Commentary Explorer Results
Commentary for Volume 2, Chapter 7: Politics and the Duke
Wellington as Master General of the Ordnance rather than Minister without Portfolio:
Mulgrave explicitly told Wellington that the Ordnance was particularly suitable ‘because it is perhaps the only office that could occasion no obstacle or delay to your taking the command of an army upon the instant of any event which might render your services necessary’. (Mulgrave to Wellington 19 October 1818 WSD vol 12 p 776-777).
Although it was not uncommon to have a minister without portfolio in cabinet, there was prejudice against them; even more against introducing a new minister without a portfolio – see Aspinall ‘The Cabinet Council’ p 163 – although this did not prove an obstacle to Wellington being minister without portfolio and leader of the government in the Lords when Peel formed his government in 1841.
Wellington joins the Government:
Lord Grenville had some interesting speculations on what Wellington would do in early November which ran through several options:
I have no faith in [reports of] Liverpool’s going out; but I expect that in some shape or other the Duke of Wellington will be brought forward. I thought Ireland would have been kept open for him. Perhaps, he might himself not choose that. The Ordnance is obvious enough, and, I suppose, not difficult to open; and the Prince Regent’s death must now, whenever it happens, open to him the command of the army [as the Duke of York would then become king], which neither the Duke of Kent, nor Prince Leopold are now likely to be able to dispute with him. It is not likely, nor, at his age, would it, perhaps, be reasonable to expect, though certainly his wisest course, that he should sit down satisfied with what he has done, and with a glory which he may lessen, but probably cannot augment, by engaging in our civil and political contentions. (Grenville to Buckingham 6 November 1818 Buckingham Memoirs of the Regency vol 2 p 287)
On 19 December The Times ran a story of an impending – and imaginary – cabinet reshuffle:
There have been various conjectures in the journals lately, and various rumours in political parties, of projected changes in the Ministry. We are ourselves disposed to think that some moves may have been in agitation, though without any such radical alteration as has been talked of. We should be disposed to present our readers with the following sketch of a new assignment of men to places; which, it will be seen, does not affect the unity or permanence of the Ministerial body. We have heard, as has often been stated, that Lord Harrowby will go to Paris in place of Sir Charles Stuart; and that till Lord Melville can go out to India (which is considered as his ultimate destination,) he will supply the place of Lord Harrowby, as President of the Council. The place of Lord Melville at the Admiralty will be filled by Mr Wellesley Pole; who, in his turn, is to be succeeded by Lord Mulgrave from the Ordnance; which makes the long-rumoured opening for the Duke of Wellington’.
In 1837 Wellington told Lady Salisbury that ‘when Office was first proposed to him by Lord Castlereagh, after the Congress of Aix la Chapelle, he had the greatest dislike to accepting it, and the only thing that determined him was the assurance that if he refused to join he should weaken the Ministry and become a rallying point for the disaffected.’ (Lady Salisbury’s diary 25 August 1837 Gascoyne Heiress p 257). However there is no evidence from the time that he was particularly reluctant to accept the position, and his later recollections are not always particularly accurate.
Pittites not Tories:
See Sack Jacobite to Conservative p 88-89 for the persistence of term Pittite and dislike of Tory, and his important article ‘The Memory of Burke and the Memory of Pitt: English Conservatism confronts its Past, 1806-1829’ Historical Journal vol 30 n 3 1987 p 623-640 especially 630-638 for the continuing centrality of Pitt for more than twenty years after his death. Nonetheless, in the years after 1818 the name Tory was slowly rehabilitated, being used principally for the more conservative Pittites (see commentary to Chapter 13 for more on this).
Pittite distrust of Party:
The fact that the Pittites had a chief whip (William Holmes) who was distinct from the Treasury secretary and other government office holders shows that there was some sense of a distinct party identity – as did Pitt Dinners and the like, but this was not very strong. (On Holmes see Aspinall ‘English Party Organization’ p 397).
Cookson says ‘While it is accurate enough to speak of a Tory party at this time, ‘Toryism’ was less the creed of a party than an ideology which overrode what were often called “mere party considerations”’. (Lord Liverpool’s Administration p 325)
The King’s right to choose his ministers; Parliament’s right to scrutinize their measures:
Austin Mitchell writes that many nominally independent MPs ‘accepted the somewhat old-fashioned premise that the crown had the right to appoint the ministers while M.P.s had the duty of supporting them. E. J. Curteis declared that “Ministers ought always to be watched and sometimes to be opposed; but that as the constitution of the country had given to the throne the power of choosing its ministers, to act in uniform hostility to them, right or wrong, at all times ad on all occasions appeared to him an absurdity, and certainly not the duty of a member for a county.”’ (Mitchell Whigs in Opposition p 77-8).
And Colonel Wilson told the House: ‘When I was first elected … I made a declaration to the effect, that it was my determination to support the government of my royal master, without caring who composed it, when it was acting for the welfare of the country, and to oppose it when my conscience told me it was acting otherwise … I do not care for ministers. I do not mind who they are. The appointment of my royal master is enough for me. Whether they are whigs or tories it’s all one to me. While they act conscientiously I’ll support them. While they act otherwise I’ll oppose them’ (quoted in ibid p 78n).
