapidly. But it is a matter of dispute whether the growth of wheat output kept pace with the rise of population before the 1830s. To me it seems unlikely that it did, since it is known that the acreage of wheat grew little, if at all, and that the improvement in yields was only slight.
In Britain as well as in Ireland, though to a lesser extent, increased cultivation of the potato must have been a necessary compensation for a lesser supply of grain. Not until 1837-42, however, was the insufficiency clearly revealed. But by this time the European surplus was dwindling, at least outside Russia.
A Corn Law was no longer necessary to ensure that all the grain produced by British farmers in a good year could be sold at reasonable prices. Further, what is called ‘high farming’, larger-scale and more scientific, had been developing in Britain, and areas ill-suited to arable had been turned over to pasture.
The 1840s were a period of notable development in agricultural techniques: the Rothamsted experimental station was founded in 1843, large imports were made of guano for manure, and wheat-yields rose much more rapidly. Peel’s drainage loans were designed to assist the transition to ‘high farming’. The larger farmers felt some confidence that they would prosper even against overseas competition.
No doubt these changes helped to account for the acquiescence of some landlords and great farmers in Repeal. They entered Peel’s calculations, which were primarily economic. But political considerations predominated with most men.
The majorities for Repeal in both Houses were composed of some Tories and most Whigs, responding to the initiatives of their party leaders and often suppressing their own doubts because of the common assessment of the political situation, that public opinion, largely formed by the League, would accept nothing less and, if baulked, would turn to more revolutionary demands.
As in 1829 and 1832, enough members of the ‘Establishment’ recalled that their position rested on opinion, not on force, and adopted the Whig attitude that concession to the views of the respectable was the only security against the violence of the masses. Incidentally, they preferred to give way without forcing a constitutional crisis like that of 1831-32, and avoided a General Election or a threat to create peers on the issue of the Corn Law.
Repeal is often said to have made little difference. It did not affect the Irish situation much. It was certainly less important in economic terms than the total of the rest of Peel’s tariff changes. Perhaps, in the same terms, it was less important even than the other reductions of 1846.
But it did lead to a much-increased import of grain into Britain. Taking the total quantities of grain and flour imported, in 1846 itself a little more was brought in than in any previous year, in 1847 nearly three times as much, and from 1848 to 1859 inclusive an average of twice as much each year as ever before.
As for prices, they did not fall. Rather, Continental prices rose. But corn must have been cheaper in Britain because of Repeal than it would have been under the Corn Law. Most important, economic fluctuations became less violent.
As the best-informed had predicted, British agriculture did not at first suffer. As yet, the prairies had not been opened up, and the railways and shipping scarcely existed to transport grain in bulk from so far away.
Politically, the crisis over Repeal was enormously important. Disraeli, whom Peel had refused to consider seriously for office, seized the opportunity to carve himself a political position. He did not lay much stress on the merits of the case. He argued rather that Peel had no business to defy the majority of his party and its convictions.
The Protectionists were led by Stanley in the Lords and Lord George Bentinck in the Commons. In 1848 Bentinck died, and Disraeli soon became, by default, effective Leader in the Lower House. By 1850 no progress had been made towards reuniting Protectionists and Peelites, and the repercussions of the split were felt until at least the 1870s.
The bitterness generated was very great, and helps to account for the Liberals’ long tenancy of office between 1846 and 1885. In a wider sense, Repeal had a great impact on popular politics.
It was very generally accepted that in agreeing to the measure the ‘Establishment’ had committed itself to a more benevolent and disinterested policy all round. The popular leaders held that Repeal proved the goodwill of the upper classes and demonstrated the possibilities of peaceful reform.
7. Term Paper on the Politics and Reform in Britain (General Considerations of Politics and Reforms):
This mass of reforms, it has already been pointed out, re-modelled, more or less drastically, most of Britain’s historic institutions, and included also some remarkable initiatives. Each Act, however, dealt with a particular matter and was the product of a particular balance of forces. What generalizations, then, can be made about the measures and their origins?
