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Commentary for Volume 2, Chapter 28 Peel’s Lieutenant, 1841–1846
In the 1838 conversation Lady Salisbury ‘suggested the idea of President of the Council or Privy Seal, which [Wellington] rejected almost indignantly, and said he should prefer to lead the House of Lords without office, or rather, not to lead them at all.’ (Lady Salisbury’s diary, 26 January 1838, Gascoyne Heiress p 270-1). And in 1841 Greville wrote that, ‘Yesterday morning Arbuthnot told me that the Duke certainly would not come to the Council Office. He does not like it, says he knows nothing of the business, and won’t have anything to do with it.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 28 August 1841 vol 4 p 403).
According to the story recorded by Greville, about the time Wellington wrote to Peel urging that he not hold any office but sit in the cabinet, the Duke had been approached by the King of Prussia (through Lord William Russell, the British envoy at Berlin) ‘to know if He would take the command of the Forces of the German Confederation in the event of a war with France. He replied that He was the Queen of England’s subject, and could take no command without her permission; but if that was obtained, he felt as able as ever, and as willing to command the King’s Army against France.’ A note by Greville’s first editor, Henry Reeve, states that this overture came a little earlier than Greville believed, in January 1841, and Wellington’s reply was dated 30 January 1841. So Wellington’s talk of needing to be free to command the allied armies in Germany in the event of war was neither as far fetched nor unreasonable as it might seem at first sight. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 1 September 1841 vol 4 p 405. Wellington’s reply to Russell is in WP 2/73/178 and 179; Russell’s letter does not seem to be present. It is not quite clear from this reply what exactly the King of Prussia had proposed, but the docket on the copy, written by Wellington’s secretary, summarizes its contents as ‘The Duke ready to take command of the Confederation Armies in case of a War with France’).
This does not mean that age and the effect of his recent illnesses did not have some relevance, at least in Peel’s eyes. The Queen told Melbourne that Peel that told her that ‘The Duke of Wellington’s health [is] too uncertain, and himself too prone to sleep coming over him – as Peel expressed it – to admit of his taking office in which he would have much to do, but to be in the Cabinet, which the Queen expressed her wish he should.’ (The Queen to Lord Melbourne, 30 Aug 1841, Letters of Queen Victoria vol 1 p 309). It was only six months since Wellington’s last stroke, and he had not yet fully recovered, so some caution was understandable, but the next five years were to provice ample evidence that Wellington remained capable of demanding work on many fronts, with the author of a detailed study of the Duke’s role in the crisis over the Corn Laws in 1845-46 writing: ‘Infirmity is easily disposed of. The Duke’s astonishing correspondence is as voluminous for the months from October 1845 to June 1846 as earlier in his career. … Apart from the illegibility of his hand – a sore trial for students of his politics in the 1840s – there is no evidence that the Duke’s actions were constrained by infirmity.’ (I. McLean ‘Wellington and the Corn Laws, 1845-6’ p 227-8).
In Wellington After Waterloo Neville Thompson writes: ‘In May, too, Peel had been turning his mind to the Duke’s place in the ministry. He was the only person who could control the Tory Lords, but Peel was not alone in thinking that he was no longer equal to the duties of a major office. Under Arbuthnot’s skillful management Wellington spontaneously as far as he knew, came to the conclusion that he could be of greatest service as Leader of the House of Lords and a member of the cabinet without office.’ (p 200). But this ignores the fact that Wellington had already expressed the view that he could be of greatest use free of ministerial office two years previously (which was before his health became such a source of concern); while if Peel did not believe that Wellington was capable of dealing with the ‘duties of a major office,’ he should not have permitted him to become Commander-in-Chief of the army in the following year. It is true that Peel and Arbuthnot handled the question delicately and with some care – given that Peel had made a point of urging the Duke to take the Foreign Office only two years before he had to be careful what signals were sent in 1841 – but there is no basis for depicting Wellington as the dupe of their ‘manipulation’.
Wellington’s interview with the Queen on being sworn in as a Cabinet minister:
‘I am just now returned from Claremont. The Government is regularly installed in Office. The Queen was low and out of Spirits, but very gracious to everybody. I had an Audience. She was very gracious to me. She looked well in Health. She told me that she was much distressed at separating from Her Government.’ (Wellington to Lady Wilton, London, 3 September 1841 Wellington and His Friends p 168-9).
Greville wrote that, ‘She sent to know if any of the new ministers wished to see her, but the only one who did was the Duke, who had an audience of a few minutes. He told me afterwards that she reproached him for not taking office, and had been very kind to him. He told her that she might rely on it He had but one object, and that was to serve her in every way he possibly could; that He thought he could be more useful to her without an Office than with one; that there were younger men coming on whom it was better to put in place; and, in or out, she would find him always devoted to her person in every way in which he could render himself useful to her. So that everything went off went off very well, plenty of civilities, and nothing unpleasant; but, for all these honeyed words, affable resignation on her part, and humble expressions of duty and devotion on theirs, her heart is very sore, and her thoughts will long linger upon recollections of the past.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 4 September 1841 vol 4 p 409).
Peel and his Ministers:
In the early days of the government Wellington made a comment which may have been meant to apply to Peel: that ‘the Great Men of the Present day know everything – excepting the Nature, practices and Habits of Man, and of the World in which we live.’ And a few weeks later he added, ‘I never saw our Nervous people so nervous and irritable as yesterday. I have received not less than a dozen Boxes and Notes from Sir Robert since the Cabinet of yesterday, and have not read less than the contents of twenty since I saw you on Wednesday night. I only hope my eyes will hold out.’ (Wellington to Lady Wilton, 7 September and 29 October 1841 Wellington and His Friends p 169-70, 173).
Norman Gash, Peel’s biographer, acknowledges his inability to delegate and that this resulted in overwork, which may at times have clouded his judgment and increased his impatience, especially with his supporters. (Gash Sir Robert Peel p 526-30).
Peel also lacked the warmth and charm to soften differences of opinion, while there were complaints of his cold and distant manner even to cabinet colleagues. Dalhousie declared that ministers were treated like schoolboys, while Sir Edward Knatchbull remarked that ‘It will be found when he dies, that no minister ever possessed fewer friends or would be personally less lamented – in his policy he is deficient in purpose and in courage.’ (Quoted in Gash Sir Robert Peel p 386; Dalhousie quoted in Hilton A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? p 506-7). Clearly this was not the whole story: Peel was adept at spotting coming talent and bringing forward able young men, and when his government faced its greatest crisis in 1845-46 only one member of cabinet resigned, even though the great majority accepted Peel’s policy with reluctance and many forebodings.
Wellington’s health and bad temper in 1841-42:
‘I fell in with the Duke of Wellington yesterday coming from the Cabinet, and walked home with him. He seemed very well, but reels in his walk. The great difference in him is his irritability, and the asperity with which he talks of people. Everybody looks at him, all take off their hats to him, and one woman came up and spoke to him…’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 7 September 1841 vol 4 p 413). While during the Duke’s speech on the 1842 Corn Law, Lyndhurst remarked to Hatherton, ‘how melancholy and painful it was to hear him, and how much he wished he would sit aside and let others do the work.’ (Hatherton’s diary quoted in Davis Political History of the House of Lords p 271). Yet it was at this very time that Peel declared that ‘The Duke of Wellington is perfectly well’, and moved to appoint him as Commander-in-Chief, an office requiring considerable work as well as entailing great responsibility. And Peel was the last minister to make such an appointment if he had not believed that Wellington was fully equal to discharge it. (Peel to Arbuthnot, 5 April 1842 Parker Peel vol 2 p 535).
Wellington’s reaction to the news of the military disaster in Afghanistan:
He told Lady Wilton, in an unusually colourful turn of phrase, ‘I could almost eat my fists from vexation; and with not a little feeling that I am too old to go to the Spot and set it all right; or that I shall even live to see this disaster remedied.’ (Wellington to Lady Wilton, 11 March 1842, Wellington and His Friends p 181). And, more seriously, he wrote to Ellenborough,
… our moral force, and our political power and influence, will have received a blow from the effects of which we shall not recover for some time.
There is not a Moslem heart in Asia, from Pekin to Constantinople, which will not vibrate, when reflecting upon the fact that the European ladies, and other females attached to the troops at Cabul, were made over to the tender mercies of the Moslem chief, who had with his own hand murdered the representative of the British Government at the Court of the Sovereign of Afghanistan.’
It is impossible to impress upon you too strongly the notion of the importance of the restoration of our reputation in the East. Our enemies in France, the United States, and wherever found, are now rejoicing in our disasters and degradation. You will teach them that their triumph is premature.’ (Wellington to Ellenborough, 31 March 1842 Parker Peel vol 2 p 582).
Wellington’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief:
Peel raised this prospect with Arbuthnot as early as 5 April 1842, commenting on Hill’s ill-health, and Arbuthnot replied,
I know that the Duke of Wellington would like to be Commander-in-Chief, and that he feels (talking openly to me) that no other person is fit for that important situation. But I told you confidentially that he supposed it was not compatible with the Cabinet; and his idea was, that out of the Cabinet he could be as much consulted by you, and as useful as he can be at present. You thought differently; and so do I. You must be prepared for his saying that in the year 1828 he was forced to resign the Command; but to this you will have an easy answer, by showing the difference between his being Prime Minister, as he was then, and his situation now, when he has only a seat in the Cabinet, without holding any department at all. (Arbuthnot to Peel, 9 April 1842 Parker Peel vol 2 p 535-6).
Wellington repeated his opinion that it would be better if he retired from cabinet, or at least gave up the leadership of the Lords, when the position was again discussed at the end of July. (In 1837 he had publicly stated that ‘the Commander-in-Chief ought not to be a member of the Cabinet: my reason for thinking so is that he ought not to be supposed to have any political influence as a bias on his mind; most particularly upon the subject of promotions in the Army.’ Quoted in Clode Military Forces of the Crown vol 2 p 347). But when cabinet expressed its approval of Wellington’s appointment to the Horse Guards in August it combined it with ‘their decided and unanimous wish that you should remain a member of the Cabinet, and continue to conduct the business of the Government in the House of Lords.’ (Peel to Wellington, 10 August 1842, Parker Peel vol 2 p 536). Wellington replied that,
My wish that no ground should be afforded even for suspicion has induced me to desire to discontinue in future my attendance upon the business of the Queen’s Government in the House of Lords, and upon the Cabinet Councils.
I think that it would be most advantageous to relieve me from attendance at the meeting of the Cabinet Council. I have the misfortune of hearing only by one ear, and it must be obvious that I cannot hear all that passes. My attendance therefore is frequently only the loss of so much time.
