Last week (31 Jan. 2013) saw the enactment of the Statute Laws Repeal Act, a legislative initiative aimed at tidying up the UK’s statute book by repealing a host of obsolete and defunct laws, ranging from the 1500s to the present day. Those from the Victorian era, which form the vast bulk of its schedules, offer a important reminder of the explosion of legislation that took place in this period, as Parliament set about constructing the machinery and infrastructure of the modern bureaucratic state, both at home and abroad. Among the many Victorian statutes cited are huge numbers of turnpike and railway acts, the latter covering all sorts of UK destinations no longer accessible by rail as well as the entire Indian subcontinent. There are lottery acts from 1711-1807, numerous gas lighting enactments, London traffic regulations acts from as early as the 1860s, and a vast swathe of charity, poor relief and hospital acts – a sobering reminder of the ad hoc nature of social provision before the 20th century creation of the welfare state.
One of the more notable Victorian laws being repealed is the Maynooth College Act, which generated enormous controversy during its day and had significant political repercussions in our period of study. Passed by Sir Robert Peel’s second ministry in 1845, with virulent opposition from many die-hard Protestants and ‘Church and field’ Tory backbenchers, the act provided permanent state funding for the Irish Catholic seminary / training college at Maynooth, in the hope of improving relations with the Irish Catholic priesthood and limiting their dependence on foreign powers. It was an astute move, on a par with Catholic emancipation in 1829, but it almost cost Peel his premiership. The rebellion against it on the Tory backbenches has been well documented, with many historians seeing it as a key revolt that paved the way for the more famous split of the Conservative party over the repeal of the corn laws the following year. What is less well studied is the rift it also caused in Whig/Liberal ranks. Although the act eventually passed with Liberal support, the party was far from united, despite the act’s ‘progressive’ credentials. Many Liberal Dissenters were vehemently opposed to any state interference with religion, whether Catholic or Protestant, and found the idea of extending state sponsorship to Papists, in particular, morally repugnant. Some retrenching radicals even opposed it on grounds of expense and its unjustifiable burden on the public purse. As Joseph Coohill has shown in his recent monograph Ideas of the Liberal Party (2011), Liberal activists in the country were deeply divided on the issue, and the ensuing debate ultimately helped to redefine what it meant to be a Liberal in this period.
Some of the more extreme opponents of the Act soon found their way into the newly formed National Club, established in June 1845 to protect Protestant principles and the established Church. Over the next few years the National is reckoned to have recruited some 92 MPs to its ultra Protestant cause. Those we have studied so far include Viscount Bernard, Smith Child, James William Freshfield, Donald Maclean, Charles Newdegate (a Tory Whip), George Perceval, Evelyn Shirley and Richard Spooner, who spent the rest of his life campaigning relentlessly against the Maynooth grant on religious grounds, to the increasing irritation of his fellow MPs.
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