Another example is the Duke of Rutland who said ‘“If I am satisfied as to the principles and efficiency of an Administration, my attachment is to the Crown rather than to any set of men.”’ Quoted in Aspinall The Cabinet Council p 241.
Not that any of these quotations can be taken entirely at face value: Wilson was prefacing a vote against the government, but they do reflect a prevailing if fading idea.
Reductions in Government Patronage and effects on the Influence of the Crown:
‘In June 1822 Arbuthnot drew up a memorandum for Londonderry in which he handily summarized the achievements of forty years of “economical” reform. Since 1782, he claimed, relying on George Rose’s Observations respecting the Public Expenditure for the earlier period, over two thousand offices had been abolished or consolidated; eighteen hundred since 1810 alone, including 94 sinecures, half of which were tenable with a seat in parliament. Furthermore, he estimated the total saving to the public in the last dozen years at £580,000, almost three times as much as in the previous thirty. [Memorandum of the Reductions made in the Public Departments, 13 June 1822, Add. Ms. 38,761 ff. 24-35, 37-8…]’
Cookson goes on to comment, ‘Little wonder, then, that the Radical picture of ministerial influence as a hydra against which the reformer heroes battled in vain was never taken for genuine by the ‘country gentlemen’ or anyone else acquainted with the facts.’ (Cookson Lord Liverpool’s Administration p 345).
The effect of these changes and the growth of party spirit on both sides of the Commons (albeit much stronger among Whigs than Pittites) was to erode the ability of the Crown to make government, and hence the King’s right to choose his ministers. It was all very well Colonel J. W. Gordon to claim that if the King gave his decided support to a chimney sweeper, and the man had strong nerves, he would secure a majority in the Commons, but events clearly showed this to be false (Gordon quoted in Aspinall’s Introduction to Later Correspondence of George III vol 5 p x). Pitt himself had found the task far from easy in 1783-84, while in the first years of the nineteenth century Addington had been driven from office when he lost the support of the Commons in 1804; Liverpool refused to attempt to carry on Pitt’s government in 1806, and Perceval barely survived the first session of his government despite in each case the minister having the unequivocal support of the King, the full patronage of the executive, and inheriting a House that ought to have been broadly sympathetic. When Perceval was assassinated in 1812 the Commons made plain its desire for a strong, broadly based, administration, but it refused to force the Regent to turn to the Opposition, and once it was convinced that the differences among the Pittites were irreconcilable, it gave Liverpool’s ministry a comfortable majority, a decision which was soon confirmed by the country in the election of 1812. The government’s difficulties in parliament in 1816-1818 were caused by the real distress and discontent in the country, but they also reflected a reduction in the political strength brought by incumbency. The balance of forces in the constitution was shifting and governing was becoming more difficult.
Decline of political patronage and the Influence of the Crown:
For an example of the growing importance of merit over political patronage in appointments see Charles Long to Sir A Wellesley 24 October 1807 where Pitt’s memory is invoked to support the idea that Irish judges should be appointed ‘totally independent of political interests’. (Aspinall & Smith (eds) English Historical Documents vol. 11 p. 363). On the whole question of the influence of the crown see A.S. Foord ‘The Waning of “The Influence of the Crown”’ English Historical Review vol. 62 1947 pp. 484-507; J.R. Dinwiddy ‘The “Influence of the Crown” in the Early Nineteenth Century: a note on the Opposition Case’ Parliamentary History vol. 4 1985 pp. 189-200; and Douglas Kanter ‘Robert Peel and the Wanning of the “Influence of the Crown” in Ireland, 1812-1818’ New Hibernia Review vol. 5 Summer 2001 pp. 54-71. All three articles point to broadly the same conclusion: Foord provides the overview and looks at the mechanisms of influence, and how they all declined sharply or were abolished between the mid-Eighteenth Centruy and 1830; Dinwiddy modifies the picture a little by pointing to the amount of local patronage channeled through MPs who supported the government, but acknowledges that this too was in sharp decline in the postwar years; and Kanter gives specific examples of administrative reforms voluntarily undertaken by Peel which reduced the government’s political influence. The fundamental underlying point is that the political class as a whole was no longer willing to accept blatant corruption as an essential tool of government. No doubt Enlightenment ideas generally were at the root of this change of attitude, but much credit must also go to the perseverance of the Rockingham and Foxite Whigs whose claiming of the high moral ground forced their opponents to match them. It is a pity that they did not practice what they preached when they were in office (see Dinwiddy p 193-4), but that was so seldom that it did not discredit their case.
See also Fry The Dundas Despotism pp. 328-9, 354-5 for evidence of how the reduction in patronage undermined the political dominance of Scotland established by Henry Dundas.
However it should be noted that Aspinall, writing in 1952, disagrees: ‘The power of the Crown, though tending to decline, remained substantially unchanged until the Reform Act of 1832 gradually transformed the situation’ (Cabinet Council p 225). This is partly a matter of emphasis but there is also a substantive point of disagreement.