However, I have always professed to be and I am ready to take any course that may be thought desirable for her Majesty’s service, and, having stated clearly my own opinion and wishes, I declare myself willing to take any course which her Majesty may command. (Wellington to Peel, 10 August 1842 Parker Peel vol 2 p 537).
Given the very active part Wellington went on to play, both as a cabinet minister and as leader of the Lords over the next four years, it is fortunate that he was over-ruled by his colleagues and remained a member of the government. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his offer to resign; but this does not mean that he actively tried to leave politics behind him. Rather, it is likely, that he felt that the offer to retire should be made – and made as fairly as possible – and that Peel and the other ministers should decide whether or not he would remain, for they might have to defend it in the Commons. His personal preference is not entirely clear – the reference to attending cabinet meetings as ‘the loss of so much time’ sounds genuine – but all his life he had enjoyed being at or near the centre of events, and it seems likely that if he had left the government in 1842 he would soon have regretted it, even though he would have continued to play an important part in national affairs as Commander-in-Chief.
Modern criticism of Wellington’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief:
Hew Strachan is scathingly critical of Wellington’s appointment:
Wellington’s return as Commander-in-Chief in 1842 was, however, a cruel blow to the army’s supra-political pose. Peel was most anxious not only for the Duke to head the army but also to retain his services in the cabinet. At first Wellington very properly refused to associate with the government, on the grounds that the Commander must be impartial, as the Duke of York and Lord Hill had been. Unfortunately his objections were too easily overcome. In July 1843 it was noted in the House of Commons that, although Wellington claimed his position was apolitical, he attended cabinet meetings and spoke on government policy in the Lords. Peel, in reply, tried to claim that Wellington’s status as an individual placed him above politics, but affirmed that he had ‘great control over the administration of public affairs’ and that he was ‘a Minister of State’. Certainly Peel thought Wellington might have to resign when Lord John Russell formed a Whig government in 1846. However, in the event Wellington was retained and promised not to express himself on political subjects in the Lords.
His equivocal conduct had done irreparable damage to the position of the serving soldier vis-à-vis that of the civilian politician in the administration of the army. The attempt by soldiers to control their own destinies, even on the apparently professional subjects of discipline, promotion and training, was a rearguard action throughout the nineteenth century. By involving himself in politics, Wellington brought the army more under parliamentary control. Sir John Macdonald, the Adjutant General, had expressed the soldier’s fears of the consequences of such a political Commander-in-Chief. In a memorandum of 1839, in which he argued that promotion should be taken out of the latter’s hands for fear of it being granted for political, not military merit, he thundered, ‘The Lord defend me from a Treasury Field Marshal recommended by a servile Commander in Chief.’ (Strachan Wellington’s Legacy p 8).
As will be discussed later (in the Commentary to Chapter 29) Strachan’s view is overly-influenced by the military press of the 1840s which form one of the principal sources of his study and which was outspoken in its hostility to Wellington. The Duke was not at the Horse Guards when the Whig ministry in the 1830s attempted to subordinate the army to the War Office, but his political influence and stature were crucial in enabling the army to resist this attempted encroachment. (Strachan may well see this as unfortunate: he writes with great admiration of Lord Howick, and his whole study is imbued with a conviction that ‘reform’ was inherently beneficial even when this is contradicted by the evidence he produces). It is not clear how it is possible to argue that ‘By involving himself in politics, Wellington brought the army more under parliamentary control,’ when Wellington fought a prolonged and largely successful battle to preserve the independence of the Horse Guards.
Riots in Manchester; calm in Ireland:
‘Parliament was no sooner up, than riots broke out [at Staleybridge and Manchester], sufficiently alarming but for the railroads, which enabled the Government to pour Troops into the disturbed districts, and extinguish the conflagration at once. The immediate danger is over, but those who are best informed look with great anxiety and apprehension to the future, and only consider what has recently happened as the beginning of a series of disorders. It is remarkable that whilst England and Scotland have been thus disturbed, Ireland has been in the profoundest tranquillity, and when everybody (themselves included) fancied that Ireland would be hardly governable under Tory rule, they have not had the slightest difficulty in that quarter. O’Connell has been much quieter since Peel came into office than he was before, and is evidently doing all he can to keep the country quiet.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 1 September 1842 vol 5 p 29-30).
Changing political culture:
‘Without going into any of the events which have occurred in the course of this year, I cannot help noticing the state of public opinion and feeling which appears to its close. Questions which not long ago interested and agitated the world have been laid upon the shelf; the thoughts of mankind seem to be turned into other channels. It is curious to look at the sort of subjects which now nearly monopolise general interest and attention. First and foremost there is the Corn Law and the League … Then the condition of the people, moral and physical, is uppermost in everybody’s mind, the state and management of workhouses and prisons, and the great question of education. The newspapers are full of letters and complaints on these subjects, and people think, talk, and care about them very much. And last, but not least, come the Church questions – the Church of Scotland, the Church of England, the Dissenters, the Puseyites. Great and increasing is the interest felt in all the multifarious grievances or pretensions put forth by any and all of the above denominations, and much are men’s minds turned to religious subjects.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 16 January 1843 vol 5 p 66-69).
Wellington and O’Connell’s campaign in Ireland in 1843:
‘I know enough of these matters,’ he wrote to Graham, ‘to be sensible that the most successful military operations are of no avail in settling the government of a country, in restoring social order, respect for influence and authority of the law and execution of the law itself.’ He favoured rigorous enforcement of law to prevent things getting out of hand, and so avoid the need to rely on military operations. (Wellington to Graham, 3 September 1843, quoted in Davis Political History of the House of Lords p 290).
The ‘Spanish marriages’ and British relations with France:
Good relations between Britain and France in the 1840s were greatly complicated by their continuing rivalry for influence in Madrid, and by Louis Philippe’s desire to control the marriage of the young Spanish Queen Isabella (born in 1830) and of her sister and heir-presumptive. Aberdeen was willing to step aside and not put forward any British candidate for the match (despite some pressure from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for a Saxe-Coburg husband for one of the prospective brides); and even to accept Louis Philippe’s insistence that both husbands be members of the Bourbon family, although the official British position was that the government and Queen of Spain should be left free to make whatever choice they wished. In return the French accepted that the Queen could not marry one of Louis Philippe’s sons – which would be regarded as too obvious an attempt to renew the Family Compact of the eighteenth century – and instead proposed that the Queen marry one of the Neapolitan Bourbons, and that her sister marry the French prince, but not until after the Queen had both married and produced several children. (The affair was actually much more complicated than this brief summary suggests, and there were a great many denials and shifts of position which greatly added to the distrust it provoked).
As early as 1841 Peel had told Aberdeen that, ‘Our primary object should be resistance to the establishment of French influence in Spain.’ (Peel to Aberdeen, 17 October 1841 Parker Peel vol 3 p 390). While during the height of the entente, during the meeting at Eu, he wrote, ‘I hope you will let Louis Philippe understand that we cannot conceive it possible – which of course means that we shrewdly suspect – that he may contemplate, by various cunning devices, under the pretence of friendly concert with us, rendering the marriage of the Queen of Spain with the Duc d’Aumale [fifth son of Louis Philippe] inevitable.’ (Peel to Aberdeen, 31 August 1843 Parker Peel vol 3 p 393).
A few months later Greville wrote that,
In the Spanish business Louis Philippe has been intriguing up to the chin, without the participation, but not at least without the knowledge, of Guizot. Everybody knows this, and our press has let loose against him without reserve; but we must screen his delinquency as well as we can, and pretend not to see it. It is a marvellous thing that so wise a man can’t be a little more honest, and (as has been remarked) a striking fact that, notwithstanding his great reputation for sagacity, he is constantly engaged in underhand schemes, in which he is generally both baffled and detected; and it is also remarkable that, though a humane and good-natured man, and both brave and politick, and felt to be necessary to France and Europe, he is both disliked and despised. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 8 November 1841 vol 4 p 420).
The issue provoked a much greater crisis in relations between Britain and France soon after Peel’s government left office. Paul Schroeder describes it magnificently as ‘one of the most stupefyingly inconsequential affairs in European diplomatic history’, and ‘The prize in dispute, Spain, was not really available for either power to win, and hardly worth winning had it been.’ He also suggests, rather less plausibly, that Guizot was as much or more interested in detaching Naples from Austria as securing influence in Spain. (Schroeder Transformation of European Politics p 765-775 quotes on p 768-9 and 772).
Anglo-French relations in 1843: Ireland and the Queen’s visit to Eu:
In 1843 when O’Connell’s Repeal campaign was threatening the peace of Ireland, the liberal French press was not slow to champion the Irish cause and point to ways France could exploit Irish discontent in the event of war with Britain. (Gash Sir Robert Peel p 402).
Wellington was not enthusiastic about the Queen’s visit to Louis Philippe at Eu:
These visits will of course create a great sensation on the Continent, and I am not surprised that King Louis Philippe should be gratified beyond measure by that paid to him at the Château D’Eu! But excepting the personal compliment, which I should think is very much to be attributed to the alliance of his family with the House of Saxe-Coburg, those would be in error who should imagine that there was any motive for the visit; or that it can be followed by any political or other consequence whatever! I had expected at one moment that the French press might have been induced to become less hostile towards this country; and to cease the vile and vulgar abuse of the British Govt. and people; and to excite the hatred of us, animosity against us of everything bearing the man of a French man!
But I have been mistaken! The Queen when in Belgium visited Bruxelles; having omitted when in France to visit Paris, and the worthy editors of newspapers can scarcely conceal their regret that the National Guard at Paris has not an opportunity of insulting Her Majesty, and the invectives against England are as violent as ever. (Wellington to Lady Westmorland, 25 September 1843 Correspondence of Lady Burghersh with the Duke of Wellington p 149-51).
Aberdeen’s policy in the 1840s:
Paul Schroeder argues that Aberdeen believed that war and even international rivalry was counter-productive and that he was ‘more concerned about general peace and maintaining the system than about the so-called balance of power, and [was] convinced that this made the Anglo-French entente worth saving even if France proved unreliable and difficult and some minor British interests and prestige were sacrificed in the process. The fact that Britain was the leading power made prudence and forbearance on its part even more important. He did not gain full reciprocity even from Guizot, he could not put across his viewpoint to the public or even to the cabinet, and he could not control his subordinates, especially Bulwer [the British minister in Madrid] – hence he failed. But Aberdeen’s “failure” derives also in part from his being ahead of his time and most of his countrymen.’ (Schroeder Transformation of European Politics p 774).
