THE GOLDEN AGE

THE long Whig-Liberal domination was broken by the Conservative Administration of Sir Robert Peel ( 1841-46). The paradox of Peel is that he was a great Conservative leader who moved steadily from one Liberal position to another, until his followers, all except the most agile of them, lost sight of him. In the end, by his conversion to repeal of the Corn Laws, he ruined the party that his genius had revived. Peel, like Grey, had the art of turning tumbrils into stage-coaches; and the Anti-Corn-Law agitation ( 1838-46) provided the British people, in a season of distress, with one of their substitutes for barricades and guillotines. Once more, as in the days of Reform, the classes and the masses were brought together, and lifted above themselves, by a cause that promised redemption from more ills than the dear loaf. Cobden and Bright infused the cause with a religious ardour. Chartism weakened as the League strengthened. The old coalition of the 'thirties revived. Town mechanics, farm labourers, manufacturers of the Midlands and the North, and city bankers; Benthamites, and disciples of Adam Smith, Nonconformists, old Whigs, Peelite Tories combined their energies against the landed interest. The country gentlemen in the confusion of their rout found a new champion. By his brilliant rearguard action, Disraeli could not save their cause, but he did avenge them by destroying their lost leader. When Peel fell, Lord John Russell came in--"Finality John," so styled because he was sure that Reform had been settled for good in 1831--Russell, the perfect Whig, outwardly glacial, inwardly suffused by the glow of the "Great and Glorious Revolution" of 1688. It was a wholly different order of revolution which Lord John was invited to lead, a commercial revolution, the inauguration of the era of Free Trade.

In these pinched times, a century later, most of us look back upon the long, golden summer of Free Trade with nostalgia. Britain became the world's forge, workshop, general store and universal provider. Her ships carried her manufactures across all waters. She became the world's banker. She piled up those investments abroad whose loss bears so hardly upon her children to-day. The age was marked by an exhilarating sense of expanding physical energy. Its spirit manifested itself in a hundred daring enterprises and successful hazards--in dazzling strokes of business--in new markets captured--in a thousand mechanical inventions. Population and national wealth multiplied as never before. Is it astonishing that John Bull in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, with his pockets full of golden sovereigns, the envy of his neighbours, the despair of his enemies, felt smug, pleased with himself; indeed, the lord of creation? The finest part of the record is that he used his giant's strength on the whole with so much wisdom, generosity and restraint. The Victorians are usually presented as Pecksniffs for sermonising on the moral basis of Free Trade.

-24-

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The Liberal Party
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • List of Illustrations 5
  • Introduction 7
  • The Beginnings 11
  • The Golden Age 24
  • Modern Liberalism 31
  • The Party and the Present 42
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