Academic journal article Albion

From a Protectionist Party to a Church Party, 1846-48: Identity Crisis of the Conservative Party and the Jew Bill of 1847*

Academic journal article Albion

From a Protectionist Party to a Church Party, 1846-48: Identity Crisis of the Conservative Party and the Jew Bill of 1847*

Article excerpt

This article investigates the influence of the Maynooth and Repeal crises on Conservative politicians after 1846 and the putative maintenance of their identity as defenders of the Church after the Disruption of the party. Historians of the Conservative party have long realized that it suffered from a crisis of identity for a long time after 1846. Some of the leading Peelites were heading more and more towards the Liberal party, and most backbench Peelites gradually joined the Protectionist party; but the Protectionists did not have enough experienced leaders to qualify for the inheritance. Norman Gash has argued that "the Protectionists were not a political party in the sense of one able to provide and sustain a Government in the circumstances of the mid-nineteenth century.... The weakness of the Protectionists was not merely that after 1846 they represented the Conservative party with most of the brains knocked out, but that until they could shake off the monolithic character implied by their title, they could scarcely hope to become a national party or form a viable Government." (1) Likewise Robert Stewart and John Ramsden consider that the Protectionists were unable to take the place of the Conservative party, given their lack of effective and experienced leaders. (2) It is undeniable that the Protectionist party was not as strong as the Conservative party had been in terms of executive capacity or party organization. But to say also that it was unable to inherit the mantle of Conservatism is to fall into the same trap as Gash and to exaggerate the importance of Peelite executive ability. More significant is the fact that the party of Stanley and Disraeli maintained fidelity to the core principles of the Conservative party--i.e. the constitution of Church and State, and the principle of protectionism. In this sense, the Protectionist party did become the sole inheritor of the Conservative party during the later 1840s.

Anna Gambles' recent study of Conservative protectionism, which challenges "the hegemony of free-trade liberalism over the history of nineteenth-century ideas," has shown that, during 1847-52, protectionism as a constitutional principle persisted in Conservative politics as well as in conservative intellectual discourse. She argues that "Conservatives debated the relative merits of restoring protection and reconstructing the entire fiscal system" in this period, and in so doing she buries the traditional historiographical view that protectionism was dead after the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. (3) In the same way, many of the Conservative backbenchers who had argued strenuously for the ecclesiastical constitution during 1841-46 remained in the Protectionist party. They advocated Protestantism in the 1847 election, openly attacked Peel's record, and soon after the election, when confronted with the issue of Jewish Disability, they explicitly demonstrated that they were defenders of the Church. Over the Jewish emancipation issue Lord George Bentinck, the head of the Protectionist party, who supported the Jewish Disability Removal Bill of 1847, lost his leadership.

The first part of the article considers the general election of 1847, and describes how Conservatives reacted to the crisis of their party when they had to present their political views to their constituents. Despite the significance of the election of 1847 in nineteenth-century party politics it has rarely been studied at length. The short period from the disruption of the party to the 1847 election was a chaotic and complex moment in terms of party identity. This section will depict the crisis moment just before the Protectionist party was reborn as a Church party by examining the electoral speeches of Conservative candidates (including Peelite candidates). It will show how Conservatives attempted to over-come the difficult situation, and also will trace the way in which Conservatives sought to maintain their party identity by comparing their views on party identity at the 1847 election to those at the 1841 election. …

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