Given the course of European history over the following hundred years or more ‘ahead of his time’ seems an odd description of the enlightened values which Schroeder here attributes to Aberdeen. And it is hard to escape the suspicion that Schroeder is projecting his own interpretation of how the international system worked onto Aberdeen in this passage, but it is nonetheless a valuable corrective to more established interpretation that unfavourably contrasts Aberdeen’s ‘weakness’ with Palmerston’s ‘strength’.
Anglo-French naval rivalry:
The humiliation [of 1839-40] was keenly felt in Paris, but this was not allowed to reflect upon the fleet: quite the reverse. It was strongly argued in the Chamber of Deputies that the navy had to be further developed so that it would be able to sustain a long-drawn-out war. At the same time, all the old stereotypes about England and English arrogance were recharged. One of these was that England owed her vast territories and her commercial and financial power to a strong navy. Another was that the English respected only force. A stronger French navy, therefore, would serve several purposes. It would not only help protect France from injury, preserve the link with Algeria, and impress the Mediterranean nations with French power; it would also enable France to enjoy the benefits so far gained only by England, and force that same England to treat France with all the respect due to her.
In other words, the 1839-40 crisis gave a strong impetus to French naval expansion. Whitehall, in its turn, could not idly accept this expansion, but in response had to improve the British fleet, especially given the weaknesses that the crisis had brought to light. As is predictable, this British expansion prompted the French government to even greater naval efforts of its own, and so ad infinitum. By 1840 a secure groundwork had been laid for a self-sustaining Anglo-French naval rivalry and naval race. (Hamilton Anglo-French Naval Rivalry, 1840-1870 p 12)
The Joinville pamphlet:
This was promptly published in a number of English translations in Britain ‘and had great influence in both countries, though rather for what it was supposed to say than for the actual argument, being another of those works that are more spoken of than quoted, and more quoted than read and understood.’ (Hamilton Anglo-French Naval Rivalry, 1840-1870 p 18). Joinville’s aim was actually ‘to illustrate the present inadequacy of the French fleet, and to demonstrate how France might best set about lessening the naval power of Britain. … Steam would … enable war of the most audacious nature to be carried on, immune from the whims of wind and tide. Joinville contended that Napoleon might have landed from fifteen to twenty thousand troops in Britain in 1805 had he but possessed a few steamers.’ ‘Joinville’s uninhibited references to the injuries that steamers might inflict upon Britain and her commerce were read and repeated with all the avidity that sensation provokes; the rest of the context, which emphasized the theoretical character of the work, and how far France was in any case from being able to execute these plans, received less study. Even some Englishmen who did take the trouble to read these qualifications nevertheless dismissed them as palpable falsehoods, calculated to lull Britain into a false sense of security.’ (Bartlett Great Britain and Sea Power p 158-9).
The War Scare of 1844:
On 22 August 1844 when news of the French bombardment of Tangier reached London, the French ambassador noted that, ‘War is now generally regarded as inevitable.’ (Quoted in Bartlett Great Britain and Sea Power p 161). Greville noted that ‘for some time it was a toss-up whether we went to war or not’, and ‘The Press in both countries blew upon the coals with all their might’. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 8 September 1844 vol 5 p 186). And,
I called one day at Apsley House, saw the Duke, and found him in a talkative humour on this affair. My Brother had previously told me that he had been for some time urging the Government to make themselves stronger; and very much in consequence of his advice, measures had been in rapid progress for equipping ships and preparing a formidable force at sea. The Duke said that the disposition of the French was to insult us whenever and wherever they thought they could do so with impunity, and that the only way to keep at peace with them was to be stronger in every quarter of the globe than they were; that He had told Lord Melbourne so when he was in office, and that this was his opinion now. Wherever they had ships we ought to have a naval force superior to theirs; and we might rely on it, that as long as that was the case we should find them perfectly civil and peaceable; and wherever it was not the case, we should find them insolent and troublesome.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 8 September 1844 vol 5 p 188).
Peel favours the Navy:
Peel took a close interest in the details of defence expenditure, as he did in every aspect of his government, but he was very evidently not at home in dealing with it. Norman Gash describes the Prime Minister grilling the Admiralty, ‘Why, with more money and more men, were there fewer ships of the line in commission? Could they not man more ships with smaller crews? Could he please be supplied with details of ships’ complements at different dates and in different categories on the enclosed form of return? How many men were carried by line of battle ships and frigates at Trafalgar, in 1813, in 1830, 1834, 1839, and 1844? What were the comparative naval strengths of France, Russia, and the U.S.A.? Above all, why with £6 million annually voted for the navy, was it only possible to sent to sea seven battleships?’ (Gash Sir Robert Peel p 518). This suggests a highly intelligent, intellectually arrogant man, turning his attention to an unfamiliar subject for the first time, and thinking that a few hours’ or days’ study will give him a much deeper understanding of the subject than men who had spent their lives addressing it. Yet Peel had already been Prime Minister for three or four years at the time, and had been one of the leading politicians in Britain for nearly twenty-five years before that! He did not need to call for a report on which counties in England had most cotton mills or coal mines, or which parts of Ireland were most dependent on the potato crop! There are curious parallels here between Peel here and Pitt at the time of the outbreak of war in 1793; and Peel’s policy of increasing spending on the navy while neglecting the army was not dissimilar to Pitt’s policy between 1784 and 1792, a policy which contributed to the military deficiencies that Wellington had experienced first hand as a young officer in the Low Countries in 1793-4.
Government’s reputation falling; Wellington reported to be disappointed in Peel:
In August 1843 Greville wrote that,
[Peel] took the Government with a grand flourish of trumpets, great things were expected of him [and he appeared to be a great Minister at the outset;] and now people compare his performances with their own expectations, and give vent to their disappointment in reproaches of a very vague character, and with an acrimony which he does not deserve…
… I find an impression greatly unfavorable to him, and the prestige of his Government is gone. Arbuthnot, sitting at Apsley House, and in constant communication with the Duke of W[ellingto]n, holds this language, and laments over the falling off of Peel. Not that there is any dissension or difference of opinion in the Government, both He and Wharncliffe assure me to the contrary; but he thinks Peel has spoken very ill, and has degraded his Government by the low tone he has adopted. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 1 August 1843 vol 5 p 121-2).
Wellington’s willingness to accept policies he disliked:
In March 1844 Wellington wrote to Peel about a proposal to change the Irish franchise, to bring it closer to that in England. He made it clear that he disliked the idea, regarding the ten-pound franchise that was introduced at the same time as Catholic Emancipation as still useful. Then he went on:
However you must be a better judge than I can be of what concessions it is necessary to make at the present moment.
If this is necessary, it cannot be avoided; necessity has no law. The most painful act of my long life, as well as of yours, was that which our duty rendered it necessary that we should take upon the occasion of the Relief Act. …
I urge these considerations upon you with a view to the general character and strength of the Government. As far as I am personally concerned, I don’t care what way the question is settled: I will support whatever you may decide upon. I have consulted nobody, I write only the dictates of my own judgment.
I don’t think that this concession will give satisfaction in Ireland.
(Wellington to Peel, 23 March 1844 Parker Peel vol 3 p 109-10).
The proposal was subsequently dropped when Peel found that it aroused strong opposition from Irish members of parliament.
Wellington’s criticism of the handling of the Factory Act in 1844:
The Duke told Lady Wilton,
Transactions here for the last fortnight have not been very satisfactory… The Origin of the Evil is the Melancholy [one of?] Great Men, leaders, not speaking out! Then when the Factory Bill was brought forward, and the Difficulty likely to attend its progress known, the Party ought to have been assembled and the Minister should have told them what His object was; the danger attending any other Course; and His Determination. Nothing of the Kind was done. On the Contrary, when Sir James Graham moved His Bill He said that it was not a Party Question; and this with a view as usual to captivate Lord John Russell and the Radical and other Opposition. In a quarter of an Hour afterwards Lord John made a speech against Him; and Sir Robert Peel; and they went to a division with some half dozen of the Liberal Opposition, against Hundreds of their own friends thus let loose, aided by Lord John, the worst of the Whigs, and Radicals. The Rest has followed of course, the Government catching at every little Incident and trying every expedient in order to get out of the Difficulty, into which they had got partly by their own Course of Conduct, and by the foolish Vanity of Lord Ashley. (Wellington to Lady Wilton, 29 March 1844 Wellington and His Friends p 195).
When Peel and Graham talked of resigning rather than accept defeat over the Sugar Duties, Wellington burst out, ‘God, I am against quitting! I have seen the consequences of quitting before, and I say, continue if you can.’ (Quoted in Gash Sir Robert Peel p 448).
Peel’s alienation of the Conservative Party in 1844:
Greville gives a contemporary view:
It is generally admitted that the Government has been excessively weakened by this transaction, and that it will be very difficult for them to go on at all when such mutual feelings of estrangement and aversion are entertained by the Leader and the Party. Peel’s personal reputation has suffered severely. He is thought to have been injudicious and unjust, and to have been influenced by personal motives and a morbid sensitiveness unworthy of a great man and of one who took on himself to govern the country. Those who admit that he has received great provocation, and that his Party have been insulting in their tone and lukewarm or hostile in their conduct, still maintain that his Party have equal reason to complain of him. They complain that He is unsocial and reserved, that he never consults their wishes and opinions, and that their feelings towards him are in a great measure attributable to himself. There are, no doubt, grave faults on both sides, and it is not improbable that fresh subjects of disagreement will occur, and that some fresh crisis will bring his Government to an end. On the other hand, there is so much reluctance to see any change, and such a dread of a general election, that it is just possible this breeze may have alarmed the Tory malcontents, and that the necessity for a better understanding may tend to produce it. Peel will however never again be considered a great Minister. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 21 June 1844 vol 5 p 181).
Richard Gaunt’s conclusion is damning: ‘His handling of the Conservative Party, during 1844, revealed all of his propensities to arrogance and dictation. It was observed by Wellington, Stanley and Graham with unease and regret.’ (Gaunt Sir Robert Peel p 114). And Norman Gash is scarcely less critical, commenting that his speech on the Factory Hours ‘made a profound though not necessarily sympathetic impression on the House’, while on the Sugar Duties ‘His manner was sharp and offensive, and he spoke as though completely detached from the benches behind him.’ Gash goes on to quote with approval Gladstone’s remark that ‘A great man had committed a great error’, and concludes that Peel ‘had handled the whole episode as badly as any in his long parliamentary career.’ (Gash Sir Robert Peel p 443, 450, 451, 453).
