Lord Ripon's Political Career

As we move on to Ripon’s political career it is important to establish the historical context. The period that Ripon entered politics, the 1850s, has a reputation for stability which was by no means apparent at the time.

1848 was the year of revolutions in Europe. Louis Philippe, the King of France was overthrown; there was revolution in Vienna and four days later in Milan. A month later a Chartist procession in London was called off as troops were mobilised. The British government of the time feared revolution may also break out. As Kitson-Clark says:-

... the England of 1850 resembles the cruder pre-industrial, pre-democratic, resolutely unreformed England of the eighteenth century more closely than we have been pleased to imagine. (Kitson-Clark, 1962).

The aristocracy still held the controlling strings in both national and local politics and public life at its best was characterised by privilege and influence acting according to the principle of noblesse oblige and at its worst by jobbery and open corruption.

With such a father and uncle, however, it is not surprising that the young Ripon aspired to a political career himself. His uncle de Grey had the patronage of a number of parliamentary seats, notably Ripon, and it was perhaps, in preparation for such a career that his father arranged for him to go on a diplomatic mission to Brussels in 1849. Perhaps also his father hoped that contact with Europe in turmoil would dissuade his son from extreme radical views he had come to hold.

In the company of his cousin he visited Switzerland, Italy and France. It was Paris that really inspired Ripon. On his return from Europe, Ripon associated himself with the Christian Socialists. However for over a year, Ripon does not seem to have taken a very active part in the affairs of the Christian-Socialists, largely out of deference to his father who was scandalised by his sons views and revolutionary associates.

Until 1851-52 Ripon’s radical sympathies though real enough, were still largely academic and philanthropic. However, within a few months of his wedding he was drawn out of his ivory tower into the thick of an industrial dispute; the ‘lock-out’ of the engineers in the winter of 1851-52. At this point the Christian-Socialists were thrown into national prominence by their appearances on worker’s platforms, their letters to newspapers, and by their public lectures.

After the final collapse of the engineers in April 1852 Ripon turned his attention to politics. The events and dangers of 1848 were still fresh in the minds of politicians and people alike, and Ripon with his working class contacts was more alive to the fact than most. According to Ripon’s political creed English life should become more democratic in the light of aristocratic failure: it is important to appreciate that in the 1850s only land owners and the middle class were allowed to vote.

As Ripon saw it only administrative and parliamentary reform and ultimately the secret ballot could weaken the aristocratic stranglehold. Ripon’s parliamentary career in the 1850s assisted in the loosening of this aristocratic grip.

He took with him into politics another of his radical interests: education. The 1840s saw a growing demand for an extension of elementary education. It is also interesting that W.E. Forster, the Bradford Quaker industrialist, was a friend of the Christian-Socialists. Forster and Ripon were to form a friendship at this time which bore fruit in the Education Act. This piece of legislation is considered so important that Bradford erected a statue in Forster’s name and named a square in the city centre after him.

In view of his persistently held advanced opinions, his uncle de Grey would neither sponsor Ripon, nor provide him with a family pocket borough, the usual method by which young aristocrats were launched into politics. Left to his own resources Ripon’s choice of a constituency descended upon Hull, a tough sea-faring borough with a bad electoral reputation for dishonest practices.

Ripon took great pride on his clean electioneering behaviour, ironically however, shortly after being elected a member of parliament for Hull he was unseated after accusations of bribery. To such a man of honour and integrity this smirch must have been extremely hurtful.

However, it did not put him off and he was determined to get back into the Houses of Parliament in order to do which he stood for election at Huddersfield. As Denholme says:-

Huddersfield was a constituency much more to his liking, and he was soon to become a popular figure among the mill workers of the town. Huddersfield always had a special place in [Ripon’s] affections for he became a freemason there,... [and] this aspect of his inner life was to be of great importance to him. He also took a lively interest in borough affairs: he helped to establish a mechanic’s institute and followed closely the progress of a co-operative woollen mill in the town until late in his life. (Denholme, p.19)

On Saturday 17 April, Ripon addressed a crowd, estimated at 10,000, as part of his electioneering campaign, four days later he was elected for Huddersfield, receiving 675 votes to Joseph Starkey’s 593. It was not as apathetic a turn out as the figures suggest but it does accentuate the differences between our two times, indeed Ripon witnessed at first hand the basis of the changing democracy in nineteenth century Britain.