Pittite Principles in practice:
Mrs Arbuthnot in 1826 quotes what she says is a letter from Liverpool to Canning, and whether it is authentic or not, it is a fair representation of the attenuation of the deference to the Crown of Liverpool in his later years in office: ‘I am no Whig &, tho’ I have proved that on a point where I feel that I am right, I can press & resist, I will not urge a measure on my Sovereign when my own conscience tells me that I am wrong’. (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 18 July 1826 vol 2 p 39). So, Whigs would force a measure on the King against his will when their own conscience told them it was wrong? Hardly, but it is significant that this is still identified as the core difference between Whig and Pittite.
Wellington’s Political Principles:
For a good example of his dislike of ‘constitution making’ and beginning from scratch, and belief in the importance of fitting ideas to the existing state of the country see his ‘Memorandum on plans for Spanish America’ 8 February 1806 WSD vol 6 p 65-66.
In 1828 in a memorandum on Huskisson’s resignation, Wellington made some interesting comments showing his scepticism about much of the talk of political principles that it produced, and at the same time giving a fairly clear statement of some of his fundamental political beliefs, including the importance of pragmatism:
Principles have been talked of as if there was any difference of principle in these discussions. There is not the idea of a principle in all these papers. Principles are brought forward solely to aggravate the consequences of these unfortunate difficulties.
We hear a great deal of Whig principles, and Tory principles, and Liberal principles, and Mr Canning’s principles; but I confess that I have never seen a definition of any of them, and I cannot make to myself a clear idea of what any of them mean.
This I know, that this country was never governed in practice according to the extreme principles of any party whatever; much less according to the extremes which other opposing parties attribute to its adversaries.
I am for maintaining the prerogatives of the Crown, the rights and privileges of the Church and its union with the State; and these principles are not inconsistent with a determination to do everything in my power to secure the liberty and promote the prosperity and happiness of the people.
We hear of liberal principles of commerce. What has my Right Honourable friend done upon this subject? He has substituted protection by duty for protection by prohibition on almost all, if not all, articles of foreign production. He may have gone a little too far, or not far enough, in some cases; but this is very certain, that in principle he is right.
Then comes the reciprocity in respect to shipping. It must be observed that this reciprocity is fixed not only by Act of Parliament, which Act Parliament might repeal, but by treaties with foreign Powers, which cannot be broken by us, whatever may be the inconvenience suffered by them.
As for my part, however, I really believe that the inconvenience attributed to these measures may be traced to other causes. But, at all events, enough has been shown to prevent making more of such treaties at present. (WND vol 4 p 451-3)
Dissenters excluded from local government:
Richard Davis Dissent in Politics p 41 mentions London, Bristol, Norwich and Nottingham as places where Dissenters held high local office by the 1780s without any pretence at even occasional conformity.
In local elections in Norwich in 1801 the ‘Church & King’ party invoked the Corporation Act, but the effect is unclear as their opponents were qualified. According to Davis this use of the act was unprecedented in Norwich & never repeated (ibid p 124-5).
Opposition to Catholic Emancipation:
George Canning, who always supported Catholic Emancipation, acknowledged that Catholics had been excluded from public life more for political than theological reasons.
It was not intended by those who originated the Catholic disqualifications, to decide on abstract points of theology. They took these articles of religious creed, as the signs of political opinion; as the distinguishing characteristics of a faction in the state, acting under a foreign influence, connected with a banished dynasty, and hostile to the government and constitution of their country. They were the marks by which the criminal was designated, not the crime for which he was punished. (Canning’s speech on the Catholic question in 1812 quoted in Lee George Canning and Liberal Toryism, 1801-1827 p 89).
Wellington on Napoleon:
In 1838 Greville wrote that Wellington had said that ‘Napoleon’s military system compelled him to employ his armies in war, when they invariably lived upon the resources of the countries they occupied, and that France could not have maintained them, as She must have done if He had made peace: peace, therefore, would have brought about (through the Army itself) his downfall.’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey and Fulford) 2 January 1838 vol 4 p 5).
Wellington on Napoleon’s military ability:
And in 1843 Greville wrote: ‘The Duke then talked of the military genius of Marlborough, and said that though He was a very great man, the art of war was so far advanced since his time that it was impossible to compare him with more modern Generals; and unquestionably Napoleon was the greatest military genius that ever existed; that he had advantages which no other man possessed in the unlimited means at his command and his absolute power and irresponsibility, and that he had never scrupled at any expenditure of human life; but nevertheless his employment of his means and resources was wonderful. I told him that I remembered to have heard him say that he considered Napoleon’s campaign of ’14 to have been one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of his exploits, and that he was then ruined by his own impatience…’ (Greville Memoirs (ed Strachey & Fulford) 8 August 1843 vol 5 p 125-26).
Wellington’s views on leading members of the Opposition:
The keenness of Wellington’s interest and the freedom with which he felt able to discuss politics can be seen in the dinner table conversation recorded by Thomas Creevey in 1818
“Well Creevey … Who is to be your leader in the House of Commons?” I said they talked of Tierney, but I was quite sure Romilly ought to be the man. – “Ah,” he said, “Tierney is a sharp fellow, and I am sure will give the Government a good deal of trouble. As for Romilly, I know little of him, but the House of Commons never likes lawyers.” So I said that was true generally, and justly so, but that poor Horner had been an exception, and so was Romilly: that they were no ordinary, artificial skirmishing lawyers, speaking from briefs, but that they conveyed to the House, in addition to their talents, the impression of their being really sincere, honest men. (Creevey journal n.d. 1818 Creevey Papers p 278).
