Page images
PDF
EPUB

discuss political and economical problems in a scientific spirit.

As early as 1853 he was elected a member of the Political Economy Club, which comprised a number of the leading public men of the day; he retained his membership to the last, having been by the rules of the club elected an honorary member, on becoming a Cabinet Minister, in 1869.

The Political Economy Club was founded in 1821, among its original members being Grote, James Mill, Ricardo, Malthus, Zachary Macaulay, and Sir Henry Parnell. Two years after its foundation Lord Althorp and Nassau Senior became members. In after years, in addition to Lowe, many leading statesmen were members, including Sir G. C. Lewis, Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Goschen, Mr. Villiers, Lord Granville, Lord Dufferin, Sir Stafford Northcote, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Sir Rowland Hill, Lord Bramwell, Sir John Lubbock, and Mr. Forster. The list of members also included men of letters and independent economic thinkers such as Walter Bagehot, Thomas Hare, W. R. Greg, John Stuart Mill, and Professor Fawcett.

109

CHAPTER VII

VICE-PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE

(1856)

WHEN the Peelites so suddenly deserted Lord Palmerston he had to reconstruct his Cabinet as best he could. In place of Mr. Gladstone, Sir George Cornewall Lewis became Chancellor of the Exchequer; Sir Charles Wood replaced Sir James Graham at the Admiralty; Lord Stanley of Alderley took over the Board of Trade from Mr. Cardwell, and the ubiquitous Lord John Russell became Colonial Secretary in lieu of Mr. Sidney Herbert.

With regard to this reconstruction of the Palmerston Cabinet, there is a remarkable entry in the Greville Memoirs :

They are very wisely going to take in Laing,' but very unwisely will not give a place to Lowe, who, if left out, will contrive to do them some damage. Granville has moved heaven and earth to get Lowe in office, but Palmerston and others set their faces against him. Lansdowne has most unreasonably and unwisely insisted on Vernon Smith being taken in, and it is at present intended to make him President of the Board of Control. He is very unpopular and totally useless, and just the man they ought not to take in; while Lowe is just the man they ought, to meet the prevailing sentiment about old connections and new men.

Bearing in mind that at this period Greville knew little or nothing of Lowe personally, and that from his backstairs view of public men he was always inclined to set them all

'Mr. Samuel Laing declined the office of Vice-President of the Board of Trade, which was accepted by Mr. Bouverie.

down as placemen and tricksters, this entry is worth consideration. In the first place, it shows Lowe had already made himself such a prominent public man that, in the judgment of so cool and practised a hand at the political game, it was prudent to propitiate him with office. In the second place, it reveals the fact that while the late Lord Granville, who was, to the last, Lord Sherbrooke's most intimate friend among the Whig aristocracy, was even at this early date alive to his merits, Lord Palmerston, who has generally been considered his special patron, was not at first willing to give him office. The fact is, that so long as Palmerston held the seals of the Foreign Office and could dish' the Radicals and other innovators in the House of Commons, he cared not a straw what manner of men formed his ministries. Who can forget his characteristic exclamation on finding that he had put all his square men into round holes, and had therefore to reconstruct' afresh: 'Ha! ha!' said he, 'a Comedy of Errors!'

[ocr errors]

It is, of course, incredible that so astute a man as Lord Palmerston should not have been struck with the debating power and intellectual grasp of the member for Kidderminster. But Robert Lowe's genius and ability were not of the order which appealed strongly to Palmerston. Lowe was essentially a scholar; Palmerston was pre-eminently a man of the world. Lowe, although he objected to what is generally called Reform, was nothing if not an administrative reformer -one who could never see an abuse without ardently desiring to rectify it, and who thought that merit and industry, not favour or family, should be the road to power in the State and to promotion in its service. On all these points, which Lord Sherbrooke throughout life held to be the soul and essence of Liberalism, Palmerston was the veriest Gallio.

There was yet another consideration which doubtless influenced Lord Palmerston, and most certainly swayed the Whig nobles whom he would consult as to the reconstruction.

of his Cabinet; and that was the fact that the member for Kidderminster was entirely outside what may be called the 'official ring.' It is only consonant with what we know of human nature that Lord Granville,' who was a thorough aristocrat, and not a mere mushroom peer and professional borough-monger, should have been the first of the official Whigs to recognise and urge Lowe's claim to be admitted into a Liberal administration.

However, Robert Lowe had not long to wait; nor had he to condescend to any of the paltry arts of parliamentary finesse to compel Palmerston to make him the offer of highly important office in his strangely constructed Ministry. Mr. George Pleydell Bouverie, a second son of the third Earl of Radnor, had been appointed (probably to strengthen the cast of the Comedy of Errors ') Vice-President of the Board of Trade. Lord John Russell (doubtless to get him out of the way, for it is difficult to see how it expedited the work of the Colonial Office), had been sent as our Plenipotentiary to Vienna. His achievement as a diplomatist gave Disraeli a splendid opportunity of lampooning' him, as Lowe said. It also furnished Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, who was then fast rising into note as a Conservative politician, with an effective opening to submit his memorable motion: That the conduct of the Minister charged with the negotiations at Vienna, and his continuance in office as a responsible adviser of the Crown, have shaken the confidence which the country should place in those to whom the administration of public affairs is entrusted.'

Lord John, as before, to get out of the difficulty promptly resigned; and Sir William Molesworth, of philosophical renown, who had really devoted time and study to colonial. problems, was-mirabile dictu!-appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies. It somehow leaked out that Lord John

Lord Granville was, in fact, a kinsman of Lord Sherbrooke; though, doubtless, neither of them knew it. (See Pedigrees.)

Russell, whose resignation was universally condemned, had taken the step on the advice of the Vice-President of the Board of Trade. This brought upon Mr. Bouverie's head the wrath of the Times and the scathing sarcasm of Disraeli. Palmerston, therefore, thought it prudent to move him out of the way, and he was duly transformed into Paymaster-General and President of the Poor Law Board. Then it was that Lord Palmerston tardily offered the vacant post to Robert Lowe, who became Vice-President of the Board of Trade in August 1855.

Lowe's seat at Kidderminster had not been contested when he had previously accepted the post of Secretary of the Board of Control; but on his being made Vice-President of the Board of Trade, the 'public-house interest' proceeded to make arrangements for a contest. Lowe had already given offence to this powerful trade organisation by positively refusing to be their mouthpiece on the subject of some obscure Beer Bill. This was the beginning of his troubles with the baser class of electors, as well as with the thirsty and riotous non-electors, of Kidderminster. On standing for re-election, he was assailed from this quarter with abuse and personal scurrility, which he met with unflinching dignity. A local solicitor, with the now historic name of Boycott, consented to be the candidate of the disaffected. There was much excitement in the borough, but, though nominated, Mr. Boycott would not face the poll; and on August 11, 1855, Robert Lowe was again returned, practically unopposed, for Kidderminster.

In his new and, on the whole, most congenial office, it fell to the lot of Robert Lowe to effect what has been truly called a revolution in the commercial history and social condition of this country. He was the Minister who carried successfully through Parliament the Joint Stock Companies Acts of 1856 and 1857, and the Joint Stock Banking Com

« PreviousContinue »