Peel himself was certainly aware that great damage had been done, and briefly made some attempt to pour oil on the waters, but his ‘high, almost high-handed, view of the position of the executive’ was unshaken (Gash Sir Robert Peel p 445). In March 1845 he exultantly told Hardinge, ‘I have repeated the coup d’état of 1842, renewed the income tax for three years, simplified and improved the tariff, and made a great reduction on indirect taxation. … I would not admit any alteration in any of those Bills. This was thought very obstinate and very presumptuous; but the fact is, people like a certain degree of obstinacy and presumption in a minister. They abuse him for dictation and arrogance, but they like being governed.’ (Peel to Hardinge, 24 March 1845, Parker Peel vol 3 p 269-70). Reading this it is hard not to believe that Peel was riding hard for a fall, and that, having scrambled over the Maynooth fence, he would have come off on some other ditch if the potato blight had not made the Corn Laws an irresistible target.
Wellington’s leadership of the Lords:
Richard Davis comments on Wellington’s leadership of the Lords in these years: ‘There was, however, one area where it was difficult to find any fault with the duke and that was as leader of the House of Lords. Rarely was his supremacy there doubted, and those who doubted it were almost always sorry.’ (Davis Political History of the House of Lords p 291).
See also ibid p 314 where, at the end of a long account of a troublesome issue in the Lords – opposition to the merger of two dioceses in Wales – Davis praises Wellington for his role in preserving the government’s position: ‘he had almost single-handedly managed to block the bill by a skillful deployment of the royal prerogative argument. It was not his chosen weapon, but it is what Peel had given him; and he loyally used it, sometimes with great force, almost brutality … It was not a task that many would have wished to undertake or would have got away with. It took brass nerve, of which the duke had plenty …. At the same time, he treated Powis with great consideration and courtesy and kept him and the House informed as far as he was able. … With no help from his colleagues, rather hindrance, the duke had achieved this mostly by himself, though with vital aid from the whigs. And he did it for the most part with impunity. His reputation with the peers at any rate seems not to have suffered much, as is suggested by the fact that on 28 May he received a warm invitation to dine with Lord Powis.’
Elsewhere Davis has discussed some of the techniques used by Wellington in managing the Lords, his close attention to the work performed by the whip: summoning Lords to parliament, arranging their proxies, preparing lists of supporters and opponents, movers and seconders of the address. In addition he hosted dinners and held other meetings of Tory peers, and generally showed great skill in handling these meetings. He ‘made up for lack of oratorical skills by the infinite pains he took to meet with and persuade his followers.’ (Richard Davis ‘Leaders in the Lords: Introduction’ Parliamentary History vol 22 2003 p 10-11).
Wellington also carefully controlled the election of Irish and Scottish representative peers, while appearing to defer to Peel as Prime Minister, and to consult local opinion in Ireland and Scotland. Until 1830 this power rested with the Prime Minister, but Wellington took it with him when he left office – partly because there was so little support for the Whigs amongst the Irish and Scottish peers who elected their representatives – and thereafter used his influence with considerable dexterity to achieve the results he wanted. (Richard Davis ‘Wellington’ Parliamentary History vol 22 2003 p 44, 53-55 which gives a detailed example of Wellington’s tactics).
Stanley’s elevation to the Lords:
Angus Hawkins, Stanley’s biographer, writes that, ‘Stanley reassured Peel that he did not see himself being a rival to Wellington, immediately displacing the venerable Duke as Conservative leader in the Lords. Wellington’s “age, his character, his position, would render such an idea not less presumptuous on my part, than absurd in reference to the feelings of the House, the party and the country.”’ (Hawkins The Forgotten Prime Minister vol 1 p 288). This was a striking tribute, especially from a man who had never been a great admirer of the Duke, and reflects a genuine appreciation of his dexterity in managing the Lords.
The Maynooth Debate, 1845:
Peel brought on Maynooth on Thursday night. Strong symptoms had already appeared of opposition brewing in different parts of the country, and there was a good deal of ill-humour here. He made an excellent and judicious speech, and had a majority of 102, but a queer one, for above 100 of his own people voted against him, and above 100 of the Whigs with him. Without them the division would have been nearly even. The Carlton Club was in a state of insurrection afterwards and full of sound and fury. …. The disgust of the Conservatives and their hatred of Peel keep swelling every day, and what the Ministers expect is, that on some occasion or other they will play Peel a trick, stay away, and leave him to be beaten on some trumpery question. Indeed it is not impossible that they may become reckless, and grow to think that it does not signify to they whether He is in power or the Whigs, and they have as much to fear from the one as the other.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 5 April 1845 vol 5 p 212-13).
Conservative backbench discontent with the government:
In April 1835 Graham wrote to Hardinge, ‘our party is shivered and angry and we have lost the slight hold which we ever possessed over the hearts and kind feelings of our followers.’ (Quoted in Hawkins The Forgotten Prime Minister vol 1 p 295).
The Corn Laws:
The abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 marked the culmination in the gradual reduction of agricultural protection that had taken place over many years by Conservative governments. In 1813 a Commons Select Committee recommended protection to ensure that the price of wheat did not fall below 105 shillings a quarter, which it believed was the minimum needed to ensure that farmers on marginal land would make a profit. Liverpool’s government did not accept this finding, and the 1815 Corn Law promised to maintain a profitable price of only 80 shillings a quarter for wheat; this was reduced to 73 shillings by the 1828 Law; and to a mere 56 shillings by the 1842 Law. Other prices had also fallen due to the postwar deflation and the return to the gold standard, but the level of protection granted had not been sufficient to ensure that these were prosperous years for farming, although worse was to follow later in the century. (Figures from Gaunt Sir Robert Peel p 119).
However Britain was becoming a less agricultural society with ‘the proportion of adult males employed in agriculture falling from one third in 1831 to one fifth in 1851 … [and] by 1851, for the first time in English history, more than half the population lived in towns.’ (Stewart The Foundation of the Conservative Party p xii).
In the midst of the political crisis, in December 1845, Wellington commented that grain prices remained moderate ‘indeed provokingly so, as the rise of price and decrease of duty might have opened the ports, and put an end to all question and difficulty.’ (Wellington to Croker, 14 December 1845, Croker Papers vol 3 p 42-43). It is not surprising that country gentlemen felt that they still needed protection.
The Queen’s opinion of the Corn Laws:
On 28 November 1845 the Queen wrote to Peel,
The Queen is very sorry to hear that Sir Robert Peel apprehends further differences of opinion in the Cabinet, at a moment of impending calamity; it is more than ever necessary that the Government should be strong and united.
The Queen thinks the time is come when a removal of the restrictions upon the importation of food cannot be successfully resisted. Should this be Sir Robert’s own opinion, the Queen very much hopes that none of his colleagues will prevent him from doing what it is right to do. (The Queen to Peel, 28 November 1845 Letters of Queen Victoria vol 2 p 47)
It is a striking illustration of the decline of the power of the crown that this opinion appears to have carried no weight whatever with the members of a Conservative cabinet, or with the wider Conservative party as a whole.
Wellington willing to sacrifice his opposition to repeal to preserve the government, November 1845:
The memorandum which Wellington sent to Peel on 30 November 1845 is worth quoting at length as it clearly explains his view of the question:
I am one of those who think the continuance of the Corn Laws essential to the agriculture of the country in its existing state and particularly to that of Ireland, and a benefit to the whole community.
I am afraid that it would be found that this country would cease to be the desirable and sought-after market of the world, if the interests of agriculture should be injured by a premature repeal of the Corn Laws.
It appears to me likewise that this country is in a better situation than any other, in Europe certainly, to bear the shock which is the consequence of the potato-disease, and this even in Ireland.
It must be observed that the evil in Ireland is not a deficiency of food for the year, or even of the particular description of food, potatoes; but the great and supposed deficiency of that description of food operating upon the social condition of Ireland; the habits of the great body of the people, who are the producers of the food they consume during three-fourths of the year in general, and who must consequently be in a state of destitution, and who have not the pecuniary means, and, if they had the pecuniary means, are not in the habit of purchasing their food in the markets.
This is the difficulty in Ireland which rendered necessary the orders sent to the Lord-Lieutenant in the last week.
It is my opinion that we must look forward, not to three or four months only, but to this time next year, and that we should avoid to break down the Corn Laws till that measure should appear to be absolutely necessary. I cannot pretend to be so good a judge of this necessity as those who have frequently discussed the Corn Laws, and who will have to discuss them again. But of this I do not entertain a doubt – if it is necessary to suspend the Corn Laws, to avoid real evils resulting from scarcity of food, we ought not to hesitate.
But I recommend that we should be convinced of the necessity, and make every effort to convince others of its existence.
Here then comes the question which Sir Robert Peel has not discussed – I mean the Party view of it.
The only ground upon which I think that view important is one upon which he must be a better judge than any one else; that is, whether he could carry on a Government for the Queen supposing the support of the landed interest were withdrawn from him. I am afraid he must reckon upon its being withdrawn from him, unless he should be able to show clearly the necessity for the measure in question.
In respect to my own course, my only object in public life is to support Sir Robert Peel’s administration of the Government for the Queen.
A good Government for the country is more important than Corn Laws or any other consideration; and as long as Sir Robert Peel possesses the confidence of the Queen and the public, and he has the strength to perform the duties, his administration of the Government must be supported.
My own judgment would lead me to maintain the Corn Laws.
Sir Robert Peel may think that his position in Parliament and in the public view requires that the course should be taken which he recommends; and if that should be the case, I earnestly recommend that the Cabinet should support him, and I for one declare that I will do so. (Memorandum by Wellington, 30 November 1845 Peel Memoirs by Sir Robert Peel vol 2 p 198-200).
This presents a far more nuanced and sophisticated appreciation of the situation than Wellington’s critics at the time, or many subsequent writers, have attributed to him. He wished to maintain the Corn Laws as long as possible, although his reference to their ‘premature’ repeal suggests that he did not suppose that they could be defended forever. And he was quite clear that ‘if it is necessary to suspend the Corn Laws, to avoid real evils resulting from scarcity of food, we ought not to hesitate’. But, like Goulburn and a majority of the cabinet, he did not believe that repeal was either necessary or particularly helpful in dealing with the immediate crisis in Ireland; and he argued that if it was deemed necessary but not urgent, it should be delayed as long as possible, so that the government’s supporters would have time to recognize the necessity and be reconciled to it. However, in the last resort, he was willing to bow to Peel’s judgment and let him have his way, for the sake of maintaining the existing government. He also made the point – albeit only in passing – that as an agricultural economy and large supplier of grain to England, Ireland would suffer considerably in the long run from the abolition of the Corn Laws.