Celebrations after Waterloo:
On 21 June the Morning Chronicle editorialized:
The Town was yesterday morning put into the highest state of exultation by an account published in a Second Edition of the Morning Post, announcing the commencement of hostilities with the most glorious éclat to the Allies, and particularly to the British. Our readers will do us the justice to say that we have done our utmost in deprecating the crusade against the French; and in endeavouring to avert from our country the fatal consequence of an attack on a whole people, merely because they had preferred one Chief Magistrate to another. But as our efforts have failed, and the armies have actually engaged, we must hope for the success of our gallant countrymen, who, on the principle of military obedience, venture their lives without examining the cause.
On the following day under the headline ‘Total Defeat of Bonaparte’ the Morning Chronicle announced ‘the most brilliant and complete Victory ever obtained by the Duke of Wellington, and which will forever exalt the Glory of the British Name’. And the paper concluded its story ‘It is the grandest and most important Victory ever obtained.’
A visiting American, Joseph Ballard, described the resulting celebrations in his diary:
[Thursday, June] 22nd. London is one continual scene of uproar and joy in consequence of the total defeat of Bonaparte at Waterloo by Lord Wellington. This is announced by the Park and Tower guns and by placards upon the gates of the Mansion House. It is also publicly declared that upon Friday and Saturday nights the public buildings are to be illuminated on the occasion.
On Friday and Saturday night [June 23rd and 24th] all the public buildings and many private ones were illuminated. Many fanciful and beautiful devices were exhibited. Among those which were prominently beautiful were the excise office, the Bank, Post-office, Somerset House, Admiralty, Horse Guards, Carlton House, Foreign and Home Department (here the eagles taken from the French were displayed), Lord Liverpool and Lord Castlereagh’s houses, etc. One house in St James’ was particularly fine. The whole front resembled a fortress, with cannon, flags, &c., formed by coloured lamps. A publican who keeps a tavern with the sign of a cock, had a large transparency representing a game cock strutting over his fallen combatant, with the inscription “England the cock of the walk!” The crowd was very great, particularly in front of Somerset House. The mob would not suffer the coaches to pass excepting the coachmen and footmen took off their hats as an acknowledgement of the favour. Squibs and crackers were plentifully distributed into the carriages, and the alarm which the ladies were consequently thrown appeared to delight John Bull exceedingly. (Joseph Ballard England in 1815. A Critical Edition of the Journal of Joseph Ballard edited by Alan Rauch p 79-80).
There was great popular interest in and enthusiasm for the battle, which lasted for some time, with many firsthand accounts published in the press, and early accounts of the battle running through several editions before the end of the year. In February 1816 twenty artists competed for a one thousand guinea prize for the best painting of the battle. This was a private commercial venture, and their works went on view at the British Gallery in London. A panoramic painting of the battle by Henry Barker was exhibited at Leicester Square (entrance one shilling) and was such a success that an elevated stage was built to accommodate greater numbers of patrons, and the exhibition remained open until May 1818 when it began a provincial tour. A Waterloo Museum opened in Pall Mall in November 1815 and lasted for nearly eighteen months; while the programme at both Saddler’s Wells and Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre was altered to accommodate songs and performances celebrating the battle. (Foster Wellington and Waterloo p 82-83).
But in June 1818 Robert Waithman, the newly elected radical MP for the City of London, told a dinner celebrating his election ‘The Battle of Waterloo was the Ministers’ battle, in which neither this country nor the Continent gained any benefit (great applause).’ While John Cam Hobhouse, Byron’s friend, declared on another occasion that ‘British soldiers had never been employed on a more unfortunate occasion than the battle of Waterloo’. (Both quotes from Foster Wellington and Waterloo p 112).
Radical Attacks on the Restoration of Louis XVIII:
Another print by Cruikshank, in December 1815, entitled The Present State of France Exemplified depicts Louis XVIII enthroned on a platform supported by giant bayonets which rest on the bodies of dead allied soldiers. To one side Marshal Ney is being executed, while in the background is a crowded prison surmounted by two gibbets from which corpses hang: a line of men with chains around their necks emerge from the prison, led by an executioner, while a second executioner is about to decapitate a kneeling man. A large flag in the centre is inscribed ‘It is not the wish of the Allies to interfere with the internal government of France’. The accompanying text claims that the Allies paid the French one sou a day to cheer Louis XVIII: ‘And all those that would not cry out for the King, they put to death’. Napoleon was overthrown because he had freed slaves and given liberty to the press. (George Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires nos 12,623 vol 9 p 596-7; see also 12,614 and 12,617).
Lord Holland’s letter attacking Wellington over the execution of Marshal Ney:
It seems that Holland wrote his letter with the intention that Kinnaird would either show it to Wellington, or at least convey his view of the question to the Duke, but it is remarkable that Kinnaird did so when the letter arrived after Ney’s execution. It is strange that there is nothing in Holland’s letter that bears the interpretation that Wellington put upon it; but whether Wellington exaggerated in his outrage, or Holland edited the letter for his memoirs is not clear: both possibilities being entirely in character.
