The British and Irish election of 1841

This post is largely to put some context into a series of posts that will follow about the election in Ireland in 1841. The total Irish electorate of almost 50,000 [from a population of 6.5m] and 50% larger than the combined Scottish and Welsh electorate [26,500 and 7,700 respectively]. All were dwarfed by an English electorate of just over 500,000. All in all, the total electorate was 584,200 men.

Sir Robert Peel

The election of 1841 brought Sir Robert Peel to power for the second time, though his first term as Prime Minister had lasted only four months as the head of a minority government. It is regarded as having been one of the most corrupt elections in British parliamentary history, the Westminster Review stating that the “annals of parliamentary warfare contained no page more stained with the foulness of corruption and falsehood than that which relates the history of the general election in the year 1841”. 2016 -2018 are running it close.

Only 3.17% of the total population voted.

At the election, there was a swing of 2.6% to the Conservatives giving them a majority of 76 seats over the combined opposition [367 to 291 – Whig 271,  Irish Repeal Party 20]. The Tories campaigned mainly on the issue of Peel’s leadership, whilst the Whigs were largely tinkering with the Corn Laws, proposing replacing the existing sliding scale of import duties on corn with a uniform rate. The Corn Laws made it expensive to import grain from other countries, even when food supplies were short. The laws were supported mainly by landowners, both Tory and Whig, and opposed by urban industrialists and workers.

There was also the issue of electoral reform again, with a substantial view that the Reform Act of 1832 hadn’t gone far enough. The Whigs were largely a landowning aristocratic party, though in favour of reducing the power of the Crown and increasing the power of Parliament. [i.e. Their own power through the House of Lords] They were slowly evolving into the Liberal Party, which was essentially a coalition of Whigs, free trade Tory Peelites, and free trade Radicals. A move not fully complete until 1868.

1841 was curious in so far as even radical [English] support favoured the Tories,  it being felt that Peel would be more open to electoral reform. Radical opinion also appeared to favour the business background of Peel and his supporters to the aristocratic and landed background of the Whigs.

Daniel O’Connell

The Whigs also lost votes to the Irish Repeal group who they had an electoral pact with between 1835 and the 1841 election. The Repeal Association was an Irish mass membership political movement set up by Daniel O’Connell in 1830 to campaign for a repeal of the Acts of Union of 1800 between Great Britain and Ireland. The Association’s aim was to revert Ireland to the constitutional position briefly achieved  in the 1780s, legislative independence under the British Crown – but this time with full Catholic involvement, but there was still a substantial property qualification. The total Irish electorate was 50,000 men from a population of 6.5m.

The Irish election was partisan, sectarian, and violent. It also had a distinct geographical split with the Tories receiving most support in Ulster, and some eastern counties, as well as pushing through a fraudulent poll in Dublin. There was also substantial anti-Catholic opinion within the Tory party. It is all very multi-layered, and there are some subtle gradations to be navigated. In Ireland it is safe to say being on Daniel O’Connell’s side is probably walking with the [moderate middle class] angels.


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