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To What Extent Was Whig/Liberal Dominance 1846-68 a Result of Their Free Trade Agenda

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To what extent was Whig/Liberal dominance in the period 1846-68 a result of their free trade agenda? Between the years 1846 and 1868, the Conservative party was only in power for a total of just under four years – 1852, 1858-97 and 1866-68. Throughout these short-lived periods, they were never able to achieve a majority and this illustrates and defines the extent of Whig/Liberal dominance in this period.

Their dominance was without doubt partially as a result of their free-trade agenda, but other factors, such as other policies the grouping made in this period, the gravitation of the Peelites towards the Whigs, the growth of popular Liberalism, the work of specific individuals and the weakness of the Conservatives also caused their dominance in this period. Whig/Liberal dominance in the period 1846-68 was, without doubt, caused to some extent as a result of their free trade agenda.

In 1849 the Navigation Acts, which restricted the nationality of ships carrying British trade, were abolished, thereby causing a huge increase in the number of ships carrying British trade and thus, an increase in British exports. The Companies Acts of 1858 and 1862 played vital roles in bringing more investment into Britain as they limited the liability of the ordinary shareholder and laid out precise rules for companies about their registration and accounts. In the period 1859-65, whilst Gladstone was Chancellor of the Exchequer, income tax was reduced from 9d in the pound to 6d in the pound, and only payable by those earning over ? 00 per annum. This meant that ordinary people had more money in their pocket to spend and put back into the British economy. Gladstone also managed to abolish paper duties in 1861, meaning that the cost of newspapers and magazines fell and ordinary people were able to buy them. He also worked consistently to remove almost all duties on imported goods into Britain. Finally, the Cobden-Chevalier treaty, signed in 1860, was an integral part of the Whig/Liberals’ free trade agenda in this period.

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Anglo-French relations had been strained in the years leading up to 1860 with French expansion into Italy, and Gladstone agreed with free trader Richard Cobden that signing a free-trade treaty with France would ease the political tension. He was right, and the treaty helped to double British exports to France in the next 10 years as it reduced the duties British manufacturers and coal owners had to pay when importing to France. As Philip Magnus writes in his biography of Gladstone, ‘the repeal of so many duties helped to reduce the cost of living. People had more money in their pocket as a result of the Whig/Liberals’ policy, so naturally supported them. The free-trade agenda helped the emerging Whig/Liberal party to win the support of what had become the largest single grouping within the electorate, the middle classes. This was as a result of the period of prosperity Britain went through, illustrated by the fact that ‘exports rose by 350% between 1842 and 1873. ’ The Whig/Liberal grouping was in power for a large amount of this period of prosperity, and so got the credit for it with the electorate.

The free-trade agenda was also an important factor in causing Whig/Liberal dominance because it united the grouping. Within the grouping, there were Whigs, Liberals, Peelites and Radicals, representing all shades of the political spectrum from centre-right (Whigs) to left (Radicals) . They were seen as a ‘curious amalgam’ as a result of their different political standpoints, and the unity which the issue of free trade gave the group was vital in keeping it strong and together. The dominance of the Whig/Liberal grouping from 1846-68 was also caused by the other policies the grouping made in this period.

They pursued a sensible social policy which affected many areas of life. They made vaccination compulsory to try and eradicate smallpox, and introduced a Factory Act in 1853 which limited working hours for women and children. The Smoke Abatement Act of 1853 played a major part in cutting down on coal and other fumes which were dirtying the air and affecting the environment. The 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act allowed divorce through regular courts. This made divorce accessible to all, because previously divorces could only be granted in the House of Lords, which was hugely expensive.

The Offences against the Person Act of 1861 helped to clarify criminal law and made many parts of it more humane. Finally, the state grant to education increased radically to ? 1. 3 million by 1862, helping to improve the education that children received. The other main area of policy which helped the dominance of the Whig/Liberal grouping was their attitude towards the non-conformists. As I have mentioned above, the middle class had become the largest single grouping within the electorate and many of them were non-conformist.