Wellington and the famine in Ireland:
Wellington believed that Peel over-reacted to the problems in Ireland: in December 1845 he told Croker that ‘The foundation of the Corn Law difficulty is the apprehension of the consequences of the potato disease, the nature of which is misapprehended, and their account greatly exaggerated.’ (Wellington to Croker, 14 September 1845 Croker Papers vol 3 p 42-43). In September 1846 he told Sir Edward Knatchbull that, ‘He had done everything in his power to open Peel’s eyes – that he never saw a man in such a state of alarm – he was hardly himself – the potato disease seemed to occupy his whole mind. Sir James Graham seemed to have frightened him.’ (Quoted in McLean ‘Wellington and the Corn Laws’ p 233). And Greville wrote that, ‘The Duke says, “rotten potatoes have done it all; they put Peel in his d____d fright”; and both for the cause and the effect he seems to feel equal contempt.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 13 January 1846 vol 5 p 282-3). But this does not mean that he was indifferent to the risk of famine in Ireland, or that he disapproved of action to avert it. As early as 30 November 1845 he wrote that ‘if it is necessary to suspend the Corn Laws, to avoid real evils resulting from scarcity of food, we ought not to hesitate.’ (Memorandum by Wellington, 30 November 1845 Peel Memoirs by Sir Robert Peel vol 2 p 198-200). He told Croker in December that he did not believe that there was an actual scarcity of food in Ireland – thanks to the abundant harvest of oats – but that the real difficulty lay in the social system which meant that so much of the population had no money to buy food if the crop of potatoes they grew themselves failed. (Wellington to Croker, 14 September 1845 Croker Papers vol 3 p 42-43). While on 4 January 1846 he told Lord Salisbury, ‘that which was required for Ireland was the organization of the means to find employment for those in want of food. This, it is true is likely to be expensive, but still practicable.’ (Wellington to Salisbury, 4 January 1846 in Herbert Maxwell Life of Wellington vol 2 p 344-8 quote on p 345).
Wellington on the risk and underlying cause of famine in Ireland in 1830:
In 1830, when he was Prime Minister, Wellington wrote to the Duke of Northumberland, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, explaining his view of the almost annual scarcity of food in Ireland as one season’s potato crop was exhausted before the next was ready to harvest. He laid the blame squarely on the landlords, but could see little way of solving the problem:
I confess that the annually recurring starvation in Ireland, for a period differing, according to the goodness or badness of the season, from one week to three months, gives me more uneasiness than any other evil existing in the United Kingdom.
It is starvation, because it is the fact that, although there is abundance of provisions in the country of a superior kind, and at a cheaper rate than the same can be bought in any other part of his Majesty’s dominions, those who want in the midst of plenty cannot get because they do not possess even the small sum of money necessary to buy a supply of food.
It occurs every year for that period of time that elapses between the final consumption of one year’s crop of potatoes, and the coming of the crop of the following year, and it is long or short, according as the previous season had been bad or good.
Now, when this misfortune occurs, there is no relief or mitigation, excepting a recourse to public money. The proprietors of the country, those who ought to think for the people, to foresee this misfortune, and to provide beforehand a remedy for it, are amusing themselves in the clubs in London, in Cheltenham, or Bath, or on the Continent, and the Government are made responsible for the evil, and they must find the remedy for it where they can – anywhere excepting in the pockets of the Irish gentlemen.
Then, if they give public money to provide a remedy for this distress, it is applied to all purposes excepting the one for which it is given; and most particularly to that one, viz. the payment of the arrears of an exorbitant rent.
However, we must expect that this evil will continue, and will increase as the population will increase, and that the chances of a serious evil, such as the loss of a large number of persons by famine, will be greater in proportion to the numbers existing in Ireland in the state in which we know that the great body of the people are living at this moment.
I see no remedy in any system of poor-laws. In truth, there are no persons in Ireland to administer such a system.
[Only remedy he can think of is insisting on cash payments for labourers, not land, but very hard or impossible to set in place and very slow to take effect. In the meantime the Irish landlords must be made to take their responsibility, and not freed from it by the public purse.] (Wellington to the Duke of Northumberland 7 July 1830 WND vol 7 p 111-12).
Wellington blamed for the failure of the government to agree to repeal the Corn Laws, and its resignation in December 1845:
Greville mentioned reports that Wellington was leading the opposition inside the cabinet to any change in the Corn Laws as early as 16 November, and wrote on 5 December ‘It is impossible to describe the agitation into which all classes of persons have been thrown by the announcement about the Corn Laws – the doubts, hopes, and fears it has excited, and the burning curiosity to know the truth of it.’ On 9 December he thought he knew what was really going on: ‘My own belief is that yesterday evening decided the fate of the Government, and that all turned on the Duke. If he consented [to repeal], Peel will stay in and the dissentients retire. If he would not, Peel will resign and the Government is at an end; and I have always had a suspicion that the Duke had consented and afterwards drew back…’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 16 November, 5 and 9 December 1845 vol 5 p 235-6, 244-6 and 249). This was, as Greville acknowledged in a later note, completely mistaken; but it was widely believed at the time, and Wellington was much abused for his obdurate opposition and bringing down the government. Four days later, Greville wrote:
Yesterday morning I called on Wharncliffe, who was still ill in bed, and very low. He complained of the Times for saying that the Duke of W[ellingto]n had broken up the Government by changing his mind, first consenting and then withdrawing his consent; and “it was hard upon the Old man,” who had behaved admirably throughout, never having flinched or changed, but said to Peel that He (Peel) was a better judge of the question, and he would support him in whatever course he might take. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 13 December 1845 vol 5 p 252).
Punch’s attack on Wellington for defending the Corn Laws:
This is worth quoting at greater length than is possible in the main text:
It is nonsense to say that because he won the Great Waterloo Stakes in 1815 he is able to run with other horses now- it is not fair that others should slacken their pace out of regard to him. We want to move on. Here is the old gentleman, because he couldn’t go the pace in the Anti-Corn Law coach, has stopped the carriage, sent back the horses on their haunches, up-set the coachman, and set the whole team in disorder. … We are not going to bully the old Duke, but we assert that his time for going to grass has arrived … Punch means that the old Duke should no longer block up the great thoroughfare of Civilization, that he should be quietly and respectfully eliminated. (Quoted in Foster ‘Mr Punch and the Iron Duke’ p 38-39)
Of course, this was based on a false presumption – that Wellington was the principal opponent of repeal in cabinet – but it is interesting indication of Wellington’s standing and reputation that this presumption was made. The terms of Punch’s criticism are also noteworthy: Wellington was no longer to be dismissed as ignorant of public affairs because he was a soldier (as in the later 1810s and the 1820s), but because he was old.
Did Peel anticipate the reaction in the Conservative Party to his decision to repeal the Corn Laws?
A number of contemporary and near contemporary sources suggest that Peel did not anticipate the strength of the backlash against him, and believed that he would be able to push through the abolition of the Corn Laws and still retain office. For example, in 1848 Sir Fitzroy Kelly, whom Peel had appointed Solicitor General in July 1845, wrote that,
Peel’s contempt for his party was very apparent to those who were in office with him. He seemed to take it as a matter of course, that go where he might, they would follow. He thought no more of them than I do of the labourers who work for me. He never contemplated for a moment the possibility of their leaving him on the corn question, he expected a few hard words, and a little murmuring, and that all would go on as before. (Quoted in Hawkins The Forgotten Prime Minister vol 1 p 298)
Gladstone thought that Peel lacked the ‘sagacity in foresight’ to anticipate the reaction, and believed that the party as a whole would yield to his superior judgment; and Lord Ashley remarked in May 1846 that Peel had expected ‘A small band of dissidents, a large band of turncoats, a week’s debate, a large majority, triumph & commendation, and then total oblivion of the whole matter.’ (Gladstone and Ashley both quoted in Gaunt Sir Robert Peel p 127).
Yet this is really most implausible. The extent of opposition inside the cabinet, and the arguments used by such a reliable friend as Goulburn, made any illusion on the subject hard to maintain; while Peel would hardly have taken the extreme step of resigning office rather than bring forward the measure when he had gained the reluctant acquiescence of all by two of his ministers (Stanley and Buccleuch) if he had expected the party to swallow the decision with no more than some half-hearted grumbling. This does not mean that Peel or anyone else foresaw the extreme bitterness of the schism, but it seems much closer to the mark to suggest that Peel was deliberately risking martyrdom, than that he expected the debate to be a nine-day wonder.
Norman Gash’s assessment of the ministers’ view of their prospects seems about right:
[Peel was convinced that he would get repeal through the Commons]. The ultimate fate of the government was a different matter. There was no one in the cabinet who did not realize that what was being proposed would produce a crisis in the party greater even than Maynooth. To some of them it seemed inevitable that the party would break up. Ever since the premature announcement by The Times the Tory press had raged against Peel’s perfidy. County society in the weeks preceding the start of the session had been thick with abuse and threats. … When accepting his cabinet post St Germans asked him whether he expected after all that had occurred to be able to continue in office. Peel replied that he did not. “It was therefore under no impression,” wrote St Germans later, “that I was joining a durable administration that I accepted your offer.” [St Germans to Peel, 24 June 1846]. (Gash Sir Robert Peel p 567).
The failure of Russell’s attempt to form a government:
After the fall of Peel’s government in 1846 it became a commonplace to suggest that the failure of the Whigs to form a government in December 1845 had proved fortunate for them; and from this it was but a small step to conclude that Russell had skillfully returned a ‘poisoned chalice’ to Peel, knowing that whichever party undertook the repeal of the Corn Laws would be badly damaged. However the contemporary evidence clearly contradicts this ingenious argument, and it is firmly rejected by modern historians, with Boyd Hilton writing that this ‘can be discounted since Russell never got over his despair at the fact that Peel had trumped him and was therefore awarded the popular tributes which Russell felt were due to himself.’ (Hilton A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? p 509). The detailed account of the negotiations among the Whigs to form a government and their breakdown in Greville’s Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 12-21 December 1845 vol 5 p 250-267 amply confirms that they were not a charade and that the failure was felt at the time to be deeply humiliating and damaging to the party.
Arbuthnot told Peel, ‘You can have no notion how much the Duke suffered, when he thought we were to be cursed with a Whig-Radical Government.’ (Arbuthnot to Peel, 26 December 1845, Parker Peel vol 3 p 290-1).
Could Peel have formed a government in December 1845 if Wellington had held aloof?
