150 years ago the Conservative prime minister Lord Derby retired from office, having managed to pass one of the most significant constitutional reform packages of the 19th century – despite leading a minority government. This post examines the career of this extraordinary leader, who has been dubbed Britain’s ‘forgotten’ prime minister.
A related short programme about Derby, part of a new BBC series called Prime Properties exploring the residences of UK prime ministers, will also be presented by Dr Philip Salmon on BBC Parliament and is now available on iplayer.
The 14th Earl of Derby (1799-1869) has always been overshadowed by Peel and Disraeli in the history of modern Conservatism. The recent magisterial biography of Derby by Professor Angus Hawkins is even entitled ‘The Forgotten Prime Minister’. But Derby remains the longest serving leader of any British political party (22 years), is the only British prime minister to have led three minority governments, and is the only politician to have served in the cabinets that passed both the 1832 and 1867 Reform Acts. The last of these probably helps to explain his neglect in Conservative party mythology. For although he ended up leading the Protectionist Tories after 1846 and later the ‘reunited’ Conservatives, Derby began his political career as a Whig.
Derby was first appointed to junior office under the coalition prime minister Lord Goderich in 1827. Significantly, he refused to continue working under the new Tory prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, the following year. Appointed Irish secretary in the Whig government of Lord Grey in 1830, he became one of the leading defenders of the famous reform bill in the Commons, where Grey considered his debating skills ‘unrivalled’. He also set up the first national education scheme for Ireland (1831).
As the Whigs’ colonial secretary from 1833-34 it was Derby who passed the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), phasing out slavery in British colonies and (controversially) compensating British slave owners. It was later said of Derby (by Disraeli) that ‘he abolished slavery, he educated Ireland [and] he reformed Parliament’. Not everyone admired him though. Many Irish MPs, including the Irish campaigner Daniel O’Connell, regarded him as an enemy of Ireland and its Catholic population. Derby’s ruthless approach to enforcing law and order there even earned him the epithet ‘Scorpion Stanley’. (At this time he was known by his father’s subsidiary title of Lord Stanley.)
It was also Ireland, or to be more precise the Irish Anglican Church, that prompted the first of Derby’s high-profile resignations from government. In 1834 he quit Grey’s ministry, objecting to some of his cabinet colleagues’ increasingly ‘liberal’ views about using the income of the Irish Church for non-church purposes. Derby’s departure, and its knock-on effects, not only helped to precipitate Grey’s own resignation a few months later, but also helped to pave the way for King William IV’s hugely controversial dismissal of the replacement Whig government led by Lord Melbourne later that year. This was the last time in British history that a monarch threw out a government.
By now (late 1834) Derby was busy trying to form his own ‘third’ or ‘centre’ party. Satirically dubbed the ‘Derby Dilly’ – a politically charged pun about a type of stage-coach – the new party aimed to capture disaffected ‘conservative’ Whigs appalled at the pro-Irish, radical drift of the emerging Whig-Liberal party. It also sought to enlist ‘moderate’ Conservatives keen to distance themselves from the anti-reform legacy of the old Tories. Estimates vary, but by early 1835 Derby had recruited some 40 to 50 followers, including two former Whig ministers and the former prime minister Goderich.
Derby’s hopes of starting a new centre party, however, were scuppered by the remarkably similar appeal put forward by the Conservative Commons’ leader Sir Robert Peel. The King had made Peel prime minister on Wellington’s advice after dismissing Melbourne’s ministry at the end of 1834. Peel’s appeal to all ‘moderate’ reformers and Conservatives willing to ‘reform abuses in church and state’, set out in his famous Tamworth Manifesto during the 1835 election, is widely regarded as a decisive moment in the emergence of modern Conservatism. For Derby it was a disaster. It completely stole his new party’s thunder. He and his followers were left with little choice but to align themselves with the Conservatives over the next few years, especially after the 1837 election results made it clear that Peel was heading towards power.
When the Conservative victory finally came in 1841, the new prime minister Peel reinstalled Derby back in his old office as war and colonies secretary. Feeling increasingly sidelined in the Commons by new front-bench talent, Derby eventually persuaded Peel to move him to the Lords in 1844, to help the ageing Duke of Wellington perform his duties as its party leader.
Just over a year later, Derby performed his second high-profile rebellion as a cabinet minister, resigning from the government in protest at Peel’s decision to completely repeal the corn laws. By 1846 he had become the leader of the Protectionist campaign against Peel’s free trade policy. This, of course, famously split the Conservative party in two, leaving it unable to govern and Derby as de facto leader of the remaining non-Peelite Conservatives.
Derby’s subsequent role as their party leader and prime minister of three minority Conservative governments has already been touched on in a previous post. What is worth stressing here is that although all of Derby’s minority governments were short-lived, they were not without major achievements. Reforms passed by Derby included settling the thorny issue of allowing Jews to sit in Parliament (1858), a complete reorganisation and transfer to the British Crown of Indian government (1858), and of course the Second Reform Act (1867), which enfranchised almost 1.2 million new voters, far more than the famous ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832.
How Derby managed to achieve these major constitutional reforms without a majority in the Commons will be the subject of a follow up article.
S. Farrell, ‘Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley’, in The History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1820-32, ed. D. Fisher (2009), vii. 158-70
A. Hawkins, The Forgotten Prime Minister: the 14th Earl of Derby (2 vols, 2007 & 2008)
A. Hawkins, ‘Lord Derby’, in Lords of Parliament, ed. R. Davis (1995), 134-62
W. Jones, Lord Derby and Victorian Conservatism (1956)