After the instability Great Britain faced from the beginning of the 18th Century, it was essential for the country to allow itself a period of calm and opulence, in order to restore and subdue the political situation. The period of 1822 to 1827 contrasted greatly to the 7 years of ‘tyranny’ between 1815-1822, when the country had seemingly been in full anti-revolution lockdown. Now the Tories, according to historians such as W. R Brock and Derek Beales, had become a lot more enlightened, meaning the government took a much more sympathetic and tolerant attitude towards economic, political and foreign aspects.
The conservative cabinet experienced major changes in 1822; many more younger and middle-class members had joined. Key liberal names included George Canning, Sir Robert Peel, Frederick Robinson and William Huskisson. Although calling these men fully liberal would be false, they all shared a common ideology- they wished for greater productivity in the way the government was run. They were also influenced by Jeremy Bentham, a utilitarian, who held a philosophy that making the whole of the population happy was the sole aim of any successful government (“greatest happiness of the greatest number”).
To achieve this, it was vital for the new liberal-tory government to improve economic conditions which would help take away the reasons for criticising government policy, and would help achieve the goal of creating a better standard of life in Britain. Lord Liverpool had been a firm believer in free trade and in a famous speech in 1820 he argued a need to reduce tariffs or taxes imposed on imports from abroad. It was believed that the fewer restrictions there would be placed on the economy and the less the government ‘got involved’ in it, then the more successful the economy of the country would become.
The Corn Laws, implemented in 1815, had actually been detrimental to free trade and the Tory government wanted to make a change in order to boost free trade. To do this, they made a variety of alterations to government. Firstly, they introduced the Reciprocity of Duties Act, which meant that only British ships carrying goods could enter the British Isles. This was designed to protect British traders from competition from the Dutch, however this act proved to be more damaging than beneficial.
Due to this act, other countries were now rejecting British ships from entering their ports, as a type of “revenge”. However, the Reciprocity Act of 1823 fixed the government’s blunder by now allowing foreign ships into Britain. This was seen as a gesture of goodwill abroad, which could potentially help relations with other countries, and also led to reducing the costs of imports to British manufacturers, helping to make it cheaper for them hence improving trade, and so the economy.
On the topic of economy and trade, trade restrictions were also majorly relaxed, following a strict period when the colonies of Britain were not allowed to trade with foreign countries. This change can be put down to Hussikson- who also ensured that duties being traded between Britain and the colonies were lower than in the rest of the world. This, once again, improved trade in Britain, therefore improving the economy in a bid to have the country’s economy become that of a more liberal one.
And the aim of improving the economy, was to improve the standard of life- which essentially epitomises the aim of a liberal government. It also emphasized Liverpool’s wishes on free trade. Another way the government appeared more liberal was via Frederick Robinson, who had a very liberal reputation of being Chancellor of the Exchequer. He decided to reduce domestic duties on everyday, popular items such as on tea, coffee, and wool in order to encourage demand and improve the stability of the economy.
Robinson was not a one tricky pony however, and also managed to reduce indirect taxation between 1821 and 1827, which highlights the liberalness of the government and is also a sign that, if the government could have afforded to reduce tax, then -thanks to their reforms- economically there were doing well. Changing the shape of the economy however was not the only goal of this new ‘liberal-type’ of Conservatism. Social reforms were also made to liberalise government and country. The man in charge of the social reforms was Robert Peel, who was too seen as enlightened and liberal.
The Combinations Acts, introduced in the midst of the governments proverbial “reign of terror” to fully quell the radical threat in 1799, were eventually abolished in 1824. The abolition of the Trade Unions in the first place was seen by many as harsh and cutting away an essential part of the worker’s part of life (it is key to remember that in this period of time the average working class labourer made up a good 80% of the country, so keeping that chunk of the population happy was important), and were repealed in order to improve the relationship between employer and employee.
The repealing of this act essentially gave the working class a massive portion of their rights back, and the fact that even today Trade Unions are seen as a very liberal (or left) organisation, helps demonstrate how liberal the Tories had become, because they, as a right wing party, were helping members of society who, on the whole were left wing, which shows the significance of the government’s adjustment, even more so that just 25 years previously it looked as though trade unions had disintegrated for good.
The Penal Code, a list containing the appropriate punishment for a variety of different crimes was also reformed between 1825 and 1828. There were hundreds of offences which carried the death penalty for extremely petty things. If the country was to evolve properly in a civilised manner, it was high time for Peel to recognize this and make Britain break away from customs which would have been suitable 3 or 4 centuries ago. By reforming 278 laws and also abolishing the death penalty for over 120 offences, Peel successfully managed transform the outdated system.
