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The Age of George III

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How Reactionary was Lord Liverpool's Ministry?

Lord Liverpool, Prime Minister between 1812 and1827, was described by Disraeli as "the arch mediocrity". However, the credit for holding together a cabinet of disunited and unco-operative politicians belongs primarily to Lord Liverpool himself. Through his ability to act as mediator between Members of Parliament who were unable and unwilling to harmonise Liverpool was able to head a ministry spanning fifteen years and comprised periods of both reactionary and non-reactionary policy. Between 1812 and 1815, Lord Liverpool's government was mainly concerned with defending Britain from invasion and defeating the French. Thus the majority of the government's attention and resources were focused on the war effort. This can be seen as a reactionary attitude only in so far as it restricted the government's ability to concentrate on domestic reform. During this period very little social, economic or political reform occurred. This is not proof that the government, at that time, overtly opposed reform: it is merely an indication that their priority, out of necessity, was to retain British independence from France.

At the end of the French wars Britain was invited to become a member of the Holy Alliance, a scheme of Czar Alexander I of Russia by which member countries were able to assist in the suppression of risings and rebellions in other countries throughout Europe. Castlereagh, as Foreign Secretary, firmly refused to involve Britain in this, believing it to be 'a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense'. This clearly shows a non-reactionary policy. Had this ministry been truly reactionary it would have welcomed this opportunity to enlist in the repression of Liberal Nationalist reformers in other countries calling for democracy and constitutional monarchies.

Due to the French Wars, Britain had incurred a national debt of £834 million. Income tax had been imposed, according to Pitt, for the duration of the war. It was not the implementation of this which can be seen as non-reactionary but the repeal of it in 1816. The revenue collected from income tax alone did not vastly reduce the national debt and it would have been more beneficial to Britain to allow it to remain in force. The repeal can be said to have displayed a willingness to uphold an agreement not given by them. However, it must be noted that the majority of politicians, as wealthy land owners, were tax payers, and so the repeal was to their own personal advantage and not as non-reactionary as it might at first be considered.

One specific piece of reactionary legislation during Liverpool's ministry was to be a cause of domestic unrest for years to come the passing of the Corn Laws in 1815. This reactionary measure limited the import of cheap foreign grain until British grain reached 80/- per quarter, and forced the price of bread to increase at a time when trade was declining, harvests were poor and unemployment rising. The government's opposition to change can be seen in its stubborn refusal to lift the Corn Laws despite the many protests and petitions which the working classes lodged against them.

Further repressive legislation was passed in 1816. The Game Laws restricted the hunting of game to land owners which, although a change, was a reactionary one in that it disadvantaged the bulk of the poor population. Poaching, which up to this point had provided the means of supplementing a poor diet, now became illegal, forcing the masses to rely more heavily on increasingly expensive bread which many simply could not afford. Distress and discontent was expressed in the form of riots such as those at Spa Field in 1816.

However, 1816 was not a year of total reactionary outlook. Parliament set up a Select Committee to investigate the education then being offered in Britain. To a certain extent this was a reactionary measure because no improving legislation resulted from the report published two years later in 1818. In a non-reactionary sense, though, this was a move towards reform, if not reform itself. It indicates that Liverpool's ministry was aware of the need to look into the state of education, if not prepared to act upon its findings. The work undertaken by this committee laid the foundations upon which later committees were to base their suggestions for reform.

In 1817, the government adopted a clear reactionary stance as a method of controlling domestic unrest. In 1799 the Combination Act had been passed which banned the establishment of trade unions. The passing of this legislation cannot be attributed to Liverpool's ministry but the fact that they allowed it to remain in force can, for it meant that the working classes, suffering from unemployment, poor harvests and high food prices had no means of legally expressing their misery and frustration. Violence resulted. The Prince Regent's carriage was attacked and in Manchester cotton workers, in the March of the Blanketeers, intended to walk to London seeking the help of the Prince Regent to ease the recession. The Gag Acts, imposed in 1817, prohibited seditious meetings and suspended Habeas Corpus thus allowing arrests and trials without charges. The Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, declared all printers and writers of seditious materials liable to arrest and government spies were employed to report civilian risings and rebellions. The Pentrich Rising of 1817 was instigated by a government spy known as Oliver. He encouraged the people of Pentrich to arm themselves, meet up with other, fictitious, groups and march to London seeking parliamentary reform. Whilst the people prepared Oliver informed the government of the forthcoming insurrection. At the pre-arranged meeting place government officials awaited the people of Pentrich. The result was the hanging of 6 men.