When Ripon was born, only those who owned land were allowed to vote. The middle class were enfranchised when Ripon was five years old and when Ripon was forty years old this was extended to the securely domiciled workers in town. Eventually the agricultural labourers were allowed to vote nineteen years later; thus by the time Ripon was fifty-nine he had witnessed the entire male population enfranchised. Needless to say, the ladies had to wait a little longer!

The politics of the nineteenth century were not organised as it is today (among strictly party lines) and whilst in the House of Commons Ripon formed his own small pressure group which was referred to as the Goderichites. Though he was the junior of them from five to twelve years Ripon was the acknowledged leader of the group.

The Goderichites group consisted of Henry Bruce, M.P. for Merthyr Tydfil from 1852-1869 and Austen Henry Layard, who was M.P. for Aylesbury from 1852-1857. The group was later to expand to include other members of parliament like Edward Horsman and Danby Seymour as well as several extra-parliamentary figures such as Tom Hughes (who wrote Tom Brown’s Schooldays!), and later W.E. Forster (who became an M.P. in the 1860s).

The Goderichites took a particular interest in army and civil service reform, limited liability, Indian and industrial affairs, and the abolition of privilege. Their contribution helped avoid the chasm that the events of 1848 had threatened. They looked for social progress through the moral regeneration of the people and the destruction of privilege, their main inspiration was ethical and Biblical rather than feudal.

In debates Ripon made his mark as a good House of Commons speaker. His speeches were not oratorical masterpieces but they had the habit of going straight to the point. However his style of open and forthright attacks upon the establishment were not getting him very far, and his sense of frustration led to a period of self-doubt and depression in the autumn and winter of 1853-54.

His career as a private Member of Parliament was brought to an end by his father’s death in January 1859 and his elevation to the Lords as the Earl of Ripon. Even more momentous was his acceptance of office under Palmeston of whom he been so critical. These two events brought to an end the political campaigns he had led in the Commons with his friends, though his connections with them remained.

Career at the War Office

Between 1853 and 1859 Ripon had established himself as an expert on military matters, with definite views on the necessity for the abolition of purchase and for improving the efficiency of the service. It was this reputation that led to him joining Palmeston’s administration in 1859 as Under Secretary of State for War under Herbert.

Ripon like many other radicals welcomed the Crimean War (1853-6) as a war against the tyranny Czardom, but he also relished the opportunities presented by the mismanagement to press home the argument he had been making in public for over two years.

In office he effected some useful reforms especially in the administration of the War Office and in the conditions of life in the army. Commissions in the army were still largely obtained by purchase. Regulations laid down by the Duke of Wellington in the year before he died ensured that young gentlemen should have some ability before commissioning, and consequently an examination had to be passed before a commission could be bought, but the exclusiveness of the army was for Ripon a social injustice of the first order.

Having previously failed in 1855 Ripon urged the abolition of purchase on the grounds of efficiency of a professional army. This change of tactic is interesting as previously he had appealed to the Parliament’s sense of justice and fair play. He was fast learning the crafts of a politician and the new methods paid off. Palmeston, true to his word, granted a Royal Commission and the subsequent report which roundly condemned the system of purchase.

Ripon also wanted to remove from the occupation of the soldier the stigma of the criminal in the hope of improving both standards and morale. The Crimean War had aroused the public interest in the lot of the private soldier: William Russell’s revelations in The Times and the work of Florence Nightingale had dramatically highlighted his abominable conditions of service, and one of the consequences of this publicity was a new respect for the British fighting man.