The Anglican Church had a monopoly over religion in Britain, despite the fact that the Religious Census of 1851 showed that almost half the church-goers in England were non-conformists. Therefore, the Whig/Liberals decided to tackle the issue. Their pressure during the 1850s forced universities to open their doors to everyone, not just Anglicans. As John Vincent writes in ‘The Formation of the British Liberal Party’: ‘The non-conformist community…had of course traditionally looked to the old Whig party…that allegiance was now potentially available to the Liberal Party. The Whig/Liberals, with their positive attitude towards non-conformist grievances, helped win their support, adding to their dominance in this period. However, as Duncan Watts argues, ‘(Palmerston’s) ministry had no obvious domestic policy at all. ’ The Government in this period actually made few significant policy changes, and this leads on to my next point. The Conservative Party, as shown often throughout history, thrive when they are able to persuade the electorate that the opposition party have radical tendencies. In this case, nothing of note occurs so the Conservatives were unable to portray the Whig/Liberals being at all radical.

This contributed to their weakness in this period. The sustained weakness of the Conservatives in this period also helped to cause Whig/Liberal dominance. As well as the fact that they were unable to portray the Whig/Liberal grouping as radical, they were also weak for a number of other reasons. Firstly, they held limited electoral appeal. This was primarily because they followed a very unpopular policy in the form of protectionism – defending the interests of the landed classes. This was highlighted in Disraeli’s Budget of 1852 which, while pleasing the Conservative backbenchers with its tax breaks on malt, was not popular with anyone else.

Also, as Robert Stewart writes, ‘The Conservative Party was, and suffered electorally for being, firmly tied to the agricultural community. ’ The middle classes, in the main, lived in urban areas and the Conservative focus on the countryside did not serve them well. They had poor party unity, and had a big problem in broadening their appeal without losing their traditional support. If they had been able to shed their protectionist reputation and improve their image, then they may have gained some non-conformist middle-class support, but they were not able to and so the Whig/Liberals dominated the period 1846-68. For a generation after the repeal of the Corn Laws, the Conservatives ceased to be a governing party. ’ In 1846, the majority of the ‘talent’ in the Conservative Party – the Peelites - defected to the Whigs in protest at the party’s refusal to commit to freer trade. This meant that the Conservatives were left with ‘no obvious leader ’ – making them even less of an electoral threat to the Whig/Liberals, but more importantly giving numbers and talent to the Whigs as the Peelites gravitated towards them. The gravitation of the Peelites towards the Whigs is clearly another important cause of Whig/Liberal dominance in the years 1846-68. At any moment any or all of them (the Peelites) would have been welcomed back into the Conservative ranks or assimilated into the Liberal ranks. ’ (Philip Magnus). However, the Conservatives, with their protectionist leanings (as illustrated in the 1852 Budget with tax breaks for the rich) were unattractive to the Peelites, who saw free trade as a key issue. In contrast, the Whigs were far more receptive to free trade, and the Peelites found ‘cohabitation not entirely distasteful’ (Eric Evans) when they decided to from a coalition with the Whigs in 1846 after the collapse of the Conservative government.

The two groups shared a progressive nature and a common focus (free trade) so the Peelites decided to join the Whigs. This gave them an edge over the Conservatives both in terms of numbers and talent. Finally, the Peelites wanted to be in power, and realised that the Conservatives were unpopular amongst the electorate, so gravitated towards the Whigs and aided their dominance in the period 1846-68. A fifth key aspect which helps to explain Whig/Liberal dominance in 1846-68 s the role of key individuals, particularly Palmerston, Gladstone and Bright. Firstly, Lord Palmerston was instrumental in setting up the Willis Rooms meeting at which the Liberal Party was officially formed out of the Whigs, Peelites, Liberals and Radicals. Secondly, his ‘immense appeal…and powerful presence’ (Stephen Lee) helped to keep the coalition together in its infancy between 1859 and 1865, as well as the fact that he managed to keep all the factions happy because they were all represented in the Cabinet.

The fact that ‘to the man in the street, he personified British patriotism ’ (i. e. Palmerston’s popularity with the electorate), gave the coalition time to fuse. Palmerston’s conservative approach to domestic policy made him difficult for the Conservatives to oppose because they could not portray him as dangerously radical. H However, also very important was Palmerston’s death, which allowed for a truly ‘Liberal’ party to grow under Gladstone, as Palmerston’s policies were not especially liberal. Gladstone himself is another key individual.

He ‘breathes life into the dry bones of the Liberal Party’ (Paul Adelman) and this was as a result a number of reasons, mainly during his time as Chancellor (1852-55 and 1859-65). He gained support for the Whig/Liberal grouping with his successful and very popular Budgets. This support came both from the middle classes with his promise to end income tax and general position of aiding free trade, and from the working class with his removal of tariffs on things like paper, which made newspapers accessible to them.