Radicals disparage Wellington and Waterloo:
On 17 June 1822, the day before the seventh anniversary of the battle, a critic in The Traveller, a radical newspaper, wrote:
The reflections which it is calculated to excite in any rational mind, can have nothing of a pleasurable cast. A bevy of Sovereigns combining to quell the growing spirit of freedom, and to subdue the independence of nations, carry no flattering note to our ear in their trumpet of victory. Indeed, there has a very prevailing indifference got abroad as to military triumphs, and it is well known that the news of the success at Waterloo excited no extraordinary joy. England is proud of her naval victories; but for the lust of military glory, her taste does not lie that way. The reverence paid to the memory of Nelson, and the little respect in which the name of Wellington is held, is a proof of this. We pause to inquire whether the pretended struggle for the liberties of mankind was any thing more in reality than a struggle for the means of destroying them. We call to mind the mass of public debt! – the corruption of Government! – the Six Acts! – the Manchester Massacre! – and the Holy Alliance! and we shake our heads at the news of a victory which has brought nothing better than all these in its train. (Quoted in Solkin Painting out of the Ordinary p 204).
William Hazlitt’s admiration for Napoleon was unbounded, and his attitude to Wellington predictable: ‘I hate the sight of the Duke of Wellington for his foolish face, as much as for anything else. I cannot believe that a great general is contained under such a paste-board vizor of a man.’ (Quoted in Duncan Wu William Hazlitt. The First Modern Man p 179).
Votes on the Army Estimates and attitudes to the Army:
For all the popular rejoicing at Wellington’s victories the taste for military glory did not extend to paying for the army. The petitions organized by the Opposition against the Property Tax did not hesitate to link it explicitly to the cost of the army. One of the London petitions declared that ‘this obnoxious and inquisitorial Tax can only be proposed, with a view of maintaining an enormous Military Establishment in a time of profound Peace, a measure hostile to the spirit of the British Constitution, and highly injurious to the best interests of society’. (Quoted in Cookson Lord Liverpool’s Administration p 47-8). The theme that a standing army was contrary to British liberty and tradition was hammered mercilessly by Opposition speakers and not only by them: highly regarded independents such as Henry Bankes, Stuart-Wortley and Wilberforce all opposed the Army Estimates, calling for a small army and large navy and suggesting that the army might become a threat to the constitution and military habits injure the country’s morals. (Parliamentary Debates vol 33 col 99-102; Cookson Lord Liverpool’s Administration p 51-2).
The Estimates passed, but the shift of mood was striking, as was the failure of the government to find a spokesman to beat the patriotic drum and arouse enthusiasm, in the House or in the country, for the finest army Britain had ever possessed. Yet the minister chiefly responsible for the Army Estimates was Palmerston who, in his early thirties and having been more than six years at the head of the War Office remained curiously muted, giving little hint even to the most discerning of future greatness. (Thomas Barnes’s Parliamentary Portraits published in 1815 sketches 36 members of the Commons including all the leading speakers on both sides but Palmerston was not included. See also Thorne History of Parliament vol 5 p 348-50). Although there was no explicit criticism of Wellington during the debate, it could not help but have the effect of lowering the public value set upon his achievements. The Estimates which attracted such hostility actually saw a very considerable reduction in the army: the total Establishment was reduced to 147,000 men, well below what the Duke of York regarded as a safe level given the need to maintain order at home and in Ireland, furnish the contingent to the Army of Occupation in France, and garrison Britain’s overseas possessions. (Cookson Lord Liverpool’s Administration p 30-31). Nonetheless the loss of the Property Tax and the strength of feeling in Parliament made further reductions in 1817 inevitable. In the face of strong opposition from the Duke of York supported by the Prince Regent the Establishment was cut again to a 123,000 men and its budget was reduced from £10.8m to £9m, while subsequent years, well into the 1820s, saw further reductions. (Cookson Lord Liverpool’s Administration p 119-121).
The other services suffered just as much. Rhetorical support for a large navy was not backed by cash, and the 1817 Estimates reduced the number of seamen in the service to only a few more than in 1792. Here too the parsimony proved excessive with naval men in and out of Parliament pointing to the rapidly declining state of the fleet and a pressing need for a programme of shipbuilding. (Cookson Lord Liverpool’s Administration p 76-77, 121-3 which disprove his statement on p 32 that the Navy received favoured treatment over the army. See also Andrew D. Lambert ‘Preparing for the Long Peace: the Reconstruction of the Royal Navy, 1815-1830’ Mariner’s Mirror vol 82 no 1 February 1996 p 41-54). The stark fact was that the government had no choice: the army, navy and ordnance between them made up 90 per cent of the discretionary budget excluding payments on the debt. (Smart Economic Annals vol 1 p 480: the cost of revenue collection was not included i.e. only the surplus was shown on the consolidated fund side; other civil departments were very small).