1859 marks a turning point in the history of the army in the nineteenth century. Whilst it is true that the evil days of the Crimea had passed, and the army had acquitted itself well during the Indian Mutiny, torpor and ineptitude would almost certainly have returned without this reforming urge from Herbert, his superior and Ripon himself. The War Office and the Horse Guards seemed to have a built-in resistance to change. In breaking down the resistance to change, Herbert and Ripon conditioned the army bureaucracy to the notion of reform which bore fruit in the early 1870s.

His success as Secretary of State established his administrative reputation and made it certain that he would be given further office. On the death of Sir George Lewis, who had succeeded Herbert, Ripon got his long-looked for promotion and entered the cabinet as Secretary for War in 1861. His promotion and term of office coincided with the start of American Civil War of 1861-5.

On matters of sanitary reform, Ripon worked closely with Florence Nightingale and the fruits of their labour were a changed attitude on the part of the army towards hygiene and the status and role of medical officers.

Lord President of Council

By the time Gladstone returned to power in 1868 Ripon had established a reputation as an enlightened and efficient administrator. Though Ripon would have preferred to return to the War Office Gladstone offered him the Lord Presidency of the Council.

Ripon was not unhappy with the position for it gave him ministerial responsibility for educational questions which were at that moment were "of particular urgency and importance". Ripon’s achievement was sweetened further by the success of most of the other Goderichites. Bruce, though he had lost his seat at Merthyr, became Home Secretary and a new seat at Renfrew was soon found for him. Forster, after some hesitation accepted the vice-presidency of the Council under Ripon. The unique social and romantic radicalism of the Goderichites had at last found a home under the broad umbrella and moral imperatives of the Liberal Party.

Much of what Ripon had campaigned for in the 1850s came to fruition in the late 1860s and early 1870s. In particular two pieces of legislation were introduced which he had supported since his early parliamentary days became law; the secret ballot and the education act.

Ripon had been an advocate of the secret ballot from his Christian-Socialist days, and it must have given him great pleasure to introduce this measure to the House of Lords as the Electoral (Parliamentary and Municipal) Bill on its second reading on 10 August, 1871.

In addition Ripon had departmental responsibility for introducing the most far reaching reform of elementary education in the nineteenth century of which he was later to say "one of the matters of which in a long public career I am most proud". In doing so he realised another of his earliest dreams, that of bringing elementary education to the masses. At his side was his long time friend, confidant and sympathiser in the education cause, W.E. Forster.

Throughout his life Ripon held high hopes of the spread of education to the working classes, not only because he believed it absolutely necessary for emerging democratic society, the commonly held view of "educating our masters", but more because it was an instrument for elevating the masses.

During Ripon’s tenure as Lord President and W.E. Forster tenure as Vice-President the two men were able to effect a number of substantial educational reforms that virtually revolutionised the attitude of British governments to education, and which established models and patterns for future state intervention. By bringing about the active participation and complete involvement of the state in the educational system the two men gave it a social responsibility that it could not discard.

Another one of Ripon’s abiding interests in promoting education was the Mechanics Institutes, especially as they were the only means of working class education for adults outside London. Ripon’s roots and his political interests lay in the North of England and not surprisingly therefore most of his work for the Institutes were confined to Yorkshire, and to Huddersfield in particular.

Alabama Treaty

The highlight of Ripon’s tenure in office in Gladstone’s administration was his work on the joint Anglo-American High Commission of 1871 which settled serious outstanding points of difference between Britain and the U.S.A., indeed so serious was the state of Anglo-America relations at the time that war seemed inevitable.

The failure of the British to understand the deep sense of grievance felt by the Americans over the fitting out of the Alabama and other Confederate ships in British ports at the time of the Civil War largely accounts for the deterioration of relations in the late 1860s. But the crisis reached its flashpoint over the Alabama claims.

These differences concerned the building of ships for the Confederate Navy in British shipyards and subsequent hospitality to such ships in British Empire ports. These activities were made possible, as Americans saw it, by the inadequacy of the British neutrality laws and their lax enforcement.

