George Canning, after the portrait by Lawrence
George Canning, after the portrait by Lawrence

The return of Canning to the Foreign Office changed British foreign policy not in theory but in practice. Since 1820 the monarchs of the four greater European Powers had been alarmed by revolutionary move­ments in the Spanish, Italian, and Greek Peninsulas. In Spain and Portugal and in the Two Sicilies the movements were constitutional; that is, they were directed to the establishment of constitutional instead of absolute monarchies. That in Greece was nationalist, and was directed to the liberation of a Christian community from subjection to a Mohammedan power. The Russian, Prussian, and Austrian monarchs were all in favour of common intervention, in arms if necessary, in the former cases. Castlereagh, on the other hand, discouraged this view of the duties of the monarchs of Europe, and clearly declined to make Britain a party to such joint action.

Canning's Principles
Canning adopted Castlereagh's principles, and maintained that every country should be left to settle its own constitution for itself. But Castlereagh had restricted himself to abstention from interference; Canning carried the principle further, and let it be understood that the interference of other Powers on behalf of the absolutist monarchs might compel British intervention on the other side. He repudiated both the doctrine that the Powers were bound to act in concert and the doctrine that they had a right to interfere in the private concerns of their neighbours.

His action had at least the effect of preventing other Powers from helping Spain in the reduction of her American colonies which were in revolt; with the result that South America was separated from the Spanish dominion. Castlereagh had in effect permitted the voice of England to be neglected in European affairs. Canning reasserted her right to maintain actively as well as passively the principles of non-intervention. The firmness of Canning's attitude revived British prestige on the Continent, and served as an effective check on the self-appointed champions of absolutism. At the same time he refused to intervene except to prevent intervention.

Modern party terminology makes it difficult to employ necessary words and phrases without conveying misapprehensions. Two great parties have appropriated to themselves respectively the complimentary epithets Liberal and Conservative, although there is no sort of opposition between Conservatism and Liberalism. Leaders of the Liberal party nave been men of essentially conservative mind; leaders of the Conservative party have been men of the broadest sympathies. It is not therefore in a party sense that we speak of the administration after Castlereagh's death as a distinctly Liberal one. In the party sense, an administration whose chiefs were solidly opposed to Parliamentary reform could by no means be described as Liberal. Peel, one of its most active members, was for some twenty years the recognised leader in the House of Commons of the party which began to appropriate the name of Conservatives.

Canning had entered public life as the enemy of the French Revolution and all its works, and was an opponent of Parliamentary reform to the day of his death. But Canning was the disciple of Burke and of Pitt, both of whom, until the French Revolution, were conspicuously men of liberal mind, opponents of innovation but especially of reactionary innovation. Canning's sympathies were freely extended to constitutionalist and nationalist movements, as Burke's and Pitt's would have been.

Peel does not present himself as the disciple of Pitt or of Burke. But he was a man who, starting politically with an exceedingly narrow outlook, spent the whole of his life in gradually extending his vision and adopting new views as he slowly realised the force of arguments which ran counter to the postulates with which he had started. Therefore every administration of which Peel was a member after 1822 was distinguished by liberal measures at least in some particulars. To Canning and Peel in the Liverpool administration was added William Huskisson, who joined it as President of The Board of Trade early in 1823.

Peel's contributions
We have seen how the Liberalism of Canning displayed itself. That of Peel at the Home Office was shown chiefly in the revision and co-ordination of the Criminal Code. Great Britain in this respect lagged far behind most of the nations of Europe. There were some two hundred offences in the Statute Book to which the death penalty was attached, from petty larceny up to murder. The system defeated itself, as Thomas More had demonstrated three hundred years before. It offered a direct inducement to the petty offender to shield himself by com­mitting murder if murder gave him a chance of escape, since the penalty was the same.

It offered an inducement to juries to acquit wherever there was a shadow of excuse for acquittal, because the sentence following upon an adverse verdict was an outrage on their humanity. Under Peel's auspices more than a hundred capital offences were struck off the list. Incidentally London also owed to him the institution of an efficient police force, popularly nicknamed in consequence "Peelers" or "Bobbies," who took the place of the wholly inefficient watchmen or "Charlies," to whose incompetent guardianship the protection of property and the maintenance of order had hitherto been entrusted.

The Free Trade Debate
Pitt in his early days had been the pioneer of Free Trade. But further advance in that direction had been stopped by the war, and, when the war closed, the protection of the agricultural interest had been carried to an unprecedented length by the Corn Law of 1815. In a Parliament consisting mainly of landed proprietors or their nominees, the protection of the agricultural interest was ensured, not because it was consciously selfish but because it conscientiously believed that the nation could prosper only if agriculture prospered and that agriculture could not prosper unprotected. The doctrines of Adam Smith, however, had made their way among the commercial community. In 1820 the merchants of London and of Edinburgh presented petitions urging that restrictions on commerce should be limited to taxation for purposes of revenue.

It was maintained that free imports did not diminish production, except of goods which cannot compete with those of the foreigner in the open market; that the energy devoted to the production of such goods under a protective system is merely diverted from the production of other goods for which the free-trading country has superior facilities; that in the stress of competition the free-trading country will discover improved methods of production which will still, give it an equality if not a superiority in the rivalry. Production will be greater if left to flow along its natural channels than if it is artificially directed by protection into other channels; checks on imports therefore are injurious to trade, and should be admitted only in order to provide the revenue required for the government of the country. Such was the view of the merchants, though obviously it was not the view of the protected trades, each of which profited individually from the protection extended to itself, while it only shared with the general consumer the burden of higher prices imposed by the protection of other trades.

