Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXII.: the protectionists in office. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XXII.: the protectionists in office. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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the protectionists in office.
Lord Palmerston himself took a very different view. He reckoned confidently that the nation would not forget his power in foreign affairs. He knew that it did him more good than harm to figure as the victim of the Germanism of the Court. He saw that the press of the country was almost boisterously on his side. Finally, he perceived like everybody else that the Ministry could not get through the session, and would probably not stand long after the meeting of Parliament.1 His opportunity came within a few days. He had his tit-for-tat with John Russell—so he wrote—and turned him out by carrying an amendment in the Militia Bill, which the Minister took as a vote of want of confidence. Lord John Russell immediately resigned (February 23), and the first administration of the Earl of Derby took the place of the last administration of pure Whigs.
In Cobden’s eyes the policy of the Militia Bill, and the accession to power of the Protectionists, were equally startling and equally ill-omened. One event certainly showed a revival of the military spirit, and the other for some time was seriously believed to threaten a reaction against Free 1852.
If Cobden found little support from either the House of Commons or the country for his opinions on war and arma1852.
“House of Commons, Feb. 28. (To George Wilson.)— Whilst I am writing, Stanley [Lord Derby] is still speaking, but from what I hear, his plan is to hold the Corn question in suspense, on the plea of other grave Parliamentary affairs, and admitting himself in a minority in the Commons, to do nothing unless forced to a dissolution by what he calls a factious opposition. The House of Commons is always afraid of a dissolution, and this threat may not be without its influences on Members. But it appears to me that our course is clear. We must not allow the country to be kept both in its agricultural and manufacturing interests in hot water and confusion for a year. We must challenge to instant combat, and memorialize the Queen from all parts of the country to dissolve. This will give courage and confidence to our friends, and prevent the Members of the 1852.
“London, Feb. 28. (To George Wilson.)—Further reflection, and the perusal of Lord Derby’s speech, have confirmed me in my views. We must go for memorials to the Queen for a dissolution. We must mix up no other question with it, because no other will interest the public till it is settled. We may talk of Reform in Parliament, but I would have no resolution excepting upon our own question. There should be one resolution affirming our determination to renew the League agitation, if necessary to maintain Free Trade inviolate; and another expressing the wish of the meeting for the interests of all concerned, to have the question for ever settled by an appeal to the country, and therefore praying the Queen to dissolve as soon as the forms of Parliament admit. I have my doubts yet, whether Lord Derby will dare to go to the country on the bread question; but if he should, he will find nine-tenths of the men, women, and children even in the rural districts dead against him. There is no doubt as to the result of a dissolution. Free Trade is stronger in the agricultural districts amongst the mass of the people, than you perhaps imagine in Manchester. There need not be too much sound and fury in our proceedings. The very apparition of the League will settle the question. In fact it is the only thing that all parties at headquarters are afraid of.”
A couple of days after this letter, the Council of the League me in their old quarters at Manchester. Crowds from all parts of the country thronged into the great room of Newall’s Buildings, and as one familiar face after another was recognized, the assembly became almost as animated as when the great struggle was at its height. Cobden moved1852.
“Manchester, March 3. (To Mrs. Cobden.)—The meeting was all I could wish in point of influence, numbers, and earnestness. But it struck me that people with difficulty realise in their minds the necessity of another effort to secure Free Trade. However the blow will I expect tell decisively.”
“March 5. (To Mrs. Cobden)—The feeling in the West-Riding of Yorkshire is most intense amongst the working class. They will never allow the Corn Law to be reimposed.”
“London, March 11. (To Mr. Sturge.)—I am not sure that I correctly interpret your letter to mean that you prefer to let Lord Derby remain in office for fear of seeing back the Whigs. My object is to settle the Free Trade question for ever, and to clear the ground for other questions. If in 1852.
