Friday, 23 June 2017

Lord Liverpool and the economy 1812-1822

Lord Liverpool became Prime Minister after Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons in May 1812. He was the most underrated Prime Minister in the nineteenth century. described later in the century by Benjamin Disraeli as an ‘arch mediocrity’. Yet, he was a skilled politician and held together a government of strong personalities with differing opinions more prepared to serve under him than under each other. Between 1812 and 1822, he was faced with economic, political and radical challenges caused by the war against France and the problem of returning to peacetime conditions after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Between 1822 and 1827, the government had considerable energy largely because of the emergence of what has been called ‘liberal Toryism’. It was damaged only by divisions within the Cabinet especially over the ‘Catholic question’ though even here Liverpool was able to head off serious tensions by making it an ‘open question’.

Liverpool’s stroke in February 1827 released long restrained tensions and rivalries. Within three years, his party was in tatters, divided and without effective leadership. Three Prime Ministers followed in quick succession. Liverpool’s successor, George Canning[1] died in August within months of gaining office. His successor, Viscount Goderich[2] was a disaster resigning without ever meeting Parliament. Finally, the Duke of Wellington took the helm in January 1828.[3] His ministry saw the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and Catholic Emancipation the following year. Wellington’s refusal to accept parliamentary reform led to the fall of his government in November 1830. The Whigs were in power.

Year Events
1812 11 May: Assassination of Spencer Perceval 8 June: Lord Liverpool became Prime Minister
1815 Corn Laws passed 18 June: Napoleon defeated at Waterloo
1816 Income tax repealed against government’s wishes December: Spa Fields riots
1817 February: Habeas Corpus suspended March: Seditious Meetings Act March of the Blanketeers 9 June: Pentrich rising
1818 General Election
1819 May: Bullion Committee chaired by Peel recommended the phased resumption of cash payments by the Bank of England 16 August: Peterloo Massacre followed by the Six Acts
1820 29 January: George III died, succeeded by George IV; General Election February: Cato Street conspiracy June: beginnings of Queen Caroline affair December: Canning resigned over government’s handling of Queen Caroline affair
1821 December: Sidmouth resigned as Home Secretary
1822 Peel appointed Home Secretary 12 August: Castlereagh committed suicide. Canning becomes Foreign Secretary and Leader of House of Commons
1823 January: Robinson appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer October: Huskisson appointed President of the Board of Trade
1826 General Election
1827 March: Liverpool resigned following stroke on 17 February April: Canning became Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer 8 August: Canning’s death. Goderich became Prime Minister
1828 January: Goderich resigned and Wellington became Prime Minister Repeal of Test and Corporation Acts
1829 Catholic Emancipation
1830 June: Death of George IV. William IV succeeds July: Revolution in France August: General Election 2 November: Wellington ruled out parliamentary reform 16 November: Wellington resigned

How did Lord Liverpool’s economic policy develop 1812-1822?

Liverpool became Prime Minister towards the end of the protracted wars with France. By 1812, the duke of Wellington was winning the war against the French in Spain. The French defeat at Vitoria in August 1813 allowed him to cross the Pyrenees and invade France. Napoleon had been weakened by his unsuccessful invasion of Russia in 1812 and in early 1813 Liverpool and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh[4] were able to set up the Fourth Coalition (Austria, Russia and Prussia). Napoleon was defeated in the three-day ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig in October 1813 and faced with a two-pronged invasion of France (Wellington from the south and the coalition partners from the east), he abdicated in 1814. Exiled to Elba, an island in the Mediterranean Napoleon plotted his return while the allies set about redrawing the boundaries of Europe at the Congress of Vienna. In March 1815, Napoleon returned to France but was defeated, in what Wellington called ‘a close-run thing’ at Waterloo in June. Exile was now permanent and Napoleon was sent to the southern Atlantic island of St. Helena where he died in 1821. Liverpool faced two major problems in the seven years after 1815: he needed to reorganise government finances depleted by the cost of the French Wars; and he had to face and deal with a revival of working-class radicalism.

How did Liverpool reorganise government finances?

The French wars saw two contradictory trends in the British economy. The need for uniforms and weapons to feed the war stimulated demand in increasingly mechanised manufacturing industry, especially textiles and iron and production increased dramatically. Mechanisation led to working-class resistance and Luddism.[5] Because of expansion in the agriculture sector, Britain was less reliant on imported food especially wheat. Large areas of England had been enclosed during the war. This made farming more efficient and allowed farmers to increase the amount of food they were producing. They borrowed money to pay for this but high profits meant that they could easily repay the banks. They could charge high rents for their land and the price of wheat remain high because the war restricted imports. By 1815, both industry and agriculture were outwardly strong but they were geared up for wartime production. The transition to peacetime proved difficult and posed a series of fundamental questions that taxed government until the 1840s. What should the place of agriculture be in an industrialised society? How could the competing claims of farmers and industrialists be resolved? What was the relationship between consumers and producers? What role should government have in determining the overall direction of the economy?

British governments in the late-eighteenth century did not attempt to control change in the economy. After 1815, unemployment rose because of the demobilisation of the armed forces and the need to cut labour costs especially in farming and textiles.[6] In returning the economy to peacetime conditions, ministers were forced to take a more active role. ‘Corn’ and ‘Cash’ dominated debates in the 1810s and ‘Commerce’ became important in the 1820s. Each posed major political problems for the Tories.


Between 1813 and 1815, corn prices fell following good harvests in 1813, 1814 and 1815 and the return to peace in 1814 brought unwelcome foreign grain imports. Farmers and tenants found themselves under pressure. Lower prices and high wartime taxation meant that they often found it difficult to repay bank loans. This had the following consequences for the farming sector. There were many bankruptcies amongst farmers who had borrowed to invest in their land during the war and who now faced with falling prices. Falling prices led to some landowners reducing the rents paid by their tenants. Falling prices and a surplus labour force caused largely by the demobilisation of the armed forces led to farmers reducing the wages they paid resulting in ‘distress’ in areas where farming was the main occupation.

These events culminated in the passage of the Corn Law of 1815 that prevented the import of grain until the price fell below 80 shillings a quarter (28 lbs.) for wheat. As grain prices rarely rose as high as 80 shillings, this measure effectively ensured that local farmers could get a high price for their grain without foreign competition. Why did Liverpool’s government decide to introduce legislation seen as unfair and favouring one sector of society? The protection of farming was not new originating in the Corn Laws passed in 1773 and 1804. Also, Liverpool could not ignore the fate of one of the country’s largest single economic interests, whose votes mattered in Parliament. A Corn Law was justified on the grounds of national security as Britain might need a reliable domestic supply of food. Finally, legislation was needed to maintain stability, as agriculture was the largest employer of labour and higher prices were justified to protect jobs.

Liverpool saw legislation as temporary to help farming return to normal after the war but the landed interest saw it as permanent or at least long-term. Parliament was dominated by landowners and farmers and they voted for legislation that the government had little option but to accept. Previous Corn Laws had tried to balance the interests of producers and consumers by maintaining prices at levels acceptable to both. The 1815 Act clearly favoured the interests of the producers. Manufacturers attacked the legislation. Parliament was, they argued interfering with the free market in their own narrow interests. Radical politicians regarded it as class legislation keeping corn prices artificially high to help farmers while penalising working people through higher food costs. Reaction was swift. There were petitions and riots in London in March. Politicians’ houses were attacked and troops had to be brought to the capital to restore order. Higher food prices fuelled working-class distress especially in rural England and riots in 1816 and again in 1818 were, in part a violent reaction to the Corn Laws.