In the cases of Parliament and the municipalities the ‘Establishment’ explicitly broadened itself. The same tendency was evident in the recognition given in 1828-29 and later to Roman Catholics and Nonconformists, although they remained in some ways outsiders.
Further, when new administrative machinery was established, the elective principle was usually extended to it, providing, however, for the representation of property, not numbers. Though the House of Lords lost none of its theoretical power and were not changed except in spirit and by considerable creations of Whig peers, the aristocracy was weakened.
The Church lost much of its privileged position, and contracted towards the status of a mere denomination. From each re-modeling of an old institution there emerged a closer approach to rationality, uniformity and system. Some of the more obvious anomalies were removed, some norms were laid down.
In the special cases of the Poor Law, factory and health measures, the central administration acquired new powers. Together with the Municipal Reform Act these constituted the chief statutory encouragements to professionalism and also the main delegations by Parliament of detailed legislative power.
On the other hand, the reforms had many limitations. All of them were unoriginal either in that they generalized detailed precedents, as in the case of Free Trade, or made old measures more effective, as with the Factory Act of 1833, or in that they aimed at applying more widely the practice of certain areas or groups, for instance progressive Gilbert Act Unions which had rejected the ideas behind the Speenhamland decision, good unreformed corporations like Liverpool, improvement commissioners, humane and intelligent factory masters, or model clergymen.
Many of the measures used local government machinery, new or old, much more than central administration. They were all very economical. The New Poor Law was explicitly designed to save money; the motive was present behind many of the others.
The total number of inspectors appointed was under 100, the professionals in the localities remained few, the census of 1851 found less than 75,000 people engaged in public administration, of whom most were revenue or Post Office officials and ‘only 1,628 engaged in the civil departments of the government for general administrative purposes’.
Even local government expenditure hardly rose in the aggregate. The revenue of English and Welsh counties doubled between 1830 and 1850, from about £ 700,000 p.a. to £ 1,500,000 p.a., but the reduction in poor rate compensated for this increase. The Church was still the principal social service, and the Poor Law the next.
No doubt many of these limitations arose from the fact that the power of the landed and more precisely the agricultural interest was maintained by the Reform Act, even strengthened, at least against the aristocracy. It remained much easier to score off manufacturers than off squires.
The law of ‘real’ or landed property was scarcely altered, and the Game Laws only in the interests of farmers; county administration was hardly touched, except in the case of the Poor Law, passed almost purely to meet the complaints of the gentry. Their only real defeat was over the Corn Law.
More generally, though, all the measures were strong assertions of the power of the State and of the legislative sovereignty of Parliament. After nearly two centuries almost barren of general legislation, it was revived. True, the legislation cost very little and employed few people. But it was extraordinarily effective.
By repealing many pointless and unpopular laws, by creating a tolerable police force, and by relying on the growth of ‘Evangelical’ morality, all of which tended to increase respect for law, Parliament was able to make great changes with slight expenditure and a tiny administration. The period saw a remarkable demonstration of the power of law, backed by little but opinion.
To discuss the origins of the reforms is to enter an area of acute controversy. Shall try to take into account all the main points that have been made against the simple view that the measures were the result of the pressure of enlightened and humanitarian public opinion, led by Bentham and his followers.
The great economic and social changes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, attempts to take account of the rise of population or the growth of towns, the development of communications, of factory industry, of the middle class or of Nonconformity.
It has been suggested that they can be regarded in this light as inevitable. There is more force to this contention in regard to some reforms than to others. The economic and social changes made some sort of Reform Act inescapable. No doubt industrialization makes it necessary to improve primary education above the level it had reached in Britain in 1800.
But those very instances recall that the nature of the response and its timing are far from being determined by the progress of economic and social change, except in a sense different from that just used, and so wide as to cover all history. Reform of all kinds was delayed by the wars with France and the reaction associated with them.
