Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

Francis Wemyss-Charteris-Douglas: Champion of Late-Victorian Individualism

Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

Francis Wemyss-Charteris-Douglas: Champion of Late-Victorian Individualism

Article excerpt

Early TO MID-Victorian Britain was characterized by widespread belief in the superiority of laissez-faire. By the 1870s however, the tide was beginning to turn against individualism in Britain, as the state began to advance back into those areas of life from which it had retreated in the previous two decades. However, this diminution of liberty and property did not go unchallenged. One of the prominent libertarian voices in Victorian Britain which has been often ignored is that of Francis Wemyss-Charteris-Douglas, 10th Earl of Wemyss (1818-1914). (1) A study of Wemyss' political life sheds revealing light on the relationship between libertarianism and conservatism. (2) He spent over sixty years in Parliament, first as an MP and then from 1883, in the House of Lords. Throughout this period, he became increasingly libertarian, and by the 1880s he had established himself as a major obstruction to collectivist legislation. In 1882, alarmed at the increasingly interventionist tone of Gladstone's Liberal administrations, Wemyss formed the Liberty and Property Defence League (LPDL), a pressure group intended to champion "self-help versus State-help." The LPDL committed itself to "resisting Overlegislation, maintaining Freedom of Contract, and advocating individualism as opposed to socialism, irrespective of Party Politics." (3) One of the major concerns motivating the LPDL was the rising threat trade unionism posed to 'free labour' and the influence that groups like the Trades Union Congress (TUC) were having on Parliament. (4) The LPDL managed to attract anti-socialists from across the political spectrum, including Old Liberals, High Tories and various radical individualists.

The story of the League has been told by Edward Bristow in his 1975 article "The Liberty and Property Defence League and Individualism". (5) But what of Wemyss the man? In 1900, Wemyss wrote to the Editor of The Scotsman to justify his position: "Yes! I glory in being an individualist; and if this means I am 'erratic' I am content. The fewer the men the greater the share of glory." (6) Wemyss' battle against collectivism was fought both inside and outside Parliament, his zeal for the individualist cause giving him no rest.

Historiographically, scholars have debated the extent to which individualism was a conservative or liberal movement. In his classic exploration of British political philosophy, The Ideological Heritage, W.H. Greenleaf contended that by the end of the century a very definite libertarian subset of the conservative tradition had developed, one which mingled a Burkean conception of natural organic order with a classical liberal stress on personal liberty and a limited State. (7) This view has been contested by M.W. Taylor, who posits a definite break between late Victorian individualism and Manchester liberalism. (8) Taylor believes that late-century individualism was a pessimistic conservative movement which held that social improvement would only develop after many generations had passed.

What follows is a holistic survey of Wemyss' individualism which recognises both his tireless advocacy of laissez-faire philosophy and charts his efforts in Parliament itself. Never one to shy away from political conflict, Wemyss did not pick which battles he chose to fight. Rather, he elected to fight all of them. For the sake of brevity this paper will focus on two different case studies--temperance legislation and rural affairs. These two spheres of activity present the portrait of a figure who strove to synthesise his individualism with his traditionalism, and played a vital part in the crystallisation of the libertarian Right in Britain.


Wemyss' political philosophy is probably best described in his own words: "liberal conservative." By this, he meant that in matters of economic and civil liberties he was a committed classical liberal in the same mid-Victorian spirit which had abolished the protectionist Corn Laws and transformed Britain into the most laissez-faire industrialized country in the world. …

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