How far would you agree that Tory governments were no more liberal from 1822-1830 than from 1812-1822?

Among historians there is constant debate as to whether the Tory governments of the early nineteenth century could be divided into two separate periods of political ideology:  1812 to 1822 as reactionary and 1822 to 1830 as liberal. Both sides of the debate shall be explored yet particular emphasis will be placed on the assertion that the Tory governments were more liberal from 1822 to 1830 than the previous decade. The term ‘Liberal’, for the sake of this essay will be taken as the belief in freedom from state restrictions (led by kings and aristocrats and supported by the Church) with constitutions governing instead. [1]

 

Tory governments were more liberal from 182 to 1830 than from 1812 to 1822. Upon examination, one can easily see why Liverpool’s government was often viewed as reactionary from 1812 to 1822, and more liberal from 1822 to 1830.

The reason for the reactionary policies of Liverpool’s government from 1812 to 1822 was down to the radical challenge present all across Britain at this time. Unlike the radical threat of William Pitt the Younger’s time in office, radicalism from 1812 to 1822posed a much more genuine threat to the state of affairs in Britain. There were many reasons for the resurgence of radicalism during this period. Industrialisation and mechanisation paved the way for ‘Luddism’ whereby working class individuals violently protested their jobs being taken over and wages lowered. An instance of this can be seen how April 1812 witnessed an armed clash between 100 machine-breakers and soldiers, as well as a mill owner being shot in an ambush. This resulted in 17 executions in 1813.[2] In this case, one can see direct, forceful governmental response to the threat at hand.

Equally, unemployment, increasing population, depreciating wages, increased wheat prices, lack of providence for the poor and more all contributed to civil unrest from 1812 to 1822.

Therefore, the government responded with a series of measures in law as well as direct action. The government also took action that can be seen as harsh outside of the sphere of response to radicalism.

In 1815, the Corn Laws were put in place. Granted the government claimed this was for the overall benefit of landowners and buyers collectively, it certainly did not seem this way. To the working class, the increase in prices was solely to benefit the landowning elite whom the government dearly sought after for political support.

Furthermore, there was the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. What was initially a meeting of reformers/radicals listening to the orator Henry Hunt soon turned into a riot with the involvement of the Yeomanry. Robert Castlereagh was held responsible for this ‘massacre’ in which 17 were killed and around 400 were injured. [3]

Another example of a violent response by the authorities to radicals was in the Derbyshire rising of 1817 in which 300 iron workers and stocking makers led a protest in Derbyshire. This was foiled by ‘Oliver the spy’ and not a few of the 300 (namely leaders) were executed.[4]

In regards to official legislation, one can also see how Liverpool’s government from 1812 to 1822 can be viewed as reactionary. In response to the Peterloo Massacre, the Six Acts were brought into place. These were: [5] The Training Prevention Act [people training with guns who weren’t governmental could be transported]; Seizure of Arms Act [search homes or weapons and arrest if discovered]; Misdemeanours Act [quicker judicial processes]: Seditious Meetings Prevention Act [harder to convene large meetings on ‘Church or state’ matters]; Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act [tougher sentences for radical writings]; Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act [increased duty on newspapers espousing opinion over news].

Additionally, there was the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1817, allowing for arrest and imprisonment without trial. [6] These legislative instigations demonstrate the tightening grip of the government over the liberties of the British population. Restrictive and harsh, these measures can certainly be deemed reactionary as they fundamentally inhibited the people’s rights to maintain the status quo, as it were. Adding to this the violent responses, Liverpool’s government seems all the more to have been reactionary during this period.

Yet Liverpool’s government did not end here; far from it. Following a reshuffling of the cabinet around 1822, Liverpool’s government entered what can be referred to as the ‘Liberal’ phase. The traditional view is that Liverpool’s administration is divided into two contrasting phases:  ‘reactionary Toryism’ dominated by Castlereagh, Sidmouth, Eldon and Vansittart; and ‘Liberal Toryism’ dominated by Canning, Peel, Huskisson and Robinson.[7] Robinson, Canning and Peel were identified with championing liberalism both abroad and at home. [8]

Peel began reforming the legal system with a series of innovative measures. In 1823, change was brought to how executions could be delivered so that the more petty crimes such as impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or involving property of 40s did not merit execution. Following this was the Juries Regulation Act of 1825 making jury qualifications uniform through England and Wales. There were also a series of laws from 1826 to 1828 standardizing procedures in criminal justice trials with judges being paid salaries rather than fees.[9] Such legal alterations exhibit a government that gravitated towards a fairer and more transparent system for the people.