Wellington wrote in February 1846 that ‘some may think that I ought to have declined to belong to Sir Robert Peel’s cabinet on the night of the 20th of December. But my opinion is that if I had, Sir Robert Peel’s government would not have been formed.’ Richard Davis endorses this judgment, pointing out that Stanley, the obvious alternative Conservative leader in the Lords, was determined to resign, and so would Redesdale, the experienced Conservative whip: ‘It was Wellington … or nobody.’ (Davis Political History of the House of Lords p 327, including quote from Wellington).
There is no doubt that if Wellington had refused to serve it would have been a great blow to Peel’s prospects, that other ministers would probably have followed suit, and that many wavering Conservatives would have opposed its measures. Without Wellington – or in the face of his active opposition – repeal might not have succeeded in passing the Lords; and it is possible that these considerations might have led Peel to abandon the attempt to form a government once he found that Wellington would not support him. However all the evidence of Peel’s mood in the wake of Russell’s failure suggests that he was absolutely determined to return to office whatever the attitude of his colleagues, and he could surely have put together a weak ministry even if it was much more obviously dependent on Russell and the Whigs for its survival. As for the Lords, Aberdeen might have assumed the leadership of the government there, even if this left the government very weak.
Wellington’s motives for supporting repeal of the Corn Laws:
This can be made more complicated and puzzling than it need be, and there is really no need to attribute to Wellington ‘an almost mystical belief in the Queen’s government as a thing above party.’ (McLean ‘Wellington and the Corn Laws’ p 228-233 esp 233). Wellington’s preferred outcome in the autumn of 1845 was to retain both the Corn Laws and the government intact. Once Peel revealed that he was determined to resign rather than leave the Corn Laws unchanged, Wellington recognized that the Corn Laws were doomed, for the Protectionist Conservatives lacked the leadership in the Commons to have any hope of forming a government, and the split within the Conservative party would ensure that the issue became the focus of politics until the Laws were repealed. So there was never a choice between Peel and the Corn Laws; the Corn Laws were doomed, and the choice was between Peel with as strong a government as could be salvaged from the wreckage, or Russell and the Whigs, or – once Russell had failed to form a ministry – a radical government kept in place with the support of the Whigs and even of Peel, at least until the Corn Laws had been abolished.
On 28 December Wellington told Croker,
In respect to myself and other members of the Cabinet, who differed in opinion with Sir Robert in respect to the Corn Laws in October and November, we are in this position. We may and do wish the Corn Laws could be maintained, but we know that none of us could form a Government in order to maintain them; nor, indeed, could any other individual that we know of. (Wellington to Croker, 28 December 1845 Croker Papers vol 3 p 45-46).
And on 6 January:
I besides felt that the existing Corn Law is not the only interest of this great nation; and whatever confidence I may feel in my own judgment, I do not think that an administration could be formed in the House of Commons capable of conducting the affairs of State, consisting of persons only who are of opinion that the existing Corn Law is preferable to any other….
You say that it would be better that Cobden should be the Minister, and propose the alteration of the Corn Laws.
I have a good deal of experience of the evil which can be done by a Minister of whom it is thought that it would be preferable that he should be the person to carry a bad measure.
I recollect that in 1832 it was thought that a government might be formed which in completing the Reform Bill might prevent some of its mischiefs! Some thought, let the Whigs and Radicals, who proposed the measure, complete it.
They were successful; the formation of the new administration failed, and the Reform Bill was carried; all the improvements intended were rejected, and some of the very worst parts of the Bill, the Metropolitan Boroughs, the Scotch and the Irish Reforms were carried after this failure.
I answer therefore, that happen what may about the Corn Laws, I will not take a course which may have a tendency to reduce the Sovereign to a necessity of requiring such men as Mr Cobden to be her Ministers. …
I will not be instrumental in placing the Government in the hands of the League and the Radicals. I am aware that I shall be in a difficult position; that has always been my fate. But I feel no hesitation, and I doubt not I shall get out of it. (Wellington to Croker, 6 January 1846 Croker Papers vol 3 p 52-55).
Wellington’s argument against the Corn Laws:
After the government returned to office in December 1845 Wellington wrote to many leading Conservative peers urging them to support the government, or at least to suspend their judgment until they saw Peel’s actual proposals (which, he made it clear, he had not seen). He rested his arguments heavily on the need to provide a government and, with Russell having failed, he threatened them that the only alternative was Cobden. He did not conceal the fact that he had disagreed with Peel over the necessity of abolishing the Corn Laws, but showed that as there was no possibility of a protectionist government, that was now irrelevant. And he saw some advantages to their abolition:
However attached I may be to the Corn Laws, and however small the alteration which I may think desirable at the present moment, I have never been insensible to their inconvenience. The violent and constantly renewed opposition to them occasions at least the inconvenience of uncertainty of their duration, and affects more or less every negotiation of letting land in this country.
It cannot be denied likewise that the imputation has been more than once cast upon the great landed proprietors, the members almost exclusively of one House, and very generally of the other, of having favoured their own class and themselves in the provisions of the law.
Under the circumstances I confess that I have always considered the great benefit resulting from the Corn Law, that agriculture would become so improved in the country as that the law might be repealed without injury to any party or to the general interests. (Wellington to Beaufort, quoted in Davis Political History of the House of Lords p 229; see also Wellington to Salisbury, 4 January 1846 printed in full in Herbert Maxwell Life of Wellington vol 2 p 344-48).
Greville’s not necessarily reliable account adds a sequel:
[Wellington] has written a great many letters to Tory Lords, such as Rutland, Beaufort, Salisbury, Exeter, and has received some very stiff and unsatisfactory answers, particularly from Beaufort, who tells him that when they all sacrificed their opinions on the Catholic question, they had at the head of the Government a Leader in whose honour they relied and whose conscientious motives they could not but respect; but that the case was very different now, when they had for their Leader a man who had violated every principle and pledge, and in whom no party could put any trust.” I have little doubt that Alvanley, who has long been laid up at Badminton, dictated this letter, for he is very violent, and says “Peel ought not to die a natural death.”’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 13 January 1846 vol 5 p 282-3).
Croker’s reproach and Wellington’s reply, claiming to be ‘the retained servant’ of the Crown:
On 4 January 1846 Croker told Wellington, ‘I confess I cannot see what right Sir R. Peel can have to drag your Grace through the mire of his own changes of opinion. … Your Grace’s resignation of the cabinet key might embarrass Sir R. Peel, but the difficulty is of his own making, not yours; and he, before he made it, ought to have known how he was to unmake it. … Why prefer his character and consistency to your own? You marked your dissent to Free Trade quite as strongly as he marked his assent…’ (Croker to Wellington 4 January 1846 Croker Papers vol 3 p 51-52).
Wellington’s response shows how he was quite prepared to use his reputation to justify his actions:
I think you take an erroneous view of my position … I am the retained servant of the Sovereign of this empire. … I have invariably, up to the latest moment, acted accordingly. When required, and the Sovereign has been in difficulties, I have gone further, as in 1828, I became the Minster of George IV, and in 1832 and 1839 [sic 1834], I undertook to form a Government for William IV. (Wellington to Croker, 6 January 1846 Croker Papers vol 3 p 52-55).
And he then proceeded to explain and justify his conduct on the same grounds as he was seeking to persuade the Conservative peers to support the government. The reference to him being ‘the retained servant’, raises the question of whether this conception of himself – which certainly influenced his conduct on some occasions – played any part in the crisis over the Corn Laws? There is little evidence other than this letter to suggest that it did, while the other reasons he advanced to a much wider range of correspondents seem quite sufficient without invoking this additional motive. However it is possible that it played some part in consoling him when faced with criticism from such old acquaintances such as Croker, especially as it enabled him to gain the moral high ground in their exchange.
Lady Shelley’s expectations of compensation and reaction to Peel’s proposals:
In December 1845 Lady Shelley wrote in her diary that,
From the beginning, I have stoutly held to the opinion that whenever Peel considers it time to make a change, he is so sagacious, has such means of information, and has taken such pains to master the subject, that implicit confidence may be placed in his decision. The question of a sliding scale is purely administrative. That of Protection is interwoven with the whole framework of Society; and I will never believe that Peel is not prepared to give adequate compensation, by relieving the burdens which press so hard upon the land. Such a course I consider fully adequate to the very doubtful protection which landlords receive under the sliding scale of duties, a system for which they bear most unjust odium.
Query? What is Peel’s plan? In the first place, I expect he means to take off the Malt Tax entirely. Secondly, to put all county rates on the Consolidated Fund. Thirdly, that he will make a new assessment to the poor rate, rating mills, factories, mines, etc., according to the number of hands which have been employed, say, during the last three years. Fourthly, that he will take the high roads into the hands of Government; funding the money lent on the turnpike trusts, according to the plan drawn up and presented to William IV by Sir Herbert Taylor, in accordance with Sir John Shelley’s suggestion, which was made with the approval of the then Postmaster-General, and the Duke of Richmond. The railroads render this measure doubly necessary, and it would be a great relief to the country gentlemen who have chiefly found this money, and for which they now receive precarious interest. How the money is to be provided, to meet the loss of the Malt Tax, is a question which Peel will have to solve. I am told that to tax the exempted incomes, namely, those under £150 per annum, would produce two millions, and by raising the Property Tax to four per cent., the remainder could be raised.’ (Diary of Lady Shelley vol 2 p 268-9).
While this was probably too ambitious a list for any government to accept in full, it suggests how Peel might have set about reconciling his Conservative supporters – or at least a fair proportion of them – to the loss of the Corn Laws, if he had not already so alienated them. As it was, he made no more than a token attempt, and Lady Shelley’s disappointment was all the greater because of her earlier confidence:
I went to the House of Commons on the memorable 22nd, and was in despair at Peel’s want of courage. He did not say that the time had arrived when the Corn Laws could be safely done away with. He did not propose to give any compensation to the landed interests; but merely to take away protection both from agriculture and manufactures. His attitude is evidently the result of mere panic about scarcity of food (owing to the failure of the potato crop)…
The proposed relief in highway rates, assessment for the poor, etc., could, and ought, to be given without making any change in the Corn Laws.
The lack of a statesman in the House of Commons powerful enough to cope with Peel makes it impossible to form a Protectionist Government. Peel’s conduct has destroyed all confidence in our public men, and the Conservative party is annihilated! I expect that, after Easter, Lord John Russell and Peel will join hands….