This was essential, as a society handing out death penalties for tiny crimes is the complete opposite of liberalism. The Goals Act was passed in 1823, which meant that the previously almost uninhabitable jails in Britain that prisoners had to endure were at least partially improved. Gaolers, men who manned the jails, were also able for the first time to receive a salary and inmates received a basic education. Numbers of gaols, or jails as they are today known, also increased, as Peel made it mandatory for all large towns to have at least one of them.
Although these changes do not immediately appear monumental, it was a key stepping stone in the government liberalising society by treating criminals more like evens and slowly developing a sense of moderation and fairness. The introduction of the Metropolitan Police force by Peel was also a massive success which helped to reduce crime, despite that fact that at first they were seen as an attack on English liberties. It helped to liberalise society by introducing a less extreme way to persecute people, and after a number of years the policemen became accepted and respected in society.
This was a symbol of a typical liberal country- that men were cohabiting with the police and that people were being monitored not by the extreme high powers, or by an unfair tyranny, but by other ordinary men. There are however, some arguments put forward by several modern historians stating that the Tories were not as liberal as first envisaged. First of all, all the men who were hailed as neo-liberals and enlightened were not actually new- they were all in office during the harsher time of government pre-1821.
This meant that if they really were that liberal, then why did they allow the ultra- conservatism of the early 19th Century to happen? Another valid point is that the new “enlightened Tories” were simply completing the work of something which had already been started. An example is Robinson, who took the credit for economic success in the 1820’s, should not have- Nicholas Vansittart should have instead as it was he who returned the economy to sound money by reintroducing the Gold Standard.
It is also widely argued that the period before 1821 was not has tyrannical as people think, because even before 1821 liberal-type laws were being introduced, such as the Factory Act. This shows that maybe Britain was slowly progressing as becoming liberal over a number of years, even during the “harsh years”, and not in one big ‘bang’ after 1821. Another argument very commonly used is that the “Liberal Tories” after 1821 were not that liberal after all.
The Amending Act highlights this, as after the Tories had made the big jump in repealing the Combinations Acts, they only went on to restrict the existence of trade unions for the purpose of negotiating wages- nothing more. This demonstrates that not all the acts were ‘enlightened’, and even some of the acts which at first appeared to be nicely liberal were amended. A key issue which links together with the above point is Catholic emancipation.
The cardinal( no pun intended) point, is that if the Tories were so liberal, then they should have changed what was visibly an unfair system toward the Catholics- to give them political rights and to let them vote. However the Tories felt threatened by the idea of anyone ‘inferior’ to them voting, and so by Wellington and Peel rejecting the idea of emancipation and electoral reform, their actions reminisced that of a typical hierarchical government which was, essentially, anything but liberal, as the basis of a liberal government is equality and equity and acceptance of all.
The fact that Ultras were present in the cabinet showed that the level of liberalism in government was certainly very limited. To conclude, the Tories from 1821 to 1827 did indeed introduce acts, such as the Gaols Act and economic changes which improved the standard of life,which added to the liberalness of the country, however there are key elements which show that the extent to which the Tories were liberal is limited.
For instance, the Amending Act showed that acts that seemed pro-liberal were restricted and largely suppressed the government was not as liberal as they first appeared Also, the fact that all ‘enlightened men’ at office during the supposed time of liberalism had also been in office during the anti-revolutionary years, and so questions are inevitably asked on how liberal they really were if they were part of a government which restrained its people so much in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century.
It can too be argued that it was not only post-1821 which saw a change in the liberalism of the country, the period before 1821 was said to also be liberal to an extent ( the implementation of the Factory Act and Truck Act for example), and that the government of 1821 onwards was merely continuing the tone that had been set earlier on. Finally, the refusal of Peel to allow electoral reform so that the vote could be widened, and his decision to reject Catholic emancipation typifies the shortcomings of the Tory government’s liberal image.
No country can truly become truly liberal or enlightened if the government refuses the right of the vote to ordinary people(which equated to the vast majority of the population at the time) and rejects the basic human right of political activity to people of a different faith. All in all, although some of actions of the Tories between 1821 and 1827 indeed positively contributed to the liberalisation of Britain during the 19th Century, there were various factors which demonstrated that the degree to which the government was liberal was certainly boundaried and confined.