His rhetoric spoke well of the working classes, and his noises about parliamentary reform also helped him gain their support. His reputation for sound finance helped him to win the respect of many independent backbench MPs. His sophisticated knowledge, oratorical skill and hard work impressed Parliament and the electorate, whilst he ‘gave to popular Liberalism an identifiable public face with which the Liberal electorate could easily associate’ (Winstanley), thus helping their dominance in this period. The final key individual who aided the Whig/Liberal grouping’s dominance is John Bright, leader of the Radicals.

He persuaded all the members of the diverse grouping which were the Radicals to come to the Willis Rooms Meeting in 1859 and eventually to become a part of the Liberal party. He also gave Gladstone his full support as Bright believed that Gladstone would the most progressive leader when Palmerston died, which would be advantageous to the Radicals. To this end, he persuaded Gladstone to cultivate non-conformist links, as well as links with the newly emerging Labour elite, in order to popularise himself outside of the House of Commons.

Bright also persuaded various other groups, such as the non-conformists, trade unionists and other Radicals to support Gladstone. This was also because he wanted to ensure Gladstone became leader after Palmerston, and all this explains why Donald Read writes ‘Bright, as much as Gladstone, created the Gladstonian Liberal Party. ’ As shown from the evidence above, key individuals played a major part in the dominance by the Whig/Liberals between 1846 and 1868.

A final key factor which caused Whig/Liberal dominance in the period 1846-68 was the growth of popular Liberalism and grass-roots support for it. John Vincent believed that ‘the tail was leading the head’ – that is to say the Whig/Liberal dominance in government was as a result of grassroots support, not the other way round. He thought that this growth was as a result of three main factors: ‘the creation of a cheap daily provincial press, the growth of militant non-conformism, and the rise of organised labour’ (John Vincent).

The growth of a cheap press, mainly dominated by Liberal politicians (e. g. the Baines family with the ‘Leeds Mercury’) meant that the Liberals’ message could be spread across the country, and thus helped to build up an ‘articulate, self-conscious, provincial Liberalism’ which helped the dominance of the Whig/Liberals no end. ‘The non-conformists were prepared to place their wealth, their votes – a bloc of 87 non-conformists MPs were returned in 1865 – together with their influence, their zeal and their organising ability at the disposal of the Liberal Party’ (John Vincent).

This meant that the Whig/Liberals gained all the helpful features mentioned above as a result of the growth of militant non-conformity, and this helped their position of dominance. The rise of organised labour also helped the Whig/Liberal because, as Vincent suggests, ‘to vote Liberal was closely tied to the growing ability of whole new classes to stand on their own feet’ – the people of organised labour saw the Whig/Liberals as the party to represent them, and thus the Whig/Liberals gained support and votes from this section of the electorate.

Thus we can see that the growth of popular Liberalism was a key factor in the Whig/Liberals’ dominance in 1846-68. To conclude, it is obvious that all the factors mentioned above had an important role to play in causing the dominance of the Whig/Liberal grouping. The gravitation of the Peelites towards the Whigs is a key factor because it kept the Conservatives weak in this period. The role of key individuals was also vital because this meant the grouping followed an agenda of free trade, thus winning middle class support.

Middle class support was also won with other policies the grouping followed, such as their addressing of non-conformist grievances. The role of key individuals also helped the growth of popular Liberalism because it meant that the electorate had familiar, popular faces to associate the party with. It can also be argued that what the Whig/Liberals didn’t do was crucial to their dominance because they followed a moderate policy, meaning that the Conservatives were unable to portray them as radical.

Thus, dominance is both as a result of factors inside Parliament and outside Parliament, but it is clear that the moderate policies and free trade agenda is the most important factor in the Whig/Liberal dominance because the moderate policies and free-trade agenda won the support of the middle classes, made the party popular at grassroots level, meant that the Tories could not portray the grouping as dangerously radical and meant that the Peelites felt that the Whigs were more suitable for them to join than the Conservatives.

Thus, free trade and moderate policies is the most important cause of Whig/Liberal dominance between the years 1846 and 1868.

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To What Extent Was Whig/Liberal Dominance 1846-68 a Result of Their Free Trade Agenda. (2017, Dec 29). Retrieved from

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