The Age of George III

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What do you understand by the phrase 'Liberal Toryism' and how helpful a description is it of Lord Liverpool's administration?

The phrase 'Liberal Toryism' has been used by historians such as W.R. Brock and Barry Gordon to describe Liverpool's administration between 1822 and 1827. As stated by Norman Gash in Herbert van Thal's The Prime Ministers, 'the traditional interpretation of Liverpool's administration divided it into two contrasting phases: 'reactionary Toryism' dominated by Castlereagh, Sidmouth, Eldon and Vansittart; and 'liberal Toryism' dominated by Canning, Peel, Huskisson and Robinson'. The death of Castlereagh in August 1822 and the promotion of Canning to Foreign Secretary has been seen as marking the reconstruction of the administration and the dawn of 'liberal Toryism'.

The reconstruction of Liverpool's administration did show an inclination to include more liberally-minded men. Sidney Smith reflected in a correspondence with William Huskisson (15 March 1826) that 'the most liberal policy has been carried into our foreign relations, darkness and intricacy have been banished from the finances. The laws are becoming less complex and the wisdom of the philosopher is adopted as the rules of the merchant'. Interestingly, Smith only uses the phrase 'liberal' in relation to Canning's foreign policy but he effectively highlights the so-called 'liberal Tory' policies of the rationalisation of finance, the penal system and the law. Further, Smith acknowledges the implementation of free trade and laissez faire as expounded in the doctrines of Ricardo and to a lesser extent Adam Smith, referring to the 'wisdom of the philosopher'. To the student of history, Canning's foreign policy, Peel's penal reforms and Huskisson's and Robinson's economic measures do show a drift by Lord Liverpool and his ministers to moderate, limited economic and social reforms. Even such a person as Spencer Walpole, reflecting on the years 1822-27, believed Liverpool's government had 'deserted its old colours and had the courage to press over to the popular cause'. It is not surprising that Liverpool's administration after 1822 has been seen as 'liberal Tory' in the light of such political commentary. Commentary such as this is in part responsible for Liverpool's administration from 1812 to 1822 being condemned as reactionary. Shelley's poem The Mask of Anarchy also expounds this theory. The accuracy of Walpole's statement and Shelley's poem are suspect because of Walpole's Whig sympathies and Shelley's absence from Britain in the early 1820s.

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. This change in government policy was induced by a decline in extra-parliamentary agitation after the Peterloo Massacre in August 1819 and the arrest and deaths of the Cato Street conspirators in 1820. Economic expansion and revival had also helped to silence supporters of popular radicalism who had been so vocal in their Union societies in the 18-teens. It was the disturbed years of 1815-20 that had helped to convince Liverpool and his ministers that Britain could not be ruled by suppressing the symptoms of economic distress. By encouraging prosperity, Liverpool sought to justify Britain's aristocratic system of government. Further, by stimulating prosperity, the government sought to uphold the institutions of Crown, Church and Constitution by delaying Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform. As Peel stated in 1820, 'the tone of England is more liberal than that of the government'.

The 'liberal Tories' were not the most vocal exponents of the philosophies of happiness. Indeed, Peel's penal reforms drew on the work of John Howard who published his experiences in 1777 in his book The State of Prisons. Also Canning's foreign policy followed the principles expounded by Castlereagh in his State Paper of 5 May 1820. In truth, the administration after 1822 was influenced more by Pitt the Younger's policies between 1783 and 1793 than by liberalism. Indeed, Pitt provided practical examples of tariff and tax reform and also the fall of his ministry in 1801 showed the dangers of attempting constitutional reforms. The economic and social reforms after 1822, through limited implementation of laissez faire and free trade, was an updated development of Pittite Toryism.

The phrase 'liberal Toryism' is an inappropriate, incorrect and unhelpful description of Liverpool's administration. As W.R. Brock states in Lord Liverpool and Liberal Toryism, 'the phrase is artificial'. Inappropriate because as Brock stresses, so-called 'liberal Toryism' was a mixture of 'High Toryism and the new ideas of 'economists' and 'philosophers'. The phrase is helpful only in a loose context to describe the estrangement from the Ultras felt by the so-called 'liberal' cabinet in 1822-27.

