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Earl Of Derby

Prime Minister 1852, 1858, 1866 - 67

Derby is confusing as a prime minister. He is seen by some as a champion of reform. Asa Briggs, for example, portrays Derby as a man who often had to hide his natural reforming inclination in the interests of political expedience. Other writers, such as Denyss Forrest, portray a man who simply followed majority opinion, on everything except his defence of the Church of England. It is also difficult to characterise Derby in terms of his party. He started out as a Whig, describing this as the party of tradition, only to find Whigs gaining a reputation as champions of reform. He then crossed to the supposedly traditionalist Conservative Party, where he was, ironically, involved in reforming initiatives. Following a brief period as prime minister in 1852, Derby took office for a second time in 1858. In Derby's 1858 statement to the House of Lords on becoming prime minister he made a speech describing the fluctuating nature of society and politics: "While it is easy enough to tell a High Tory from a radical, the intermediate stages are as elusive as those between various grades or ranks in society at large. There is a broad interval between the highest and the lowest, but the gradation whereby the one melts into the other is so impalpable that it is difficult... precisely to say where one commences and another ends" (quoted The Prime Ministers Vol 2 P46). Only the following year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. It is interesting to compare Derby's speech on the confusing difference between Tories and Whigs, with this passage in Origin on the nature of species once thought to have been separately created: "Certainly no clear line of demarcation has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species... or, again, between sub-species and well marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage" (Origin Of Species P107). Derby was an orthodox churchman, yet his statement of 1858 closely resembles Charles Darwin. He was prime minister in a new age, when old assumptions about divisions in life were disappearing.

Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby was born 29th March 1799 into a Whig family. After the usual aristocratic education at Eton, and Christ Church College, Oxford, Derby entered Parliament as MP for Stockbridge in 1820. In these early days young Stanley called himself an "old constitutional Whig". Within a few decades the Whigs would be associated with reform rather than tradition, which once again shows the impermanence of political divisions. Initially Stanley did not want to make the change from traditionalist to reformer. He was an opponent of the Reform Bill of 1832, until he saw which way the tide was going, and then became a reformer like most others. At this point Stanley was spotted as a talent, as a man who played the political game. He became chief secretary of Ireland under Grey, 1830 - 33. An earnest religious belief led to resignation in 1834 when he accused the Cabinet of not supporting a policy of defending the Anglican Church in Ireland. Stanley briefly formed his own party - the Derby Dilly - and then crossed to the Conservative Party.

The Conservative Party at this time were divided on the Corn Laws, a scheme of protective tariffs designed to keep the price of corn artificially high. This was fine for the producers whose profits were protected. For consumers it meant more expensive bread. Derby led the "protectionist" faction, which wanted to maintain tariffs. Then a change of heart by his colleague Benjamin Disraeli on the issue persuaded Derby to change his position too. A chance to be appointed prime minister, following the collapse of Lord John Russell's government, made Derby even keener to change his views to those deemed acceptable. Derby managed to put together a government in 1852, and became a kind of provisional prime minister waiting for the next election which he hoped would confirm him in office. It was a common saying that a Derbyite was a "protectionist in the country, a neutral in small towns, and a free trader in the cities". Derby tried to be all things to all people. This plan didn't work. The election did not return enough supporters to maintain his government, which fell on 17th December 1852. Derby's next chance came in February 1858, when Palmerston resigned. Derby stepped into the breach, taking over as prime minister, and making his strangely Darwin-like statement to the Lords on the difficulty of demarcations in politics. But once again he had to face the disappointment of an election which did not return enough supporters for his government to continue.

Finally in 1866, disputes over parliamentary reform allowed Derby to become prime minister one more time. Once again he returned to the subject of reform, introducing a reform bill with Disraeli. Votes for all householders was the plan, counter weighted with extra votes for the upper classes. After much argument an amended measure went to the House of Lords for approval, with Derby announcing it as a "leap in the dark". On 9th August 1867 the Second Reform Bill received royal assent, and this revolutionary legislation gave the vote to all male house holders. Six months later, in bad health, Derby resigned. He was to die in October 1869. Derby might not now be the best remembered of prime ministers. Disraeli would become much better known. Derby, however, was a very interesting mirror of his times.

 

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