John, 1st Earl Russell

1846 - 1852, 1865 - 1866

Russell (1792-1878) is the first of the Victorian prime ministers up to and including Salisbury (1830-1903) whose position in the ranking should be revised downwards because of the easy times in which they lived, the heavy lifting having been done by Pitt’s and Liverpool’s generation. Russell benefited from the sharp improvement in industrial working-class living standards caused by Peel’s Corn Laws repeal, which made even the 1848 mass demonstrations less dangerous than feared and thereafter caused unrest to diminish.

Russell was an important figure for 40 years, spearheading the Reform Bill’s passage through Parliament and then at the end of his career starting the evolution of the second Reform Act, to be passed by Disraeli. He was a considerably more “advanced” Whig than his predecessors Grey and Melbourne, let alone his contemporary Palmerston, and a doctrinaire free trader.

Russell’s prime ministerial tenure totalled a little over 6 years and was not distinguished. His Cabinet was weak except for Palmerston and his “man-management” skills were limited. Then in 1850 he launched an anti-Catholic campaign which would have suited his 17th Century ancestors but was anachronistic in the increasingly non-denominational and even secular Britain of Victoria. A quarrel with Palmerston ended his first ministry, after which he took up the cause of parliamentary reform anew, served as Foreign Secretary under Palmerston and was instrumental in the 1859 foundation of the Liberal Party. His second administration was short and undistinguished, brought down by the defeat of his second Reform Bill.

As prime minister, he is somewhere around the bottom of the third quartile, around 40th.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson