Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Palmerston: Foreign Secretary, Liberal imperialist

Lord Palmerston engraving
Public domain

If the 1840s was Peel's decade, the following decade belonged to  Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), Foreign Secretary in Lord John Russell’s Whig government and later Prime Minister.

Early career

Palmerston was the eldest of five children of the 3nd viscount. He inherited his peerage in 1802 at the age of seventeen, and as it was an Irish peerage, he always sat in the Commons. The family owned East Sheen in London, Broadlands in Hampshire and 10,000 acres in County Sligo. The name of the title was taken from the village of Palmerston on the family estates outside Dublin. 

Although he is always seen as a Victorian politician, intellectually and culturally he was a product of the Georgian age. He was educated first at Edinburgh University and then at St John’s College Cambridge, where he identified himself as a supporter of Pitt the Younger. In the general election of 1807 he contested Pitt's old seat, Cambridge University. He lost, but on the following day he was returned for Newport, a pocket borough on the Isle of Wight. However, he sat for the university from 1811 to 1831.

In 1809 he became secretary at war (a non cabinet post) in Spencer Perceval's Tory government. He continued to serve as secretary for war in the administrations of subsequent prime ministers, George Canning, Viscount Goderich and the duke of Wellington. But he resigned from Wellington’s government in May 1828 over its refusal to allow even moderate parliamentary reform. After twenty years of being continuously in government, he now found himself on the opposition benches. From being a Tory he became a Whig.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Sir Robert Peel: turncoat or statesman? (1)

'Sir Robert Peel', by 
William Pickersgill
Public domain

The age of Peel

The Reform Act of 1832 had given the vote to more middle-class people and enfranchised great industrial cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. In the long term this was  a hugely important potential change, but in the short term the Reform Act did not transform politics. The working classes were still disenfranchised, and the aristocracy continued to play a dominant role which only ended with the growth of mass politics at the end of the century. Most nineteenth-century prime ministers sat in the Lords. There were, however, some notable exceptions.

The dominant politician of the 1830s and 1840s was Sir Robert Peel and some historians have described the period as 'the age of Peel'.  Unlike most Victorian politicians he came from a manufacturing background. In his lifetime he became hugely controversial. His most significant achievement was to modernise the Tory party in the wake of its stunning defeat in 1832, but having built up his party, he proceeded to destroy it when he repealed the Corn Laws in 1846. 

Early career

Peel was the son of the calico printer, Sir Robert Peel, who had been made a baronet and become a member of Parliament. Peel the younger entered Parliament in 1809 as member for the Irish seat of Cashel and at a time when party divisions were hardening, he identified with the Tories. In 1812 he became Chief Secretary for Ireland and in the election of that year he acquired a new seat, Chippenham, Wiltshire. (Note: nineteenth-century politicians chopped and changed their seats with a frequency that would be unthinkable today!)

Sir Robert Peel: turncoat or statesman? (2)

Sir Robert Peel,
saviour and destroyer of his party

Peel's triumph? 

The 1840s should have been a triumphant decade for Peel. He had reformed his party after its defeat of 1832 and won the election of 1841.

There was however, a lurking problem.

  1. The Conservative vote was overwhelmingly agricultural and deeply committed to agricultural protection.
  2. Peel himself was increasingly in favour of free trade and his government's budgets saw a steady reduction in duties. Would the Corn Laws be next?

The Irish famine

It is usually believed that it was the Irish famine that converted Peel to free trade, but it is now clear that this simply provided him with an excuse. 

There are posts on this distressing and still controversial subject here and here
Scene at Skibereen, Cork, 1847

By the autumn of 1845 Ireland  was facing a great social and humanitarian catastrophe. On 15 October, Peel wrote to the Lord Lieutenant that the only practical remedy was 
‘the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food - that is the total and absolute repeal for ever of all duties on all articles of subsistence’.
But this was not the real issue. Cheaper bread was not the answer to the immediate problem. The Irish could not afford to buy any bread. The only thing that could save them was food relief on a massive scale. The Corn Laws were therefore an irrelevancy.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Queen Victoria's Hindustani diary

Osborne House has a fascinating display focusing on Queen Victoria's relationship with Abdul Karim, the munshi, who tutored her in Hindustani. You can view it here.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria in 1859
by Winterhalter
Public domain

Why Victoria?

Victoria would never have existed but for the death in childbirth of her cousin, Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, in November 1817. Her totally unexpected death created a succession crisis. One by one the Prince Regent's brothers discarded their mistresses and looked for wives in an effort to provide a legitimate heir.

In 1817 Edward duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, abandoned his long-standing mistress, Julie de St Laurent, and began to pay court to Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoire was the thirty-year-old widowed elder sister of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, Princess Charlotte's widower. She already had two children, Carl, Prince of Leningen, born 1804 and Fedora, born 1807.

When Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819, her birth went virtually unnoticed. It was by no means certain that she would inherit the throne, as her father had three elder brothers and her parents’ next child might be a son. She was baptised Alexandrina Victoria after her godfather, Tsar Alexander I of Russia and her mother, and in her early childhood was known as ‘Drina’. For a while both names were thought unacceptably foreign.

When she came to the throne with the death of William IC in May 1837, Britain had its first female sovereign since the death of Queen Anne in 1714. One immediate and significant result was the severing of the link with Hanover, which did not allow female succession.

Albert: uncrowned king?

In February 1840 Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. The engagement had brought into the open the problems of defining the status of the consort of a reigning queen. The precedents were not happy: Philip of Spain, the husband of Mary I, had been deeply unpopular, and George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s husband, had been a nonentity. The queen reluctantly accepted the advice of her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, that Albert should not receive the title of King Consort.
It was not until 1857 that he was given the title of Prince Consort.

Victoria and Albert in 1854

Faced with the discouraging precedents, Albert had to carve out a role for himself. He proved a highly interventionist consort. Victoria's nine pregnancies gave him the opportunity to take on many of her duties, and the two of them worked together at their despatches at adjoining desks. When Sir Robert Peel was struggling for his political life in January 1846, Albert went to the Commons to lend him moral support – retrospectively, a very partisan gesture. He was never popular, and even his key role in the Great Exhibition was controversial.

Had he lived, his political role might have created problems for the monarchy.