The phrase 'liberal' in the 1820s context was a term of abuse and not an endearing term as in its 1990s context. 'Liberal' was used most specifically by contemporary 'Ultra' Tories such as Wellington to abuse Canning's and the Grenvillites' support for Catholic emancipation. The term in its 1990s context, relating to moderate reform and religious tolerance, aids to confuse the student of History. Even though the so-called 'liberal Tory' administration was willing to concede moderate economic and social reform it would not tolerate emancipation of Catholics or any challenge to the Anglican supremacy of Church, State or Constitution. Liverpool's administration on its establishment in 1812 had given promises to the Prince Regent to prevent any agitation of the Catholic question or parliamentary reform. To acknowledge the existence of a 'liberal Toryism' is to infer that Tory ministers before 1822 were other than liberal. This inference cannot be upheld, as Castlereagh, the 'mask of Murder' in Shelley's poem of 1819, had supported Pitt's attempt at Catholic emancipation in 1801. Furthermore, the arch 'liberal' Canning, whose support for emancipation was well known and lampooned, was included in the administration as early as 1816.

It is not unreasonable to examine a broader spectrum of government policy to help to satisfactorily confirm the existence of 'liberal Toryism' after 1822. Undeniably, events in Ireland had affected and helped to shape British government policy throughout the late Eighteenth Century and the early Nineteenth Century. Pitt the Younger had stoked the hot-bed of policy for Ireland, ultimately creating a split in the supporters of Toryism. Pitt, faced with the revolt of the United Irishmen in 1798, had looked to legislative union, accompanied by the implementation of freer trade and Catholic emancipation to solve Irish problems. These measures were to be part of the 1801 Act of Union. Pitt was partially successful but failed to secure Catholic Emancipation. As a result the Union was a political expedient and totally failed to redress Irish grievances. His actions had polarised Tory MPs into two groups, those in favour of a moderate reform of the Constitution and Catholic equality, and those termed Ultras who were unwilling to tolerate moderate reform and Catholic equality. Pitt's proposals in 1801 had invoked the Royal veto to Catholic emancipation: as a result Pitt resigned - as did Castlereagh - and a very real and powerful example of monarchical power had been demonstrated to the British Parliament.

Governments after 1801 and indeed Lord Liverpool's administration from 1812 were obstructed, even if a wish was expressed to redress Irish grievances. Religious and political equality and equality in ownership of land (a major Irish grievance) were impossible. To a great extent Lord Liverpool's 'liberal Tory' administration after 1822 was foresworn on Irish measures. Interestingly and worthy of note, Robert Peel, one of the so-called 'liberal Tories' was Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1812 to 1818. As such he was fully aware of Irish grievances; he was also hostile to claims for Catholic equality, and his contemporaries and opponents often referred to him as 'Orange Peel'. To Lord Liverpool's credit, the Catholic question remained an open topic in Cabinet discussion. The innate inability of any British government to legislate for Ireland is well reflected by Wellington in a speech in 1828 when discussing Liverpool's promise to the Prince Regent in 1812. Wellington stated 'every member of the government is at liberty to take such part as he pleases respecting the Roman Catholic question'. As he highlights, a minister had to act 'upon this question in his individual capacity'. As a result of this, Irish policy during the period of 'liberal Toryism' still reflected the subordination of Ireland to British interests. Liverpool's administration could not and did not measure up to the yard-stick of liberalism reflected in Pitt's policies in Ireland before 1801. Indeed, Liverpool himself expressed in a debate over Burdett's Emancipation Bill on 17 May 1825 that 'if this measure should pass, the Protestant succession would not be worth a farthing'. Further, as a political pragmatist, Liverpool realised that 'whenever the crisis does come the Protestants must go to the wall'. His use of the word 'crisis' reflects Liverpool's great insight into political development. He realised the ability of O'Connell's Catholic Association, through its Catholic rent and the mobilisation of the Irish Catholic clergy, to precipitate future crisis. This occurred after the collapse of his ministry in 1827, and dominated politics until 1829.