The British statute on neutral conduct, the foreign enlistment act of 1819, forbade the equipping, furnishing, fitting out, or arming within British jurisdiction of vessels for the purpose of attacking the commerce of friendly powers, or the augmentation of "the warlike force" of such vessels, but did not prohibit the building of such vessels.

Taking advantage of this loophole in the law, Captain James D. Bulloch, the Confederate agent charged with such business, arranged with English shipbuilding firms for the construction of the ships, which became famous as the Confederate cruisers Florida and Alabama. In each case the ship was built but not "equipped, fitted out, or armed" in a British shipyard. Each put to sea without equipment and in a remote unpoliced sanctuary - the Florida in the Bahamas, the Alabama in the Azores - met another steamer bringing her armament, officers, and crew.

Each was then duly commissioned as a ship of the Confederate Navy and began her career as a commerce destroyer. The Florida made over forty prizes before she was herself captured by the U.S.S. Wachusett, by a violation of neutrality, in the port of Bahia, Brazil. The Alabama destroyed fifty-seven prizes and released many more on bond before she was sunk in a duel with the U.S.S. Kearsarge off the port of Cherbourg, France. Next after these two in destructiveness and notoriety was the Shenandoah, purchased for the Confederacy from her English owners and armed and manned at sea. Beginning her career late and cruising in the Pacific, she destroyed a large part of the New England whaling fleet at a time when, unknown to her officers or their victims, the Confederacy had ceased to exist.

In the cases of the Florida and Alabama, Charles Frances Adams, the United States minister, had laid before the British government evidence that the ships were being prepared for the service of the Confederacy. The evidence against the Alabama was so strong that at the last moment the Prime Minister, Earl Russel, ordered her held. The order came too late.

The Alabama had steamed out of the Mersey River on a "trial trip" from which she never returned. The United States held Great Britain guilty of breaches of neutrality in permitting her escape and in construction of the Florida.

The United States held also that Great Britain had violated the principles of neutrality in permitting confederate cruisers to augment their strength in ports of the British Empire. The Shenandoah, for example, had put in at Melbourne, Australia, where in spite of protests from the United States consul, she was allowed to make repairs, take on a supply of coal, and recruit additions to her crew. In addition to the actual destruction wrought by the Alabama, Florida, Shenandoah, and less celebrated raiders, their depredations had caused a skyrocketing of insurance rates, kept ships idle in port, and driven many northern ship-owners to sell their vessels or transfer them to foreign registry. For all these losses British negligence or partiality was held responsible.

With Canada defenceless, it was possible that the whole of North America would be brought into the vigorously expansive post-war United States. Britain, with its army still largely unreformed, was militarily paralysed and yet faced the possibility of war on two fronts. Into the midst of this potentially war-like threat Ripon was dispatched as Chairman of the Joint Commission. Ripon’s approach of conciliation and compromise won widespread praise and he succeeded in diffusing the tension between the United States. Tanterden, who was the secretary to the British commissioners commented on:-

... the very able way in which Lord [Ripon] conducts the discussion. He never loses temper, never presses an advantage too far and hits hard when required -- and is wonderfully quick in catching at and making his points. (Baker, 1979, p.484)

For Britain’s failure to exercise "due diligence" over the Alabama, the Florida and the Shenandoah she was asked to pay 3 million. In the long run the Washington Treaty which settled the Alabama claims as they were commonly referred to was a landmark in the history of international law and lead to much improved relations after the dark years of the 1860s. Furthermore, it completed the withdrawal of the British from North America without bloodshed, yet still left Canada intact.

This altered Britain’s perspective in the region which according to Stacey, Britain had:-

... suddenly withdrew from her traditional responsibilities in the interior of the continent, thereby saving roughly a million pounds a year, facilitating the reform of her army and materially strengthening her military position with respect to Europe. By 1872 it could almost be said that Great Britain had ceased to be a North American power. (Stacey, 1955)

For his role in the successful negotiations Ripon was given a marquessate and thus in 1871 he became the Marquess of Ripon.