Sir Robert Peel’s sarcastic manner, notably when he talked of the difficulty in reconciling an ancient monarchy and a proud aristocracy with a Reformed House of Commons, was odious; and I am not surprised that his words gave great offence. He tried afterwards to explain them away; but his plea, that he meant his words to be interpreted in a sense different from the obvious one, is not tenable. (Diary of Lady Shelley vol 2 p 268-9).
Other Reaction to the lack of compensation offered to the Landed Interest:
‘Lord Salisbury complained to the Duke: “I had entertained some hope that if the agricultural interest was to be injured, some compensation would be offered in the shape of relief from taxation. … I need hardly say that this hope no longer exists.” Salisbury was thoroughly disappointed. He was not alone.’ (Davis Political History of the House of Lords p 331).
It is likely, but not certain, that Wellington referred to the lack of compensation when he wrote to Lady Wilton on 9 February:
I am very apprehensive that a great Mistake has been made, though we are told not. At all events I am certain that a Party mistake has been made, and that if we continue to be a Government we shall be without supporters. I think that the Question will be carried in the House of Commons. I cannot say what will be the Result in the House of Lords. It is at all events very uncomfortable to feel that our best friends and most ancient supporters are against the Measure of the Government. (Wellington to Lady Wilton, 9 February 1846, Wellington and His Friends p 203-4).
Stanley moves to oppose repeal of the Corn Laws:
Despite his resignation from cabinet it was not inevitable that Stanley would oppose the government on the repeal of the Corn Laws, or that he would take a leading part in the debate. As late as 10 February 1846 he wrote,
You may be as discreet as you like about my vote in the House of Lords, and very safely, for I do not know which way I shall give it. I never was more perplexed in my life. I dislike the measure so much, and am so much alarmed at the ulterior consequences which I foresee, that I do not know how I am to support it; but with the knowledge that many of the Peers will be guided by my answer, and may be turned either way; and with these difficulties before us of carrying on any government except this, I am most reluctant to oppose it. I will not stay away. I will take one course or another broadly, but it is a fearful choice of dangers and evils, and the difficulty is to know how to choose. (Stanley to Edward Stanley, 10 February 1846 quoted in Hawkins Forgotten Prime Minister vol 1 p 296).
At the beginning of March he had decided that he would stand ‘as far aloof as I can from conversations on the subject; and from deference to the Duke [of Wellington], shall abstain from taking any more active part than that of recording my vote and stating my opinion, in opposition to the second reading of the bill. So much I cannot avoid doing, though I need not say I do it with great reluctance.’ (Hawkins Forgotten Prime Minister vol 1 p 307). Not surprisingly he was unable to maintain this resolution – the debate was too important and aroused too much feeling for such extreme self-denial to be sustainable, but he moved into active opposition slowly and with palpable reluctance, and it was not until May that he put himself at the head of the rebellious protectionist wing of the Conservative party as a whole. ‘Both before and after 25 May, when he openly opposed the second Lords reading of Peel’s Corn Laws Bill, he clung to the hope of restoring Conservative unity. Conservative fracture he saw as an unnecessary calamity, threatening the very basis of Britain’s landed constitution.’ (Hawkins The Forgotten Prime Minister vol 1 p 304). It is not difficult to see why he and Wellington found much common ground in their views of the debate, even if they ended up voting on opposite sides.
Wellington’s overture to Stanley:
That which I look for therefore is, the holding together in other hands the great, and at this moment powerful, Conservative party; and this for the sake of the Queen, of the religious and ancient institutions of the country, of its resources, influence, and power … It is quite obvious that I am not the person who can pretend to undertake, with any chance of success, to perform this task … You will see, therefore, that the stage is entirely clear and open for you, and notwithstanding that I am, thank God, in as good health as I was 20 years ago, I am as much out of your way, as you contemplated the possibility that I might be when you desired to be removed to the House of Lords. (Wellington to Stanley, 19 February 1846 quoted in McLean ‘Wellington and the Corn Laws, 1845-6’ p 250-1. McLean cites the manuscript in Southampton but notes: ‘Wellington’s handwriting … which is badly faded, is so bad that I have relied on the transcription in G. R. Gleig Life of Wellington (People’s edition, London, 1865) pp. 416-17. However, a comparison between the original and the transcription shows that even Gleig was defeated by the Duke’s hand in places. (ibid p 255-56). The letter was a reply to one from Stanley, a large part of which is quoted in Herbert Maxwell’s Life of Wellington vol 2 p 349-50; and Maxwell also prints more extensive extracts from Wellington’s letter ibid p 350-1).
Wellington’s argument that the Lords was ‘powerless’ to oppose the Corn Laws:
Richard Davis follows Norman Gash in suggesting that Wellington, in his speech, was alluding to the fact that as the measure was a money bill the Lords were powerless to amend it: they could only pass or reject it. (Davis Political History of the House of Lords p 335 citing Gash Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics p 51). Although it is hard to disagree with two such eminent authorities, the idea that Wellington was making a narrowly technical point is not very plausible, while the obvious reading of the passage is that the Lords lacked the power to defy the combination of the government, the Commons and the country on such an important measure. The Reform Bill had not been a money bill, but the Lords attempts to amend it had ended in tears, and as in 1832 only ‘the bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill’ offered any hope of resolving the issue in 1846.
Peel and the Conservative Party:
Peel’s relations with the Conservative Party have been the subject of two books, many articles and much historical discussion, with many changing interpretations over the years, and much scholarly debate. (The best recent discussion is in Richard Gaunt’s Sir Robert Peel chapter 5 and passim).
There is no doubt that Peel was never particularly close to the majority of his supporters, and that his acknowledged lack of warmth and charm (Gash Sir Robert Peel p 386) accentuated a gulf created by differences of temperament and background (which refers less to the cotton spinning origins of his father’s fortune than his own intellectual tastes and pursuits). But there is nothing particularly remarkable about the fact that his personal followers were always a minority within the party: the same was true of Pitt, and may well have been equally true of modern prime ministers including Thatcher and Blair. Successful parties usually encompass a broad spectrum of views, and while open disunity is generally harmful, excessive uniformity is stultifying.
Nonetheless Peel was always unusual in the extent to which he pushed and avowed his independence of the party that gave him his majority in the Commons. In 1841 he told the House of Commons,
If I exercise power, it shall be upon my conception – perhaps imperfect – perhaps mistaken – but – my sincere conception of public duty. That power I will not hold, unless I can hold it consistently with the maintenance of my own opinions; and that power I will relinquish, the moment I am satisfied that I am not supported in the maintenance of them by the confidence of this House, and of the people of this country. (Quoted in Gaunt Sir Robert Peel p 85; see also Peel to Croker, 20 September 1841 Croker Papers vol 2 p 409-10).
He disdained to use patronage (including peerage promotions and other honours) to reward his followers; he did not flatter them with personal attention or make much effort to explain the benefits of his policies to them; and he reacted with anger and uncompromising self-righteousness to any significant disagreement with his policies. (Wellington was sometimes accused of expecting military discipline from his followers when Prime Minister, but compared to Peel he showed great moderation and tolerance of dissent compared to Peel’s ‘take it or leave it approach’.)
In December 1845 the Times observed that if the Conservative party had been deceived by Peel ‘it is they who have compelled the deception, and helped to make the deceiver’. And Lord Hatherton commented ‘that [Peel] used the Agricultural Party as a stepping stone to power, is quite true. But it is equally true that they used him, and they did it knowing his sentiments. Verily they have both met their reward.’ (Both quoted in Gaunt Sir Robert Peel p 99). But this reeks of hindsight. Conservative MPs had every reason to believe that in power Peel would pursue some policies which were not entirely to their taste and which caused them some pain: a good example would be the introduction of the income tax and the reduction in many tariffs on non-agricultural imports. For this they were well prepared, and while it caused some grumbling, it did not seriously affect their support for Peel and the government. But they had no reason to expect that Peel would flout their interests and prejudices so often, so flagrantly and with so little amends; nor that he would demand such abject obedience from them in return.
Peel may well have been right that the repeal of the Corn Laws was in the long term interests of the aristocracy, the Conservative party and the country as a whole; and it is possible to imagine that a different leader, one liked and trusted by the party, one who had built up, not squandered a fund of goodwill, might possibly have persuaded the party to accept repeal in exchange for compensations. There would still have been dissenters, and unity might have required the retirement of the leader, but the party as a whole could have retained its place at the centre of the political scene and perhaps even remained the natural party of government in the middle years of Victoria’s reign. That this did not happen was the responsibility of Peel, even more than of Disraeli and Bentinck, for he created the context in which the Tory benches cheered and encouraged their jibes rather than silencing them with scorn.
Disraeli’s attacks on Peel in the Commons:
Some of the flavour of Disraeli’s assault on Peel can be sensed from the account of his speech on the opening night of the session as in Robert Blake’s biography:
It was a wonderful speech, and those who take the trouble to read it in Hansard will not be bored by a single sentence; nor will they doubt that, however much Disraeli might talk of “the opportune”, he had most carefully prepared what he was going to say. The finest orator in the world could not have delivered all this impromptu: the parallel with the great fleet sent out by the late Sultan under the command of an admiral who steered it straight to the enemy port declaring “the only reason I had for accepting the command was that I might terminate the contest by betraying my master”; the image of protection as a baby whose brains had been dashed out by its nurse, “a person of very orderly demeanour too, not given to drink, and never showing any emotion, except of late, when kicking against protection”; the denunciation of Peel as “no more a great statesman than a man who gets up behind a carriage is a great whip. Certainly both a disciples of progress. Perhaps both may get a good place. But how far the original momentum is indebted to their powers, and how far their guiding prudence applies the lash or regulates the reins, it is not necessary for me to notice.”
It was crude knockabout stuff in places, and much of it was unfair. Disraeli was ill advised, for example, to say that “even” Peel’s “mouldy potatoes” and the “reports of his vagrant professors” had failed him. But it was extremely effective. Disraeli was creating an image of Peel as a slightly pompous, priggish mediocrity who was betraying the party by which he had risen. There was just enough reality in it to appeal to the angry back benchers who felt that they were being double-crossed. They applauded with ever louder cheers each repetition – and Disraeli was a great believer in repetition – of this congenial theme. He ended with a passionate plea:
Let men stand by the principle by which they rise, right or wrong. I make no exception. If they be wrong, they must retire to that shade of private life with which our present rulers have so often threatened us … Do not then because you see a great personage giving up his opinions – do not cheer him on, do not give so ready a reward to political tergiversation. Above all maintain the line of demarcation between parties, for it is only by maintaining the independence of party that you can maintain the integrity of public men, and the power and influence of Parliament itself.