The government's fear of radical movement was obvious and unfortunately it motivated them into repressive action rather than into seeking solutions to the causes of the discontent. This attitude was upheld throughout 1818 and was not aimed solely at the lower classes. Middle class calls for reform were also quashed. In 1818 Liverpool's cabinet consisted of conservative Tories desirous of preserving a constitution which benefited them The landed politicians were committed to defending their own interests. Industrialisation had created a northward shift in the population and a growth in urban towns. Many of the now wealthy individuals had amassed their fortunes in trade, industry and commerce but because they owned no land were unable to stand as Members of Parliament. The new industrial population was not adequately represented at government level. When Sir Francis Burdett proposed a moderate reform of parliament in 1818 it was met with immediate rejection, and when Lord John Russell put forward the suggestion again in 1819 once again the motion was thrown out. This is proof of a definite reactionary opinion. Liverpool's ministry was not prepared to consider compromise regarding changes within their own structure. However, one minor exception to this did arise. In 1819 Grampound was disenfranchised. Two years later the two seats from this borough were given to the under-represented Yorkshire. As non-reactionary policy this was indeed a small gesture.

The repressive legislation imposed by the government did little to reduce unemployment, lower food prices or improve the appalling living and working conditions of the lower orders. Unrest continued to increase. In 1819 sixty thousand people met on St Peter's Field, Manchester, to protest for parliamentary reform. The meeting was noisy but peaceful until, for unspecified reasons, the Yeomanry, called in to ensure law and order was maintained, panicked. The crowd in turn panicked and the resulting eleven dead and four-hundred wounded has come to be known as the 'Peterloo Massacre'. Magistrates claimed that the action of the Yeomanry was justified because the meeting had been held illegally anyway The government, in fine reactionary style, agreed with this opinion, stating that failure to support the magistrates could result in resignations which would then deplete the country of its means of enforcing law and order. A government enquiry into the event one year later failed to shed any light on the actual cause, probably because any evidence which had existed had long since disappeared.

In response to Peterloo parliament passed the Six Acts which: provided methods of hastening trials and prosecutions; stated that it was illegal for civilian bodies to train in the use of weapons; empowered bodies to train in the use of weapons; empowered magistrates to search private dwellings and remove the owners and any seditious writings and weapons they found; increased the paper tax on newspapers; demanded that all public meetings required the permission of a magistrate. Under no circumstance can this legislation be seen as anything other than repressive and reactionary, though it is fair to say that it was not repression born out of malice or intolerance but out of fear. Only four years had passed since the end of the French wars, wars which had been preceded by a revolution that had helped to breed a strong conviction amongst British politicians that bloody., revolt would follow reform.

In the same year, 1819, the government established a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the criminal law system. The government were sufficiently aware of the need to make changes in criminal law to issue an enquiry into it, implying a non-reactionary attitude, leading to the assumption that reform would follow. However, no immediate legislation arose out of this indicating that parliament's willingness to investigate did not extend to action, but one step towards reform was an improvement on none. Further non-reactionary legislation was passed in 1819 in the form of the Cotton Mills Act and the setting up of a Bullion Committee. The former stated that children under the age of nine could not be employed in the mills, which was a positive move but sadly lacked the means to ensure it was enforced. The Bullion Committee can be seen as more successful in that economic reforming legislation did result in the passing of the Bullion Act of 1820.

In 1821 the Bank of England was restored to the Gold Standard. This was not a completely new reform but merely a return to the situation previous to the French wars. In fairness, though, it was a progressive change. Inflation was reduced, interest rates lowered and borrowing increased. Unfortunately the economic stability this created was a temporary state only The Gold Standard applied solely to the Bank of England. Private banks were still able to continue printing paper money. This was later to have drastic effect on the economy.

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. In 1822 Liverpool's cabinet underwent a reshuffle. This brought an influx of younger politicians into parliament, politicians with interests not only in land but also in industry, trade and commerce. Also by 1822, seven years after the end of the French wars, the fear of revolution was beginning to fade. A combination of all these factors brought forth several reforming and non-reactionary measures with the exception of just a few pieces of repressive legislation.

