Successful as it proved itself abroad, the Conservative Government encountered unexpected difficulties at home. From the enactment of the Corn Laws in 1815 a dispute had constantly gone on between those who advocated these and similar measures as a protection to native industry and those who, viewing them as simply laying a tax on the consumer for the benefit of the producer, claimed entire freedom of trade with the world. In 1839 an Anti-Corn-Law League had been formed to enforme the views of the advocates of free trade; and it was in great measure the alarm of the farmers and landowners at its action which had induced them to give so vigorous a support to Sir Robert Peel. But though Peel entered office pledged to protective measures, his own mind was slowly veering round to a conviction of their inexpediency; and in 1846 the failure of the potato crop in Ireland and or the harvest in England forced him to introduce a bill for the repeal of the Corn Laws. The bill passed, but the resentment of his own party soon drove him from crfice; and he was succeeded by a Whig Ministry under Lord John Russell which remained in power till 1852. The first work of this Ministry was to carry out the policy of free trade into every department of British commerce; and from that time to this the maxim of the League, to "buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest," has been accepted as the law of our commercial policy.
Other events were few. The general overthrow of the continental monarchs in the Revolution of 1848 found faint echoes in a feeble rising in Ireland under Smith O'Brien which was easily The long peace which had been maintained between the European powers since the treaties of 1815 was now drawing to a close. In 1852 the Ministry of Lord John Russell was displaced by a short return of the Conservatives to power under Lord Derby; but a union of the Whigs with the Free Trade followers of Sir Robert Peel restored them to office at the close of the year. Lord Aberdeen, the head of the new administration, was at once compelled to resist the attempts of Russia to force on Turkey a humiliating treaty; and in 1854 England allied herself with Louis Napoleon, who had declared himself Emperor of the French, to resist the invasion of the Danubian Principalities by a Russian army. The army was withdrawn; but in September the allied force landed on the shores of the Crimea, and after a victory at the river Alma undertook the siege of Sebastopol. The garrison however soon proved as strong as the besiegers, and as fresh Russian forces reached the Crimea the Allies found themselves besieged in their turn.
An attack on the English position at Inkermann on November the 5th was repulsed with the aid of a French division; but winter proved more terrible than the Russian sword, and the English force wasted away with cold or disease. The public indignation at its sufferings forced the Aberdeen Ministry from office in the opening of 1855; and Lord Palmerston became Premier with a Ministry which included those members of the last administration who were held to be most in earnest in the prosecution of the war. After a siege of nearly a year the Allies at last became masters of Sebastopol in September, and Russia, spent with the strife, consented in 1856 to the Peace of Paris. The military reputation of England had fallen low during the struggle, and to this cause the mutiny of the native troops in Bengal, which quickly followed in 1857, may partly be attributed. Russian intrigues, Moslem fanaticism, resentment at the annexation of the kingdom of Oudh by Lord Dalhousie, and a fanatical belief on the part of the Hindoos that the English Government had resolved to make them Christians by forcing them to lose their caste, have all been assigned as causes of an outbreak which still remains mysterious.
A mutiny at Meerut in May was followed by the seizure of Delhi where the native king was enthroned as Emperor of Hindostan, by a fresh mutiny and massacre of the Europeans at Cawnpore, by the rising of Cudh and the siege of the Residency at Lucknow. The number of English troops in India was small, and for the moment all Eastern and Central Hindostan seemed lost; but Madras, Bombay, and the Punjaub remained untouched, and the English in Bengal and Oudh not only held their ground but marched upon Delhi, and in September took the town by storm. Two months later the arrival of reinforcements under Sir Colin Campbell relieved Lucknow, which had been saved till now by the heroic advance of Sir Henry Havelock with a handful of troops, and cleared Oudh of the mutineers. The suppression of the revolt was followed by a change in the government of India, which was transferred in 1858 from the Company to the Crown; the Queen being formally proclaimed its sovereign, and the Governor-General becoming her Viceroy.