Huskisson and the Navigation Acts
A sudden and complete reversal of the existing system in accordance with the principles laid down by the mercantile community was obviously not practicable. Free Trade could only be introduced by degrees, giving the producers time to adapt themselves to the changing conditions. But the principles of Free Trade were made the basis of Huskisson's regime. Like Walpole, Huskisson believed in attracting trade and making London the world's central mart. The most effective barrier to doing so was found in the Navigation Acts, which had already served their purpose of securing an immense British maritime preponderance, a preponderance so great that the protection and encouragement once looked upon as a national necessity had become entirely superfluous. The Act now operated only so as to diminish the volume of trade by the partial exclusion of foreign shipping, without providing anything like an equivalent in the expansion of British shipping.

Now, moreover, there was a serious danger that foreign countries would retaliate by excluding British shipping from their ports, a process which had proved futile enough in time of war when the British Navy could be brought into play, but would not necessarily be so futile in time of peace. Huskisson's Reciprocity of Duties Act authorised the conclusion of treaties removing the existing restrictions wherever reciprocity was guaranteed. Fifteen such treaties were made between 1824 and 1829. The ruin of the British marine was of course prophesied, but in fact the tonnage of mercantile shipping increased nearly, fifty per cent, during the first twenty years after Huskisson's Act was passed, whereas in the preceding twenty years it had increased only ten per cent. The Navigation Laws, however, were not actually deleted from the Statute Book until 1849.

The Wool Trade
Having dealt with the Navigation Acts, Huskisson proceeded with the reduction of duties. Between 1824 and 1826 several such reductions were made on minor articles. The duties on bar-iron and on cotton goods were lowered seventy per cent, but the most important changes were made with regard to silk and wool. In the case of wool there was hot opposition between the wool-growers and the manufacturers, for the former desired at the same time to have the existing duties on the export of wool abolished and those on its import retained, whereby they would have procured a monopoly of the home market and an extension of their markets abroad.

The woollen manufacturers, on the other hand, wanted the export duty increased and the import duties removed, so that they might get their raw material as cheaply as possible. Huskisson compromised by retaining a low duty both on the exports and on the imports. The result was an enormous increase in the imports, but while there was no increase in the exports the British wool-grower still found an entirely adequate market among the British manufacturers.

Very much the same thing happened with silk. Here there were no objections to the removal of duties on the raw material. The manufacturers wanted to have heavy duties on French silken manufactures but not upon the spun silk which was their raw material; whereas the silk spinners saw ruin staring them in the face if spun silk came in from abroad duty free. Huskisson faced the problem by reducing first the duty on raw silk by about ninety-five per cent., and then that upon spun silk by about fifty per cent.

French silks had hitherto been prohibited, consequently they had found their way into England by smuggling. Now a duty was put upon them of thirty per cent of their value. Thereupon, the de­mand for silks, which had been checked by the high price and by the vast increase of the cotton manufacture, was greatly augmented, the manu­facturers adopted improved and more economical methods, and English silks not only almost drove those of France out of the home market, but were very soon competing successfully with them in the markets of the Continent.

The last year of Liverpool's administration, 1826, was marked by a demonstration of vigour in Canning's foreign policy. His action at an earlier stage had prevented foreign intervention in Portugal, where a constitutional government had been established. Spain was occupied with a civil war of its own, but the royalists there now attempted also to interfere in Portugal. An appeal from the Regent was answered by the mobilisation of a British force and a warning that it would be despatched to Portugal unless the Spanish interference ceased. The measure was effective, and Portugal was left alone. A new parliament had just met at the beginning of 1827 when a paralytic stroke compelled the retirement of Lord Liverpool. To his exceptional capacities it was due that a Cabinet which contained so many irreconcilables had held together for so long.

Peel continued to associate himself with the old Tory element, which was exceedingly distrustful of both Canning and Huskisson, men who belonged to no aristocratic con­nection and represented ideas which were alarming to the old Toryism. Both were impressed with the evils resulting from the high price of corn maintained by the law of 1815. Both were strong advocates of Catholic Emancipation, which Was now becoming a burning question. A Catholic Relief Bill was passed by the House of Commons in 1826, but rejected by the Lords. The substitution of a "sliding scale" for the prohibitive Corn Law was carried and rejected in a like manner early in 1827. About the same time a resolution in favour of Catholic relief was defeated; and now, with a Cabinet whose members held irreconcilable views on leading questions of the day, a new ministry had to be formed. Canning was invited to form it, and a number of the leading Tories who had supported Liverpool immediately withdrew.

Death of Canning
Canning was obliged to enter on a virtual alliance with the Whigs, with whom he was in fact by this time very much more in sympathy than with the Tories. But he was not destined to prove whether or no his brilliant talents fitted him for the supreme office. Within four months of his acceptance of the position of Chief Minister, George Canning was dead leaving to posterity an elusive impression of brilliant but erratic genius splendid audacity, fiery patriotism, and a puzzling combination of apparently contradictory political principles.

For Canning, the advocate of political liberties abroad, was, like Castlereagh and Peel, the determined opponent of political reform at home. The consistent supporter of Catholic Emancipation would have nothing to say to the repeal of the Test Act. The enemy of the Holy Alliance defended the Six Acts and similar measures. In his own day he inspired affection, repulsion, admira­tion, enthusiasm, but never real confidence. He began public life with the reputation of a political adventurer; he ended it at the moment when the helm of the state had at last been placed in his hands. But he never had the opportunity of showing how he would have used his power.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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