Conversion to Catholicism

In August 1873 Ripon resigned from Gladstone’s government, chiefly he was gloomy about the future direction of the Party. By 1873 the great reform ministry was a spent force. The heady achievements of the early years had given way to a disillusionment among the rank and file, and a growing desire by a number of cabinet ministers to be free. However Ripon’s resignation was probably due to "spiritual unrest".

His mother, to whom he was devoted and who had been his only intellectual and religious guide until late adolescence, died in 1867. F.D. Maurice, his political mentor of the 1850s, died in 1872, close relatives had been massacred by Greek brigands in 1870, and his son had been close to death in 1873.

In September 1874 some rather surprising news was revealed which, one hopes, by today’s more enlightened times would hardly raise an eyebrow. Apparently Lord Ripon had converted to Catholicism. Unfortunately Ripon’s conversion coincided with one of two outbreaks of anti-Catholic sentiment in England during Victoria’s reign. The first was in 1850 after the Catholic Church had been permitted to re-establish its hierarchy in Britain, and the other followed the Vatican Council of 1870, and in particular the assertion of Papal Infallibility.

His reception into the Catholic Church took London society and even his closest friends by surprise:-

... no Freemason or old colleague or intimate friend had any inkling of his intention. Only Lady Ripon suspected, but even she was uncertain, although she was aware that for many months he had retired with volumes of Newman and the early Fathers to that austere bookroom at Studley which, sunless and fireless he persistently occupied from early manhood to old age. (Lord Esher in The Quarterly Review, No 471, April 1922.)

Ripon had been an active Freemason for over twenty years and had become Grand Master in 1870, but he attended his first mass at St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark in April 1870, the Sunday following the assassination of his father-in-law Frederick Vyner. As he grappled with the full implications of a possible conversion to Catholicism it is not difficult to imagine the confusion in his mind as long cherished ideas came under review.

It was not easy for a man in Ripon’s position, holding high office in a Protestant country, to accept the Roman faith. When Ripon was received into the Catholic Church on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin on 8 September 1874 the outcry from press and pulpit alike confidently predicted the end his public career. This outcry left Ripon publicly silent and apparently unmoved.

His conversion momentarily stunned the political world and prompted the Prime Minister, Gladstone, to write a famous pamphlet which claimed that converts to Catholicism renounced their "mental and moral freedom". The Times (always a critic of Ripon) made a viscious attack upon him which attempted to discredit Ripon’s career to date, and to ensure that he never held political office again. Coming from The Times this view was unpleasant enough but when it appeared that it was shared by none other than Gladstone himself, Ripon’s political future looked bleak indeed.

In the autumn of 1874 it was assumed by Ripon himself and his erstwhile cabinet colleagues that his public career had ended. In a diary he kept from 1878-80 he wrote "when I first became a Catholic I fully thought my conversion would be a bar to office". In September 1874 the political world expected that after twenty years in public office and service to the Liberal cause, Ripon would retire to enjoy the fruits of his considerable estates.

Ripon contented himself with travel abroad, the domestic pleasures of Nocton and Studley Royal, and the study of religion and politics. However by 1878 Ripon was once again taking part in Liberal Party consultations. Since Gladstone’s resignation as leader of the party in January 1875, this obstacle in the way of his political advancement had been removed. Ripon was much more at peace with himself as he found that both his social and political philosophies were strengthened by his spiritual calm and certainty.

However, it is generally agreed that the foreign and imperial policies of Disraeli’s government were the major reason for Ripon’s active return to political life. Both Rossi and Wolf stress the outbreak of war with Afghanistan in the summer of 1878 as a crucial date. Ripon was vexed that the deliberate policy of forty years should be reversed and that the country had become involved in a war without Parliament ever having had the slightest opportunity of expressing its opinion on the subject.

He soon became one of the leading spokesmen on Indian affairs for the opposition, and along with Lord Northbrook (an ex-viceroy) and Lord Halifax he became one "of a triumvirate which substantially shaped opposition policy regarding India and Afghanistan".