“I have watched naturally the tone of the press upon the late (as I think monstrous) proposal to increase our armaments. It is decidedly against us. I do not speak of the dailies, but of the weekly papers; and I do not allude to such papers as the Examiner or Spectator, but to the Weekly Dispatch, read by artisans and small shopkeepers, and the Illustrated Weekly News, a thorough middle-class print. By these and such as these I have been denounced and put out of the pale of practical statesmanship for opposing an increase of armaments. I care nothing for this, because I prefer to enjoy the pleasure of advocating my own views to the prospects of office. But how many public men who have ambition to gratify will range themselves alongside of us, so long as the press is thus opposed to them? To change the press, we must change public opinion. And, Mind, when I speak of the press I speak of those weekly papers which are really supported by the people.
“Never was the military spirit half so rampant in this country since the Peace as at present. Look at the late news from Rangoon.4 Nobody inquires why we killed 3001852.
“March. 20. (To J. Sturge.)—As you will have seen by Lord Derby’s speech in the Lords, the present Government will carry a Militia Bill if they can. It is the question upon which they will try to raise a discussion in the House with a view to gain time. And Lord John Russell and his party are so hampered with pledges upon the subject, that they cannot offer any opposition to at least an introduction of the measure. Therefore you must not relax in your efforts to prevent the scheme from being carried out. The invasion panic seems pretty nearly forgotten.”
“London, March 20. (To George Wilson.)—...The Derby-Disraelites are not going to give up their berths in a hurry, and they would be fools if they did so, for they are opposed to an Opposition whose leaders have not the pluck (and Dizzy’s insolence shows that he knows it) to stop the supplies. I have been in constant communication with Lord John and Graham, but they are not the men to strike the 1852.
“There is now no doubt that the Protectionists are slipping away from their principles at a gallop, and we shall be in danger of wasting our strength in firing ball cartridges at a dead lion.”
“London, March 23. (To George Wilson.)—I have done all I possibly could with Lord John to induce him to act with more vigour. He is hampered with pledges and opinions given or expressed to the Queen or Lord Derby when he went out of office, which prevent him from taking a leading part in advocating an immediate dissolution of Parliament. And yet, as you will have seen, he is in no way inclined to let anybody else lead our side of the House.
“I have spoken in the same way to Sir James Graham, who has been in consultation with his colleagues of the late Peel party, and I have a long letter from him explaining1852.
“What are you doing? You ought at once to make out a list of those places which are safe, and waste no attention or money on them. Then look to places like Sunderland, Liverpool, Lincoln, Boston, where there will be Protectionists standing, and there you ought to concentrate your strength by distribution of telling tracts and handbills. Not caricatures or poetry or sarcasm, but brief and pithy facts, for in those places people are not up to the mark. Pictorial tracts or handbills are good, but they should be pictorial facts, not caricatures.”
“May 5. (To J. Sturge.)—I am not quite sure yet that we may not draw the sting from the Militia Bill, and make it so different a thing in Committee that its author may repudiate it. It is thought that the present Government is vexed at having to carry the measure through, and they will be far more sick of it before we have done with them. Last night, or rather this morning at one o’clock, in the heat of the strife Disraeli was drawn into another Protectionist avowal, which will embarrass him again. In fact the Militia Bill seems destined to bring no end of trouble upon all Governments who meddle with it, and we shall do our best to make the present ministers sick of their adopted child. It is the wretched Whigs alone who render such bad measures possible. But Lord John seems to have paid an ample penalty.”
The elections for a new Parliament extended over the month of July. Cobden and his Conservative colleague again divided the representation of the West Riding without a contest. Mr. Gibson and Mr. Bright won at Manchester by handsome majorities. Taken broadly the strength of parties had not shifted, and there was no approach to such a change as would have justified a reversal of the policy of Free Trade. The Government gained strength enough to resist a vote of want of confidence, if it should be proposed, but not strength enough to carry their measures. What shrewd observers like Lord Palmerston expected was that they would be beaten upon some fanciful scheme for relieving everybody without increasing anybody’s burdens, “which would be speedily seen to be too mountebankish to be practicable.”5 This is what actually happened. Meanwhile Cobden and his friends did not relax their vigilance.
