Victorian MPs and Colonial Governance

When the Marquess of Normanby recalled his method of dealing with difficult issues as a colonial governor, he revealed that he had always asked himself ‘What would they think upon this question in the House of Commons?’ Before his celebrated career as a governor in Australia and New Zealand, Normanby had sat in the Commons as Liberal Member for Scarborough in the 1840s and 1850s, and it is clear, from his own recollections, that his parliamentary experiences shaped his approach to gubernatorial office.

Charles Poulett Thomson, governor-general of Canada, 1839-41

Charles Poulett Thomson, governor-general of Canada, 1839-41

Between 1828 and 1868, 38 former MPs were appointed to colonial governorships, yet the collective phenomenon of Victorian MPs taking up gubernatorial office in the British empire remains largely unaddressed by the current historiography. This is surprising given that the exportation of the Westminster model was critical to the success of British colonial policy in the mid-nineteenth century. From the 1830s onwards, there was a growing acceptance amongst metropolitan administrators that greater colonial self-government was necessary. Because the belief that British institutions were superior was entrenched into Colonial Office thinking, the ideal solution appeared to be the reproduction of British forms of government – the Westminster model – in the colonies. Concurrently, British policy makers were beginning to realise the benefits of civilian leadership in the empire. Where the military style, quarter-deck manner had once predominated, a new reliance on tact, diplomacy and mediation was becoming evident.

In a recent article for the Britain and the World Journal, I examined the extent to which those Victorian MPs who became colonial governors drew on their experiences of Westminster culture when attempting to introduce greater self-government to their respective colonies. Four MPs were considered: Charles Poulett Thomson, governor-general of Canada, 1839-41; Arthur Hamilton Gordon, lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, 1861-66; Sir Charles Edward Grey, governor of Jamaica, 1847-53, and his successor, Sir Henry Barkly, 1853-56.

The most successful governor was Thomson and it is no coincidence that, of the four MPs examined, he had the greatest parliamentary experience, sitting as a Whig for Dover, 1826-32, and Manchester 1832-39. He also twice served as President of the Board of Trade and, crucially, was a close friend of Lord John Russell, then Colonial Secretary. After pushing through the union of Lower and Upper Canada, Governor Thomson praised his own ‘prodigious … management, in which my House of Commons tactics stood me in good stead’. Certainly, his political skills, particularly the one of being able to shift positions, helped in dealing with the diverging wishes of the two Canadas. He also, through private correspondence, made great use of his close ties with Russell, who put forward Thomson’s case in cabinet. In this context, Thomson combined the two spheres of public negotiation and private practices perfectly.

Sir Henry Barkly, governor of Jamaica, 1853-56

Sir Henry Barkly, governor of Jamaica, 1853-56

Thomson’s achievements in British North America were in stark contrast to Gordon, who after only three years in the Commons as Member for Beverley, had little parliamentary skill to draw upon while lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, particularly the practice of crafting an authoritative public persona. Despite the connections that came from his father, the former Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen, he also had no personal relationship with the Colonial Secretary, the fifth Duke of Newcastle. Sir Charles Grey, after three years as Liberal MP for Tynemouth, also struggled to effectively combine the public and private demands of colonial governance. He shocked the Jamaican Assembly by demanding reforms that were unrealistic, while his tendency to state uncomfortable truths in his official dispatches, rather than in his private correspondence, infuriated the secretary of state, Earl Grey. His successor as governor, Sir Henry Barkly, who, as Conservative MP for Leominster from 1845 to 1849, had shown political savvy by supporting the equalisation of the sugar duties while keeping his West Indian planter friends onside, enjoyed greater success. Realising the necessity of combining a conciliatory public persona with the efficient use of private networks, he appeased the Jamaican Assembly while ensuring, through private correspondence with his old Westminster network, that his views still shaped the home government’s policy.

What emerges from this analysis is that when these former MPs enjoyed a degree of success in managing and bargaining with a colonial assembly, it was because they were able to cultivate an effective public persona while exploiting, through private correspondence, connections with former colleagues at Westminster. This insight reflects one of the wider findings of our research so far on the House of Commons, 1832-1868 project. Members of Parliament elected in the post-1832 era, whose actions were coming under ever greater scrutiny, were becoming increasingly skilled in the arts of public negotiation and private networking.

Biographies of Sir Charles Grey and Sir Henry Barkly are available on our preview site. For details of how to access it, please see here.

Further reading:

J. Owen, ‘Exporting the Westminster model: MPs and Colonial Governance in the Victorian era’, Britain and the World Journal, 7:1 (2014), 28-55.

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