Government spending as a proportion of Gross National Product:
Martin Daunton Trusting Leviathan. The Political Taxation in Britain, 1799-1814 p 23 prints a table showing government spending as a proportion of GNP which helps to show why there was such a strong belief in the need to reduce the size of government in the post-war years:
1790 12 per cent
1800 22 per cent
1810 23 per cent
1820 17 per cent
1830 15 per cent
1840 11 per cent
It then remained at or below 11 per cent until 1900 when it rose to 14 per cent.
Structural weakness of the government in the Commons:
With Canning’s accession and the growing confidence of some of its younger ministers the government’s performance in the Commons improved and its majority became less precarious. Yet it is clear that the ministers suffered from their own Pittite distaste for party spirit. Too many backbenchers shared Edward Littleton’s view that, ‘men in office … hold cheap the support of any man who will not go every length with them. Great men want adherents; passive obedience is the only qualification they desire in friends’. Littleton’s pride rebelled at such treatment and he resolved that ‘For my own part I will retain the liberty to make my bow and retire when I please’. (Hatherton diary quoted in Cookson Lord Liverpool’s Administration p 56. See also Charles Wynn to Buckingham n.d. Buckingham Memoirs of the Regency vol 2 p 314-15). Such gentlemen could not be controlled by party discipline because they did not owe their seats to the ministers (whether as party leaders or as members of the executive), but they could be wooed and flattered into believing that the government of the country could only be effective if the cabinet had steady dependable supporters in the Commons. Here Pitt’s example was pernicious for he was haughty and aloof with all those who cheered his speeches but who lay outside his circle of particular intimate friends. His successors were not so unbending but even in these postwar years there were only rudimentary mechanisms to rally and encourage their supporters. The Chief Secretary for Ireland would do his best to press the pro-Government Irish members to reach London in time for the opening of Parliament and stay for as much of the session as possible, but the task never proved easy and success was never more than partial and temporary. (See Wellington: the Path to Victory p 226 and Kanter ‘Robert Peel and the Wanning of the “Influence of the Crown” in Ireland 1812-1813 New Hibernian Review vol 5 2001 p 59-60). English office holders and other government supporters would be summoned to a meeting before the opening of Parliament to be informed of the government’s plans, but it was made clear that the purpose if these meetings was not to gain their advice, or even normally to gauge their reaction, but in effect to instruct them. (Aspinall ‘English Party Organization’ p 393; Cookson Lord Liverpool’s Administration p 139 – both drawing on the same account of the same meeting). Otherwise the main institutional link was through one of the two Secretaries to the Treasury (later denominated as the Parliamentary Secretary). Henry Wellesley had held this post in the Portland government and it had driven him almost to despair. His successor, Charles Arbuthnot, coped better with the pressure and remained in place from April 1809 to February 1823 serving through many difficult times. His performance was frequently criticized but the real problem lay deeper. In March 1819 only a few weeks into the first session of a new Parliament he wrote to Castlereagh (who had been absent for a week following the death of his sister)
For the first two days of the week … we were sitting till very late at night with nearly empty benches on our side of the House, & with benches crammed up to the very corners on the Opposition side. We fortunately escaped the disgrace of dividing in a minority; but we were ridiculed and laughed at by those of the Opposition with whom any of us talked, & we were told that, seeing we could not get attendance, they had signed a paper binding themselves never upon any occasion to quit the House without Tierney’s leave. I know this to be a fact. Of Ministers we had only Van[sittart] & Robinson, the latter being most restless on his seat & even asking if he might not go home. Pole went home to his dinner – [Bragge] Bathurst was really ill, & I understand that Canning had a cold … Of official men [i.e. junior office holders] we had very few indeed. Those who staid, complained, as I heard, that I don’t keep good Houses – those who went away equally complain that I require attendance needlessly. Worn out with bodily fatigue & vexation I twice during the week wrote at night to Lord Liverpool that our office men wd. not attend, & that the independent members declared to me that they wd. not try to support those in office who wd. not take the trouble of trying to support themselves. After passing a long night of worry & alarm lest we shd. be in a minority, the evil of non-attendance was thought so serious that Long and Huskisson went with me to Fife House, and joined with me in declaring that the Govt. would be broken down in a fortnight’s time unless those in office wd. throughout the evening, without pairing off, devote themselves to the House. (Arbuthnot to Castlereagh ‘Private’ 14 March  Correspondence of Charles Arbuthnot p 13-18).
Liverpool and Castlereagh rallied their supporters, the immediate crisis was averted and the government went on, but the effort was spasmodic while the problem was structural. When the Opposition was discouraged and the government was not under pressure, the issue disappeared below the surface but it had not been solved. Throughout its long life Liverpool’s government depended on the loose, unorganized and at times unreliable support of MPs who wished it well but who regarded themselves as free agents. It was a problem which was to become even more acute when Wellington became Prime Minister.