Upon the issue of Catholic Emancipation Liverpool's government held fast to the traditional viewpoint. When it was raised in parliament in 1821, 1822, 1823, and 1825 it was met with almost unanimous rejection. The fear of losing their controlling power would not permit the majority of politicians to extend the franchise to Catholics. Indeed this was one matter to which the government, in general, were so strongly opposed they refused to even consider it.

After the cabinet reshuffle Peel was appointed Home Secretary with responsibility for the prison system and the penal code. Peel ordered that prison inspections be carried out and regular reports sent back to the Home Office, the result of which was a massive overhaul. All except one of the Six Acts were repealed; government spies were deemed no longer necessary; three quarters of the criminal law was reviewed, resulting in a vast reduction of transportable offences; the panopticon prison system was introduced; jailers were salaried; food and clothing were provided for all prisoners. Such wide developments can only be seen as reactionary in the sense that they left room for further improvement, were long overdue and under a more non-reactionary government would perhaps have been given earlier attention. Certainly at this point in Liverpool's ministry parliament did not oppose such reforms.

Peel then went on to introduce the idea of a police force which, had parliament not rejected it, would have been another major reform. It was the rejection of the notion which was reactionary not the concept itself. The work which Peel authorised was a positive move for it laid the foundations of a police force even though it was not actually established during Liverpool's ministry.

Until 1823 British trade had operated under a limiting and restricting protectionist structure. All imported goods were subject to a sliding scale of duties until Huskisson, as President of the Board of Trade, replaced this in 1823 with a flat rate of 30%. He also relaxed the Navigation Acts, permitting British colonies to trade directly with other countries using their own ships but continuing to pay taxes to Britain. Huskisson then began to establish reciprocity treaties with individual countries, seeking reductions on specific goods. He then went on, in 1824, to impose further reductions on rum, wool and raw silk and in 1825 reductions on coffee, cotton, copper ore, iron ore, glass and paper were arranged.

In 1825, after 70 private banks, due to the over-issuing of paper money, fell victim to bankruptcy Huskisson persuaded the Bank of England to melt down its gold reserves and circulate sovereigns. He also managed to coax parliament into passing a law preventing private banks from printing notes of less then £1 in value. Private banks were also granted permission to become joint companies. The restriction on printing could be seen as reactionary, for most restrictive legislation usually is. However, this was done for the common good of the country which lends it a claim to be progressive rather than repressive.

Under a General Act of 1826, proposed by Huskisson, a flat rate of 10% was fixed on all imported raw materials and a flat rate of 20% was set on all British manufactured goods. It was through measures such as these that trade and industry was stimulated for they enabled Britain to increase its purchase, manufacture and export process. The reforms occurring under the guidance of Huskisson were clearly non-reactionary bringing about much recovery to trade and industry thus generating employment.

The only element which can be seen as reactionary is the government's blindness to previous calls for trade reforms, though most of these had their birth before Liverpool became Prime Minister, his government simply failed to follow them up.

In 1824 the Combinations Act was finally repealed. Trade unions now became legal. The discontented working classes were provided with a legitimate focus for their dissatisfaction and their calls for reform. Although basically a non-reactionary step it was countered by a reactionary one in 1825. After a spate of strikes parliament tightened the Conspiracy Laws. Whilst acknowledging the existence of trade unions they greatly restricted their effectiveness by stating that strikes were illegal.

Since Liverpool's ministry did make moves towards reform in certain areas it cannot be said to have been totally reactionary. It was not easy for the government to accept the social changes which were occurring in Britain during this period and which, out of necessity, required political and economic changes. During the first half of this ministry the cabinet consisted of eighteenth century politicians who were unwilling or unable to see the need to alter a constitution which benefited them. It was during the second half of this period, with the influence of younger men from different backgrounds and of differing outlooks, that major reform took place. The fear of revolt and bloody revolution hung long and heavy over the early years of Liverpool's ministry and it can be understood, if not condoned, why few pieces of non-reactionary legislation were passed. Much of the reform during this fifteen year stretch brought only temporary appeasement. It was to be several years before the constitution underwent changes adequate enough to meet the needs of the country. It must be noted, however, that this was a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century government - a government of its time. It should not be criticised too harshly for failing to be before its time. It is only with hindsight that parts of Liverpool's ministry can be seen as reactionary or non-reactionary, and the hindsight of the twentieth century holds no value to the politicians of the nineteenth century.


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Last modified 30 April, 2017

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