The struggles of the seventeenth century had a profound influence in the nineteenth, both because of the way people thought about them and because of their historic legacy. Educational reformers advocated State education in the 1830s using the example and experience of Prussia, which had adopted the measure for military reasons as much as any, and certainly not in response to industrialization.
And the progress of industrialization does not explain why it was introduced in Britain only in 1870, and then unsystematically, having been imposed by a British Government on Ireland in 1831. Public Health legislation might seem the clearest case of a direct response to economic and social change. But, insofar as it was, the response was long delayed.
Further, the exact nature of the sanitary problem deserves thought. It was not that mortality rates and social conditions in industrial Britain were worse than in the rest of the world. They were, astoundingly, at every point in the nineteenth century on average better than almost everywhere else.
It was the internal contrasts that were so striking. Again, the United States, for a variety of reasons, was much slower than Britain to enact legislation controlling commercial and industrial practice, even allowing for the fact that America’s Industrial Revolution occurred later.
In no case does it appear that ‘public opinion’ simply extorted a measure. But a moment’s reflection shows that to write in these terms is absurd. Short of a revolution a reform could only be carried with the support of some of the ‘Establishment’. In the preceding sub-sections instances have been given of various relationships between forces ‘outside’ and ‘inside’.
Peel’s Free Trade convictions owed little to public opinion, except in the very restricted sense of the opinion of those who had studied the question. But he acknowledged the effectiveness of the League and reckoned that it had made mere suspension of the Corn Law impossible by 1845.
Russell was much more directly influenced by outside opinion on these matters. Wellington and many other peers of both parties, though reluctant, felt the pressure. In the case of factory reform the earliest measures owed little to opinion, but, Ashley was converted by the agitation of the early ‘thirties, and so progressively were more and more M.P.s, though of course other motives operated.
It has been claimed that much of the progress of factory legislation after 1833 was inspired by the inspectorate and other officials who tried to work the early Acts. This influence should be acknowledged, but it was not they who promoted the Act of 1847. On Parliamentary reform, the Act that was passed in 1832 was not what opinion ‘outside’ wanted.
But it would never have been proposed and carried if there had not been a massive movement of opinion, both respectable which might be won over, and ‘mob’, fear of which made the attempt at winning over the ‘middle classes’ politically feasible.
On law and health reform there was only a narrow range of interested opinion, but it was nonetheless important. In general, feeling both inside and outside the ‘Establishment’ moved during the twenties in favour of general legislation to effect reforms in the interests of economy, efficiency, uniformity, order, better representation and religious equality.
Both Peel and Russell deserve much individual credit for their support of reforming measures, so helping to convert their parties.
Recently Peel’s role has been much overstated. With all the contribution he made by his Free Trade legislation of the 1840s, to the compromise over Church reform, to criminal law, police and prison reform, and by controlling his party and the House of Lords over the Municipal Corporations Act and other Whig Acts, it must not be forgotten that he opposed many of the extensions of criminal law reform in the 1830s and the limitation of factory working hours throughout, that he backed the educational measure of 1843, which betrayed an Anglican bias, and that he encouraged the House of Lords in its rejection and amendment of many reasonable reforms, especially connected with the Church and the Universities.
Peel had a mind of great power, capable of devising large schemes on its own; he showed a remarkable willingness to admit previous error; he was unequalled in economic matters; and he cared desperately about the condition of the people. But Russell too was a great leader in this period. His later career was overshadowed by Palmerston’s; his reforming initiatives aroused little interest in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties.
In the ‘twenties, however, it had been mainly he who had kept the Whigs bound to the support of Parliamentary reform. In the ‘thirties he kept them, often against the opposition of Melbourne, working for further reform, of the Church, in Ireland, of municipal corporations, of the law.