Even so, there were demands from tenant farmers for further protection of farming after 1815 especially during the agricultural crisis of 1821-1823. However, political attitudes were changing. Liverpool was convinced, largely by the actions of radicals between 1815 and 1821 that governments that pandered to farmers at the expense of working-class consumers or tax-paying industrialists had a dangerously narrow political base. He made his own position clear in February 1822: ‘The agricultural is not the only interest in Great Britain. It is not even the most numerous.’ Farmers were being told bluntly that they no longer dictated government policies. Abolition of the Corn Laws was not practical but reform was. The government introduced minor changes in 1822 but price levels meant that they never came into operation. Liverpool regarded this as an interim measure while considered a more permanent solution.

Rising wheat prices from 1823, the financial crisis in 1825 and growing depression in manufacturing industry in 1826 brought fresh demands for the abolition of duties on foreign grain. Manufacturers lobbied Parliament and anti-Protectionists tried to make it an issue in the 1826 General Election. Liverpool made it clear in 1826 that he intended to revise the 1815 Act the following year. The 1827 and 1828 Corn Laws introduced by Canning and Huskisson respectively completed the process begun in 1822. These acts provided a sliding scale of duties that operated from 60 shillings and reduced to a nominal rate at 73 shillings a quarter. They were a compromise because of disagreement in the Cabinet on how best to handle this sensitive issue.


Britain’s financial state in 1815 was not healthy: the French wars had been expensive, taxation was high and unpopular and ‘cheap’ paper money had been circulating since 1797 when Britain had gone off the Gold Standard[7] and the Bank of England had suspended payments in gold and silver and began to issue paper currency (£1 and £2 notes). Income tax (direct taxation)[8] brought in about a fifth of government income. Working-class radicals argued that indirect taxes[9] (duties or tariffs) pushed food prices up and hit working people unfairly. In 1814-1815, government spending exceeded income from taxation by 45 per cent. The national debt had risen from £238 million in 1793 to £902 million in 1816. Roughly, eighty per cent of government expenditure was needed simply to pay the interest on loans.

Reducing public spending and paying off its debts (a process called retrenchment) was a major priority for Liverpool’s government after 1815. Liverpool recognised that the transition to lower peacetime taxation would take time. What Liverpool and his Chancellor Nicholas Vansittart needed was a period of financial stability. Income tax was central to this stability. By 1815, it accounted for a fifth of all government income and while it had never been popular, it had been tolerated. With the end of the war, demands for its abolition increased and in 1815 and 1816 the Whigs organised a national campaign against it. This was successful and in 1816, Liverpool failed, by thirty-seven votes, to continue the tax.

Abolishing income tax may have been popular but it left government finances in chaos. To make up the lost income, Liverpool had to reduce government spending, borrow money and increase indirect taxation. £340,000 was trimmed from defence spending in 1816. Government departments pruned and a ten per cent cut was made in official salaries. Liverpool could do little to reduce spending further. By 1818, he controlled only nine per cent of revenue. The rest was swallowed up servicing the interest on the National Debt, war pensions and interest on loans necessary to meet the deficit of £13 million. There was an overwhelming need for reform of the financial system.

Liverpool recognised that sustained economic growth meant a return to ‘sound money’ (low levels of interest and cash payments in gold and silver rather than paper currency). He set up a Select Committee on Currency chaired by Sir Robert Peel. In May 1819, it recommended the gradual resumption of cash payments by 1823. This transition was achieved ahead of time and from 1821, Britain was back on the Gold Standard. Financial experts favoured the end of wartime paper currency arguing that a return to a fixed Gold Standard was essential to a sound monetary policy. The landed interest supported cash payments. For them, it meant a return to ‘proper’ money and the end of a paper currency that represented financial speculation, industrialisation and uncontrolled urban development. Industrialists in the northern textile towns, by contrast, saw the decision as premature.

By 1818, government income through taxation covered the costs of government spending or a balanced budget. However, Liverpool still faced the problem of having to continue to borrow money from the London money market to pay off existing debts. Interest rates rose after 1815 and the government had to borrow money at high rates of interest to service existing debts. This led to a rising National Debt. The radical press, landowners who had to pay higher interest charges on loans but were faced with lower agricultural prices and industrialists were critical of ‘tax eaters’ and ‘fund holders’ who seemed to be holding the nation to ransom. The case of a review of the national system of finance was necessary economically and politically. A second committee looked at government finance (taxation, spending and borrowing). The recommendations of this committee led to Vansittart’s budget of 1819 that imposed £3 million of new taxes, including a new malt tax, and took £12 million out of government reserves to balance the budget. This was seen to herald a ‘new system of finance’. It established the two principles of fiscal management that dominated the remainder of the century: government should aim for a surplus of income from taxation over government spending; and that a balanced or surplus budget helped to restore public confidence in government.


Liverpool recognised that a revival in trade and manufacture was essential if his fiscal policy was to work effectively. ‘Trade’ was the third strand of his policies. It was thought that removing tariffs on imports and loosening commercial regulations would stimulate the sluggish economy but Liverpool’s approach was cautious. The government derived much of its income from customs and excise. Farmers were suspicious of moves towards freer trade, as they believed this would inevitably lead to the repeal of the Corn Laws.[10] Many merchants and manufacturers supported protection in markets in which they were weak arguing for freer trade only where they had the competitive advantage. Liverpool echoed these attitudes in a speech on trade in the House of Lords on 26 May 1820 that was guarded in its approach. He made clear the advantages of freer trade but he reassured his audience that he was not considering abandoning agricultural protection and believed that absolute free trade was out of the question. Two committees were established to lay down strategies for implementing the move to freer trade. Thomas Wallace, Vice-President of the Board of Trade played a central role arguing that freer trade would help industries out of depression, encourage the search for new markets and generate employment. With Vansittart, he drew up the blueprints for the reforms that Frederick Robinson, Vansittart’s successor as Chancellor and William Huskisson undertook after 1823.

In 1819 and 1820, Liverpool had established clear guidelines for the development of new financial and commercial policies. Sound money policy, together with these reforms, led to a dramatic increase in government revenue. By 1822, the government was in surplus and Robinson’s budget had excess revenue of £5 million. In 1823, he budgeted for a surplus of £7 million of which £5 million was used to repay debts leaving £2 million for tax cuts. Surplus budgets in 1824 and 1825 allowed reductions in excise duties on a range of consumer goods and raw materials including coal, iron and wood and on spirits, wine, rum, cider and coffee. In fact, there were budget surpluses until 1830 though they were insufficient to allow further tariff reductions. The limits of tax reduction had been reached and Liverpool recognised, as early as 1824 that the only way out of this financial stalemate was the reintroduction of income tax. John Herries, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Goderich was preparing to do so when the ministry collapsed in early 1828 and Henry Goulburn, Wellington’s Chancellor was only prevented in doing so in the 1830 budget because of the Prime Minister’s opposition.

Changes in commercial policy began in 1821 when Wallace reduced duties on timber imports. The following year he simplified the Navigation Acts allowing the colonies freer trade with foreign countries while Anglo-colonial trade was still restricted to British ships. In 1823, Wallace resigned when William Huskisson[11] became President of the Board of Trade and he has not received the credit for developing the commercial policies that Huskisson then implemented. In 1823, the Reciprocity of Duties Act reduced tariffs if other countries would follow suit and by 1827, most European countries and the United States had negotiated agreements for mutual abolition or adjustment of discriminatory tariffs. Foreign ships were allowed freer access to British ports especially London which became the centre of world trade. The policies of Wallace and Huskisson proved very successful and there was a sixty-four per cent increase in tariff revenue between 1821 and 1827.

Just how committed was Liverpool’s government to free trade? Barry Gordon regards Wallace’s decision in 1821 to reduce timber duties as ‘the first practical step towards implementation of laissez-faire in the post-war period’. Boyd Hilton disagrees seeing the free trade commercial policies of the 1820s as motivated by very practical considerations: the 1821 Agricultural Report made it clear that the United Kingdom could no longer feed itself and the Corn Laws were seen as an obstacle to getting the necessary food from the continent. A reliable and cheap food supply was essential to maintain public order. In Boyd Hilton’s view, free trade reform was based on fiscal and agricultural policies designed to stabilise rather than expand the economy. Norman Gash argues that Liverpool’s economic policies were essentially ‘social’ in character. His aim was to make the economy more prosperous and as a result reduce working-class discontent.

Liverpool supported the abolition of legal restrictions on the export of machinery, emigration of artisans and trade unions. He was prepared to legislate to deal with particular problems. The Poor Employment Act of 1817 offered government loans for public work schemes to help the unemployed. In 1819, a Factory Act regulated the employment of children in textile mills and the legal position of Friendly Societies[12] was clarified. Restrictions were imposed on trade unions in 1825 a year after the repeal of the Combination Acts. These were limited in scope and largely ineffective in practice. Neither Liverpool nor Huskisson were doctrinaire free traders. Their policies were based on a hard-nosed assessment of the economic advantage Britain could gain, the prosperity and political stability this would bring.

[1] George Canning (1770-1827) entered Parliament in 1784 and held various government offices including Foreign Secretary (1807-1808, 1822-1827). He became Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer a short time before his death in August 1827.
[2] Frederick Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (1782-1859) was Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1823 and 1827. He was asked to serve as Prime Minister after the death of his friend Canning but was unable to control his ministers. He resigned in January 1828. In 1833, he was created Earl of Ripon and served as Whig Lord Privy Seal (April 1833-May 1834) but later joined the Conservative Party serving as a minister between 1841 and 1843 in Peel’s government
[3] Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) rose to fame as a military leader in the French wars culminating in his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. He was Prime Minister between 1828 and November 1830. A sound military leader, he lacked the political flexibility to be a good Prime Minister and party leader.
[4] Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (1769-1822) was Foreign Secretary between 1812 and 1822. He was very influential at the Congress of Vienna at the end of the French wars especially his ideas about a European balance of power. Highly-strung and almost incapable of taking criticism, he committed suicide
[5] The Luddites were machine breakers who operated in Nottinghamshire, south Lancashire and Yorkshire between 1811 and 1813. The term ‘Luddism’ is often applied more generally to any movement in which machines were smashed to protect existing technologies and employment.
[6] Up to a quarter of a million soldiers and sailors were demobilised in 1815 and 1816. Unemployment went up dramatically because it did not prove possible to absorb so many people into work
[7] Gold Standard. System under which a country’s currency is exchangeable for a fixed weight of gold on demand at the central bank.
[8] Direct taxation was taxes levied on individuals directly. The most widespread was income tax introduced in 1797 by William Pitt. It was abolished in 1816 but revived by Sir Robert Peel in 1842.
[9] Indirect taxes were taxes imposed on good or services usually collected when the good move from one country to another (customs and excise duties) or at the point of sale. Tariffs are duties paid on goods.
[10] Free Trade--shorthand for the doctrine of laissez-faire—is the doctrine of non-interference by the state in economic matters. It derived from the teachings of classical economists like Adam Smith, Malthus and David Ricardo.
[11] William Huskisson (1770-1830) was President of the Board of Trade 1823-1827 where he continued the work of William Pitt on fiscal reform. He died after being knocked down by a locomotive at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway in September 1830.
[12] Friendly Societies were set up often by working people to provide insurance for workers to cover things like sickness, unemployment and burial costs.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

How did Pitt face the French Revolution between 1789 and 1801?

In 1789, the fall of the Bastille[1] foreshadowed revolution in France. Reactions were mixed in Britain but many people were initially well disposed towards the revolution. Pitt saw political advantages for Britain because it weakened France’s colonial ambitions. Some thought France should become a ‘constitutional’ monarchy. Others saw it leading to reform in England. The British believed themselves to be the freest people in Europe, thanks to the 1688 ‘Glorious’ Revolution,[2] and many foreigners flatteringly took the same view. It is not surprising that the opening stages of the revolution looked like a French attempt to copy Britain.

Reacting to revolution: the intellectual debate

The debate began with a ‘political sermon’ given by the dissenting minister Richard Price on 4 November 1789. He pointed to the 1688-1689 Revolution Settlement as part of the dissenting agitation for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. Many opponents of Dissent feared that much more was involved than mere religion. In November 1790, Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. It was an Anglican defence of the state and denied Price’s assertion that ‘the people’ had acquired important rights in 1688-1689, especially the right to choose their own rulers, remove them for misconduct and frame a government for themselves. Religion, not some vague contractual notion, was for Burke at the heart of the civil society. He celebrated aristocratic concepts of paternalism, loyalty and the hereditary principle in which the great social institutions--the Church, the law, even the family--confirmed the aristocracy as the ruling class and the protectors of traditional values. The response was immediate.

Thomas Paine wrote the first part of Rights of Man as a reply to Burke’s Reflections and it was published in February 1791. Part Two was published in April 1792. It was only one of the thirty-eight responses to Burke but was the most influential. It merged the debate about the revolution with a programme of practical and radical reform. Paine put forward a simple message. He denounced Burke’s idea of society as an association between past and present generations and his view of the role of monarchy and aristocracy. Power lay with the people and their rights. The impact of Rights of Man was immediate. It was distributed in cheap editions (50,000 copies of Part One were sold in 1791), read aloud and discussed. To his sup­porters, Paine was a heroic figure. To his opponents, he became a symbol of the excesses of revolution. He was frequently burned in effigy especially at the end of 1792 and the first few months of 1793. In Nottingham, for instance, Paine was ritualistically killed, stoned by ladies at a dinner and dance. Between 1792 and 1795, the circulation of Paine’s work was one of the main reasons given for the passage of repressive legislation.

The debate was not confined to a dialogue between Burke and Paine. Many of the authors knew each other and their work may be seen as a collective project. Paine, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft produced a number of innovative and utopian proposals between 1791 and early 1793--the establishment of a welfare state, the withering away of the centralised state, equality in relationships to remove the automatic obedience of employees to employers and women to men. Thomas Spence’s Meridian Sun of Liberty cost only one penny and was aimed at a different audience that Burke’s Reflections at three shillings and Godwin’s Political Justice priced at a pound. The extent to which the debate reached different sections of the public was largely determined by the cost of the written material.

Government was concerned that ‘informed opinion’ was in the hands of a closely-knit radical circle. While those individuals were addressing each other, they represented no threat to established order. However, the combination of growing political organisation with a supply of radical writings to politicise the masses was another matter. A loyalist backlash began in late-1792 with John Reeves and the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. It com­missioned and circulated popularly written anti-radical pamphlets to ensure the loyalty of the labouring population. It main­tained pressure on the radical writers while the govern­ment controlled radical publishing, processes helped by the patriotic reac­tion to the outbreak of war with France in 1793. With the publication of Godwin’s Political Justice in February 1793, innovative radical thinking stopped. Fewer pamphlets were published, repeated old ideas and tried to reassure a moderate audience rather than developing new theor­ies. The objective of many radical thinkers was to attract the widest possible support for an anti-government platform. The radical vision of communicating with a wide audience had been established yet in practical terms, the reforming movement achieved little. By 1800, European societies were destabilised and Burke’s fears had apparently been realised.

