The Protectionists maintained their numbers, though they did not increase them, in the new Parliament. Lord George Bentinck however gained an invaluable coadjutor by the re-appearance of Mr. Herries in public life, a gentleman whose official as well as parliamentary experience, fine judgment, and fertile resource, have been of inestimable service to the Protectionist party. The political connection which gained most were the Whigs; they were much more numerous and compact, but it was in a great measure at the expense of the general liberal element, and partly at the cost of the following of Sir Robert Peel. The triumphant Conservative majority of 1841 had disappeared; but the government, with all shades of supporters, had not an absolute majority.
In a previous chapter we have treated at some length of the means proposed or adopted by the Parliament for the sustenance and relief of the people of Ireland. The new poor law for that country also much engaged the attention of both Houses this session. Lord George Bentinck took a very active part in these transactions, and moved the most important of all the amendments to the government measure, namely, an attempt to assimilate the poor law of Ireland as much as possible to that of England, and make the entire rates be paid by the occupying tenant. His object, he said, was to â€˜prevent lavish expenditure and encourage profitable employment to the people.â€™ This amendment was only lost by a majority of four.
He first proved in a complete manner that, from the year 1821 to the year 1844, the population of the country had increased at the rate of less than thirty-two per cent., while the growth of wheat during the same period had increased no less than sixty-four per cent. He then proceeded to inquire why, with such an increased produce, we were still, as regards bread corn, to a certain extent, an importing nation? This he accounted for by the universally improved condition of the people, and the enlarged command of food by the working classes. He drew an animated picture, founded entirely on the representations of writers and public men adverse to the Protective System, of the superior condition of the people of â€˜England, happy England,â€™ to that of other countries: how they consumed much more of the best food, and lived much longer. This was under Protection, which Lord John Russell had stigmatized, in his letter, â€˜the bane of agriculture.â€™ â€˜In the history of my noble friendâ€™s illustrious family,â€™ he continued, â€˜I should have thought that he would have found a remarkable refutation of such a notion.â€™ And then he drew a lively sketch of the colossal and patriotic works of the Earls and Dukes of Bedford, â€˜whereby they had drained and reclaimed three hundred thousand acres of land drowned in water, and brought them into cultivation, and thus converted into fertile fields a vast morass extending over seven counties in England.â€™ Could the system which had inspired such enterprise be justly denounced as baneful?
Notwithstanding the formal renunciation of the leadership of the Protectionist party by Lord George Bentinck, it was soon evident to the House and the country that that renunciation was merely formal. In these days of labour, the leader of a party must be the man who does the work, and that work cannot now be accomplished without the devotion of a life. Whenever a great question arose, the people out of doors went to Lord George Bentinck, and when the discussion commenced, he was always found to be the man armed with the authority of knowledge. There was, however, no organized debate and no party discipline. No one was requested to take a part, and no attendance was ever summoned. The vast majority sitting on the Protectionist benches always followed Bentinck, who, whatever might be his numbers in the lobby, always made a redoubtable stand in the House. The situation however, it cannot be denied, was a dangerous one for a great party to persevere in, but no permanent damage accrued, because almost every one hoped that before the session was over, the difficulty would find a natural solution in the virtual chief resuming his formal and responsible post. Notwithstanding his labours on the two great committees of the yearâ€”those on colonial and commercial distress,â€”Lord George Bentinck found time to master the case of the shipping interest when the navigation laws were attacked, to impugn in a formal motion the whole of the commercial policy of Sir Robert Peel, even while the sugar and coffee planting committee was still sitting, and to produce, early in March, a rival budget. It was mainly through the prolonged resistance which he organized against the repeal of the navigation laws, that the government, in 1848, was forced to abandon their project. The resistance was led with great ability by Mr. Herries, and the whole party put forward their utmost strength to support him. But it is very difficult to convey a complete picture of the laborious life of Lord George Bentinck during the sitting of Parliament. At half-past nine oâ€™clock there called upon him the commercial representatives of the question of the day; after these conferences came his elaborate and methodical correspondence, all of which he carried on himself in a handwriting clear as print, and never employing a secretary; at twelve or one oâ€™clock he was at a committee, and he only left the committee-room to take his seat in the House of Commons, which he never quitted till the House adjourned, always long past midnight, and often at two oâ€™clock in the morning. Here he was ready for all comers, never omitting an opportunity to vindicate his opinions, or watching with lynx-like vigilance the conduct of a public office. What was not his least remarkable trait is, that although he only breakfasted on dry toast, he took no sustenance all this time, dining at Whiteâ€™s at half-past two oâ€™clock in the morning. After his severe attack of the influenza he broke through this habit a little during the last few months of his life, moved by the advice of his physician and the instance of his friends. The writer of these observations prevailed upon him a little the last year to fall into the easy habit of dining at Bellamyâ€™s, which saves much time, and permits the transaction of business in conversation with a congenial friend. But he grudged it: he always thought that something would be said or done in his absence, which would not have occurred had he been there; some motion whisked through, or some return altered. His principle was that a member should never be absent from his seat.
â€˜Pray address me, Lynn, Norfolk, where I go on Saturday, and shall remain till after my election on Thursday.â€™
â€˜The prophesied time has come,â€™ he wrote to his friend Mr. Bankes, on the 23rd of December, 1847, â€˜when I have ceased to be able to serve the party, the great cause of Protection, or my country, by any longer retaining the commission bestowed on me in the spring of 1846. You will remember, however, that when unfeignedly and honestly, but in vain, trying to escape from being raised to a position which I foresaw I must fail to maintain with advantage to you or honour to myself, I at last gave my consent, I only did so on the express understanding that my advancement should be held to be merely a pro tempore appointment, waiting till the country should have the opportunity of sending to Parliament other men better fitted to lead the country gentlemen of England. I have recalled these circumstances to your mind with no other purpose than that the party may feel how entirely free they are, without even the suspicion of doing an injustice to me or of showing me in this any disrespect, to remodel their arrangements, and to supersede my lieutenancy by the appointment of a superior and permanent commander.â€™
He could scarcely have quitted the turf that day without a pang. He had become the lord paramount of that strange world, so difficult to sway, and which requires for its government both a stern resolve and a courtly breeding. He had them both; and though the blackleg might quail before the awful scrutiny of his piercing eye, there never was a man so scrupulously polite to his inferiors as Lord George Bentinck. The turf, too, was not merely the scene of the triumphs of his stud and his betting-book. He had purified its practice and had elevated its character, and he was prouder of this achievement than of any other connected with his sporting life. Notwithstanding his mighty stakes and the keenness with which he backed his opinion, no one perhaps ever cared less for money. His habits were severely simple, and he was the most generous of men. He valued the acquisition of money on the turf, because there it was the test of success. He counted his thousands after a great race as a victorious general counts his cannon and his prisoners.