“Midhurst, August 18. (To George Wilson.)—If you have money in hand, would it not be well to keep it until we have fairly disposed of the Protectionist party? The Government ought to be driven to avow Free Trade opinions,1852.
“Midhurst, Sept. 14, 1852. (To Mr. Sturge.)—I hold, that before you can rationally hope to reduce the army or the navy, you must bring the public mind to agree to the abolition of the militia. And I should also, with all due deference say, that until we can recover this lost ground for the Peace party in England, it will be a little inconsistent in us to travel abroad to teach our doctrines to other nations. The establishment of the militia was a disastrous defeat sustained by the Peace party, and until we can regain our position of 1851, it is useless to think of getting back to 1835. How are we to take this step and thus recover our lost position? I repeat by acquiring some influence in the Counties, for it was by the votes of county members in opposition to a majority of the representatives of boroughs that the measure was passed. And if you have watched the announcements in the Gazette since the passing of the law, you must have seen the sinister influences which were at work to carry the Bill. Have you marked the shoal of deputy-lieutenants created as a part of the working machinery of the law? Every magistrate almost in these parts has been gazetted as a deputy-lieutenant, and is of course entitled to appear at Court with his official costume and cocked hat and feathers. Then have you observed the 1852.
Sept. 20. (To Mr. Sturge.)—The death of the Duke6 would, one thinks, tend to weaken the military party. But, if the spirit survive, it will find its champions. After all if the country will do such work as Wellington was called on to perform, I don’t know that it could find a more honest instrument. He hated jobs and spoke the truth (the very opposite of Marlborough), and although he grew rich in the service, it was by the voluntary contributions of the Parliament and Government. If he had been told to help himself at the Exchequer, his modesty and honesty would never have allowed him to take as much as was forced upon him. I, who saw with what frenzy of admiration he was welcomed by all classes at the Exhibition, can never honestly admit that in what the Legislature and Government had done for him, they had exceeded the wishes of the nation. Let us hope that a more rational sentiment may be promoted amongst us, but we are slow to learn. At this moment we are doing more than any other people to keep up the vast peace armaments of which we complain..... Can you in the face of such facts travel to the Continent to advocate a reduction of establishments?”
“Midhurst, October 4. (To J. Wilson.)—It having been decided to hold a meeting,7 there is nothing more to be said1852.
Parliament met on the 4th of November, but it was the 11th before the preliminary formalities were over. The Queen’s 1852.
The process, however, took a little time, and was attended with some difficulties. “I am sorry to say,” Cobden wrote a few days later (November 18), “I think it is quite impossible under any circumstances that I can be released before the 10th December. If even the Government were upset, there would still be certain things to be done which would take till that time. This has been luckily a very fine day. I have not been near the line of procession.8 But Sale and Henry Ashworth have both called since it was over, and they think people are disappointed. It is the last piece of paganism of the kind that will ever be performed in this country, for I hear everybody in private in the House (even Tories) condemn it. But nobody dares to speak out in public.
“You will see by the paper that on Thursday Dizzy is to move an amendment to Villiers’s address. Altogether, what with this inconsistent declaration of Free Trade principles coming from their own party, and this escapade of Disraeli’s on moving the address for Wellington’s funeral,9 the Pro1852.
“Nov. 24 (To J. Wilson.)—We have a fresh complication in the House, owing to Palmerston having played us a trick in moving a new amendment. The Whigs are very indignant, and the Liberals are now confessing that we found him out some years ago, and they now call him a traitor and worse. It is impossible to say how matters will go.”
The story of these final manœuvres need not detain us. It was indispensable to pin the Ministers to an explicit acceptance of the policy of Free Trade. The Ministers were willing to give the require pledge, but they sought to escape the humiliation of a formal confession that the legislation which they had resisted with an obstinacy and a rancour unsurpassed in political history, had been wise, just, and beneficial. These were the “there odious epithets,” as Mr. Disraeli styled them, with which Mr. Villiers asked the House by their resolution to stamp the Act of 1846. To call the policy just was particularly unpalatable, because if it was just, then what wrong was left for compensation? Mr. Disraeli deprecated this revival of the cries of exhausted factions and obsolete politics. He proposed a resolution which while acknowledging the effect of recent legislation in cheapening 1852.