Reacting to revolution: radical demands for reform

British reformers were roused into action by the events in France. The dissenters’ campaign for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts was stimu­lated by events across the Channel. The Society for Consti­tutional Information (SCI), founded in 1780, began to circulate radical propaganda and in April 1792, some Whig reformers formed the Society of the Friends of the People to campaign for parliamentary reform. However, the Corresponding Societies marked a new departure for radicalism.
The French Revolution stirred people to political action and provided them with an ideology through which to redress their grievances but the economic conditions in the first half of the 1790s also played an important role. The disturbed state of Europe in 1792-1793 led to economic depression in Britain with widespread unemployment and lower wages. War interrupted trade. It also placed increasing tax burdens on the middle- and lower classes. Economic distress reached critical levels in 1795-1796 following harvest failure in 1794, pushing up food prices at a time when the labouring population was already faced with higher taxation and lower wages. It is, however, important not to see the reforming movement simply in terms of a response to economic conditions. What was different about the Corresponding movement was that it crossed the threshold from traditional economic grievances to fundamental political demands.

Corresponding Societies

During the winter of 1791-2, popular radical societies emerged. The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was the most important. Founded in January 1792 by a small group led by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy, membership was open to all who paid a penny at each weekly meeting. Though formed to discuss the poverty faced by many of the labouring population and the high prices of the day, the LCS quickly adopted a political programme for remedying their grievances: universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments and redistribution of rotten boroughs to the large towns. The LCS spread rapidly across London and developed a sophisticated organisational struc­ture of divisions district committees and general committee.

Two features described the LCS: its size and its social composition. By late-1792, about 650 people regularly attended its meetings. By late-1794, its total active membership was 3,000. By the spring of 1796, this had fallen to about 2,000, by the end of the year to 1,000, to about 600 in 1797 and to 400 active members before it was banned in 1798. LCS membership was confined to a very small proportion of London’s working population. To call the LCS a ‘working-class’ organisation neglects the extent to which its membership was made up of individuals from the ‘middling’ and professional classes as well as artisans and tradesmen. An analysis of 347 activists shows that only half were artisans and the rest were medical men, lawyers, book­sellers, clerks, shopkeepers and printers. There is no evidence that it ever had much appeal to unskilled labourers or the very poor.

Provincial radical societies had begun to spring up before the LCS was founded. The Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information was formed in late 1791. Within a few months, it had grown from a few members to 2,500 members. In the autumn of 1792, the Sheffield SCI could bring 5-6,000 people on to the streets to celebrate the French victory at Valmy and a similar number in February 1794 to press for peace abroad and liberty at home. During 1792, the number of societies mushroomed and regional differences became more obvious. Manchester, with its factory workers, merchants and expanding population, stood at the other end of the scale to Sheffield. It had been Tory since the 1750s and this may account for the slow initial development of the Manchester Constitutional Society founded by Thomas Walker as early as October 1790. In Norwich, the radical cause developed along similar lines. A Revo­lution Society established in 1788, was dominated by middle-class Dissenters, merchants and tradesmen. It rivalled Sheffield as the pacemaker of radicalism. The textile industry supported artisans of a particularly independent temper and Norwich’s Dissent was rooted in a craggy, though surprisingly liberal, tradition. By 1792, forty tavern clubs of shoemakers, weavers and shop­keepers had developed, comprising some 2,000 members.


How did the radical societies attempt to achieve their aims? Weekly meetings and the spread of printed propaganda provided focus for their activities. They corresponded regularly with each other and with groups in France. However, their attempt to reach a mass audience was limited. There was, however, no nationwide petitioning campaign. There were only 36 petitions in support of Charles Grey’s motion on parliamentary reform in 1793. The reformers seriously overestimated the amount of mass support and dangerously underestimated the fears it would arouse in the authorities. Radical tactics were very restrained. The bulk of the labouring population did not rally behind parliamentary reform and few radical leaders appreciated the power of organised labour. Some radicals did try to whip up food rioters in Sheffield in 1795 to protest against the war and demand parliamentary reform and similar tactics were used in the north-west in 1800. However, these were isolated examples and the radicals made no attempt to co-ordinate popular riots. Most radical leaders, with their middle-class background, were committed to non-violent action. When the governing class refused to concede reform, resorting to repression and persecution, most radicals lost heart or moderated their demands.

Reacting to revolution: the conservative response

The attack on popular radicalism came from three directions. There was an attack on its ideology, a populist and loyalist reaction and a legislative attack by Pitt’s government. The reform movement collapsed not simply because of repressive actions but because the opponents of reform developed a defence of the existing political system that was convincing not just to those with property but also to large sections of British society.

Conservative ideology in the 1790s had considerable appeal. A tradition of resistance to constitutional change in Britain existed in the decades leading up to the revolution and events in France, especially after 1791, reinforced this tradition. Radicals at home were seen in the same light as revolutionaries abroad. It was not difficult to persuade people that the radical reform would destroy the established order as the revolution had in France. French anarchy was contrasted unfavourable with British stability and prosperity. Conservative apologists and propagandists appealed to British hatred of France and fear of radical change. There was also an intellec­tual response contrasting the stability of constitutional monarchy with the anarchy of ‘mob’ rule and democracy. Anti-radical propa­ganda, subsidised by the loyalist associations, by government and by private individuals, took many forms. Pamphlets and tracts like the Cheap Repository Tracts, many written by Hannah More, between 1795 and 1798; pro-government newspapers like the Sun, the True Briton and the Oracle; journals like the Anti-Jacobin (1797-8) and its successor the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, a monthly that lasted until 1821; political caricatures and cartoons by artists like Isaac Cruickshanks. James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson; and local newspapers like the Man­chester Mercury and the Newcastle Courant. This concerted campaign was outstandingly successful and convinced the majority of Eng­lish people that the French Revolution was a disaster.

Loyalist associations emerged initially as a response to the Dissenter campaign for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts but the number of Church and King clubs was given a major boost by the revo­lution especially the Royal Proclamation against seditious writings on 21 May 1792. By September 1792, some 386 loyal addresses had been received by the king and in November John Reeves formed the first loyalist Associ­ation for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers (APLP). By the end of 1793, the total number of APLPs may have reached 2,000 making them the largest political organisation in the country. They spread from London first into the neighbouring counties, then to the west, Midlands and finally the north. Active membership was largely confined to men of property, though they were able to enlist support from across society. They can be seen as far more successful and popular ‘working-class’ organisations than the radical societies. Loyalist associations adopted the organisation and some of the methods of the reformers. They produced a great deal of printed propaganda but were not content to rely upon persuasion, resorting to intimidation and persecution to defeat their opponents. Calls for loyalty and patriotism proved far more popular with the bulk of the population than demands for radical change.

Government repression.

Pitt acted quickly against the threat pose by the radicals, inaugurating what has been called Pitt’s ‘Reign of Terror’. The government was convinced it faced a revolutionary conspiracy, a view reinforced by the intelligence received from local magistrates and spies and believed it was justified in taking firm action. In May and December 1792, two Royal Proclamations were issued against seditious writings. The Home Office, especially after 1794 under the strongly anti-radical Duke of Portland, monitored the activities of the radical societies using spies as well as more conventional methods like opening letters, receiving reports from local sources, watching the activities of radicals abroad and infiltrating radical groups. Its resources were very limited with a staff of less than twenty-five. After success in the Scottish treason trials in 1793-1794, Pitt moved against English radicals. Forty-one men, including Hardy, were arrested in late 1794 and charged with high treason but after he was acquitted, further trials were aban­doned. The administration had little further success with treason trials during the remainder of the decade but had more success with those for publishing seditious libels. There were less than 200 convictions during the 1790s and whether this constitutes a government-inspired reign of terror is open to debate.