Economic reform in Ireland was attempted by Huskisson, Robinson and also by Vansittart between 1821 and 1824. An attempt was made to introduce free trade through tariff reform. In 1821 a 10% duty on English cotton goods was removed. In 1823 the levy on English woollens was also removed. In 1824 as part of Huskisson's free trade experiment on the British silk industry, Irish silk tariffs were removed. These reforms though appropriate to England were disastrous for Ireland, which was very much an agricultural country. These reforms did not take into account the weakness and frailty of Irish industry. As J.H. Treble suggests in J.T. Ward's Popular Movements, during the financial crisis of 1825-6 Ireland was 'inundated with products of English mills and looms. Faced with what amounted to dumping on a massive scale, lacking the capital and perhaps the markets to introduce technological and organisational changes needed to fight off this severe challenge, the Irish textile industry outside Ulster crumbled'. As a result of Huskisson's reform of the silk tariff, Dublin's silk trade collapsed. Thus the 'liberal Tories', by failing to consider the economic and social circumstances prevalent in Ireland, added to the poverty. With the refusal of Liverpool's administration to relax the Anglican domination of Ireland, it remained as a contemporary, in Asa Briggs's Age of Improvement, suggested 'a ship on fire which must be cast off or extinguished'.

As L.W. Cowie suggests in Hanoverian England 1714-1837, 'while Peel and Huskisson were implementing their important reforms ... the minister who dominated the Cabinet and appealed most to public opinion as 'liberal' was Canning'. That George Canning traditionally has been seen as the originator of liberalism and nationalism in British foreign policy is beyond doubt. This image has been bolstered by contemporaries such as Metternich who believed Canning was a 'whole revolution in himself'. It is a contradiction though that the champion of liberalism once wrote for the publication The Anti-Jacobin.

Canning's liberal image was not generated by any major modification in the principles or objectives of foreign policy. This is proven quite satisfactorily by Canning's conduct of policy at the Congress of Verona. Canning followed exactly and without modification the draft instructions concerning the Russo-Turkish quarrel and the internal affairs of Spain, contained in Castlereagh's State Paper of 5 May 1820. Like Castlereagh, Canning's objective in foreign policy was to ensure peace in order to benefit British trade. Canning was a Tory of the old school and not the originator of a new foreign policy.

It is notable that Canning as a 'liberal' Tory failed at the Congress of Verona in 1822 to acknowledge or even support the Greek declaration of independence. Castlereagh had made it clear in his 1820 State Paper, and Canning carried out the policy 'not [to] act upon abstract and speculative principles'. Further, Canning's support of John VI of Portugal against the uprising of Dom Miguel was little more than a desire to maintain the status quo and the favourable relations between the constitutional governments of Britain and Portugal in order to facilitate trade. These same motives were again Canning's objectives when in 1827 with the death of John VI, Dom Miguel rose against the young Queen Maria. Canning sent the British fleet and 4,000 troops to quell the uprising. Though Canning's response to events in Portugal was guided by established principles, his forthright actions appealed to British nationalist sentiment.

The approach of Canning to Spanish problems did not reflect any incarnation of 'liberal Toryism'. He did not support the Spanish liberals against the Holy Alliance inspired French invasion. Though Canning and British public opinion condemned French aggression, they would not go to war for Spanish liberalism. To some extent Britain was powerless to act as a naval power. As a result of this and in order to perpetuate his popular image, Canning encouraged the Opposition in the Commons to vote for war. He also persuaded Parliament to raise the establishment of the Navy from 21,000 to 25,000. In reality the French invasion of Spain marked a quite substantial failure for Canning and British foreign policy. The status quo of Europe had been interrupted temporarily and British trade in Spain had been disturbed. With this episode Canning reflected his ability to show a set-back as a switch of direction in foreign policy in conscious deference to domestic liberal opinion.

The Spanish American colonies provided the high point for Canning's and Lord Liverpool's administration's 'liberal Tory' image. With regard to the Spanish American colonies Canning may have seemed to be a supporter of nationalism when he said that he wanted to recognise 'those countries which appear to have established their separation from Spain', but he was not in truth the man who 'called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old'. Canning's real achievement can be seen in the sentence following that most famous line. When he concluded that he 'resolved that if France had Spain, it should not be Spain with the Indies', he clearly showed the real ideas behind his successful attempt to get America to promulgate the Monroe Doctrine. By persuading the President of America sternly to inform Europe that the 'American continents were not to be considered as subjects for future colonisation', Canning did nothing more than selfishly pursue new British markets. Canning's measures were nothing more than a continuation of British foreign policy and were more to do with economic liberalism than liberal nationalism. Indeed, even though Britain recognised the independence of Colombia, Buenos Ayres, Mexico and eventually Bolivia, Chile and Peru, it was only after Canning had sent envoys to ensure the viability of the new states. This merely completed Castlereagh's stance of reserving the right to recognise their independence when the appropriate moment arrived. If Canning was a 'liberal' then so was Castlereagh. He cautiously approached the problem in a way which reflected the Cabinet's unease of any action that might have appeared to encourage rebellion against legitimate authority. Canning through his actions sought entrance for commerce into South America without having to seek privileges or make external commitments. In truth Canning wiped his hands of liberal nationalism to follow the objective of all British Foreign Secretaries: to secure British interests.

Canning's 'liberal Toryism' was in reality a cosmetic dressing applied to his conduct of foreign policy which differed little in principle from that of his predecessor, Castlereagh. Canning strove to distance himself from the domestic unpopularity of Castlereagh and indeed Lord Liverpool's administration before 1822. Canning was only too aware of the character assassination carried out on Castlereagh by Byron, Shelley and the popular press. Castlereagh was partly responsible for his poor press in that as an Eighteenth-century politician he believed that 'speaking is not necessary for carrying on the affairs of the government'. Canning in contrast used public opinion to popularise the established principles of foreign policy. This was the only difference between himself and Castlereagh, a change in method. Canning lacked diplomatic connections and gave public and parliamentary speeches in order to enhance his popularity by appealing to insular British prejudices. Mrs. Arbuthnot wrote in 1823 that 'Mr. Canning has been ... going round the country speechifying and discussing the acts and intentions of the government'. As Mrs. Arbuthnot highlights, 'this is quite a new system among us': this courting of and appeal to public opinion was the new aspect of Canning's Toryism as well as that of Lord Liverpool's entire 1822 administration: liberalism, if produced, was cosmetic or just an incidental by-product.

The view upheld by historical tradition and to a lesser extent by W.R. Brock, that Liverpool produced an all new 'liberal Tory' administration in 1822, is inaccurate. In truth there was no promotion of new, unknown MPs. Liverpool promoted MPs who, if they had not held minor office in his own early administration, had proven satisfactory experience of government office. All the notable ministers of the 1822 administration fulfilled both these criteria. Canning held minor office in Liverpool's administration from 1816 and his close friend Huskisson was Chief Commissioner for Forests from 1814. Robinson had been President of the Board of Trade from 1818 and Sir Robert Peel had been Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1812 to 1818. As Norman Gash states in Herbert van Thal's The Prime Ministers, 'to make the Cabinet reconstruction of 1821-2 the dividing line in the history of the Liverpool administration is to distort it' by denying its political continuity.

If sufficient evidence exists to prove that Lord Liverpool's 1822 administration was 'liberal Tory', it is most clearly reflected in the penal and legal reforms enacted by the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel. It must be noted that Peel's reforms were a relatively new innovation in the scope of government policy. To some extent though, Peel's reforms were not original because they drew very heavily on the work and experience of penal reformers such as John Howard and the Quaker Elizabeth Fry. Also Peel's reforms followed exactly the proposals of the Mackintosh Committee. Indeed, in 1819 Sir James Mackintosh carried the motion to appoint this Committee of Inquiry into the criminal law against the wishes of Lord Liverpool's government. As Sir Llewellyn Woodward suggests in The Age of Reform, 'evangelical interest was of great importance in giving publicity to the scandals shut away behind prison walls'. To his credit though, once Peel was committed to these reforms he exerted himself fully in their implementation. Peel introduced legislation which covered 75% of all criminal offences, abolished capital punishment for a large number of crimes, revised the scale of lesser punishments, improved legal procedures and conditions of imprisonment, abolished the Six Acts and later in 1829 created the Metropolitan Police Force, although this falls within the scope of Wellington's ministry. Indeed Peel was a Tory, but at least he believed that just because something was old, it was not necessarily immune from change. The attitude of the Home Office and also Liverpool's entire 1822 government was conditioned by the outlook that disorder was due entirely to economic causes. Public controversy centred on such practical matters as the Corn Laws, free trade, financial credit and banking reform. As a result of this the Combination Laws were repealed in 1824 though a less severe law was introduced during the financial crisis of 1825-6. Peel's policies, though limited in that Penal Reform extended only to London and seventeen provincial towns and excluded debtors' prisons, did reflect a 'liberal Toryism' in the sense of legal and penal reform.

