The Business of Government, 1835–41
That Gladstone would later characterise Melbourne’s government as ‘useful’ and ‘well suited to the condition of the public mind’ is not altogether surprising, for he, after all, had taken part in the councils of the Conservative party which had, under Peel, lent its support to any measure which was ultimately passed. That the author of the Vindication of the English Constitution, which had castigated the Whigs as ‘a small body of persons hostile to the nation’,3 would later describe Melbourne’s measures as ‘well-matured and statesmanlike’, might well seem remarkable. Disraeli, to be sure, was never particularly known for consistency. Yet, the difficulty in characterising precisely the main features of Melbourne’s government was not unique to him, and can be seen in recent attempts to define the essence of Melbournian Whiggery. One historian has written of the construction of ‘a real Liberal party’ behind a ‘more radical policy’.4 Another has described the Whigs under Melbourne as a ‘party of conservatism’ responsible for ‘Liberalism in Decline’.5 There can be little doubt that a government which relied on Radical support and Conservative forbearance was not one which could easily effect a well defined public persona. The Whigs, of course, understood this problem and approached the resultant electoral disappointments with a good measure of stoicism. At the same time, Melbourne’s governments were in the unenviable position of following Grey’s governments, which luxuriated in a well-defined programme of reform and, from 1831, in healthy parliamentary majorities. If Grey’s via media was one of political and constitutional theory, Melbourne was forced to tread an additional careful path through the minefield of parliamentary and electoral insecurity.
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