Parliament was prepared to pass legislation in support of the govern­ment though, in practice, this often turned out to be far less effective than anticipated. Habeas Corpus was suspended from May 1794 to July 1795 and April 1798 to March 1801 but only a few people were imprisoned without charge. The Two Acts of 1795--the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act--proved less than effective weapons despite the wide powers given to central and local government. The Treasonable Practices Act was designed to intimidate and no radical was pros­ecuted under it. The Seditious Meetings Act failed to prevent the increas­ing number of meetings organised by the LCS. There was only one pros­ecution under a 1797 Act rushed through Parliament following the naval mutiny at Spithead and the Nore. It strengthened penalties for attempting to undermine allegiance to the authorities and administering unlawful oaths. The banning of the leading radical societies by law in 1799 was unnecess­ary, largely because they were already in a state of collapse. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 banned combinations of workers completing the legislative armoury of repression. Radicalism was increasingly driven underground. It did not emerge as a mass movement until the last years of the French wars. Between 1794 and 1800, Pitt had successfully driven radical politics to the margins of political life.

Government legislation was infrequently used but it remained as a threat hanging over radicals, limiting their freedom of action. Its effect was to intimidate and harass. It destroyed the leadership of the radical societies, silenced the ablest propagandists and frightened many into abandoning the reform movement. However, the collapse of the radical movement was not simply a matter of repression by government or magistrates. War revived latent deep-seated patriotism among the most people for whom radicalism was only of peripheral importance.

[1] The Bastille was the royal palace and prison in the centre of Paris. Its capture on 14 July 1789 by a Parisian mob marked the beginnings of the French Revolution.
[2] The 1688 ‘Glorious’ Revolution occurred when the Catholic James II was replaced by the Protestant William III and Mary so preserving constitutional monarchy and the powers of Parliament.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Why did Pitt dominate politics between 1783 and 1793?

Pitt was a cautious reformer. In 1785, he unsuccessfully attempted to abolish thirty-six rotten boroughs and transfer their seats to London and the counties, failed to achieve economic union with Ireland and dropped the idea of economic union with America. These failures confirmed Pitt’s inability to lead the country in his own reforming terms because of the extent of opposition. Parliamentary reform was lost in the Commons by 248 votes to 174 and he abandoned economic union following opposition from British manufacturing and commercial interests. The framework of government within which Pitt operated was ‘administrative’, reacting to problems when they arose rather than initiat­ing programmes of a fundamental reforming nature. He was primarily an administrative reformer responsible for a ‘national revival’ between 1783 and the early 1790s.

Restoring national finances

In 1783, government expenditure exceeded income by £10.8 million, largely because of the cost of the American War and inefficiency in collecting excise duties. Government had difficulty in raising loans and confidence in a recovery of national finances was low. Between 1783 and 1791, annual governmental revenue increased by almost £4 million of which half came from new taxes, reducing smug­gling and fraud and by increasing the efficiency of collec­tion. Pitt’s initial priority was to raise revenue and his first target was smuggling. It is difficult to estimate the effect smuggling had on national finances but perhaps a fifth of all imports was contraband. The finances of the East India Company were under­mined by smuggled tea, which in the early 1780s amounted to between 3 and 4.5 million tons per year.

Pitt adopted a two-pronged approach. He introduced restrictive legislation to reduce the attractiveness of smuggling and extended the rights of search over suspect cargoes. An extended ‘Hovering Act’, for instance, allowed confiscation of certain types of vessel carrying contraband goods found at anchor or ‘hovering’ within four miles of the coast. Parallel to this was a massive reduction of duties. The 1784 Commutation Act reduced the duty on tea from 119 to a uniform 25 per cent and this was followed by reductions on wines, spirits and tobacco. The tightening up on revenue agencies and the transfer of more business to the excise department led to increased yields: 29 per cent on spirits, 63 per cent on wines and 39 per cent on tobacco by 1790. Pitt did not extinguish smuggling but he made it a far less profitable and far more risky activity.

The loss of revenue through reducing duties was recovered by the increased efficiency with which taxes were collected. Pitt was one of the most efficient tax-gatherers ever to govern England. His taxation policy was based on the prevailing view that all should bear a share but that the poor should not be overburdened. Luxury goods were consequently the major taxable items: horses, hackney carriages, gloves, hats, ribbons, candles, servants and hair powder plus a graduated increase in the tax on windows. Pitt’s taxation policy was sensible but could be both unpopular and misguided. The window tax may have held back the development of the glass industry. A projected tax on coal was withdrawn because of opposition and taxes on linen and cotton in 1784 had serious economic implications and were withdrawn. Pitt’s only real innovation was a tax on shops, introduced in 1785, but withdrawn in 1789 after widespread opposition and public disturbances in London.

In 1783, the National Debt stood at £238 million with interest charges amounting to about a quarter of government spending. Pitt wanted to reduce this by extending the ‘sinking fund’, a device where annual sums were set aside to pay off or reduce the National Debt. It had existed since 1716 but its value had been reduced by ministers raiding it for other purposes. Richard Price had argued in 1772 for a regularly supported fund and, as in many other areas of policy, Pitt was willing to use other people’s ideas and the reform of the sinking fund in 1786 was perhaps more important in restoring national confidence than in producing financial improvement. It was placed under the control of a board of six commissioners. The scheme worked well until the outbreak of war in 1793 by which time there was a £10 million reduction in the debt.

Administrative efficiency

Offices, whether sinecures or not, were given as rewards for political services not on merit. Pitt wanted to reduce waste in government. Radical reform would have encountered widespread opposition from the entrenched power of patronage-mongers and consequently Pitt operated in a cautious manner. Sinecures were allowed to lapse on the death of their occupants. Most of the posts the public accounts com­missioners recommended should be abolished in 1786 disappeared in the next twenty years. What had gone were ‘offices of profit’.

Efficient departmental management was gradually built up with greater Treasury control of public expen­diture by the Treasury Commission of Audit created in 1785. The Board of Taxes was reinforced by transfers from the Treasury and the Excise Board. People with talent, like Richard Frewin at Customs, were promoted and encouraged to develop administrative policies on their own initiative. The creation of a central Stationery Office in 1787 secured economies in the supply of stationery to departments. Pitt tightened naval spending where he relied heavily on its Comptroller of the Navy Office Sir Charles Middleton, later Lord Barham, who was largely responsible for the creation of a navy capable of responding to the French challenge between 1793 and 1815.
Before 1787, there were 103 separate exchequer revenue accounts and revenue collectors forwarded funds to 68 different accounts.[1] Under the Consolidated Fund Act of 1787, most revenue collected was paid into a single consolidated Treasury fund account. The exceptions were the Civil List[2] and the land and malt taxes on which specific blocks of funded Exchequer bills were secured. This marked a major step forward in efficient administration and led to economies and reduction of confusion. Initially new taxes were accounted for separately but this was removed in 1797.

Commercial policies

Financial and administration efficiency was paralleled by a commercial policy that encouraged growing trade. The value of imports doubled to £20 million between 1783 and 1790 and exports rose from £12.5 million in 1782 to over £20 by 1790. This was a major achieve­ment. Economic recovery meant protecting British industries and trade and the United States was seen as a threat to British commercial supremacy. Pitt’s new Committee of Trade rejected the reduction of trade barriers and the Navigation Acts were maintained with vigour. In 1783, American shipping was excluded from the West Indian islands; trade with America for chea­per meat and fish via the French and Spanish islands was made illegal in 1787-1788. Pitt’s protectionist policy towards America trade was shown by the passage of the last Navigation Act in 1786. If America could be prevented from challenging Britain’s merchant shipping then, although there had been loss of political control, Britain could retain commercial domination. By 1787, British exports to America had returned to the levels achieved in the early 1770s and by the 1790s the tariffs acted only as a minor irritant. The outbreak of the French war led to the Jay Treaty of 1794 that opened certain markets to American shipping. The effects were dramatic. Britain’s exports to America more than doub­led between 1793 and 1799 and by 1800, America was taking a quarter of British exports. This more liberal policy recognised the growing economic importance of the American market for exports and the dependence of Britain’s textile industry on imported cotton.

