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Penny Loaves & Butter Cheap
Britain in 1846
By Stephen Bates
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2014 Stephen Bates
All rights reserved.
'The only person fitted to govern the Country.'
Queen Victoria's journal, 20 December 1845
In the early afternoon of Saturday, 20 December 1845, Britain's former and future prime minister Sir Robert Peel travelled down to Windsor to meet Queen Victoria. He left Paddington by the 2 p.m. train and was in the royal presence at the castle an hour later: a journey and a punctuality that would have been impossible to imagine only five years earlier, before the railway had reached the town. Not long before, Peel had reluctantly resigned his office when the cabinet threatened to split over repealing the Corn Laws. After the Whig opposition had failed to form a government to replace him, the country was left without leadership for three weeks: a political crisis which only came to an end on that afternoon when Peel agreed to form a new administration. In doing so he probably scarcely imagined that he would precipitate one of the greatest governmental convulsions of the nineteenth century. The decisions he took over the next six months completed a national economic course – free trade – by which successive British governments would be guided for the following century, and inaugurated a policy of cheap food which the country has adopted ever since. But those decisions would split the Tory party Peel led with an acrimony and fury that would last for generations. Statues would be erected to the prime minister who had lowered the cost of bread across the country; but many in the Tory party would revile him as an arch-traitor to their dearest principles.
On that fine but windy afternoon, Peel found the young queen, 26 years old and pregnant with her fifth child, in a lively state of anticipation over whether he would agree to form a new government: 'Our excitement and suspense great,' she wrote in her journal that evening. 'After luncheon we saw Sir Robert Peel, who behaved most nobly and with a courage and devotion for one and the country which prove that he is the only person fitted to govern the Country. All he does is from a sense of duty because he considers it right and not from any party motive.'
She had not always felt that way about Peel. Six years earlier, the queen had strenuously opposed him taking office as a replacement for the elderly Whig prime minister Lord Melbourne, who had been the teenaged queen's mentor during her first two years on the throne. But in the years since Peel had become prime minister in 1841, she had grown increasingly reliant on his advice and judgement, and so his decision to resign at the start of that December had thrown her into consternation. It was a huge relief to her that Lord John Russell, the leader of the opposition Whig party, had been unable (or perhaps just unwilling, given the leisurely way he had been sounding out party colleagues) to form a government instead. Russell had been to visit her that morning to give her the news in person – he had caught the 11 a.m. train – and a Punch cartoon would shortly encapsulate the event by showing the diminutive Russell as a uniformed page-boy clutching an oversized top hat being dismissed by the queen with the words: 'I'm afraid you're not strong enough for the place, John.' Russell's party was indeed divided: of his close and powerful colleagues, Lord Palmerston was refusing to take any post other than the Foreign Office, and the young Lord Grey was refusing to serve at all if Palmerston became foreign secretary. But what had worried Victoria was the idea of having to get used both to a new, less congenial prime minister and to some radical reformers sitting on the government benches, such as the Anti-Corn Law League campaigner Richard Cobden. In her journal she wrote:
At 12 Lord John Russell came and gave us his reasons for definitively declining to form a Govt ... he is evidently v. glad not to make any further attempts as the last was so very difficult and he certainly never took the necessary authority over his followers. I feel thankful that all has turned out now as it has and that we have done everything in our power to give them a chance for they would have been driven to extreme opinions which certainly would have caused their downfall. The thought of possibly having Mr Cobden in the government was anything but pleasant.
The immediate cause of the political crisis at Westminster was rotten potatoes in Ireland. That autumn much of the potato crop, on which a large proportion of the Irish peasant population lived, had failed disastrously. It was failing in the rest of the country too and across the Continent, as a fungal blight called Phytophthora infestans spread through Europe in the wake of a wet summer, turning the tubers black and rotting them not only in the ground but even after they had been dug up sound and put into storage. Labourers in the rest of Britain, however, though badly affected, at least had other sources of food, a more varied diet and access as a last resort to local workhouse relief, which was more widespread than in Ireland. There, especially in the rural areas of the south and west, tenant farmers might grow other crops to pay the rent on their meagre smallholdings, but they had nothing else available to eat: about four million people out of a population of eight million ate only knobbly and unappetizing 'Connaught lumpers' – healthy men would consume up to twelve pounds a day each, it was said. Without them, they and their families would starve to death. It was the only crop grown on two million acres of Irish soil. Now a third of the entire crop was turning to slime before the appalled eyes of a peasantry who, as every year, were relying on it to last them through the winter and well into the following summer. There had been blights before, and potatoes always ran short in the hungry months before July when the next crop was ready, but the rapidity with which the blight spread so soon after the harvest meant that a catastrophe was looming.
