Prime minister 1846 - 52, and 1865 - 66
Through the history of Parliament there is generally an assumption that democracy is an unquestionably good thing. We equally assume that old fashioned royal despotism is a bad thing. But history might not be so neat in its apparent development. A.N. Wilson, and others have pointed out that the rise of democracy in the Balkan states has coincided with atrocious behaviour towards minorities, since democracy by definition enshrines the will of the majority as the source of wisdom (see After The Victorians). While it should be remembered that democracy seems to work remarkably well most of the time, the career of Lord John Russell is a sobering illustration that democracy is not an absolute good. The history of Parliament, like history in general, is not the story of a progress from darkness to light.
The Reform Club - membership was limited to those who supported the Reform Bill of 1832
John Russell was born 18th August 1892, son of the Duke of Bedford. After finishing his education at Edinburgh University, Russell entered Parliament as MP for Tavistock in 1813. Throughout his career he was a politician at the forefront of what is now seen as the historic movement towards parliamentary reform. In 1832 it was Russell who drafted the famous Reform Bill which set the basis for modern standards of representative democracy. He also supported the representation of people who traditionally had enjoyed little power in British society. In 1834 a group of farmers tried to band together in the small Dorset village of Tolpuddle. They planned to use their combined influence to try and put pressure on local landowners to increase their starvation wages. The reaction of Tolpuddle's landowners was ferocious. They managed to have the martyrs convicted on trumped up charges of taking an unlawful oath. Earl Grey's government supported a hard line, which saw the Tolpuddle Martyrs sentenced to transportation to Australia. While home secretary Melbourne was doing his best to support the Dorset landowners, Russell was supporting the farmers. Russell pointed out that the martyrs weren't the only people to take secret oaths: the Duke of Cumberland would take a secret oath as head of the Orange Lodges of Freemasons, but that did not condemn him to transportation to a penal colony.
On the fall of Robert Peel's government in 1846 Russell finally had the chance to put his forward looking ideals into action as head of state. Peel had been a very firm ruler of government, while Russell in his fair minded way wanted a more representative, responsive government. This sounded good in theory, but the reality was rather different. In the same year that Russell became prime minister the potato famine began in Ireland. Russell was one of very few English statesmen to believe that rural Irishmen deserved the same level of protection as anyone else living in Britain. Initially he moved decisively to help the worsening Irish situation. In 1846 huge schemes of public works were organised to provide employment, and by 1847 soup kitchens were keeping people alive. These measures cost around £10 million, which represented by far the biggest relief effort that any government had ever made. But quite soon Lord John's open government began to tell against him. Under pressure from Parliament to cut tax, the prime minister was forced to cut aid. Lord John, following his democratic instincts gave way without much of a fight, and disaster ensued. From now until 1852 one million people were to die of starvation, and two million were to emigrate. The population of Ireland was to decline by a quarter.
Adam Smith's house in Edinburgh
The disaster wasn't solely due to pressure on Russell. As prime minister he had a doctrinaire approach to free trade. The idea was that trade free from government tariffs and intervention would keep the price of bread low and thus help the people of Ireland buy it. In practice this non intervention also meant that corn was not bought by the government for distribution, and was not diverted to Ireland to help ease famine. Irish MPs coming to Lord John to appeal for corn, were referred to the fifth chapter of the fourth book of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, the great theoretical champion of free trade. This chapter outlined the drawbacks of paying an exporter a bounty to send their goods to a certain destination: "The effect of bounties, like that of all the other expedients of the mercantile system, can only be to force the trade of a country into a channel much less advantageous than that in which it would naturally run of its own accord" (Wealth of Nations Ch 5 Bk4). Smith was a humane man and never meant his ideas to lead to famine hit areas being denied aid, but Russell's rigid views on trade, combined with his reluctance to act in what he saw as a dictatorial manner in the face of majority will, led to the disastrous Irish potato famine. As John Prest writes in The Prime Ministers: "Here indeed, as we can now see, was a failure of the new system of open government. Prime minister and Cabinet took their tone from the majority when it was wrong to do so" (Prime Ministers Vol 2 P30). Russell clearly did not agree with the majority view, so without money to help, he tried to instigate a policy where the lands of insolvent protestant landlords were transferred to wealthy catholics. The hope was that new catholic landlords and their catholic tenants sharing the same religion would ease social tension and violence. Russell also hoped merchant capital would be freed up for investment in agriculture. But the plan simply did not work. The religious hard liners would not support anything that seemed to give catholics more power. The bigoted majority view held sway, and a terrible tragedy occurred in Ireland. So democracy, a byword for progress became the source of catastrophe, when some old fashioned dictatorial policy by an enlightened minority would have helped.
Exhausted and disillusioned, Russell's government fell in 1852. Russell continued in Parliament, and was briefly prime minister again 1865 - 66, but his name would always be associated with the ministry of 1846 - 52, when the idea of democratic progress hit Ireland's potato famine. This story indicates how careful we should be when thinking of ideas of progress in history.