This week parliament returns after the summer recess with a new Prime Minister taking charge of the UK at one of the most turbulent times in recent political history. We take the opportunity to look at the challenges facing two former PMs whose papers are held by Special Collections…
Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington
Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington (1769–1852), became a national hero after successes against the French in the Peninsular War, 1808–14, and the Waterloo campaign, 1815. While he is best remembered for his military service, the Duke had a parallel political career. Starting as aide de camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1787, he sat in both the Irish and UK Parliaments, 1790–7 and 1806–9 respectively, and was Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1807-9.
His ability to manage the politics of the war was a crucial element in the success of his command in the wars against Napoleon and in the occupation of France, 1815–18. The Duke returned to Britain and politics, taking a seat in Lord Liverpool’s Cabinet in 1818 as Master General of the Ordnance. However, in post-war politics he was characterised as a reactionary, and his reputation waxed and waned through the debates on Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform.
Wellington became Prime Minister in 1828. One of his first achievements was overseeing Catholic emancipation, the most significant measure of which was the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 which permitted members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster. Wellington had been converted to the cause when he came to realise the role emancipation could play in ending the conflict which had arisen from the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland in 1801. However, there was strong opposition to the bill which was seen as a threat to both the Protestant constitution and the supremacy of the Church of England. Lord Winchilsea, a popular hero of Protestant constitutionalists, was one of those hostile to the bill and his criticism of Wellington led to a duel between the two men which took place in Battersea Park in March 1829. They both deliberately missed each other in firing, and honour was satisfied.
In a letter dated 22 March 1829, Jeremy Bentham remonstrates with Wellington for fighting the duel:
Ill-advised man! Think of the confusion, in which the whole fabric of government would have been thrown had you been killed or had the trial of you for the murder of another man been substituted in the House of Lords to the passing of the emancipation Bill!
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/1004/17]
By 1830 the need for parliamentary reform was gaining broad support. The current system was recognised as neither representative nor balanced, with many urban areas underrepresented and qualifications for voting limited. When the issue was raised in Parliament on 2 November, Wellington took a strong stance against reform, defending the existing system and refusing to support expansion of the political franchise. His anti-reform position led a high degree of personal and political unpopularity.
The same year saw the Swing Riots, centred in many areas on the economic difficulties of agricultural labourers, with machine-breaking and rural unrest. The fictitious Captain Swing also expressed general discontent with the Wellington government and lack of progress with the popular cause of reform. The Wellington papers contain a series of letters attributed to Swing in which the Duke is threaten, including the following, dated 4 November 1830:
Sir, Your base vile conduct to and treatment of your fellow subjects, your determination to turn a deaf ear to their remonstrances, has made you an object of popular vengeance and of popular hatred.
Take my advice, act openly and nobly as becomes a Briton: reform that vile nest of corruption which is bred in Downing Street, destroy those vultures that prey on the public liver or beware! I say beware! Beware! Beware!
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/1159/93]
Later that month, on 15 November 1830, Wellington was forced to resign after he was defeated in a motion of no confidence. He was replaced by Earl Grey, leading a Whig government, and continued to fight reform in opposition before finally consenting to the Great Reform Bill in 1832.
Wellington briefly returned to the role of Prime Minister in 1834 while waiting for Peel to return from the Continent, after which he held the positions of Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. Much of his later political career was spent leading the Conservative peers in the House of Lords, and he sat in Peel’s Cabinet of 1841–6 as a minister without portfolio. He was Commander-in-Chief of the army for the third time from 1842 until his death: on earlier occasions conflict with his political duties brought his tenure of office to an abrupt conclusion. Nonetheless he remained popular in the mind of the nation. His death in 1852 was marked by unprecedented scenes of public mourning and, as befitted his status as a national hero, Wellington was given a state funeral.
Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston
The renown of Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston (1784–1865), rests on his service in high political office: he was Foreign Secretary, 1830–4, 1835–41 and 1846–51; Home Secretary, 1852–5; and Prime Minister, 1855–8, 1859–65. These posts he held in Whig/Liberal governments. He had formerly served in Tory administrations, as a junior minister — a Lord of the Admiralty in 1807–9 and Secretary at War, 1809–28, joining Wellington’s cabinet for an uneasy five months in the last year, departing with Huskisson after disagreements with Wellington on foreign affairs and parliamentary reform. The Duke had said little to Palmerston at the end, reporting later that ‘he did not choose to fire great guns at sparrows.’ While Palmerston’s commitment to service can be seen in terms of national rather than party interest, he became increasingly reliant on Liberal support, especially during his time as Prime Minister.
Palmerston was serving as Home Secretary when the Crimean War broke out in March 1854. As such, he had limited control over British policy during the lead up to the war. In a memorandum, date 20 January 1855, he writes of the “present lamentable condition of our army in the Crimea” and places the blame directly on those in authority. [MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR22(i)/1/96] Palmerston’s view that poor administration was to blame for the current state of the war was widely shared. Shortly after Parliament passed a bill to investigate the conduct of the war, Lord Aberdeen was compelled to resign as Prime Minister. Despite Queen Victoria’s reservations, Palmerston was generally seen as the best man for the job and was invited to form a government on 4 February 1855.
Palmerston was over 70 when he finally became Prime Minister, a position he was to hold almost continuously from 1855 until his death in October 1865. On his accession to the premiership, the resolution of the Crimean conflict was a pressing concern. Palmerston took a hard line on the war with the aim of permanently reducing the Russian threat to Europe. Following the surrender of Sebastopolin in September 1855, Russia came to terms and the war ended in the spring of 1856 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 30 March.
During the remainder of his first term in office Palmerston oversaw British responses to Second Opium War in China, beginning in 1856 when Chinese authorities’ seized a British-registered ship engaged in piracy, and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The following year, an assassination attempt on Napoleon III by Italian republican Felice Orsini led Palmerston to introduce a Conspiracy Bill, making it a felony to conspire in Britain to murder someone outside the jurisdiction. The bill was defeated on its second reading and Palmerston was forced to resign in February 1858. However, Lord Derby’s subsequent minority government was short lived and resigned after only one year. In reply to a letter from Disraeli asking him to join a Conservative led administration, Palmerston writes:
I am very much obliged to you for the kind and friendly terms of your letter, and if I say in answer that many reasons which it is unnecessary to go into would prevent me from entering into such an arrangement as that which you suggest might be possible, I trust it is needless for me to assure you that no want of personal good feeling towards Lord Derby or yourself, or towards any others members of your government, could form a part of those reasons.
[MS 62 Palmerston Papers GC/DI/140]
Palmerston formed a Liberal government the following month, returning to power in June 1859. His second terms saw his support for Italian unification during the period 1859-61 and commitment to British neutrality during the course of the American Civil War, despite his personal sympathies lying with the secessionist Southern Confederacy. While he was strongly opposed to slavery and the slave trade, he had a fraught relationship with the United States throughout his career and felt that successful Southern secession was in Britain’s best interests. In a letter to Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Secretary of State for War, dated 30 December , he writes of the likelihood of an attempted invasion of Canada by the Northern States:
I cannot say that I believe there is much real danger of an American invasion of Canada. They are making no progress towards the subjugation of the South, and if they were to gain some decisive victories, and compel the south to sign a treaty, they would be compelled to occupy the country with troops, in order to prevent rebellion from again raising its head. At the same time, the language of the Washington government is so insolent and menacing, and their demands so unreasonable, that they may at any moment render it impossible for us to avoid war any longer.
[MS 62 Palmerston Papers GC/LE/167]
Having served fifteen years as Foreign Secretary, foreign policy continued to be Palmerston’s main strength during his time as Prime Minister. However, in terms of domestic policy, he oversaw the passage of important legislation, including reform of the divorce laws in 1857, the Companies Acts of 1858 and 1862, Offences against the Person Act of 1861, and the Poor Law Act of 1865.
Three months after winning another general election in July 1865, Palmerston died on 18 October, aged 80. He was the fourth person not of royalty to be granted a state funeral, after Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Nelson, and the Duke of Wellington.