The contemporary caricature of Liverpool's 1822 Cabinet as the purveyors of free trade ideology, in the shape of Huskisson, is quite misplaced. Though Huskisson's insistence that 'England cannot afford to be little she must be what she is or nothing' was backed up by the rationalisation of scales and taxes, the replacement of the sliding scale with a standard 30% ad valorem duty on imported goods, he was not in reality the 'Utopian doctrinaire'. As Barry Gordon suggests in Economic Doctrine and Tory Liberalism 1824-1830, 'there was to be no sudden fling of pen strokes in honour of the memory of Adam Smith, however wise his advice or ultimate goals'. Indeed, 'Smith himself had defended the maintenance of ... the Navigation Laws, Usury Laws and even in some circumstances protective tariffs'. Furthermore, Huskisson's reforms were limited in that Liverpool's administration from 1812 relied for its parliamentary strength on the landed interest. Landowners were extremely sensitive to any suggestion that they should cease to enjoy the financial benefits of protection. Huskisson's reforms were only as 'liberal' as the landed interest allowed them to be. This is supported by the fact that Huskisson failed to carry any modification of the 1815 Corn Law until 1828, after Liverpool's death. To his credit though Huskisson did tackle and defeat the shipping interest with his modification of the Navigation Acts through the Reciprocity of Duties Act, 1823 and the London silk interest when removing the total prohibition on the import of foreign silk. Though Huskisson was politically handicapped when addressing the Corn Law question, his policies attempted to create national prosperity rather than prioritising the prosperity of any one interest. The reason for the government's seeming change from supporting the interest of the landlords, evident in the 1815 Corn Law to those of finance, industry and commerce was not because of any 'liberal Toryism' but because after the Peterloo years, Liverpool and his colleagues had realised the error in their assumption that the best opportunities for economic growth were to be found in the agricultural sector. Economic prosperity and growth in the towns was more likely to produce domestic calm. By 1822 there were signs that autarky was possible; this was reinforced by the diminishing returns theory and increased confidence in Europe's food supply potential. This was the reason why the government advocated a gradual resort to free trade in corn, not because they were 'liberal Tories'.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Frederick Robinson, traditionally also has basked in the light of the image of a 'liberal Tory'. Robinson's fiscal reforms were influenced greatly by Huskisson and the 'economists' and 'philosophers' of the Political Economy Club. The reforms of both Huskisson and Robinson were based upon a scheme of trade and finance that had already been decided before 1822. Boyd Hilton suggests in his article Peel, a Reappraisal (Historical Journal, 22 March 1979), that in 1819 the not-unbiased Bullion Committee, secured a halt on inflation by a return to the gold standard in 1821. Further, it was Vansittart's last budget of 1822 which secured a £5 million excess in revenue, which Robinson could use in the implementation of his measures.