The immediate economic advantages of Canada were limited in the 1790s.[3] Its furs, fish and timber were important but its scattered population did not offer a large market for British goods. Yet, relations with Canada were handled with care. An arena of Anglo-French conflict, it was only brought under the British Crown by conquest in 1760. In Quebec, there was still tension between English and French-speakers. Canada’s population had been substantially increased by the migration of many American loyalists north: some 25,000 settled in Nova Scotia and a further 20,000 in upper Quebec. The costs of administering the Canadian prov­inces of Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were largely borne by the British government. Canada assumed greater importance after 1783 as a barrier to possible American expansion. The 1791 Canada Act, which radically recast the government of the province of Quebec, reflected an imprecise desire to give some self-determination to colonial development.

The loss of the American colonies focused the attention of government on India and the East, with their potentially large markets. Pitt had come to power because of the abortive Fox-North India Bill and the issue was quickly dealt with in his East India Act of 1784. The East-India Company kept its patronage but political and strategic control passed to a Board of Control made up of ministers of the Crown. Responsibility for Indian affairs passed to Henry Dundas in London and the Governor-General in India. Sinecures were suppressed and able recruits enlisted. Trade in the East improved under Pitt, though this was partly the result of ending tea smuggling.

There was an important commercial thread in ending Britain’s isolation in Europe after 1783. Negotiations were opened with all the leading courts of Europe for reciprocally lowered tariff duties. The Eden trade treaty with France, signed in September 1786, was the only real, though temporary, achievement of this policy. French wines entered Britain at the same rates as the Portuguese and, although opposition from manufacturers kept the silk market protected, France was opened to British goods through general tariff reductions of 10-15 per cent. Within three years, French manufacturers were complaining that the treaty was unfairly weighted in favour of British manufacturers. In reality, their complaint was a reflection of Britain’s competitiveness in the early stages of industrialisation.

Commercial considerations played a part in challenging French expansion into the Low Countries though Britain also wanted to stop France using Dutch overseas bases like Cape Town. Britain’s isolation was emphasised by the French alliance with the Dutch in 1785, which involved a reduction in the powers of the pro-English House of Orange. A successful Prussian invasion in 1787 revived Orange fortunes and was followed by a Triple Alliance between Prussia, the United Provinces and Britain. This ended Britain’s diplomatic isolation and enabled Britain successfully to exert her authority in the North Pacific in 1790 when Spain seized ships from a British trading base for furs and fish at Nootka Sound, off western Canada. Pitt was less successful in his support of Anglo-Prussian policy over Russian round Ochakov on the Black Sea. Demands that Russia return the area to the Ottoman Empire were resisted and Pitt abandoned his policy following large-scale opposition to his warlike stance in the House of Commons.


Pitt was an efficient administrator rather than an innovative minister. He improved existing systems of government and taxation, building on the work of previous governments. His approach was cautious and responsive to opposition. Historians frequently argue that Pitt was committed to free trade. This may be true but it did not divert him from the practicalities of politics. Diplomatic and commercial realities meant that his commit­ment to freer trade was always limited. Britain’s commercial success was built on protection and the move to freer trade resulted from British industry no longer needing protection as much as the intellectual attraction of the new system. The outbreak of war in 1793 drove the British government back to protection.

[1] The Exchequer dealt with national finances.
[2] The Civil List was the money paid by Parliament for the monarch’s personal support and for his household. It was introduced in the late-seventeenth century.
[3] Canada was originally a French colony (New France) but was conquered by British troops in 1759-1760. It proved an attractive destination for those American colonists (the loyalists) who had fought with the British during the American war.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Realigning the Tories and Whigs to 1812

The French Revolution transformed British political life. Between 1790 and 1794, tensions within the opposition Whigs led to division and gradually Pitt remodelled his government. The first split was provoked by the publi­cation in November 1790 of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.[1] He challenged the notion of equal natural rights, maintaining that government did not derive its authority from the consent of the governed but from custom, practice and experience. However, Burke was no reactionary, arguing that any state that did not embrace change had lost the means of conserving itself. He laid down principles subsequently identified as central to the ideology not of the Whigs but of Conservatism.

Fox under pressure

In May 1791, Fox who enthusiastically supported the Revolution, and Burke parted company. Burke only took a few supporters with him but the rift within the party widened during the following year. Fox sponsored a Libel Act. In April 1792, a group of radical Whigs formed the Friends of the People to try and commit the party to parliamen­tary reform. The Whigs had to make an uncomfortable choice. Burke had emphasised the dangers of well-meaning reforms leading to revolution and increasingly the debate within the Whig party polarised over whether it should emphasise reform and liberty or order and public security.[2]

Fox did not join the Friends of the People though he sympathised with its aims. He became increasingly convinced that Pitt intended to undermine English liberties and in December 1792, he was driven to a defence of both the French Revolution and parliamentary reform. Fox believed that Britain had more to fear from the influence of George III than from the French Revolution. As a result, thirty conservative Whigs dis­tanced themselves from Fox and Portland and declared their support for the government. The execution of Louis XVI in January 1793 and the out­break of war with France the following month aggravated Whig prob­lems. Fox opposed the outbreak of the war. Portland regarded it as a regrettable necessity. Fox supported Grey’s motion for parliamentary reform in the Commons in May 1793. Portland opposed it. Neither Burke nor Portland still wished to safeguard the Whig constitution, but what separated them from Fox was how this could be done. Fox found it impossible to keep the Whig party together. By late 1793, the conservative Whigs had separated from the party. Portland[3] formed a coalition with Pitt in July 1794, when Portland became Home Secretary and four other conservative Whigs, Fitzwilliam Mansfield, Spencer and William Windham,[4] entered the cabinet, marked a realignment of political forces.

A restructured coalition 1794-1801

The 1784, 1790 and 1796 General Elections confirmed Pitt’s dominance. This is, however, misleading. His control of the Commons came from the support of the 200 MPs in the court and administration group. In the House of Lords, about half the peers were open to royal influence. Pitt’s personal following was only 50 MPs. His cabinet until 1794 was, with the notable exceptions of Henry Dundas and Lord Grenville lightweight.[5] It was his talents and the support of the king that kept him in office. In addition, the only alternative to Pitt was Fox supported by the Prince of Wales, something George III found unthinkable.

Did the formation of the coalition in 1794 mark the birth of the Tory party? Pitt certainly did not see himself as a Tory, considering himself an independent Whig. Portland and the conservative Whigs did not abandon Whig beliefs nor did they lose their long-standing distrust of Pitt. Between 1794 and 1797, Pitt could count on the support of over 500 MPs, consisting of 426 Pittites and 80 Portland Whigs. The Foxite Whigs, numbering about 60MPs stood apart. Between 1794 and 1797, they demonstrated a commitment to peace and reform calling for an end to the war, religious freedom and parliamentary reform. In 1797, Charles Grey’s reform motion was defeated in the Commons and the Foxite Whigs renounced regular parlia­mentary attendance though secession was never complete. Pitt’s resig­nation in 1801 brought them flooding back to Parliament.

The fall of Pitt in 1801 was a matter of conflicting constitutional principles. Pitt saw Catholic Emancipation as a necessary part of the Union with Ireland. George III could not accept this. Pitt, though he promised not to raise the question while the king lived, felt obliged to resign. He had been in power for nearly eighteen years and had fought a hardly successful war for eight. He was physically and mentally exhausted. His management of the cabinet had, since the mid-1790s become increasingly high-handed and he had taken the king’s consent for granted. The king’s refusal to accept Emancipation may have been his way of re-establishing royal influence and the ministerial crisis of 1801 clearly showed the continuing importance of the monarch in politics. It is also important that the king’s attitude reflected the anti-Catholicism of public opinion.