Word of Irish distress was only gradually seeping through to largely unsympathetic politicians and civil servants in London, men who viewed the Irish as an indolent, ungrateful and alien species ('more like tribes of squalid apes than human beings'), grown idle in their reliance on such a basic crop, which 'foster[s] habits of indolence, improvidence and waste'. Peel was not like that – three decades earlier he had served for six years in Ireland as chief secretary of Lord Liverpool's administration, though he had never been back. Nonetheless, as urgently as he had seen the need to provide relief to the starving peasantry on both sides of the Irish Sea, he also saw the crisis as a prime opportunity to extend an economic policy that his government had already embarked upon: the lifting of tariff barriers on imported goods in order to facilitate free trade and enhance Britain's industrial prosperity to the further advantage of its international economic supremacy. The major remaining barriers to this policy were the Corn Laws, which imposed duties on imported grain and had been intended to protect the crop of home cereal-growing farmers. The tariffs they imposed were complicated and bureaucratic. Introduced by Lord Liverpool's Tory government at the end of the Napoleonic wars to safeguard home agricultural production, their intention was to protect the high price of corn for domestic farmers and landowners, by levying a sliding scale of import duties that were to be imposed if the price of home-grown corn fell below eighty shillings a quarter (a quarter being eight bushels, equivalent to 480 lb or 217 kg). In fact, eighty shillings a quarter was relatively expensive, and in the thirty years following 1815 the price of corn never rose this high, so the tariff on imports was always in place. Peel had already modified the scale in 1842, but the effect had been drastically to increase the cost of the most basic of foods. A single loaf of bread could cost tenpence, nearly a twentieth of the weekly wage of industrial workers and as much as a tenth of the wage of agricultural labourers – the very men who actually harvested the wheat.
Whatever the original motivation, by the 1840s these tariffs were seen as naked class legislation both by many industrial manufacturers and by the rising numbers whose income and prosperity did not come from the land, who thought they favoured the landed class over themselves and their employees. The intellectual tide was with them: most economists now favoured repeal as a step towards freeing trade. As these free-traders saw it, the Corn Laws were keeping prices – and wages – artificially high and were a government interference with the open market. They were a drag on industry and the cost of living for the poor: restricting their industriousness, enervating their energies, potentially seducing them into violent disorder – and on top of that, increasing the wages they had to be paid. But many of the landed gentry who supported the Tory party believed very differently: they saw the Corn Laws as a vital protection for British agriculture and their own prosperity. Great Whig landowners such as Lord Palmerston – who also owned land in Ireland – felt the same. Opposition leader Russell, however, was beginning to see the tariffs issue as a useful means of dividing the government. This meant the leadership of both parties was now committed to repeal. But any change, particularly by a Tory prime minister, would be politically toxic for his supporters. That Christmas Tory MPs would be subjected to the full weight of the landed gentry's fury.
'Rotten potatoes have done it all. They have put Peel in his damned fright,' snorted the elderly Duke of Wellington, now approaching his eighties but still a force in Tory politics. During the autumn Peel had sent scientific advisers to assess the situation in Ireland and had sanctioned a secret operation, channelled through Barings Bank so that American corn-dealers would not be alerted, to buy £100,000 worth of maize in the US to relieve domestic distress: supplies of sweet corn that would arrive too late, in too small quantities, and which the Irish did not know how to cook and did not want to eat. They called it 'Peel's brimstone' because of its yellow colour. Back in London, Peel increasingly believed that it was the Corn Laws that had to be tackled to reduce the cost of food; a marrying of expedience with necessity – the use of a domestic crisis to serve a long-term economic goal. What he had proposed to his colleagues in early November 1845 was an emergency reduction of the duty on imported grain, followed by the gradual removal of the tariff over four years: a procedure which was not only going to be cumbersome and bureaucratic, but would actually have little impact on the current crisis and would only aggravate his backbench critics rather than appeasing them. What the cabinet already knew was that he had decided that the Corn Law tariffs must be abolished altogether. Once suspended, they would never be reimposed. There had been straws in the wind for several years as the government had reduced other tariffs on many other food imports, including sugar. The principle of protection was being worn away. Only that spring Peel, sitting on the front bench and listening to Cobden eviscerating the principle of the Corn Laws yet again, had crumpled his notes and turned quietly to his colleague Sidney Herbert sitting beside him, saying: 'You must answer this, for I cannot.'
