The Ultra Tories and the fall of the Wellington government, 1830
While the so-called ‘revolt of the Ultra Tories’ was precipitated by the Wellington administration’s decision in 1829 to grant Catholic emancipation, this may be seen as marking a final overflowing of much wider ideological tensions within Toryism that had been simmering for a number of years. The resulting split of the Tories had immediate political consequences, and it also created a legacy of bitterness which survived within the party for many years.
To the Ultra Tory mind, the principal duty of government was to uphold the ‘Protestant Constitution’ in church and state, as confirmed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, which had defined the character of the English nation and its people. It was therefore essential to exclude Roman Catholics from public office, because their loyalty lay with a hostile foreign potentate, and they would inevitably abuse any political power they were given in order to undermine the Protestant national churches. This belief put the Ultras fundamentally at odds with fellow Tories, most notably George Canning, who favoured Catholic emancipation as a means of reconciling Ireland to the Union with Britain.
The Ultras were also deeply uneasy about the growing influence of Canning and his friends in other areas of Tory policy during the 1820s. For instance, Canning’s determination, as foreign secretary from 1822, that Britain should pursue an independent course from the ‘Holy Alliance’ of great European Powers, was disturbing to those Tories who attached greater importance to the maintenance of traditional sources of international political authority.
Contrary to the ‘liberal’ principles espoused by the Canningites, the Ultras reflected the typical concerns of Tory ‘country gentlemen’ in their anxiety to preserve the system of protective tariffs for agriculture, the corn laws, which they regarded as the cornerstone of national power and prosperity. They also disapproved of restrictions on the circulation of paper money, which many farmers relied on for credit, and warned of the disastrous effects of ‘free trade’ policies on vulnerable industries such as silk and glove making.
With Canning’s death in 1827 and the formation of the duke of Wellington’s government the following year, the prospects for the champions of ‘Protestantism’ might have appeared to be much brighter. However, in 1829 Wellington horrified the Ultras when he concluded that Catholic emancipation had to be conceded, for the sake of stability in Ireland. His emancipation bill was carried, with the help of the Whig opposition, but some 173 Tory MPs voted against it at the second reading stage. Wellington’s ‘betrayal’ was not easily forgiven, and a number of Ultras, among whom the leading figures were Sir Edward Knatchbull and Sir Richard Vyvyan, moved into determined opposition to the government. Vyvyan even plotted with the king’s brother, the duke of Cumberland, to have Wellington removed from office.
During the 1830 session of Parliament the Knatchbull-Vyvyan group attacked the ministry’s economic policies, which they blamed for the mounting distress in the country, and one Ultra MP, Lord Blandford, brought forward a motion calling for parliamentary reform. Blandford argued that Catholic emancipation had been enacted in defiance of the wishes of the people, and therefore proved that the existing representative system was inadequate.
After the general election in the summer of 1830 the government whip estimated the strength of the Ultras at about 60 in the House of Commons. In November they played a crucial role in Wellington’s downfall, when they voted with the Whigs and other opposition groups to inflict a defeat on him over the civil list. Unfortunately for the Ultras, their act of revenge was achieved at a heavy political price. The new ministry formed by Lord Grey proceeded to introduce a parliamentary reform bill, which went far beyond anything that most of the Ultras were prepared to contemplate. Opposition to the ‘revolutionary’ reform bill began the process of reconciliation between the Ultras and the main body of Tories, but it would take several years before this was complete, and in reality the bitterness and suspicion generated by the ‘betrayal’ of 1829 never went away.