The Viceroy of India

In the spring of 1880 when the general election returned the Liberals with Gladstone again at their head, Ripon was offered and accepted the viceroyalty of India. A position from his experience he was well qualified to undertake. Like all "advanced" Liberals before Chamberlain, Ripon disliked imperial rule and looked to its eventual demise. He accepted that despotic rule was necessary in the short-term but with real power lying at home and subject to close scrutiny by parliament.

Mathur claims Ripon deserves recognition for pursuing consistent policy in Central Asia. Along with his measures to free the press, and his enthusiastic promotion of education, Ripon’s scheme for greater native participation in local government has to be seen in the light of furthering, as the "Resolution" itself indicates, "that desire and capacity for self-government which all intelligent and fairly educated men may safely be assumed to possess". Self-government was one of Ripon’s first and last political principles.

One of Ripon’s first acts was the re-establishment of the freedom of the press in India. A free press, subject only to registration, had been the rule in India since 1853, and was only temporarily suspended during the mutiny. Lord Lytton had decided to curb the activities of the vernacular press, and following legislation in 1878, printers and publishers were obliged to give bonds and submit proofs to local government inspection. These bonds were subject to forfeit if the newspaper excited disaffection against the government, or encouraged racial or religious hatred.

However in introducing limited forms of self-government he was to run amok of the Anglo-Indian community. For nothing in Ripon’s viceroyalty created more anger, anguish, and controversy than the Criminal Procedure Amendment Bill, better known as the Ilbert Bill.

The legislation was introduced by Sir Courtenay Ilbert, on 2 February 1883. This laid down that district magistrates and session judges should exercise jurisdiction over European-British subjects, thus making the racial origin of the judge irrelevant. The reaction of the Anglo-Indians was immediate and hostile. Ripon was aghast at this explosion of hatred and denunciation, and in particular at his own failure, and that of his advisors, to anticipate the danger of the Anglo-Indian backlash. However the viceroy remained firm.

The legislation was implemented through a compromise, namely that a European subject could claim a jury, however the principle of native judges sitting in cases involving Europeans was firmly established.

In spite of this Ripon endeared himself to Indians by his sincerity and as Mathur says, the educated Indian never blamed him for his limited successes in particular measures. Even so, according to George Thomas, Ripon’s local self-government statute "laid the foundation for the political independence of India. He lit the torch that led ultimately to the political autonomy of the country".

According to the Quarterly Review Ripon had industriously scattered the germs of independence in India with the doctrine that "the natives were entitled to rule, the English nothing more than interlopers; the time had arrived when India was entitled to ‘Home Rule’".

When Ripon returned to England in January 1885, he had been out of the hurly-burly of English political life for nearly five years. Indeed he had not held office in England since his resignation in 1873. He was appointed 1st Lord of Admiralty 1886 during the short term of office of Russel and in 1892 he was appointed as Colonial Secretary, an office which he held until 1895 under both Gladstone and Rosebery. From 1895 to 1902 the Liberals were in opposition whilst the Conservatives assumed power under the Marquess of Salisbury.

Lord Privvy Seal

Politically the last years of Ripon’s life must have been among his happiest. He witnessed the revival of the Liberal fortunes after 1903 and became Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords in the 1906 government under his old friend Campbell-Bannerman, and soon rejoiced in the approval of friend and foe alike for his conduct of affairs. His radical temper was well attuned to the reforming spirit of 1906 and he acquired a new enthusiastic lease of political life.

Thus at the age of 79 he was called upon to undertake the daunting task of leading the small band of Liberals in the Lords against the entrenched Conservative majority. This was in spite of his wife’s death in 1907, his own frequent protestations of tiredness, and requests for a period of time between retirement and the grave. After so many frustrating years in opposition it was refreshing for him to be back in the harness and able to address himself to the duties of high office.

Ripon resigned from office in 1908 and this was ostensibly attributed to his age and health but stemmed from a disagreement with Herbert Gladstone, the Home Secretary. There was no bitterness in his final departure from the government and Ripon was undoubtedly content to allow the retirement to be seen as personal rather than political as Asquith had requested.