But when he had broached the plan to phase out the tariffs to his fellow ministers early in November, during a secret cabinet meeting at his home in Whitehall Gardens (where the Ministry of Defence now stands), only three of them supported him. The rest were not happy and the prime minister was soon writing to the queen to warn her that his government might fall. Victoria, much influenced by her husband Prince Albert – himself a political progressive, who was fully supportive of the move towards free trade – sought to stiffen their resolve:
The Queen thinks the time is come when a removal of the restriction upon the importation of food cannot be successfully resisted. Should this be Sir Robert's own opinion, the Queen very much hopes that none of his colleagues will prevent him from doing what is right to do.
It was at this point that Russell, alerted by rumours that Peel was planning repeal – and hence that there was a possibility of a government split – seized the initiative and issued a letter from Edinburgh to his constituents in the City of London. It was the most immediate way of making a policy announcement. He stated that he himself had decided that total repeal was the only way. Seeking to ride the tide of popular, urban, public opinion and without bothering to consult his colleagues, Russell stirringly announced:
The corn barometer is pointing to fair while the ship is bending under a storm. I used to be of opinion that corn was an exception to the general rules of political economy but observation and experience have convinced me that we ought to abstain from all interference with the supply of food ... Let us, then, unite to put an end to a system which has been proved to be the blight of commerce, the bane of agriculture, the source of bitter divisions among classes, the causes of penury, fever, mortality, and crime among the people ... The Government appear to be waiting for some excuse to give up the present Corn Law. Let the people by petition, by address, by remonstrance, afford them the excuse they seek.
Peel was in a spot, in danger of being outflanked and pre-empted. Parliament was not in session, but now that the government was admitting that there was a crisis in Ireland and the opposition was demanding reform, Peel could scarcely do nothing, nor could he defend a tariff he no longer believed in. Gradually, his colleagues were coming round: a Tory government was at all costs better for the country, surely, than a Whig one. The Duke of Wellington stated: 'A good government for the country is more important than the Corn Laws, or any other consideration.' But two influential cabinet members, the Duke of Buccleuch and Lord Stanley, heir to a large part of Lancashire, told Peel that they would have to resign. Unfortunately, they did so on the same day that The Times published a scoop damagingly – and, as became clear, wrongly – announcing that the cabinet was unanimously in favour of repeal; Peel had yet to share his planned policy change with his party. With the government in disarray over such a fundamental shift, Peel resigned on 5 December 1845, leaving the way clear for Russell to form a ministry instead. The queen had hoped to send for her old adviser Lord Melbourne – the last occasion on which a British monarch tried choosing her own prime minister – but the old man astutely insisted that he was too ill to cross the sea to the Isle of Wight, where the royal family was inspecting the building of Osborne House, so the job of forming a government had fallen instead to Russell, the Whigs' Commons leader.
A fortnight later, though, and now he was unable to do so. At a time of acute political emergency, with the opportunity to become prime minister and carry free trade to a triumphant conclusion, he found his colleagues squabbling among themselves over which offices they should hold and refusing to serve if they did not get them. Russell, a diminutive figure with a high-pitched voice, had aristocratic influence (he was the younger son of the Duke of Bedford) but not political authority, and stepped back from the chance to govern and from the responsibility for carrying a divisive policy. The crisis could not be allowed to linger longer – if Parliament was to be recalled in January, notice had to be given – and so it was that Peel found himself at Windsor Castle on the Saturday afternoon before Christmas. He had been passed what his keenest Tory backbench critic Benjamin Disraeli felicitously described as the poisoned chalice, but Peel now seized it with relish. That morning, he had summoned his colleagues to a cabinet meeting scheduled for nine o'clock in the evening and, before leaving, penned a rapid note to Wellington: 'I am going to the Queen. I shall tell her at once and without hesitation that I will not abandon her. Whatever may happen, I shall return from Windsor as her Minister.'
He knew what he had to do. The queen wrote in her journal:
He was much affected and excited and evidently indignant at the timid, and I must say shabby conduct of those who would never let Lord John Russell do what is right ... He assured me that there was no sacrifice he would not make excepting his honour. This is noble, courageous and I must say chivalrous conduct ... For the sake of the Crown and Country – that dear and great country – I pray that Sir Robert may remain at the head of the Government for yet many a year!
Excerpted from Penny Loaves & Butter Cheap by Stephen Bates. Copyright © 2014 Stephen Bates. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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