In the ‘forties he had much to do with making them help repeal the Corn Law. He supported the Ten Hours Act, and was personally much involved in the advance of State education. If he was too doctrinaire, he was sufficiently advanced to be able to be tolerably consistent. He was small of stature, he could be small-minded where questions of patronage were concerned, but he had a broad outlook on large matters and took great risks as leader.
It has been suggested by Professor Gash that, while the Whig case for Parliamentary reform was appropriate to the political situation of 1831-32, the Tory case against it was more cogent: that is, that the settlement was inconsistent and could not be final, that it would lead on to democracy and so to debasement of public standards.
But in this matter and in general many Whigs had to be content to go less for than they would have liked, and to defend an unhappy compromise, partly because of the strength of the Tories, especially in the House of Lords. It is significant that, whereas Peel’s Government of 1841 was frightened of the Chartists and comparatively restrictive in its dealings with them, Russell in 1839 refused to be alarmed and to take special powers.
The difference symbolizes the wider difference that the Whigs were more prepared to trust the people as a whole, to take risks, to ‘follow the argument wherever it led’. The Tories could never have proposed the Acts of 1832 and 1835, and, if a majority of politicians had accepted their case against them, Revolution could hardly have been avoided, leading presumably to no less ‘debasement’.
In this period, when the mass of backbenchers took their cue from the small, slowly-changing group of Front Benchers, distinguished by ability, industry and experience as much as by social position, the role of the latter was of exceptional significance in reconciling the ‘Establishment’ and opinion.
The detailed question remains: how influential were Bentham and his followers? The recent tendency of historians has been to play down their contribution, and there is a clear limit to the amount of influence that can be exerted by an individual, still more perhaps by an abstract thinker and a recluse like Bentham, on a varied mass of legislation passed by a representative Parliament susceptible to numerous pressures.
All the same, no other theoretical reformer was nearly as important as Bentham was. It has already been indicated that in the 1820s he and his associates had direct influence on public opinion and on some politicians. After his death in 1832 the story is somewhat different.
There seems to have occurred a reaction against his kind of radicalism during the ‘thirties, both outside and inside Parliament. His own proposals for reform were in many cases superseded as more thorough enquiries were made into the existing situation. But two areas were particularly affected by his ideas.
The first was that of ‘new administration’ as a whole. His associates constituted a high proportion of those who could be considered experts in fields where the existing Civil Service had little experience, or in the matter of general administrative reform. They were experts partly by previous study, partly because they were apostles of professionalism and scientific enquiry.
Hence, they were prominent in Royal Commissions. Later they were also to the fore in drafting and administering the measures for which the Commissions had prepared the way. Chadwick of course was the most famous and effective. He did not owe his detailed proposals to Bentham, but he derived from him his general attitude, that after thorough enquiry into a particular problem a perfect solution to it should be discoverable, and enforceable by law and efficient administration.
The solutions he propounded were always modified in the process of law-making, but his contribution to the final measure remained significant and unmistakable. It has been suggested that reform waited on the advance of knowledge. But it is not clear that the remedies applied were the most correct ones.
What Chadwick and others of the school supplied were solutions, which they believed to be scientifically supported, and the faith and will to seek and carry them out. This was enough. It is easier to credit that their contribution should be so important if it is recalled how small was the range of candidates for work of this kind, and how small the whole elite of politicians and students of politics.
The second sphere of Bentham’s special influence was, as was too expected from the emphasis of his own interests, the reform of the law itself. In detail, he had made proposals for radical reform of many branches of the law. These were by no means adopted as they stood. But the resistance of the profession and of conservatism could not eliminate all his proposals.
In general, his faith in the power of law and his unclouded assertion of the sovereignty of Parliament communicated themselves to the public and, with important assistance from the work of a disciple, John Austin, a widely-studied legal writer, to the profession itself.
It could still be truly said of the Benthamites in 1936:
They came down into a world where medieval prejudice, Tudor Law, Stuart economics, and Hanoverian patronage still luxuriated in wild confusion, and by the straight and narrow paths they cut we are walking still.