The Growth of the Political Public in Britain:
Wellington entered cabinet at a time when the foundations of British politics were shifting leading to cracks and strains in the superstructure. The previous twenty or thirty years had seen a rapid and sustained increase in the size of the political public in Britain: that is, the number of people who took some interest in politics (broadly defined) and felt that they had the right to an opinion. The underlying cause of this growth was increasing prosperity, spreading literacy and growing urbanization. The total population of England, Scotland and Wales rose from 10.5 million in 1801 to 14.1 million in 1821, while Ireland went from approximately 5.2 million to 6.8 million (a marginally slower rate of increase). In the same twenty years the population of Birmingham increased from 71,000 to 102,000; Manchester from 75,000 to 126,000; and Glasgow from 77,000 to 147,000; while London continued to dwarf its rivals growing from 1,088,000 in 1801 to 1,504,000 in 1821. (Figures from Mitchell & Deane Abstract of British Historical Statistics p 6-8, 24-6). Social controls, deference to authority, and the influence of the Anglican church were all much weaker in these rapidly growing urban centres, and similar effects would be seen even in many much smaller provincial towns where the arrival of new industries and sources or employment upset the traditional hierarchy. (For a contemporary fictional depiction of this see John Galt’s Annals of the Parish).
The mobilization of a large part of the population to resist Napoleon’s threatened invasion in 1803-1805 – many in the part-time Volunteers – coincided with a wave of patriotic sentiment that turned to pride and celebration with news of Nelson’s triumph at Trafalgar. This in turn led to a new self-confidence among many who had previously felt that politics was beyond their ken; they had rallied to their country in its hour of need and felt entitled to some say in how it was governed. Of course this was not the first time that a substantial slice of the British population had become engaged in politics: the Civil Wars, the Jacobite Uprisings, Wilkes in the 1760s, the American War, the Gordon Riots, the radicalism of the early 1790s, and 1798 in Ireland all showed popular participation of different kinds, but while there were common threads linking some of the events they were largely spasmodic and unsustained. In the early nineteenth century interest in politics grew more continuous, better informed and more widespread; and it seems to have taken over some of the ground previously occupied by religious enthusiasm and revivalists: to put it crudely, the crowds who went to hear Joanna Southcott in the first years of the century went to hear Orator Hunt a decade and a half later. (This rather over-states the change: religious affiliation continued to be at least as important as political opinions in positioning someone in public life until the 1830s or beyond, but there was a close connection between Dissent (or indifference) in religion and opposition to the established order, in politics. On this whole question see J. C. D. Clark English Society 1688-1832 p 358-383).
The increased interest in politics took many forms some of them quite conservative, such as the elaborate festivities which were often organized to celebrate the victories of Nelson and Wellington and patriotic anniversaries. However even this feeling could prove hard to control, as Liverpool found in 1814 when the whole country was agitated by the prospect of a premature peace that would leave Napoleon in power in France; or the popular outcry in 1808 over the Convention of Cintra. As these examples suggest it was much easier (then, as now) to mobilize opinion to protest against events or the policies of the government than to express active support for them. Brougham’s campaign of petitioning against the Orders-in-Council was a model of its kind, harnessing the discontent caused by a slump in the economy and directing it at a single government policy. But other issues were more detached from the simple polarities of Westminster. In 1811 Lord Sidmouth, who was not then a member of the government, brought forward a bill to regulate nonconformist ministers in an effort to check the rapid growth of often poorly educated, part time preachers. Opposition to the bill was hastily organized but still produced almost 700 petitions containing tens of thousands of signatures and the proposal was dropped. (Michael A. Rutz ‘The Politicizing of Evangelical Dissent, 1811-1813’ Parliamentary History vol 20 2001 p 189-98 especially p 197; see also Richard W. Davis Dissent in Politics, 1780-1830. The Political Life of William Smith, MP Chapter 9). Two years later an even larger, and equally successful, campaign was organized to amend the Charter of the East India Company, then up for renewal, to remove its ban on Christian missionaries operating in India (Rutz ‘The Politicizing of Evangelical Dissent’ p 202-5). Both these campaigns owed much to the example of the anti-slavery movement, which had done more than any other issue to generate wider public involvement in politics. With the passionate commitment of well-connected leaders in Westminster and a vast network of activists, as well the active goodwill of a large part of educated opinion, the campaign against slavery was a formidable force in the early nineteenth century. It was not satisfied when Britain renounced her part in the trade in 1807, and in 1814 eight hundred petitions signed by 750,000 people demanded that the British government insist that all the European powers agree to the ban without delay (Cookson Armed Nation p 244). Further moves for the abolition of slavery itself in the West Indies were clearly only a matter of time and opportunity.
Those who had rallied to the defence of the country felt they had a right to a say in how it was governed:
According to Ian Beckett, Samuel Bamford pointed out in 1816 that the militia lists provided a ready basis for electoral roll. (Beckett Amateur Military Tradition p 131).
