Echoes from the past - the crisis that tore the Tories apart

4 Apr 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Apr 2019

Disturbances in Ireland prompted the Coercion Bill

Political commentators keep comparing the political chaos over Brexit to the crisis that engulfed politics when the Corn Laws were repealed. So what happened in the 1840s?  Scope finds fascinating historical resonances…

The Prime Minister is isolated. His party is falling apart. His Cabinet is bitterly divided and he’s on the losing side. A majority of his party reviles him. He is regarded as being patronising and aloof. A huge populist movement is gaining ground, attacking traditional elites from outside parliament. There have been riots. And the most pressing problem of all is that of Ireland. He has no option to reach out to the opposition for support.

It is October  1845 and Sir Robert Peel has just taken a decision which will destroy his political career. He is living on borrowed time. His party is in turmoil. The dispute is all about trade and the immediate catalyst for the crisis is a tragedy unfolding  in Ireland.

The Corn Laws were introduced in 1815, designed to protect the price of cereals for British producers by introducing taxes on imported goods. This had the effect of raising food prices at home  and benefited the great landowners who formed the spine of the Tory party, which Peel now leads.

They were hugely unpopular elsewhere, especially amongst the emerging urban working class, and the industrialists who employed them. They wanted to cut wages and this was a serious impediment. In 1838 the Anti-Corn Law League was founded. It was destined to become a much copied template for single issue campaigns. The League was an insurgency, run from outside parliament. It was led by two remarkable men: Richard Cobden, the strategic brain, and John Bright a brilliant orator. They dubbed the Corn Laws the “bread tax” and pitted the emerging new order of industry against the older, landed elites. They were well funded by business interests. There were mass meetings,  more than nine million pamphlets were produced and delivered and attempts were made to unseat political opponents. By the mid 1840s they had recruited the opposition Whig Party to their cause. Free trade was their rallying call and it united the working poor and the disenfranchised with emerging and powerful industry. It had its base in Manchester, cradle of the industrial revolution.

Trouble on the Streets

At the same time another political movement was emerging in England. The Chartists were campaigning for political reform, including universal suffrage (for men) and secret ballots at elections. It combined peaceful action with sporadic, uncoordinated violence, ranging from street riots, mass demonstrations and strikes to armed attempts at insurrection.  In 1842 a Chartists petition with three million signatures was lodged with parliament, demanding reform. It was ignored.

The mid 19th Century was a turbulent time in British politics, the older order was under siege, from industrialists, from the urban poor and from an emerging working class. Power was shifting from the country to the city. At the time politics must have felt precarious and chaotic. Looking back it was going through a period of seismic and irreversible change.

The Chartists would have to wait until 1918 for universal male suffrage, but the movement contained the seeds of what would later emerge as the Labour Party.

The Anti-Corn Law League, whose policies helped the Whigs to morph into the Liberal Party  was to enjoy more immediate success. Peel had privately  converted to the cause but had been unable to make progress in the face of implacable opposition from his own party. Events in Ireland were to change that.

Crisis in Ireland

In July 1845 the Freeman’s Journal reported that the Irish potato crop was “never before so large and at the same time so abundant.”

In the first week of August Peel received a letter from the Isle of Wight telling him that blight had appeared in the potato crop. From there it spread to Kent.

On September 17 the Gardener’s Chronicle reported: “We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland.”

This was devastating news. The English poor’s traditional staple was bread and cheese. Blight in England was bad but not a disaster. The Irish relied on potatoes. There had been crop failures before but this promised to be far more widespread.

In October potatoes were dug for the “peoples’ crop” which was sown to see the bulk of the population through the winter and spring months. At this point the extent of the catastrophe became clear. The blight affected every county in Ireland and there would be famine. Unless government acted the bodies would start to pile up. Peel wrote to his Home Secretary Sir James Graham “the removal of impediments to import is the only effectual remedy.” That could only mean one thing: repeal of the Corn Laws.

Peel was not popular in Ireland. Thirty years earlier he had been Irish Secretary. By all accounts, including his own, he did not like Ireland or its people. The Irish aristocrat the Duke of Leinster reported that he made a habit whenever invited for dinner of standing on his chair, placing one foot on the dining table and loudly proclaiming a Williamite toast. Daniel O’Connell dubbed him “Orange Peel”.

It is not clear whether he was acting out of compassion or saw the famines as an opportunity to overturn government policy.

Project Fear

Whatever the case he knew that advocating reform would lead to his political ruin. He called a Cabinet meeting for 31 October. It was acrimonious and broke up with an overwhelming majority against him.

He tried again the next week and only three ministers supported him.

What happened next will sound familiar in these days of fake news and “Project Fear”. Peel’s opponents accused him of greatly exaggerating the extent of the Famine. The politician Isaac Butt wrote: “The potato famine in Ireland was represented as the invitation of the agitators on either side of the water. Men’s politics determined their belief. To profess belief in the fact of the existence of a formidable potato blight was as sure a method of being branded as a radical as to propose to destroy the Church.”

Peel set about trying to talk round his Cabinet and by the end of November he had persuaded 12 out of 14 to support him. Two powerful ministers held out, Lord Stanley and the Duke of Buccleuch. He knew he could not carry his party without them and resigned.

Queen Victoria summoned the Leader of the Opposition Lord John Russell and invited him to form a government. After ten days of trying Lord Russell informed her he was unable to do so and she summoned Peel and told him: “So far from taking leave of you, Sir Robert, I must require you to withdraw your resignation and remain in my service.”

He was now reliant on the Opposition to help him carry Corn Law repeal in the face of ferocious opposition from his own party. His old colleagues called this the “Great Betrayal”. He was called a turncoat. Lord Alvaney said he should not be allowed to die a natural death.

The Whigs resented him too, after all Corn Law repeal was their policy, and he and Russell disliked one another.

Stabbed in the back

By the following June Peel had become the victim of a devious coup.

As the reality of the Famine hit Ireland, disaffection grew. Threatening letters were sent to landlords, there were reports of arms being stolen and bands of men were going around the country telling people not to pay rent. In February 1846 Peel introduced a Coercion Bill allowing martial law to be introduced, curfews to be imposed and for magistrates to be given extra powers.

It was due to get its Second Reading on June 25, the same day that the repeal of the Corn Laws returned to the Commons after being affirmed by the House of Lords.

In secret Benjamin Disraeli had hatched a plot with Russell – they would get the repeal through the Commons but then vote down the Coercion Bill. This they duly did, defeating the bill by 76 votes and forcing Peel out of office. What was most striking about this historic vote which brought down the government was that there was never more than 40 members in the Chamber for the debate. The Tory MP John Wilson Croker wrote that the majority which defeated Peel “had as much to do with Ireland as Kamchatka.”

The fall out

The consequences  for the Tories were far-reaching. They would not gain a parliamentary majority again for the best part of 30 years. Free trade became a mantra for British economic policy, the echoes of which can still be heard in the current Brexit debate.

As for Ireland, the reforms had little if any impact on the tragedy that was unfolding. Imported grain turned out to be Indian maize, an exceptionally firm grain that ordinary mills could not grind. It had to be milled twice, it was no substitute for potatoes, and not enough was imported. In any event free trade had little impact on those who were suffering. Many parts of Ireland did not have a cash economy. People grew their own potatoes, they did not pay for them. When the crops failed they did not have the means to buy the new provisions offered to them. The repeal of the Corn Laws did not stave off the Famine.

There is bitter irony to the Duke of Wellington’s comment that Peel was brought down by “rotten potatoes.” May’s demise, by contrast is the Irish backstop.






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