Robert Peel's Administration 1841-1845
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
A very large amount of Peel's support inside and outside the House came from the landed interest, which was extremely averse from any tampering with the Corn Laws, which in their eyes gave too little rather than too much protection to the agricultural body on whose prosperity that of the nation depended. On the other hand, among the manufacturing class especially, the Anti-Corn-Law League had been developing the conviction that the high price of corn was the root cause of the general distress. Peel dealt with the Corn Law by providing a new sliding scale, of which the primary object was to prevent violent fluctuations of price while ensuring a tolerably remunerative minimum. With corn at fifty shillings a quarter or less there was to be a twenty shilling duty on the foreign import. With corn at seventy-five shillings or more there was to be no duty. Between these two points there was to be a graduated reduction of duty as the price rose. A preference was also given, in the form of lower duties, to colonial as against foreign corn. Amendments on the one side in favour of abolishing the duty, and of making it more stringent on the other, were defeated by overwhelming majorities, and the official Liberal amendment in favour of a fixed duty fared not very much better. But there -were some who believed that Peel already in the bottom of his heart was a convert to the views of the League, though he was still trying to persuade himself that his convictions were unchanged.
The new sliding scale at any rate shelved the Corn Law question for a time. But the problem of providing public revenue was serious. Year after year the Liberal budgets had ended in deficits, which had not been removed by attempts to enlarge the revenue either by the increase or by the diminution of duties. Some fresh source of taxation must be found or some old source again called into play. In this fateful year Peel revived the Income Tax, which Pitt had introduced for the purpose of the great war, but which had been swept aside, as justified only by war, soon after the peace. Peel himself regarded it now only as an emergency tax which would cease to be necessary when trade revived. He anticipated its disappearance in five years' time. Many Chancellors of the Exchequer have indulged in similar anticipations and all have been doomed to a similar disappointment. Not till the twentieth century did it come to be recognised in form as well as in fact as a permanent source of revenue, though it has never been remitted since 1842.
One purpose of the income tax was to tide over a period during which the revenue was to suffer immediate loss for the sake of future gain by the reduction of duties on imports. Out of twelve hundred articles on which a duty was at this time levied nearly two-thirds were to have the existing duty reduced; it was expected that after three years the return to the revenue would become greater instead of smaller, but that in the meanwhile the loss would amount to not much less than the receipts from the income tax, which was fixed at 7d. in the pound. The sugar duty was retained unaltered. The Opposition were able to point to the inconsistency of reducing a very large number of taxes for the benefit of the consumer with very little regard to the producer's interest, coupled with the retention of the heavy taxes on corn and sugar, which put money into the pockets of the landed interest, on whose political support the Government depended, and of the wealthy planters whose influence was of great value to them. There was also not a little grumbling on the part of the home producer of goods on which the duties were reduced. Peel, however, was strong enough to override the opposition both of opponents of the Corn Law and of the advocates of higher protective tariffs.
The second Chartist Petition
The next budget of importance came three years later in 1845. Meanwhile, apart from Ireland, which was a constant thorn in the side of every government, Chartism and legislation with regard to labour had again compelled attention. In 1842 the second great Chartist petition was presented demanding the "six points" and protesting against what it described as "class legislation." It was evident enough that the petitioners expected by the acquisition of political power, through the six points of the Charter, to be able to subvert the existing order of society in the supposed interests of the working class; and it was this expectation on their part which more than anything else inspired in the dominant classes a dread of any extension of popular power. As before, the House refused to give the petitioners a hearing. The result was that later in the same year there were serious Chartist riots which necessitated the intervention of the military; but the Government measures were effective, and the Chartists themselves became more and more definitely divided into Physical Force men and Moral Force men who relied upon constitutional agitation in preference to the methods of violence.
The Collieries Bill
Althorp's Factory Act had been directed exclusively to the protection of children in textile factories. Now public sentiment was horrified by the report of a commission on the conditions of labour in the coalfields. An appalling state of things was revealed, in which large numbers of women were engaged in hard underground labour for which they were totally unfitted, and which could not but be ruinous not only to their own health, but to the physique of the next generation. No less intolerable was the overextensive employment of quite young children in similar occupations which to the present generation would be simply inconceivable. So intense was the public feeling aroused that, when Lord Ashley introduced his Collieries Bill to exclude all females and all boys under thirteen from underground work, it was carried in the House of Commons without a division.
The Act for the first time brought women as well as children within the scope of legislation. Arguments for the protection of children, it was seen applied in principle to the protection of women. They were not free agents, and could make no terms for themselves. The question of their treatment affected not only themselves but that of the physical and mental degeneration of the race. Accordingly, after two abortive attempts a new amending Factory Act was passed in 1844, which reduced the working hours of children to half-time in a day of fifteen hours in factories, and restricted to twelve the working hours of women as well as of young persons.
The budget of 1845 showed a marked advance in the direction of Free Trade, of which there had been some warning in the previous year. Export duties were to be abolished, as well as duties on the import of four hundred and thirty articles of raw material. The very considerable gain to the manufacturing interest did not make the budget satisfactory to. the high Protectionists, and Disraeli denounced the Government as an "organised hypocrisy"; but the support which Peel lost from his own party he recovered from members of the Opposition, and the budget was carried by large majorities. At the same time a breach between the minister and many of his Conservative followers was widened by his Irish policy; and Ireland was now to be the decisive factor first in determining his complete conversion to the doctrines of the Anti-Corn-Law League and then in putting an end to his administration.
Famine in Ireland
A tremendous visitation of the potato blight entirely ruined the potato crop in Ireland, and brought not merely destitution but starvation in its train. In November Peel proposed to his Cabinet the suspension, which every one knew must mean the abolition, of the duties on imported corn, since the provision of cheap food had become an absolute necessity. All but a section of the Cabinet was obdurate. Peel in the circumstances hesitated to introduce a measure which involved an entire reversal of the principles he had maintained when he took office. The thing should be done by the Opposition, though with the support of himself and his followers. He resigned, but Russell failed to form a ministry. Peel resumed office with a Free Trade programme and with an opposition to that programme which was now confined to the extreme Protectionists, led nominally by Lord George Bentinck but in fact by Benjamin Disraeli. The duties on very nearly all raw materials were to be abolished, as well as on sundry articles of manufacture. On many others they were to be-largely reduced. The corn duties were to disappear in three years' time except for a fixed registration charge of one shilling. In the interval, to soften the blow to the agricultural interest, there was to be a low sliding scale ranging from ten shillings when wheat was at forty-eight shillings a quarter or less to four shillings when it. was at fifty-four shillings or more. In May the Corn Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons; the Lords followed the lead of the Duke of Wellington and passed the third reading on June 25th.
But on the same day a Coercion Bill for Ireland was defeated in the House of Commons by a combination of Liberals who were opposed to the bill in principle and Protectionists who bad clamoured for it but were determined to wreck the administration. They succeeded. But the Corn Bill received the royal assent; Peel's task was done; he resigned, and Lord John Russell accepted the task of forming a ministry.