The Press and other influences on Public Opinion:
The growth of this strong, increasingly confident public opinion owed much to the vitality of the non-conformists and the Anglican evangelicals, but it extended well beyond these groups to others for whom religion was not the primary inspiration. The works of Godwin and Tom Paine reached a broad audience, not all of whom went on to support the popular radicals, and there were scores of other writers who sought to encourage their readers’ interest in politics whether favouring reform or from a more conservative perspective. The great success of the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews was predicated on an educated, politically alert public, and while few copies would have trickled down to the poorer classes, many would have been read by those who classed themselves somewhere in the infinite gradations of ‘the middling sort’. Similarly the savage caricatures of Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruickshank and their peers were designed mainly for an elite audience, but permeated into wider society, and certainly did little to teach those who saw them to ‘respect their betters’. But it was the extraordinary expansion of the daily and weekly press which did most to encourage and exploit the increase in the size of the political public in Britain. The number of newspapers tripled between the 1780s and the late 1820s (from just over one hundred to 314) while the number of copies sold doubled to some 25 million. (Jupp Governing Britain p 256: the figure for copies sold appear to be per annum). This was despite successive increases in the tax on newspapers which rose to 4d in 1815 which made them an almost unaffordable luxury for an ordinary working man, and which ensured that copies were passed from hand to hand so that on average each one sold would have a number of readers. Parliamentary debates formed one of the staples of the press at this time, often filling almost all the space allowed for news, and this naturally encouraged readers to form their own opinions on the subjects debated. The quality of the newspapers ranged from poor to execrable. With few if any resources to gather news they cheerfully pilfered from each other and plundered foreign papers with little sense of discretion. If reliable information was lacking rumour and speculations were given free play, and journalists endeavoured to outdo each other by the violence of their invective. The immense success of Cobbett’s Political Register was a bad example to its peers, but all shades of political opinion plunged the depths, and even the most respectable papers were only a few degrees less disreputable. Nonetheless, or even, perhaps, because of these faults, the press was very successful and prided itself on its ‘independence’.
Liverpool commented that:
It is supposed by many at home, and, I have no doubt, generally believed on the Continent, that these papers are in the pay of government, whereas no paper that has any character, and consequently any established sale, will accept money from government; and, indeed, their profits are so enormous in all critical times, when their support is most necessary, that no pecuniary assistance that government could offer would really be worth their acceptance. The only indirect means we possess of having any influence over the editors us by supplying them occasionally with foreign intelligence and by advertisements: but, with respect to the former, it is notorious that some of the papers which are not connected with government have always had the earliest foreign intelligence; and with regard to the latter, they know full well that the public officers will necessarily be obliged sooner or later to insert their advertisements in the papers which have the greatest sale, and they hold in consequence very cheap any measure to deprive them of this advantage … even as to our domestic politics we can never rely on what are called government papers on those points where their assistance would be most necessary. The ‘Courier’, at that time, as now, a government paper, took, as you will recollect, a most decided and mischievous part against the Duke of York in the year 1809; and we could not get any public print to support us last year, either upon the question of the Property Tax or the Corn Bill. The truth is, they look only to their sale. They make their way, like sycophants, with the public by finding out the prejudices and prepossessions of the moment, and then flattering them; and the number of soi-disant government or opposition papers abounds just as the government is generally popular or unpopular. (Liverpool to Castlereagh 15 September 1815 WSD vol 11 p 159-60. For a good discussion of relations between successive governments and the press in this period see Aspinall ‘English Party Organization in the Early Nineteenth Century’ p 403-11).
In time the quality of the press improved. The leading papers in Queen Victoria’s reign were far better than those of the Regency, even if the improvement was hardly sufficient to justify their ever expanding pretensions and self-satisfaction. As always the change in quality both reflected and helped to shape their audience as the public became better informed. The result was the rise of a more broadly based ‘public opinion’ which felt that its interest in politics should not be ignored by the politicians at Westminster, but which was eager to consolidate its new found respectability and so shunned the violence and disorder that often marked the participation in politics of those further down the social scale. The successful campaigns of 1811-1814 all featured heavy use of petitions and provided an obvious model when similar coalitions turned their attention, not just to West Indian slavery, but to electoral reform at home.
Liverpool’s Government and the Press:
In 1820 when the government was under extreme pressure in the press due to the Queen Caroline affair the ministers did take some steps to give opinion a nudge in their favour. Arbuthnot wrote to Bathurst on 29 November explaining the steps which had been taken (see HMC Bathurst p 489) and George Harrison sent Liverpool suggestions along similar lines (quoted in Aspinall ‘English Party Organization’ p 406-8). This had some effect, but evidently it was an exceptional effort not a matter of course.
In 1829 Croker suggested that a cabinet minister be directed to instruct and co-ordinate friendly papers, but nothing came of this. (Croker Papers vol 2 p 21-3; Aspinall ‘English Party Organization’ p 403).
The growing importance and confidence of public opinion:
Peel commented on this in an 1820 letter to Croker:
Do you not think that the tone of England – or that great compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs, which is called public opinion – is more liberal – the use an odious but intelligible phrase – than the policy of the Government? Do not you think that there is a feeling, becoming daily more general and more confirmed – in favour of some undefined change in the mode of governing the country? It seems to me a curious crisis – when public opinion never had such influence on public measures, and yet never was so dissatisfied with the share which it possessed. It is growing too large for the channels that it has been accustomed to run through. God knows, it is very difficult to widen them exactly in proportion to the size and force of the current which they have to convey, but the engineers that made them never dreamt of various streams that are now struggling for a vent’. (Peel to Croker, Bognor, 23 Mrach 1820 Croker Papers vol 1 p 170).
© Rory Muir