Indeed, Robinson's idea of banking and finance revolved around the convertibility of paper money to gold. In 1825-6 when 60 to 70 country banks crashed simultaneously, Robinson and Huskisson ensured that the banks could convert paper to gold. By ordering the Bank of England immediately to coin more gold in order to make private banks convertible, forbidding private banks to print notes of less than £1 in value, allowing the Bank of England to open provincial branches and allowing private banks to have more than six directors in a joint stock to spread assets more widely the country was saved from financial ruin. Men such as Thomas Attwood thundered against the deflation in prices resulting from the return to convertibility. The financial crisis of 1825-6 was a severe test of the new measures but economic recovery after 1826 proved their soundness. Robinson enhanced his 'liberal' aura by making good use of the recovery in trade in that £5 million of a £7 million surplus in revenue was used for the very popular cause of debt redemption. The remaining £2 million was used for tax reduction. In reality, Robinson's £7 million give-away was little more than a political gesture and not an act of economic 'liberalism'. In origin both Huskisson's and Robinson's tax and tariff reductions owed more to the practical examples provided by Pitt's peacetime administration from 1783 to 1793. It must also be stressed that Lord Liverpool did not suddenly drift to a belief in free trade in 1822. As Asa Briggs highlights in The Age of Improvement, as early as 1812 Liverpool noted 'it has been well said in a foreign country, when it was asked what should be done to make commerce prosper, the answer was laissez faire, and it was undoubtedly true that the less commerce and manufactures were meddled with the more they were likely to prosper'. His administration was well advanced in its economic thinking before the reconstruction of 1821-2. To an extent, Liverpool and Vansittart had been unable to implement freer trade before 1822 because of the repeal of the income tax in 1816 against the wishes of the government. As a result of this the government had to meet an expenditure of £30 millions with an income of only £12 millions while shouldering a national debt of £876 millions.

The most damning evidence which disclaims the idea that the ministers of the 1820s can be seen as 'liberal Tories' is their opposition to parliamentary reform. It was Canning who denied that reform 'would enable the House to discharge its functions more usefully than at present'. Liverpool's administration of the 1820s was fortunate that prosperity had silenced popular radicals' calls for reform of the franchise. Even Wooler, who abandoned publication of the Black Dwarf in 1824 realised that there was 'no public devotedly attached to the cause of parliamentary reform'. The 'liberal Tory' image of Liverpool's administration had benefitted from the dwindling in the minds of the people of the repressive reputation of the government during the Peterloo years. The so-called 'liberal Tories' made no changes to the Constitution as Pitt had attempted to do in 1801.

The years 1822-7 did not see a volte face in the principles of Lord Liverpool's Tory administration. The reforms of the so-called 'liberal Tories' were concessionary and aimed at promoting economic prosperity in order to stifle growing calls from the working and middle classes for alteration in the constitutional structure. These calls had been induced by post-war depression and were manifest in the social unrest and political meetings and riots from 1815 to 1819. The 'liberal Tories' would more accurately and more usefully to the student of history be described as 'cunning' Tories. The Whig Edinburgh Review neatly sums up 'liberal Toryism': 'common sense requires an obvious improvement: an opposition member brings it forward, and is overpowered by sarcasm, invectives and majorities. But public opinion at once decides in its favour, and gradually diminishes the majority, in each succeeding year, till the scale is turned and independent men of all parties become anxious to see the alteration effected. Suddenly the minister proposes the reprobate project as a government measure and converts, while he laughs at his former adherents'. (Vol. XL, March 1824)

This was the change in government method - pure political expediency. This caused the growing estrangement of the more principled but politically inept Ultras from the so-called 'liberal Tories'. After the Peterloo years the administration of Liverpool was ridiculed, maybe unfairly, as repressive. The Manchester Mercury of 10 August 1819 believed 'corruptions [were] at the very helm of State'. Britain's aristocratic system of government including the monarch George IV was totally discredited in the eyes of the British public. This is reflected quite clearly in the poem The Political House that Jack Built printed by William Hone in 1819. Lord Liverpool after 1819 had to manufacture a 'liberal Toryism' and develop a Pitt-type set of economic reforms in order to generate popularity for a government that would not compromise its defence of the institutions of Crown, Church and Constitution.

Briggs, A. The Age of Improvement 1783-1867
Brock, W.R. Lord Liverpool and Liberal Toryism 1822-27
Cowie, L.W. Hanoverian England, 1714-1837
Derry, J.W. Reaction and Reform
Evans, R.J. Victorian England 1815-1914
Gordon, B. Economic Doctrine and Tory Liberalism 1824-30
Hilton, B. Peel: a reappraisal
Read, D. The English Provinces
Thal, H. van The Prime Ministers
Ward, J.T. Popular Movements
Woodward, Sir L. Age of Reform

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