Peel managed to pass the New Gaols Act in 1823 being fairer and more generous than before in prisons. In 1829 Peel also formed the Metropolitan Police force in London which was the first of its kind.

Moreover, there were changes to trade and Finance alongside other matters like religion. There was the 1823 Trade Reciprocity Act; the alteration of the Navigation Acts; recognition of the independent republics of Buenos Aires, Mexico and Colombia in 1824, and of Brazil in 1825, the despatching of forces to assist the cause of Liberalism in Portugal in 1826, and joint action with France and Russia in 1827 to Greek independence from the Turks.[10] Such changes unambiguously reveal progression away from mercantilist economics and more towards a growing economy of Free International Trade.

Finally were the repeal of the Test and Corporations Acts, and the Catholic Emancipation. Occurring in 1828 and 1829, the two gave greater liberties to nonconformists and Catholics against the mighty Protestant or Anglican Church. This was a very controversial and, therefore, significant change to bring about.

All these elements exemplify ‘liberal’ values.  They loosened the tight grip of the Church and state on the people which is exactly what Liberalism would entail. Hence, one can notice the clear divide between the first and second period of Liverpool’s government as the reactionary system flipped into ‘Liberal Toryism’ post 1822.

 

 

At total variance to this view is the absolute assertion that the Tory governments were no more liberal from 1822 to 1830 than from 1812 to 1822.

The first point that must be addressed is the fact that the so-called reactionary policies of 1812 to 1822 were certainly not as reactionary as one may immediately presume. The fact of the matter is that the radical threat Liverpool’s government were made to face, was far greater than we care to realise. The two necessary ingredients for a revolution (a discontent working class and a sympathising middle class) were present as Liverpool came into office. Hampden Clubs were being established nationwide and the radical press, too, was reaching many individuals, inciting revolution. [11] Therefore, to counteract this, the government had to take action that would significantly hinder the opposition.  Thus, it is fair to say that it was repression born not out of malice or intolerance, but out of fear. [12]

Secondly, in regards to the measures directly, Liverpool’s government from 1812 to 1822 cannot be labelled as wholly reactionary.

Although Liverpool’s government may have inadvertently aggravated unrest by mishandling its reaction to these unprecedented problems (such as demobilising too quickly), in general Lord Liverpool and his ministers strove to minimise hardship. For example, in 1817 the Poor Employment Act made available state loans totalling 675,000 for encouraging the fisheries and public works undertaken by local authorities. Even the much abused Corn aw of 1815, which Liverpool modified in 1822 and wanted to relax still further in 1827, can be regarded as an attempt to smooth the transition  from wartime to peacetime – not only by protecting the investments made by farmers but also by securing the continued mobility of the nation’s chief source of employment.[13]

Further than this, the government did not have professional forces/ means to deal with radicalism as the police force came into existence only in 1829. Even the court systems that seemed to dish out harsh legislation rarely implemented this. For the Huddersfield rising of 1817, of the 44 arrested, 36 were released and one died naturally in custody by January 1818. Equally, the Seditious Meetings Act of 1817 was of similarly brief duration, being allowed to lapse in 1818.[14] This just goes to show that the idea of Lord Liverpool’s government being exceedingly harsh and reactionary is anachronistic. “What is surprising is not their savagery but rather their restraint.”[15]