An unstable interlude 1801-1812

Between 1801 and 1812, five weak ministries ruled Britain, none lasting more than 3¼ years. The Pittites were transformed into Tories and the Whigs re-emerged as a credible opposition. Pitt’s large governing coalition was split by his resignation into groupings of Pittites (60), Addingtonians (30-40), Grenvilles (20-30) and Canningites (10-15). Stable government needed the alliance of at least two parts of the old Pittite coalition to lead the Court and Treasury grouping. It took eleven years before three of these groups reunited under Lord Liverpool.

Henry Addington

Addington 1801-1804

Henry Addington formed his administration in 1801. Pitt had readily agreed not to oppose the ministry as Addington’s condition for accepting office. Canning refused to serve and, although Portland remained in office, Windham and Spencer left. In 1802, Grenville went into opposition against the Treaty of Amiens and, with Windham, formed a separ­ate war party of about thirty MPs. Despite Pitt’s neutrality, Addington’s ineffectiveness and the renewal of war in 1803 could not delay the inevitable. In April 1804, he resigned and Pitt returned for a second time.

Pitt returns 1804-1806

Pitt could not reunite his old supporters between 1804 and his death in January 1806. The Fox-Grenville group deprived him of support and he did not enjoy assistance from Addington. His ministry was unstable and narrow. However, initially the opposition was disunited. The Grenvilles did not understand the personal animosity between Pitt and Fox and the two opposition groups took time to work together effectively. By late 1805, however, the opposition coalition was performing well and there was little doubt that an effective opposition existed for the first time since 1791.

‘All the Talents’ 1806-1807

George III had no alternative after Pitt’s death but to turn to Grenville and, with reluctance, Fox. The ‘Ministry of All the Talents’, as it was widely dubbed, was led by Grenville, with Fox as Foreign Secretary and, though Whig-dominated, was a coalition of politicians including the group round Addington, who became Viscount Sidmouth in 1805. No action was taken on religious concessions to Ireland or parliamentary reform, both of which were unacceptable to the Addington. Fox’s death in September removed the ministry’s most talented member and the 1806 General Election added little to its popular support. The war was going badly, the king was lukewarm in his support and the ministry lingered until dismissed in March 1807.

Portland 1807-1809

Grenville’s refusal to give the king a written promise that he would not raise the Catholic question was the cause of the dismissal of the Talents. Many people believed that the king had acted in an unconstitutional way but as in 1783-1784, reactions to his actions in the form of petitions and the result of the 1807 General Election showed that his intervention was generally approved. Public opinion was vehemently anti-Catholic. The electorate was given a clear choice between Whigs and Tories, denoting opposition or support for the king’s position on religion. The 1807 election was a clear victory for the Tories. Portland could count on the support of about 370 MPs while the opposition could only muster about 290. The Whigs did not to hold office again until 1830.

Spencer Perceval

Perceval 1809-1812

The development of Toryism between 1807 and 1812 was far from smooth. Personal rivalries, which went so far as a duel between Castlereagh and Canning in 1809, and the final mental collapse of the king with the estab­lishment of the Regency in 1810-1811, were obstacles to stable government. So too was the erratic progress of the war, resulting in increased taxation, commercial disruption and the revival of extra-Parliamentary radicalism. Portland retired in 1809 and his successor, Spencer Perceval, could not hold the Pittites together. Canning refused to serve and Perceval was unable to gain the support of the Whig opposition, which believed that the advent of the Regency would enable them to take office indepen­dently. Whigs divisions in September 1809, early in 1811 and February 1812 allowed Perceval to remain in power. His government was not secure until March 1812 with the return to Sid­mouth and Castlereagh to strengthen its anti-reformist base. After his assassination in May 1812, the appointment of Lord Liverpool, despite the eventual length of his administration, was neither immediate nor inevi­table.

[1] Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish lawyer who came to England in 1750 to advance his fortune. He became private secretary to Rockingham and entered Parliament in 1766. He opposed the American war but drifted away from a central position in the Whig opposition from the mid-1780s.
[2] The Libel Act 1791 gave juries rather than judges the responsibility of determining whether a libel had been committed. Fox believed that the power of the executive had been significantly reduced by this measure
[3] William, Lord Portland (1738-1809): Prime Minister 1783 and again 1807-1809; Home Secretary 1794-1801 and Lord President of the Council 1801-1805; leading conservative Whig.
[4] William Windham (1750-1810), a friend of Edmund Burke and MP for Norwich 1784-1802. He was a conservative Whig who sided with Burke against Fox in 1792-1793 and was Secretary at War 1794-1801.
[5] William Wyndham, Lord Grenville (1759-1834) was Speaker of the House of Commons 1789, Home Secretary 1789-1794 and Foreign Secretary 1794-1801; leader of the war party in the government and its leading spokesman in the House of Lords.

Monday, 17 April 2017

William Pitt: the early years 1783-1789

The years between 1760 and 1783 were ones of varied political success. Between 1760 and 1770, there was widespread instability as George III sought a minister acceptable to himself and Parliament. This was followed political stability until 1782 under the adminis­tration of Lord North. Plagued by the American crisis,[1] which turned into war after 1775, North survived until early 1782. Short-lived Whig administrations led first by Rockingham, Shelburne and by Fox and North led to a period of political instability that ended with the dismissal of the Fox-North coalition in December 1783. The events of 1783 and 1784 showed two things that the support of the king was essential if a government was to survive and that the ‘influence’ of the Crown was still considerable.[2]
George III

Lord North[3] resigned in March 1782. This led to a political and constitutional crisis not resolved until the general election a year later. Successive governments did not have the king’s support and had difficulties in forging reliable majorities in the Commons. Whig governments, led by Rockingham[4] and, after his death in July 1782 by Shelburne[5] worked with a monarch resentful at losing Lord North. Effective government proved difficult though ‘economical reform’[6] was pushed forward and a peace agreed with America. In early 1783, North formed a government with the Whigs now led by Charles James Fox.[7] George III had little choice but resentfully to accept the coalition. Faced with an East India Bill attacking the rights of the East India Company[8] and royal patronage, the King and William Pitt[9] managed its defeat in the House of Lords. Under sustained pressure--the king let it be known that those who voted for the bill would be regarded as ‘his enemies’--the coalition was defeated twice in two days and in mid-December 1783 was summarily dismissed.

William Pitt, 'the Younger'

Pitt formed the new government. The king’s intervention was controversial but he argued his actions were justifiable because of the conduct of the coalition politicians. He had considerable popular support and many people believed that a threat to the constitution had been averted. Yet a Whig hostess quipped, ‘it will be a mince pie administration’, over by the end of the Christmas festivities. In the Commons in late 1783, the Fox-North coalition had 231 votes in the House of Commons while Pitt could only muster 149. With independent support of 74 for Fox and 104 for Pitt, the opposition could rally 305 MPs. Pitt could only count on 253 and initially faced persistent defeats in the Commons. But Fox and North underestimated Pitt’s political skills. He had the support of the King who refused calls to dismiss his government. Pitt became increasingly confident, winning the votes of many independent members and majorities against him began to fall. Fox and North also under-estimated the support Pitt had outside Parliament. He had a reputation as a reformer and as an individual ‘above Party’. In March 1784, when the opposition’s majority had dwindled to one, George III dissolved parliament and called a general election. George III’s action in 1783-1784 was unconstitutional and he infringed the independence of Parliament to make decisions.

