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Clarendon's Memorandum on the State of the Whig Party, June, 1846

Taken from Norman Gash, The Age of Peel (London, Edward Arnold, 1973), with the kind permission of Professor Gash. Copyright of this document, of course, remains with him.

The Liberal opposition 1841-6 had not been very united or effective and Lord John Russell had failed to take the opportunity offered in December 1845 to rehabilitate the Whigs and gain popularity by repealing the Corn Laws. He took office six months later as a result of the defeat of Peel's government on the Irish coercion bill by a combination of liberals, Irish, and a section (less than a third) of the protectionist Conservatives who had voted against the repeal of the Corn Laws. The general election of 1847 produced a much-divided House of Commons in which the nominal government party was roughly equal to Peelites and Protectionists combined. The general body of liberals was however less united than in the 1835-41 period partly because of the independent Radicals under Cobden and Hume, partly because of the quarrel between Dissenters and the government over education. The memorandum quoted below was written for circulation among the newly-formed Whig cabinet following discussions on 29 June over ways of recruiting fresh political strength. The writer, Lord Clarendon, one of the few supporters of the admission of Cobden to the cabinet, was an intelligent, liberal, strong-minded aristocrat who had just been appointed president of the Board of Trade. Originally a diplomat and administrator, he had been Lord Privy Seal in Melbourne's cabinet 1839-41, was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1847-52, and later served as Foreign Secretary under Aberdeen, Palmerston, Russell and Gladstone.

Sir H. Maxwell, Life and Letters of Fourth Earl of Clarendon (1913), i.265-7

There is nothing which more requires the true conservative process of reform than the Whig party. For years past its vitality and vigor have been fading; the roots it formerly struck into the country have withered; it no longer derives strength from public sympathy. It is considered to be aristocratical in its opinions, exclusive in its personnel, and guided by past historical reminiscences rather than by present public opinion. As a political party it is thought to be nearly effete, and, as the means of governing, a matter of history rather than of fact. Its reconstruction upon a far broader basis is now indispensable, and though the present moment is one of singular difficulty, yet on the other hand it does afford great means for forming a powerful administration. With tact, decision and promptness the scattered fragments of parties now floating about might be collected together and united; out of present chaos might spring something at least approaching to that order and harmony which all reasonable men now desire.

A fusion, so far as practicable with some of the Peelite party and some of the extreme Free-traders, would be a symptom that the Whig party recognised that their present position was owing to accident, and not to any general wish of the country to see them in power. This would at once excite the sympathy and call forth the support of those sections of the community best able to confer strength upon a government under the present peculiar circumstances - in fact, to constitute a government fairly representing the industrial mind and conservative progress of the country. Nothing should be done to offend or alarm the aristocracy or the landed interest, but all attempts to conciliate them or to render them reliable supporters of Lord John Russell's government will fail, unless a stand-still, if not a retrograde policy be adopted, which must inevitably estrange that class of persons and opinions upon which all future governments must depend. The country will not stand still: an impetus had been given to men's minds that cannot be checked: wants and hopes have been excited that must be satisfied; commercial, financial and social reforms have been commenced and must be continued. The aristocracy - the party that has already announced its intention to promote a backward agitation, and hopes in two years to acquire strength sufficient to govern the country upon the principle of undoing all that has been done with much difficulty and sacrifice - cannot lend itself to the labours which a Liberal government has on hand.…

No voluntary aid from the Protectionists should be rejected, but none should be courted by any futile attempt at shaping the policy of the government to meet their objects. They now profess to be disinterested: they ask nothing for themselves: they pretend a desire to repair the injustice of 1841 and a readiness to support the only government now possible under existing circumstances. They are not sincere: with ulterior views such as they entertain, they cannot honestly or with reference to their own interests support the policy which it is the duty of Lord John Russell to pursue. They already have indicated their wishes: they have expressed a hope that Mr Cobden may not form part of the government, for they know the irreparable mischief which his exclusion would do Lord J. R. in the towns and among the classes where we must naturally look for support. They know that this would produce lukewarmness and subsequent secession on the part of many Liberals, which would leave the Protectionists masters of the field, able to dictate their own terms to Lord J. R., who must either succumb to them, or, through his own weakness, relinquish the task he has undertaken. They think they would then be the only indispensable party, because the only one possessing strength enough to form an administration; but in this they would be deceived, for this time Sir R. Peel would not be idle or unobservant of the trap set for Lord J. R. He has not broken up his party and embarked on a middle-class policy without being prepared to carry it out to its full results, altho' he may do so in his own peculiar and furtive way. If he perceives any retrograde or stand-still symptoms in Lord J. R. he will outbid him a little as he has already been much outbidden by Lord J. R.; but that little will always be sufficient to rally round him the free-traders, manufacturers and middle classes, who are already better disposed to him than to Lord J. R., because they think him more squeezable and more likely to carry out the system of direct taxation which they are bent upon establishing. The composition of the Cabinet is therefore of the utmost importance as indicative of its policy. Should the names of its members not satisfy public expectation, and should its acts fall short of public requirements, the dissolution of Parliament will create a new and independent Peelite party, which will be held to represent national progress and bid fair to extinguish the Whigs, as a party, for ever.

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