The credit which Lord Palmerston won during the struggle with Russia and the Sepoys was shaken by his conduct in proposing an alteration in the law respecting conspiracies in 1858, in consequence of an attempt to assassinate Napoleon the Third which was believed to have originated on English ground. The violent language of the French army brought about a movement for the enlistment of a Volunteer force, which soon reached a hundred and fifty thousand men; and so great was the irritation it caused that the bill, which was thought to have been introduced in deference to the demands of France, was rejected by the House of Commons. Lord Derby again became Prime Minister for a few months: but a fresh election in 1859 brought back Lord Palmerston, whose Ministry lasted till his death in 1865. At home his policy was one of pure inaction; and his whole energy was directed to the preservation of English neutrality in five great strifes which distracted not only Europe but the New World, a war between France and Austria in 1859 which ended in the creation of the kingdom of Italy, a civil war in America which began with the secession of the Southern States in 1861 and ended four years later in their subjugation, an insurrection of Poland in 1863, an attack of France upon Mexico, and of Austria and Prussia upon Denmark in 1864. The American war, by its interference with the supply of cotton, reduced Lancashire to distress; while the fitting out of piratical cruisers in English harbours in the name of the Southern Confederation gave America just grounds for an irritation which was only allayed at a far later time.
Peace however, was successfully preserved; and the policy of non-intervention was pursued after Lord Palmerston's death by his successor, Lord Russell, who remained neutral during the brief but decisive conflict between Prussia and Austria in 1866 which transferred to the former the headship of Germany.
With Lord Palmerston, however, passed away the policy of political inaction which distinguished his rule. Lord Russell had long striven to bring about a further reform of Parliament; and in 1866 he laid a bill for that purpose before the House of Commons, whose rejection was followed by the resignation of the Ministry. Lord Derby, who again became Prime Minister, with Mr. Disraeli as leader of the House of Commons, found himself however driven to introduce in 1867 a Reform Bill of a far more sweeping character than that which had failed in Lord Russell's hands. By this measure, which passed in August, the borough franchise was extended to all ratepayers, as well as to lodgers occupying rooms of the annual value of £10; the county franchise was fixed at £11, thirty-three members were withdrawn from English boroughs, twenty-five of whom were transferred to English counties, and the rest assigned to Scotland and Ireland. Large numbers of the working classes were thus added to the constituencies; and the indirect effect of this great measure was at once seen in the vigorous policy of the Parliament which assembled after the new elections in 1868. Mr. Disraeli, who had become Prime Minister on the withdrawal of Lord Derby, retired quietly on finding that a Liberal majority of over one hundred members had been returned to the House of Commons; and his place was taken by Mr. Gladstone, at the head of a Ministry which for the first time included every section of the Liberal party.
A succession of great measures proved the strength and energy of the new administration. Its first work was with Ireland, whose chronic discontent it endeavoured to remove by the disestablishment and disendowment of the Protestant Church in 1869, and by a Land Bill which established a sort of tenant-right in every part of the country in 1870. The claims of the Nonconformists were met in 1868 by the abolition of compulsory church-rates, and in 1871 by the abolition of all religious tests for admission to offices or degrees in the Universities. Important reforms were undertaken in the management of the navy; and a plan for the entire reorganization of the army was carried into effect after the system of promotion to its command by purchase had been put an end to. In 1870 the question of national education was furthered by a bill which provided for the establishment of School Boards in every district, and for their support by means of local rates. In 1872 a fresh step in Parliamentary reform was made by the passing of a measure which enabled the votes of electors to be given in secret by means of the ballot.
The greatness and rapidity of these changes, however, produced so rapid a reaction in the minds of the constituencies that on the failure of his attempt to pass a bill for organizing the higher education of Ireland, Mr.Gladstone felt himself forced in 1874 to consult public opinion by a dissolution of Parliament; and the return of a Conservative majority of nearly seventy members was necessarily followed by his retirement from office, Mr. Disraeli again becoming First Minister of the Crown.