This was a manly statement of the case. The interests of political morality demanded that the Protectionists should either be forced publicly to recant an error which they had upheld with so much stupidity and so much virulence, and in some cases with such unscrupulous hypocrisy and want of principle, or else that on this issue, and no other, they should be driven from power. But the complex play of party combinations seldom permits these plain and unsophisticated courses. It did not suit Lord Palmerston that the Government should be turned out too soon. His plans for the succession were not ripe. A hurried crisis might make Lord John Russell again Prime Minister, and unde him Lord Palmerston was resolved not to serve. A little more time was needed to clear this up, and accordingly with a view of saving the Ministry from a repulse which would for his purposes have been premature, Lord Palmerston suggested a third form of resolution which would con tent Liberals, and which Protectionists might swallow. It1852.
The field was now clear of Mr. Disraeli’s Budget. It had been awaited with eager expectation. The Government was without weight, but it was not unpopular. There was no general anxiety to see the Whigs back again. A miracle of financial talent might still save the Ministry, though it had neither political principles nor administrative experience. There was a vivid curiosity of a personal and dramatic kind. Men wondered how the skilful gladiator would acquit himself, who had never been in office until he was made leader of the House of Commons. In a few hours after Mr. Disraeli had stated his plans, it seemed as if they were a success. One thing at any rate was clear; Free Trade was safe. “The Budget,” Cobden wrote to Mr. George Wilson, the day after Mr. Disraeli’s speech (December 4), “has finally closed the controversy with Protection. Dizzy has in the most impudent way thrown over the ‘local burdens,’ as he did before a fixed duty.1 The League may be dissolved when you like.”
When the discussion on the ministerial proposals opened 1852.
See Mr. Ashley’s Life of Lord Palmerston, ii. 218.
Manchester, Feb. 23, 1851.
Cobden usually tried to get one salient fact into a speech. On this occasion he mentioned a fact that he described as comprising almost their main case:—” Since the day when we laid down our arms there has been imported into this country in grain and flour of all kinds an amount of human subsistence equal to upwards of 50,000,000 of quarters of grain—a larger quantity than had been imported from foreign countries during the thirty-one years preceding 1846—that is, from the peace of 1815 down to the time at which we brought our labours to a close. Now, gentlemen, in that one fact is comprised our case. You have had, at the lowest computation, 5,000,000 of your countrymen, or countrywomen, or children, subsisting on the corn that has been brought from foreign countries. And what does that say? What does it say of the comfort you have brought to the homes of those families? What does it say of the peace and prosperity and security of domestic life in those homes, where 50,000,000 of quarters of grain extra have been introduced, and where, but for your exertions, the inmates might have been left either in hopeless penury or subsisting on potatoes?”
This was the beginning of the Second Burmese War, which Cobden dealt with in the following year in his pamphlet, How Wars are got up in India. See Collected Writings, vol. ii.
Lord Palmerston, in Mr. Ashley’s Life, ii. 247, 248.
The Duke of Wellington died on the 14th of September.
A great meeting of the League party in Manchester, in opposition to the Derby-Disraeli ministry.
The Duke of Wellington’s funeral.
Mr. Disraeli in his funeral oration on the duke introduced bodily a passage from a panegyric delivered by M. Thiers many years before on Marshal Gouvion de Saint Cyr. It had already appeared in an article in the Morning Chronicle in 1848; but the writer, a brilliant man well known in society, came forward to say that it was Mr. Disraeli who had called his attention to the passage from Thiers. The “escapade” was singular and it was certainly unfortunate, but men of letters, who know the tricks that memory is capable of playing, will hardly think it incapable of fair explanation.
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that he was not going to recommend any change whatever in the system of raising the local taxes, a good deal of loud and derisive triumph was exhibited on the other side. “Oh,” said Mr. Disraeli with composure, “there are greater subjects for us to consider than the triumph of obsolete opinions.”