Party splits and political change in the 19th century

This summer, following the internal wrangling that occurred in most parties following the Brexit referendum, we’ve been taking a look at historic cases of party division. In today’s blog, Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the Victorian Commons, discusses the impact of two major splits within the Tory and Conservative parties during the 19th century…

In modern Britain we are not used to political parties splitting apart. There are always ongoing rifts and schisms, but the idea of our parties completely breaking up is alien to most of us. This has not always been the case. In the 19th century, the division of parties and the wholesale realignment of politicians were regular and essential parts of political life. Indeed without them, many of the developments associated with the emergence of Britain’s modern parliamentary system would simply not have taken place.

Take the 1832 Reform Act. Long regarded as the first key step on Britain’s ‘road to democracy’, the Act’s successful passage through Parliament actually owed a great deal to the political fall-out from one of the most acrimonious party splits of the early 19th century. Giving Catholics the right to hold civic office and become MPs (Catholic emancipation) had been on the political agenda since the abolition of the Irish Parliament and the inclusion of Irish MPs at Westminster under the 1800 Act of Union. It is difficult for the modern mind to fully appreciate the religious and doctrinal issues that made emancipation so repugnant to large swathes of Protestant Britain. For years it was effectively blocked by the monarchy, the Tory government and above all popular opinion. By the late 1820s, however, Ireland’s political situation had become critical, not least owing to the Catholic Association’s highly effective strategy of getting Catholic MPs elected (who were barred from sitting at Westminster). Putting their religious scruples aside, the Tory government, led by the Duke of Wellington, passed Catholic emancipation in 1829 on the grounds of political expediency. They were supported by many liberal-minded Whigs, but a large section of the traditional Tory party remained vehemently opposed to the change on principle. This group, who came to be known as the Ultras, split from the main party, withdrawing their support from Wellington and the Tory leader in the Commons, Robert Peel, whom they charged with constitutional sabotage.

Peel and Wellington suffocating 'Mrs Constitution' while a Catholic priest looks on. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Coloured etching 1829 by William Heath
Peel and Wellington suffocating ‘Mrs Constitution’ while a Catholic priest looks on.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Coloured etching, 1829 by William Heath

The rift was bitter. Many Ultras, believing that this attack on Protestantism lacked popular support, began to think the unthinkable – that the electoral system should be made more representative. One, the Marquis of Blandford, even proposed his own sweeping scheme to remove all the ‘rotten borough’ MPs on whom the government had relied for support. Hopelessly divided, and with their electoral powerbase in disarray, the Tory party suffered significant losses in the 1830 general election. Within a few months the Whig party, out of power for almost a quarter of century, had assumed office under Earl Grey and started to draw up its plans for parliamentary reform. Crucially, many disaffected Tory Ultras not only refused to rejoin Peel and oppose the reform bill, but also actively supported the Whigs. Some leading Ultras, most conspicuously the Duke of Richmond, even joined Grey’s cabinet. The successful passage of the ‘Great’ Reform Act is often attributed to the influence of liberal and radical forces. However, the role of the disaffected right-wing Ultras, whose Protestant faith and constitutional idealism had forced them to quit their party and rethink the issue of reform, was also critical. Without the Tory party split of 1829 the 1832 Reform Act would not have possible.

A better known party split, with even longer-term political consequences, was the complete rupture of the Conservatives that occurred over Peel’s decision to repeal the corn laws in 1846. Discontent on the backbenches with Peel’s 1841 ministry had been growing steadily since he became PM, with growing numbers opposing him over issues such as tariff changes (1842), the sugar duties (1844) and funding for the Irish Catholic seminary at Maynooth (1845). His leadership style and apparent disdain for the views of traditional ‘church and field’ Tories – those who ‘spend their time hunting and shooting and eating and drinking’ and don’t ‘have access to the best information’ as he put it – had also begun to make him unpopular. Peel’s 1846 decision on economic grounds to remove the duties on imported corn, widely viewed as an essential protection for farmers from foreign competition, split his party for two reasons. First, many Tory MPs had actually won their seats in 1841 promising to support the corn laws, especially in rural constituencies. They simply could not betray their constituents. Secondly, however, Peel’s adoption of free trade appeared to reward the controversial tactics adopted by the Anti-Corn Law League, an extra-parliamentary organisation, whose ‘outdoors’ campaign was seen by many as a direct threat to the authority and supremacy of Parliament.

The split of the Conservative party over corn law repeal and its ejection from government in 1846 proved fundamental in restructuring British party politics. Most of the ‘free trade’ Peelites ended up giving their support to Whig ministries before formally joining a rebranded Liberal party in 1859. Peel’s former foreign secretary Lord Aberdeen led a ‘coalition’ ministry of Whigs and Peelites from 1852-55. Another Peelite minister, W. E. Gladstone, once referred to as the ‘rising hope of the stern, unbending Tories’, eventually came personify the late Victorian Liberal party, serving as a Liberal PM on four separate occasions between 1868 and 1894.

It was not just the Tories, however, who suffered major party splits. The Liberals became seriously divided over the Russell ministry’s plans for parliamentary reform in 1866, allowing the Conservatives to take office and implement what would eventually become the 1867 Reform Act, another significant milestone in Britain’s move towards democracy. Twenty years later Gladstone, as Liberal PM, prompted a complete rupture of his party with his fervent commitment to the cause of Irish Home Rule. The Liberal Unionists, as they became known, joined with the Conservatives in opposing Home Rule, and the two eventually merged their party organisations in 1912.


For the rest of the post in this series on internal party wrangling, click here. Watch this space for more!

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