By the time he sat down, amidst cheers which lasted for several minutes, it was clear that the case for protection was not going to go by default. There would be a battle and it was by no means certain that Peel would win. (Blake Disraeli p 226-7).
It is striking to read a Conservative politician, albeit one of a younger generation, thus openly lauding the virtues of party, which even twenty years before had been almost exclusively a Whig doctrine. But the experience of opposition, and the changes to the political system created by the Reform Bill, had made party as important to Conservatives as to Whigs. But it was a pity that Disraeli did not reflect a little more on this before setting about destroying, not just Peel, but also the very party that he ostensibly championed.
Ireland and the Repeal of the Corn Laws:
The connection between the potato blight and the repeal of the Corn Laws was the subject of much debate at the time, with many Conservatives, including Wellington, believing that the reports of the disaster in Ireland were greatly exaggerated, and that Peel had either panicked, or eagerly grasped a pretext to move in a direction that he was already heading. The government’s record of practical action to alleviate if not avert the famine was fairly good – far better than that of its successor. But it is striking how British and Irish politicians in the first half of the nineteenth century constantly distracted themselves from the real problems of Ireland, first devoting a long generation to the irrelevancy of Catholic Emancipation, while the social structure and over-population which led to the Famine became more deeply entrenched; and then, in the face of a pressing emergency, embarking on an all-consuming political struggle over the Corn Laws that had only a tangential connection to the need to find food to prevent mass starvation in Ireland. It is not clear that Peel’s government could or would have done any more for Ireland if it had not been absorbed in the struggle over the Corn Laws; but if the government had steadily directed the public’s attention to the tragedy that was unfolding in Ireland, rather than tinkering with tariffs, it would have paved the way for much more rapid and extensive action when it was really needed in the second half of 1846 and 1847. This may never have been politically possible – Lord John Russell’s ‘Edinburgh letter’, and the activities of the Anti-Corn Law League and of the Protectionist societies probably meant that a confrontation over the Corn Laws was probably inevitable in 1846 – but the speed with which the actual crisis in Ireland was subordinated to the political contest in Westminster was striking, and not particularly creditable.
Peel’s resignation speech:
Richard Gaunt gives an excellent roundup of reactions to Peel’s resignation speech from both contemporaries and later historians. Notable among the latter are Boyd Hilton’s sharp comments that Peel ‘revelled in his martyrdom’ and ‘floated on waves of righteous self-esteem’, and David Eastwood’s conclusion that ‘There could be no clearer bid for posthumous recognition and moral high ground than this. Peel quite explicitly and quite deliberately placed himself above party… The destruction of the Party was not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the Corn Law crisis – it was, rather, quite deliberately engineered by Peel.’ And of the contemporaries, Hobhouse’s comment that ‘Peel spoke about an hour, which was at least half too long, and a bad speech in every sense of the word … egotistical in the highest degree’, comes from a hostile witness. But Lord Ashley, who was much more sympathetic, agreed: Peel would have been ‘a powerless creature without them; yet not a word of compliment or thanks for their friendship & services; not a syllable of respect to his late colleagues! I, I, I, runs throughout; “I shall leave a name &c &c” – alas, alas, what an immersion into himself.’ (All quoted in Gaunt Sir Robert Peel p 105-107).
Greville is worth quoting at some length:
Peel fell with great éclat, and amidst a sort of halo of popularity; but his speech on the occasion, and a great occasion it was, if he had made the most of it, gave inexpressible offence, and was, I think, very generally condemned. Almost every part of it offended somebody; but his unnecessary panegyrick of Cobden, his allusion to selfish monopolists, and his clap-trap about cheap bread in peroration, exasperated to the last degree his former friends and adherents, were unpalatable to those he has kept, were condemned by all parties indiscriminately, and above all deeply offended the Duke of Wellington. He might have wound up with something so much more becoming, dignified, and conciliatory; but his taste, or his temper, or his judgment, were completely in fault, and he marred all the grace and dignity of his final address, and left a bad, when he might so easily have stamped a good, impression. (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 4 July 1846 vol 5 p 329-30).
Norman Gash, while generally sympathetic to Peel, is not uncritical of his conduct. He acknowledges that, from the point of view of party politics, the praise of Cobden ‘was a mistake’. And more broadly, ‘The Irish crisis made him do hastily and without warning what he intended to do later and after due notice. From a party point of view it was disastrous.’ He ‘sacrifice[d] not only his consistency, but the views and commitments of most of the men who had put him in office’, and – a magnificent understatement – ‘he showed little consideration and perhaps not much sympathy for his party.’ (Gash Sir Robert Peel p 607, 612-13).
The different shades of contemporary reaction are well caught by Wellington’s niece Lady Westmorland (formerly Lady Burghersh), writing to her husband the day after:
He, P[eel], was immensely cheered by the mob (chiefly consisting of well-dressed respectable persons) both on his way to and from the House. His carriage almost carried by the cheerers. His speech praising Cobden has caused great and gen[era]l disgust. Our friends say he is mad, and consider the line he has taken very insulting to those who have eat dirt for him. The Protectionists of course are more furious than ever, and J. R. [Lord John Russell] is not satisfied as he fears this praise of Cob[den] will raise his pretensions, and he wants to keep as clear as he can of Radicals.
She also reported that Wellington’s opinion was that ‘P[eel] has now entirely separated himself from all the rest of his friends and that the disjointed party will come together again by next year without him. He is much disgusted and angry.’ (Lady Westmorland to Lord Westmorland, 30 June 1846, Correspondence of Lady Burghersh with the Duke of Wellington p 174-5).
Wellington and Stanley:
On 7 July 1846 Wellington sent Londonderry a confidential Memorandum on the Conservative Leadership in the House of Commons:
circumstances have placed me in a situation which renders it impossible for me to act with a party in Parliament; but I have always been sensible of the advantage and even necessity for the sake of Government itself of keeping together the Conservative party, and most particularly when sitting in the Queen’s councils I have endeavoured to attain that object. …. [His position as Commander-in-Chief means that he must cease to act with any party in opposition to the government] but this course does not prevent my seeing the advantage to the publick interests, and principally to the Crown itself, of the strength and consolidation of the Conservative party in the State. … I am most anxious for Lord Stanley’s success. … My position is certainly anomalous, and I can feel myself liable to be misunderstood. … But even when I was sitting in the House of Lords as leader of the Opposition against the Government of Lord Grey and Lord Melbourne, these same feelings in favour of Government qua Government have induced me personally to interfere to support the Government, in opposition to the party in Parliament with which I was acting, when I thought it was going too far. (Quoted in Herbert Maxwell Life of Wellington vol 2 p 355-56).
And in August, when the crisis was over, Croker (who had broken with Peel and was a committed protectionist) told Lockhart that Wellington ‘advised us to take our political line from Stanley, of whom he spoke as our leader.’ (Croker to Lockhart, 19 August 1846, Croker Papers vol 3 p 76).
Responsibility of Peel, Disraeli and Bentinck for the destruction of the Conservative Party:
In August 1847 Charles Arbuthnot told his son, ‘I don’t know what I am to do in the autumn. I am on the best of terms with Sir R. Peel, but it will be painful to have a meeting with him, as I cannot but feel that he has destroyed our Party. I am no Protectionist; but had Sir R[ober]t been more conciliatory to his supporters, & more confidential towards them, none of the evil would have occurred…’ (Arbuthnot to his son Charles, 7 August 1847, Correspondence of Charles Arbuthnot p 244). While Robert Blake, Disraeli’s biography, wrote that, ‘In wrecking Peel’s career, Bentinck and Disraeli came very near to wrecking his and their party too. Between 1846 and 1886 there was to be only one Conservative administration with a clear majority behind it in the House of Commons.’ (Blake Disraeli p 243).
Assessments of Wellington’s role in the political crisis over the repeal of the Corn Laws:
For a century and a half after the political crisis over the repeal of the Corn Laws, Wellington’s role was largely overlooked – part of the general neglect of his political career – but when it began to receive scholarly attention, the conclusions were striking. Richard Davis is forthright: ‘There can be no doubt to whom the credit was due [for the passage of repeal through the Lords]. It was to the one leader who had not deserted – seventy-seven years old, but still vigorous in body and mind; deaf, it is true, but certainly not daft. No one else could have done the job. And if that had not been done, there would have been no Corn Law repealed in 1846.’ (Davis Political History of the House of Lords p 336). And Richard Gaunt no less so,
Whilst Wellington dutifully marched his troops into line behind Peel for the final great battle of repeal, at the start of 1846, this was from the traditional vantage point of supporting the Queen’s government, in the absence of all reasonable alternatives, rather than from extolling the virtues of the measure itself. In stark contrast with the position in the House of Commons, Wellington fulfilled his duty to Queen Victoria as well as to Peel by ensuring the legislation passed safely through the House of Lords, whilst bequeathing to Lord Stanley, his successor as leader of the Conservative peers, a party much better oriented towards affecting a re-union with its Peelite minority and creating a meaningful opposition to the incoming Whig administration of Lord John Russell. Wellington’s retirement from the leadership of the party in the Lords, after 18 years, was thus adroit and diplomatic. He had won over Stanley (who had voluntarily gone to the Lords, effectively as Wellington’s deputy, in 1844, as much out of frustration at his own relationship with Peel as from a sense of frustrated ambition) as he had earlier won over Graham, helping to thwart a potentially cataclysmic Protectionist revolt under his leadership. Perhaps because Wellington saw the issue of repeal less dogmatically than Peel and was less personally associated with the defence of the Corn Laws up to that point, the Duke was able to ensure stability of the legislation, the Lords and the party; under the circumstances, this was quite an achievement. (Richard Gaunt ‘Wellington, Peel and the Conservative Party’ Wellington Studies vol 5 p 275-76).
Wellington’s attitude to Peel and view of events in July 1846:
Wellington’s niece Priscilla (formerly Lady Burghersh, now Lady Westmorland), told her husband:
I continue to go every day to the Duke. Yesterday I stayed two hours alone with him; he was very communicative, and told me a great many curious anecdotes … I never saw him better in mind and body. I think he is happy had having got rid of his position with Peel, and enjoys having some leisure now, and is not averse to the idea of things going on as they are for some months, but he expects a righting at last. The end of all our conversations is the wish that Peel may go to China or Kamchatka, or any other furthermost point, and never return… (Lady Westmorland to Lord Westmorland, 13 July 1846 Correspondence of Priscilla, Countess of Westmorland p 85).
 WND prints this as “her” – but the draft Ms in WP 1/1130/21 has “His”, and it was an easy mistake for a Victorian typesetter to make.
© Rory Muir