Why did support for the Whigs decline in the years 1832- 1841?

6 June 2016

After the Whigs electoral victory of 1832, how was it that the Tories were able to win the election in 1841, there were many factors that contributed to the enormous decline in Whig support during the reform years. The Whigs were running out of ideas by 1835. There was increasing economic depression, defections to the other side of the House occurred, the Whig ministries witnessed the rise of public pressure groups, the Whigs were viewed as being cynical and devious after the Litchfield House Compact.

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In comparison, the Conservative Party’s strength showed a huge increase after the passing of the Reform Act due to party organization under the Carlton Club and Registration Societies, the strength of Peel as a politician and the Conservatives’ willingness not to use their power and influence in the House of Lords unconstitutionally.

A substantial reason for the unpopularity of the Whigs was the limitations of the Great Reform Act of 1832. The reform act did very little to appease the working class and was referred to as ‘The Great Betrayal”. Now voters were required to possess a property worth ten pounds, which at the time was actually quite a substantial amount, which not many working classes would have. So this just further aggravated the divide between the middle class and working class, which helped give rise to the Chartist Movement.

Initially, the Whigs had won the political battle over the 1832 Reform Act as a result of nationwide confrontation with the Tories and the House of Lords. However, Earl Grey’s successor, Lord Melbourne relaxed the aggression of the reformation programme and towards their last few years as the ruling government, the Whigs lost many opportunities to improve social conditions in towns and working conditions in factories and had no further resolved the issue of Free Trade until 1841.

So this points towards the fact that the Whigs were simply not willing to reform anymore. Their new attitude was not popular with the British population and was proven lethal in the long run. Lord Melbourne was opposed to some of the measures being advocated by some of the more radical Whigs such as Lord John Russell and Henry Brougham. This included the proposal for the secret ballot and the idea of state education.

However Russell, the Home Secretary, did manage to introduce some legislation. His first measure concerned the reform of local government. For many years most English towns were under the control of a self-elected body of aldermen and councilors. But with the Municipal Corporations Act, these men now had to be elected by the whole body of ratepayers. Bu this act wasn’t very popular because the Act did not compel the new councils to make social improvements and many towns failed to apply for incorporation because the procedure was too complicated and too expensive. In 1848 there were still sixty-two large towns without councils. The Act mainly benefited the middle classes. Very few workingmen were wealthy enough to be ratepayers, so genuinely the act didn’t help much with the Whigs popularity.

Many landowners were alarmed by the reform of the Church of England in the 1830s such as the Marriage Act 1836 and feared further concessions after the Litchfield House Pact of 1835. More importantly, the landed classes tightened up in their defense of the Corn Laws, which they considered essential to maintaining the prosperity of farmers. In addition an Anti-Poor Law campaign led by Tory radicals was in full swing throughout the north of England. Such agitation created a revolutionary atmosphere in the country, which the Whigs could not handle and consequently were seen as being weak as they did not deal harshly with the Chartists.

Agitation against the new Poor Law had also been building up, since the Whigs passed the legislation in 1834. Initially most of the public had received the Act favorably because the poor rates were low. Implementation in the north from the end of 1836 aroused serious and occasionally violent opposition, much of it organized by Tory radicals such as Richard Oastler and Sadler. These reformers, who were already prominent in the campaign for factory reform, provided an effective campaign against the new Act that the resistance in the south had lacked.

The anti-poor law movement represented a new alliance between working and middle classes in the north, against the legislation; but there was also a local reaction against centralization that cut across class lines. By 1839, the campaign began to disintegrate as working class agitation was appeased by the continued use of outdoor relief and rivalries between middle class and working class elements of the movement became visible. Increasingly Chartism attracted more radical supporters of the agitation. So the new poor law was a huge reason for the unpopularity of the Whigs and the opposition against legislations the Whigs had passed was growing. The anti-Poor Law attitudes that cultivated contributed significantly to an electoral alliance between Conservatives and Chartists. In addition, Chartist distaste for the Whig government had grown since 1839 with the attempted suppression of Chartism and the arrest of Chartist leaders. ‘Whig tyranny’ was a popular cry among Chartists, something that the Conservatives could and did exploit.

Another problem the Whigs faced was that when they won the election in 1832, there a fear of revolution that had spread throughout Britain and had essentially helped them get into power. So as the threat revolution faded so did the landed classes support for the Whigs.

So the main reasons the Whigs popularity declined eventually leading to the Tory’s win of the election in 1841, was the general disappointment with their overall ‘attempts’ at reforms and the divide within the Whig party itself, which didn’t exactly promote efficiency. But the increasing strength of the conservative party was also a major issue in the Whigs downfall. The conservatives were more organized and were seen as the ‘law and order’ party’. So maybe their decline in popularity wasn’t solely due to their own mistakes, but rather them having to deal with new issues that no one really new how to fix them e.g. economic depression,

By Jocelyn Jarman

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