A venal House of Commons, a time of economic dislocation, an unpopular PM: Siân Busby sees eerie resonances in the strange case of Daniel McNaughten
When Daniel McNaughten, a young Glaswegian wood-turner, shot Edward Drummond Esq on a freezing January afternoon in 1843, the widespread reaction was dismay but not astonishment. Such atrocities were only to be expected at a time of economic depression, social dislocation, terrorists and spies around every corner (does that sound familiar?). The unfortunate Mr Drummond was not only a scion of the wealthy and influential Drummond banking family (half the world’s wealth was said to be stashed in their coffers beneath Charing Cross). He was also the Prime Minister’s private secretary — and in January 1843 politicians and the very wealthy were perhaps even more mistrusted than they are today.
It was generally assumed that the ‘Scotch maniac’ must have intended his bullet for the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel — an assumption which still prevails, although no proof has ever been discovered. Peel was being burned in effigy all over the country and was receiving daily death threats. Revolution was in the air. Queen Victoria had been fired at twice in preceding months. Baton charges, the reading of the Riot Act, hussars firing volleys over the heads of rioting hordes, had become common occurrences. The rich and powerful could hear the rattle of the tumbrils and the creak and thud of the guillotine. And, it was popularly held, they had only themselves to blame.
The ‘murderous assault’ (Mr Drummond died five days later) occurred a few weeks after the close of the year, generally regarded, with hindsight, to be the worst of the entire 19th century. Britain was a sooty, filthy, ill-drained, jerry-built place 166 years ago, enveloped in Malthusian gloom (which can be summed up as ‘things can only get worse’). Industry had been in depression for five years. There had been four bad harvests in a row. Costly and unpopular wars had been waged in China and Afghanistan. As for the weather: winter was unbearably cold (Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is set in the winter of 1842-43), summer was stifling and waterless.
People were dying in the streets. In West Riding 20,000 people were found to be living on less than a shilling a week. In Paisley, where the worst effects of the depression were felt, one third of the population was utterly impoverished. A review of living conditions in Glasgow produced details of human suffering considered too dreadful to be included in the published report. The suffering observed by Engels, while running the family business in Manchester, provoked him to the revolutionary fervour that changed the course of history. Frustrated and simmering on the backbenches, Disraeli was to make his reputation by deploring the cleft condition of British society, before going on to found a brand of conservatism dedicated to its repair.
With few exceptions, the members of the House of Commons of 1843 were as far removed from an understanding of the will, sympathies and feelings of the people of Britain as they were from the population of Timbuctoo. The MPs — all of whom had to satisfy a property qualification — were denounced in Punch as a ‘crooked assembly’ suffused with a ‘blundering selfishness’. Those badges of shame may be attachable to today’s MPs, but in truth the Parliament of January 1843 was far worse in sacrificing the interests of the many to the venal interests of the few.
Chartism and the Chartists rose up from this crucible of a parliament that could not feed its people and that directly represented just 900,000 out of a population of 26 million. It was a great movement that shook but could not break the infrangible connection between wealth and power. Even for many of the impoverished, it was simply unthinkable that a man without a shilling to his name might stand for election. In May 1842 Parliament had rejected the demands of the second Great Charter (signed by more than three million people) with a predictable haute froideur.
The notion of fair play, however, has also long been part of the British character. And by January 1843 a good many sensible, hard-working and respectable folk were in a great huff. Things did not appear to be at all fair. The indignant middle classes were only beginning to vent their fury.
It had been a great blow to the respectable middle class to discover that Robert Peel’s remedy for the chronic suffering of the poor was to reintroduce the income tax at seven pence in the pound — a measure that burdened the man of limited means far more than the very rich. It was proof, if such were needed, that the government was resolved into petty knots intent upon the advocacy of the interests of the few, to the disadvantage of the many.
A burdensome national debt (£800 million) was largely comprised of interest repayments made on monies loaned to the government during the Napoleonic wars by the sort of people who banked at Drummonds. Peel had appealed to the ‘possessors of property to help stem the annual growth of this mighty evil’, yet he did not, could not, or would not introduce a property tax. Only a madman would have expected him to do so. Nor did he repeal the Corn Laws (until 1846). And that was a symbolic injustice too far.
Peel was, by birth, ‘one of the people’ — that is to say he was not of aristocratic descent (his family had amassed enormous wealth in the cotton-milling trade) — but his attitude to the Corn Laws was tinged with class and party prejudice. A first-rate mathematician, with a grasp of the still nascent study of ‘political economy’, he understood the argument about the benefits of free trade. But even for him it was anathema to tamper with the system whereby the duty on foreign corn imports was maintained at as high a rate as possible to the putative advantage of the domestic product.
In all this, Peel and the majority of Members were as dangerously out of step with the respectable middle class as any modern-day MP caught ‘flipping’, or urging the hard-pressed taxpayer to cover his moat-cleaning expenses.
The Anti-Corn Law League had garnered mass support from the respectable middle classes by luridly and repeatedly propagandising the equation that the Corn Laws were the cause of all the nation’s troubles. By January 1843, as Daniel McNaughten stepped out from the shadows and levelled his pistol at Mr Drummond a few yards from Downing Street, it was axiomatic to large sections of the great British public that the selfishness of the aristocracy had ensured that the price of bread was rated more than blood and flesh.
To maintain the Corn Laws was to condemn millions to starvation. Small wonder, then, that a modestly successful and ostensibly respectable young wood-turner should decide to take a potshot at a prominent Whitehall gent. Except that there is a great mystery. Daniel McNaughten had a small fortune in his pocket and no proper bullets in his pistol. The real truth about the death of the prime minister’s private secretary is hidden in the dizzying, whirling patterns of a Britain re-inventing its economy and social order.
McNaughten: a novel, by Siân Busby, is published by Short Books, £14.99.