Palmerston's Ministry 1858-1865
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
War in China
While the Indian Mutiny was still in progress the Chinese war was brought apparently to a conclusion. The French were associated in it with the British because, they had taken the opportunity to press demands of their own, and the Chinese governor, who defied the British, had issued a proclamation setting a price upon the heads of Frenchmen as well as Englishmen. In January 1858 Canton was captured. The Chinese government made no reply to peace proposals, so the Europeans attacked the Piho River, destroyed the forts which were intended to secure it, and advanced to Tien-tsin. There a treaty was concluded in June, by which the Chinese were forced to open' some additional ports and the rights and powers of jurisdiction of the foreigners were defined.
The announcement of the peace did not fall to the Palmerston Government, which had come to a sudden and unexpected end in February. An attempt was made upon the life of the French Emperor by throwing bombs under his carriage. The principal conspirator was a man named Orsini, who had been a refugee in England while the plan was concocted. In France there was great excitement and a clamour for severe repressive measures in England. Language of a highly aggressive and bombastic character was used, which created corresponding irritation among the British.
The Conspiracy to Murder Bill
Palmerston and Clarendon were the last men to yield on points where British honour and British interests were concerned; but Palmerston desired to remain on good terms with the Emperor, and there was obvious reason at the bottom of the clamour in France when the right of asylum in England for political refugees was utilised for the concoction of assassination plots. Lord Palmerston introduced what is known as the Conspiracy to Murder Bill. Conspiracy to murder was a capital offence in Ireland, but only a misdemeanour in England.
The bill proposed to make it both in England and Ireland a felony punishable by transportation or imprisonment with hard labour, without respect to the particular. country in which it was intended that the murder should be committed. But the country took it as a base submission to the threats of France, while advanced Liberals regarded it as a surrender of the right of asylum. The Government was defeated, and Palmerston resigned. For the second time Lord Derby took office, with Disraeli as the leader of the Conservative party in the House of Commons.
The India Act
The fall of the Palmerston ministry followed upon the introduction of a bill for transferring the government of India to the Crown. A new bill was now introduced, remarkably ingenious, but obviously open to the most hostile criticism; yet the Liberals, seriously shaken by the dissensions which had brought about the fall of the late administration, were by no means anxious to turn the new Government out, though they could hardly have avoided voting against the bill. Both parties, then, accepted Russell's proposal that the bill should be withdrawn, the sense of the House taken upon a series of resolutions, and a bill then introduced embodying the views which had found favour, the scheme not being treated as a party question at all. The plan was successfully followed; the India Act was passed, and the government of the great dependency was transferred to the Crown.
The Rise of Disraeli
For some years past there had been a growing inclination in the country to recognise the need of further parliamentary reform. Palmerston, however, with a considerable section of the Liberals, was by no means willing to proceed further, in the direction of democracy, and the question had more than once been shelved. But now the Conservatives were uneasily dominated by the personality of their brilliant leader in the House of Commons, Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli was a man of ideas, to an extent exceedingly rare among British politicians.
Those ideas were as remote as possible from the unimaginative conservatism, which views with alarm any possible change from that to which it has been accustomed, and remains blind to altering conditions, impervious to new facts. But he had thrown in his lot with the Conservative party; it was the instrument with which he had. to work, and he had to educate it into acceptance of his leadership along paths which it would never have dreamt of treading on its own account. Disraeli was not afraid of democracy, because he believed in his own power of leadership and in popular support as the strongest basis on which government can rest. He saw now his opportunity for transforming the Conservatives into the popular party, and came forward as the advocate of parliamentary reform, which the Liberals had successfully relegated to the background.
But Disraeli had not yet realised that he was too ingenious both for the old Tories and for the country at large. The Government bill was full of subtle devices which, in the eyes of a suspicious Opposition, were intended only to bring into the enlarged franchise classes whose interest it would be to vote for the Conservatives, while shutting out those who were likely to vote Liberal; whereas to cautious Conservatives it seemed fraught with democratic perils. The Reform Bill was thrown out, Lord Derby appealed to the country, and when the new Parliament met a vote of "no confidence" in the Government was immediately carried. Lord Derby resigned, Russell consented to serve under Palmerston with the charge of the Foreign Office, and an administration was formed which remained in power till Palmerston's death.
It was inevitable in the circumstances that the new Government should bring in a reform bill of its own. But as a matter of fact the country, the House, and the Cabinet were all apathetic. It was not difficult to find excuses for postponement, and the postponement was in effect a withdrawal. The question was once more shelved, and it was generally understood that it would not again be officially brought forward under Palmerston. The interest of domestic affairs during Palmerston's premiership centres almost entirely in the series of budgets by which. Gladstone, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, carried to completion the system of Free Trade which logically followed upon the financial policy of Sir Robert Peel. Incidentally one of Gladstone's finance bills foreshadowed the great collision between the two Houses of Parliament which was precipitated by another finance bill almost fifty years afterwards.