                Withal, there is the fact that Liverpool’s government from 1822 to 1830 was not so ‘liberal’ either. The government’s policies after 1822 were more influenced by Pitt’s policies between 1783 and 1793 than by Liberalism: The economic and social reforms after 1822, through limited implementation of laissez-faire and free trade, was an updated development of Pittite Toryism. Even though the so-called ‘liberal Tory’ administration was willing to concede moderate economic and social reform, it would not emancipation of Catholics or any challenge to the Anglican supremacy of Church, state or constitution.[16] Granted the 1828 repeal of the Test and Corporations Acts and the 1829 Catholic Emancipation, there was still much inequality and restriction on nonconformists and Catholics. Nonconformists still had to pay taxes to the Anglican Church, only Anglican ministers could conduct marriage services, Catholics had to accept the Reformation’s changes as permanent, the qualification to vote for Irish county MPs was raised to £10, etc … [17]

Essentially, those in power in the government from 1822 to 1830 had mainly been in some role of political power prior to this point. Hence it was the same government at the heart.[18]

It is clear, therefore, that the ‘divide’ of Liverpool’s ministry is merely imaginary. Both periods exhibit ‘reactionary’ and ‘liberal’ measures. Any attempt to look at 1822 to 1830 as more liberal can be explained by external conditions rather than the government itself. Between 1822 and 1827, with the economy more secure, trade increasing, unemployment declining and a string of good harvests, food prices reduced and the discontent of previous years, although still present, seemed less apparent and less violent.[19] This meant there was less necessity for the acts of the decade beforehand.

 

 

Thorough examination has displayed the fact that asserting an obvious divide in Liverpool’s government is historically untenable. No such clear-cut line could be produced for elements of both ‘reactionary’ and ‘liberal’ policies can be seen in abundance in 1812 to 1822 as well as 1822 to 1830.

Equally, the absolute assertion of zero political change, in regards to core ideology, is also historically inaccurate. Taking the premise that ‘liberalism’ and ‘reactionism’ can be observed in both supposed periods, one can still clearly see a progressive stance adopted more from 1822 to 1830 than the previous years. Marjie Bloy herself has to concede, “The policies of Liverpool’s administration after 1822 marked a shift in emphasis from solely maintaining law and order to encouraging economic prosperity as well,” and, “It was the disturbed years of 1815-1820 that had helped to convince Liverpool and his ministers that Britain could not be ruled by suppressing the symptoms of economic distress.”[20]

                Forbye, the assumption that because Liverpool’s new government had most of its old members of power meant that there had to be absolute political continuity is unsubstantiated and fallacious. It overlooks how the same individuals may very well adopt different policies due to different socio-economic conditions. In this also, to promulgate the notion that because Liverpool’s government acted differently due to different circumstances alone means they cannot be called ‘liberal’: this is also an incoherent point. Regardless of reasoning, Liverpool’s government clearly was more liberal in the years 1822 to 1830 than from 1812 to 1822. If they were not, then why is it, bearing in mind the derogatory nature of the word ‘liberal’ in these times, that “High Tories accused the Government of ‘liberalism’…” in the mid 1820s? [21]

 

[1] Mike Wells – From Pitt to Peel 1783-1846 – pp.47

[2] Wells – pp.38-39

[3] BBC In Our Time – Peterloo Podcast

[4] Wells – pp.42

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Acts

[6] Wells – pp.43

[7] Herbert Van Thal quoting Norman Gash –  The Prime Ministers

[8] Plowright – The government’s record on reform – pp.40

[9] Wells – pp.48

[10] Plowright – pp.40

[11] Wells – pp.40-43

[12] ‘How reactionary was Lord Liverpool’s ministry?’

[13] John Plowright – Lord Liverpool and Alternatives to ‘Repression’ in Regency England

[14] Plowright – || Regency England

[15] J. Derry – Politics in the Age of Fox, Pitt and Liverpool – Macmillan 1990

[16] Marjie Bloy – What do you understand by the phrase ‘Liberal Tory’ and how helpful a description is it of Lord Liverpool’s administration?

[17] Wells – pp.52-53

[18] Plowright – Government’s records on reform

[19] ‘How reactionary was Lord Liverpool’s Ministry?’

[20] Bloy – What do you understand by the phrase ‘Liberal Toryism’…

[21] W.R. Brock –Lord Liverpool and Liberal Toryism, 1941.

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