The first steamboat, the Comet, on the Clyde, from a print of 1812
The first steamboat, the Comet, on the Clyde, from a print of 1812

[Here the author refers back to the Reform Bill of 1831]

The more flagrant anomalies of the old Parliamentary system were destroyed by the great Reform Bill in response to a strong national demand. The effect was to put an end to the immense preponderance of political influence hitherto possessed by the landowners and to transfer the balance of power to the manufacturing and trading classes.

The working man was still excluded from the franchise, and property, after its first extreme alarm, again began to breathe freely. The concession to the middle classes had in fact set up a new barrier against a wider democratic movement, and although the working classes were angry and dissatisfied, the middle classes in the main held the government of the country in their own hands for six-and-thirty years, during which the old party titles of Whig and Tory were generally displaced by the new labels of Liberal and Conservative.

During most of those years Liberals were in office, and the foreign policy of the Government was controlled by Lord Palmerston, an Irish peer who sat in the House of Commons as the representative of an English constituency.

Palmerston stood for the Canning tradition and the Canning interpretation of non-intervention in the affairs of the European States; an interpretation which claimed for Britain the right of intervening to prevent intervention by others, and by no means permitted the voice of Britain to be ignored in the councils of Europe, though she was only once involved in a European war as a consequence.

Palmerston also established the second tradition of Victorian foreign policy of regarding Russian aggression as the great danger to be guarded against, with its corollary of preserving the integrity of the Turkish dominion.

One problem eternally vexed the souls of British statesmen, the problem of persistent discontent and disorder in Ireland, which broke up more than one ministry and seemed no nearer settlement at the end of the period than at its beginning. A second problem, however, was to be so thoroughly settled that for half a century it practically disappeared from the field of political discussion. This was the question of Free Trade, which may be called the principle of laissez-faire as applied to commerce.

But in those questions which presented themselves as social there was no essential dividing line between parties; although the stronger hold which the laissez-faire doctrine had taken upon Liberals than upon Conservatives upon the manufacturing than upon the landed interests, made the latter rather than the former advocates of state intervention.

The general election which followed the Reform Bill brought back to Westminster a Parliament with a considerable Liberal majority. Lord Grey remained at the head of the ministry until the midsummer of 1834, when he and some of his colleagues resigned in connection with the Irish question, and a reconstructed Liberal ministry was led for some months by Lord Melbourne.

That ministry was terminated by the last exercise of the king's right to dismiss ministers on his own responsibility. Peel took office, but a general election still gave the Opposition a Parliamentary majority; Peel resigned in April. Melbourne returned to office, and remained at the head of the Government, except for a brief interregnum during 1839, until 1841.

Peel back in power - briefly
In that year he was displaced by a Conservative administration under Sir Robert Peel, who at the end of 1845 broke up his party by proposing the repeal of the Corn Law, which was carried in the following year. Peel resigned, his Government having been defeated on an Irish question, and the Liberals, by whose aid the Corn Bill had been carried, returned to power under the leadership of Lord John Russell.

Practically, therefore, during the twenty years which followed the Reform Bill Liberals were in office except during the five years of Peel's administration, and the most prominent feature of that administration was the gradual adoption by the Premier of a policy to which the bulk of his own party was opposed while its principles were in favour with the Liberals.

Victoria comes to the throne
In the fifth year of the reformed Parliament there occurred an event of primary importance in the development of the British constitutional system. William IV died, and was succeeded on the throne by a girl of eighteen. William had played his own part, it may be said, successfully, without attempting to exercise questionable constitutional influence, however strong his personal feelings might be.

He was indubitably within his con­stitutional rights in his effort to avoid a creation of peers and in his dismissal of Melbourne's ministry; but it was a very grave question whether his successor would follow his example. Failing the young princess, the next heir to the throne was the Duke of Cumberland, notoriously a reactionary of a dangerous type, whose accession might have led to a repetition of 1688.

But the young princess who succeeded to the throne had been trained to a very high sense of duty; she became at once the political pupil of Lord Melbourne, who taught her the ideals of a constitutional monarch, and she was happy in marrying a German prince whose sense of duty was as high as her own, and who proved himself capable of learning to grasp constitutional conceptions remote enough from those known to any German court.

A sentiment of chivalrous kindliness toward a young girl placed in a very difficult position revived the latent loyalty of her people, which was fostered and developed by her own admirable character and conduct. And this girl was destined to reign for sixty-four years, during which the principles of British con­stitutionalism became too firmly established to be easily shaken Whether by revolutionists or by reactionaries.

The loss of Hanover
Another point, however, must be noted in connection with the accession of the queen to the throne. In Hanover, which, after 1815, had been erected into a kingdom instead of an electorate, there was a male succession, and the crown of Hanover on William's death passed not to the new queen but to the dead king's brother, the Duke of Cumberland. So ended the political link between Britain and Hanover, and British interests were no longer involved in essentially German problems as they had inevitably been during the period of the Union.

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 views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age