The 1784 election.

The general election was highly successful for Pitt. Coalition supporters were routed both in the larger constituencies, where popular support for Pitt was strong and in many of the smaller ones where he manipulated royal influence. Two things are, however, quite clear. Pitt now had the majority necessary for effective government and had restored the principle of a minister governing with the support of King and Commons. Also, despite the loss of party members and sympathetic inde­pendent MPs--the so-called ‘Fox’s Martyrs’--the Whigs had weathered the storm quite successfully. They had not been destroyed as a political force.

Charles James Fox

By the end of the 1780s, the term ‘Leader of the Opposition’ was coming into use. It applied to Charles James Fox in the Commons rather than Portland, the nominal leader of the Whigs, who sat in the Lords. Public perceptions of notions of government’ versus ‘opposition’ were heightened by the personal rivalry between Pitt and Fox and throughout the 1780s the opposition Whigs more or less maintained their voting strength.

By 1788, Pitt firmly controlled both Commons and Lords. One estimate of government support gave Pitt 280 MPs, 185 of whom owed their primary loyalty to the King, 50 or so who attached themselves to Pitt and just over 40 whose allegiance came through family or patronage to other ministers, principally those Scottish MPs controlled by Henry Dundas.[10] The opposition Whigs had about 155 MPs with independent members making up the remaining 122 MPs. Pitt extended his control over the Lords through George III’s readiness to create peers, something he had not done for other ministers. Almost half of the peers created while Pitt was Prime Minister were ennobled between 1784 and 1790.

Pitt may have won in 1784 but this did not mean that the following decade was without political tensions. Between 1784 and 1786, Pitt was defeated on four substantial issues, including defence, parliamentary reform and economic union with the United States and Ireland. His support came from those who believed in strong, stable government, and it was consequently looser and more heterogeneous. To these supporters improving administrative structures was more acceptable than legislative programmes particularly if it produced more efficient and cheaper government. Pitt was content to work within this system and never attempted to fashion popularity in any way independent to that of the king. His achievement was to reduce the temperature of political debate in the Commons, just as the opposition preserved the essentials of party identity under adverse con­ditions. Pitt was always willing to serve, just as Fox was always willing to oppose, and this, rather than any desire to be popular, was the key to his political career.

The Regency crisis 1788-1789

The most serious threat to Pitt was the Regency crisis of 1788-1789. When George III was stricken by an attack of apparent mad­ness[11] in late 1788 the Whigs were in a state of disarray. The Fox-Portland group had been associated with the reversionary interest[12] round George, Prince of Wales, for six years--an alliance of convenience. The Whigs saw the succession of the Prince as their route to office. The Prince was happy to use the Whigs to embarrass his father. This proved a two-edged sword for the Whigs. The application to Parliament for additional money to clear the Prince’s unpopular debts was necessary while the admission that he had married the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert secretly in 1785 alienated Portland and other aristocratic leaders.[13] These stresses within the Whigs surfaced in 1788 shortly before the king’s illness made clear the dependence of the Whigs on the Prince if they were to achieve power. Fox relied on the future king for power highlighting the hypocrisy of his attacks on Pitt who owed his position to the existing king.

Prince George, later Prince Regent and George IV (1820-1830)

Pitt and his supporters framed a Regency Bill closely limiting the power of the Regent. Unwisely, the Whigs delayed the passage of the bill arguing that the limitations placed on his powers, especially his right to make new peers was an unfair restriction on the power of the Crown. They argued unconvincingly in favour of the unlimited power of the Prince without the need for parliamentary approval. This played straight into Pitt’s hands, and he pointed to Fox’s reversal as the champion of parliamentary authority. Pitt’s majority held and he could push his bill through Parlia­ment. By mid-February, the bill was reaching its final stage in the Lords but the process was ended with the rapid recovery of the king. The opposition had been defeated. Pitt had preserved his ministry and won the thanks of the king and large sections of public opinion.

During the Regency crisis, the Whigs had made some important blunders, and disagreements between Fox and Portland threatened the cohesion of the party. Fox came across as opportunistic rather than principled and reluctant to control the younger Whigs like Rich­ard Sheridan[14] and Charles Grey[15]. Nevertheless, the Whigs entered the 1790 general election in reasonable shape thanks to the electoral management of William Adams. Between 1783 and 1790, the Whig coalition had consolidated into a party of 130-140 MPs.

[1] The American crisis. The relationship between the thirteen American colonies and Britain was of growing concern in the years after 1763. Neither the king nor successive governments understood the depth of feeling in the colonies. The result was war in 1775 and the declaration of American independence the following year. Britain was defeated by a combination of political and military mismanagement and French support for the colonists. The Treaty of Versailles 1783 recognised American independence though George III never got over it.
[2] The ‘influence’ of the Crown was the patronage at the disposal of the Crown to support the King’s government
[3] Frederick, Lord North (1732-1792) was prime minister between 1770 and 1782. An able domestic politician, his mishandling of the American crisis and conduct of the war led to his downfall. He was secretary of state for colonial affairs in the Fox-North coalition, April-December 1783
[4] Charles, Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782) was prime minister of Whig governments in 1765-1766 and from March 1782 until his death in July.
[5] William, Earl of Shelburne (1737-1805) was a minister in the 1760s, Home Secretary under Rockingham in 1782 and succeeded him as prime minister.
[6] Charles James Fox (1749-1806) entered parliament in 1768 but apart from two short periods in office (Foreign Secretary in the Fox-North coalition in 1783 and briefly in the Ministry of All the Talents in 1806) he remained in opposition. He opposed the government’s American policy in the 1770s, welcomed the French Revolution and opposed the war with revolutionary France. During the 1790s, he emerged as the champion of English liberties in the face of Pitt’s repressive measures
[7] William Pitt (1759-1806) ‘the Younger’ was the son of William Pitt ‘the Elder’ (1708-78), prime minister between 1766 and 1768. Pitt entered parliament in 1781, was Chancellor of the Exchequer 1782-3 and prime minister 1783-1801 and 1804-6. He is Britain’s youngest ever prime minister.
[8] ‘Economical reform’ was a late eighteenth century movement aiming to reduce the patronage (in the form of sinecures and placemen) at the disposal of the government in parliament. Sinecures were well-paid jobs where a person was paid for doing little or nothing. Placemen owed their jobs to the government or crown. In both cases, they were expected to support the government of the day.
[9] The East India Company had a monopoly, and therefore considerable power in India. Until 1773, it ruled large tracts of India as a private company. The Whigs wanted to see its power brought under the supervision of parliament and Fox and North tried and failed to do so in their India Bill in 1783. Pitt took a less drastic approach and in 1785 his India Act set up a Board of Control in London to determine Britain’s policy to India. The Company was allowed to continue ruling its conquered territories as well as conducting commercial operations.
[10] Henry Dundas (1742-1813) was a close political ally of Pitt. He was treasurer of the Navy 1783-91, home secretary 1791-4 and minister for war and colonies 1794-1801. He was unsuccessfully impeached for corruption in 1806
[11] Apparent madness. The symptoms of the 1788-9 attacks indicated madness to contemporary doctors. Recent research suggests that porphyria, a condition caused by blood deficiencies was the cause. The symptoms of madness and porphyria are similar.
[12] Reversionary interest was the name given to politicians who clustered about the Prince of Wales in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
[13] A secret marriage with the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert. The Royal Marriages Act 1772 made it illegal for a member of the royal family to marry without the permission of the monarch. The Act of Succession 1701 forbade marriage to a Roman Catholic
[14] Richard Sheridan, Irish playwright and friend of Fox and the Prince of Wales
[15] Charles Grey was a future Whig prime minister between 1830 and 1834