No effective movement was made in this direction in the 1859 budget, because the European situation was threatening, an increased expenditure was anticipated, and, instead of reducing taxation, Gladstone increased the income tax, a course which was held preferable to that of raising a loan. It was in effect becoming a recognised principle.that the year's expenditure should be met out of the year's revenue whenever the country was not actually at war. But before the next budget was introduced in 1860 a commercial treaty was entered upon with France which was negotiated by Richard Cobden, the great apostle of Free Trade.
Free Trade with France
Napoleon III himself was a believer in the economic doctrines which now held the field in England; but neither in France nor speaking generally in the rest of Europe were those doctrines accepted. The treaty, therefore, went just as far as the emperor could venture. Cobden and the free-traders themselves believed in the commercial advantage of abolishing all tariffs, whether foreign countries adopted the same system or no; although they anticipated that foreign countries would adopt the system and that British commerce would gain all the more, an anticipation which has not been fulfilled. But in form the commercial treaty was one of reciprocity; that is, France agreed to abolish prohibitions and to reduce the duties on practically all British goods, while no preference was to be given to goods from any other country. On the other hand, Britain removed the tariff on very nearly all imported goods.
This principle was embodied in the budget of 1860. Of the four hundred and nineteen articles still :oni the schedule all but forty-eight were struck off. Between 1845 and 1859 more than seven hundred had been removed. As regards the forty-eight articles now remaining, none of the duties were either preferential or protective; that is to say, the whole of the proceeds went directly to the revenue, all producers competing on equal terms so far as British taxation was concerned. In spite of the greatly diminished cost of collection, it was estimated that the immediate loss to revenue would exceed two millions, although the Chancellor of the Exchequer looked forward to increased receipts in the future from articles on which the duty was reduced., For the time, therefore, the full amount of the duties on tea and sugar was retained and the income tax was placed at tenpence.
At this date a very substantial item in the national revenue was derived from the tax upon paper, which it was now proposed to abolish. This was a demand which the Radicals had been urging, because the high price of paper stood in the way of the publication of cheap literature. From the high Conservative point of view the publication of cheap literature appeared to be not desirable but dangerous, since it would enable the lucubrations of agitators to be scattered broadcast. But, apart from this, it appeared at least questionable whether cheaper literature was needed more urgently than cheaper tea and sugar. Palmerston himself and many other Liberals viewed the proposal with anything but enthusiasm.
The Lords Interfere
The bill for the abolition of the paper duties was not incorporated with the rest of the financial proposals for the year in one bill, but stood by itself. It was passed in the House of Commons by a majority of fifty on the second reading, but on the third reading the majority dwindled to nine. The bill went up to the House of Lords. Since the days of the Stuarts the Lords had never interfered with a finance bill; but Lord Lyndhurst a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, now led the opposition to the paper bill, laying it down as the law of the constitution that, while the Lords might not amend a finance bill, they had the right of rejecting it in its entirety, and were therefore free to reject this particular bill if they thought fit. The Opposition were victorious, and the Lords threw out the bill by a large majority.
It is curious to find that the Prime Minister expressed to the Queen his own personal conviction beforehand that if the Lords rejected the bill they would deserve well of the country, although the Cabinet, of which he was the head, was responsible for it. Extreme indignation, however, was aroused by the action of the Lords, and a violent collision was only averted when Palmerston introduced in the House of Commons a series of resolutions, claiming that the Commons alone had the right of controlling supplies that the Lords' right of rejecting money bills was viewed with extreme jealousy by the Commons, and in effect that the remedy lay within the hands of the Commons themselves. Effect was given to the resolution by the Commons in the following year when the paper bill was incorporated with the rest of the budget. The Lords did not venture to throw out the budget in its entirety, and thus the abolition of the paper duties was carried. The right of the Lords to throw out a money bill was not again asserted until 1909.
End of Protectionism
The expansion of trade and the increase of revenue derived from the lowered duties were so remarkable that, in spite of increased expenditure on national defence, the income tax, the tea duties, and the sugar duties were all materially reduced in 1863 and 1864. The rapid increase in the national wealth may be realised from the fact that between 1842 and 1861 the assessments for income tax rose more than forty per cent; and the increase in the last eight years had been more than three times as great as that in the first ten. It was this enormous advance which completely established the almost universal conviction which prevailed throughout the rest of the century that Protectionism was absolutely dead and could never be revived.
In the summer of 1865 Parliament was dissolved after a life of six years. Several successes in bye-elections had produced an impression that the Conservatives would come back to Parliament in greatly increased numbers. But the anticipation was not fulfilled. Palmerston was still the most popular minister in the country; he commanded a great amount of support from Conservative sentiment, and his majority when the new Parliament met numbered more than sixty. But his reign was almost over. He was past eighty years of age; he had recently been suffering from ill-health; and in October he died, two days after his eighty-first birthday. The long truce was over; the battle of democracy was immediately to be renewed.