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Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke

Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke PC (4 December 181127 July 1892), British and Australian statesman, was a pivotal but often forgotten figure who shaped British politics in the latter half of the 19th century. He is remembered for his work in education policy, his opposition to electoral reform and his contribution to modern Company Law. The Division of Lowe, an Australian electoral division located in Sydney, is named after him.

Education and Australia

Robert Lowe was born at Bingham, Nottinghamshire, where his father (Rev. Robert Lowe) was rector. His mother was the daughter of the Rev. Reginald Pyndar. Lowe was an albino, and his sight was so weak that at first it was thought he was unfit to be sent to school. In 1822 he went to a school at Southwell, then to one at Risley, and in 1825 to Winchester as a commoner. In his fragment of autobiography he gives an unpleasing picture of the under-feeding and other conditions of the school life of that time. Latin and Greek were then the main subjects of study and Lowe records that both were easy to him. He then attended University College, Oxford, where he gained a first class degree in Classics and a second class in Mathematics, besides taking a leading part in the Union debates. In 1835 he won a fellowship at Magdalen, but vacated it on marrying, in 1836, Georgina Orred (d. 1884). He was for a few years a successful "coach" at Oxford, but in 1838 was disappointed at not being elected to the professorship of Greek at the University of Glasgow.

In 1841 Lowe moved to London to read for the Bar, but his eyesight showed signs of serious weakness, and, acting on medical advice, went to Sydney, where he set to work in the law courts. In 1843 he was nominated by Sir George Gipps, the governor, to a seat in the New South Wales Legislative Council; owing to a difference with Gipps he resigned his seat, but was elected shortly afterwards for Sydney. Lowe soon made his mark in the political world by his clever speeches, particularly on finance and education; and besides obtaining a large legal practice, he was one of the principal writers for the Atlas newspaper. In 1850 he went back to England, in order to enter political life there.

England and Parliament

His previous university reputation and connections combined with his colonial experience stood him in good stead; The Times was glad to employ his ready pen, and, as one of its ablest leader-writers, he made his influence widely felt. In 1852, he was returned to Parliament for Kidderminster in the Liberal interest. In the House of Commons, his acute reasoning made a considerable impression, and, under successive Liberal ministries (1853-1858), he obtained official experience as Secretary to the Board of Control and Vice-President of the Board of Trade. During his time there, he saw the Joint Stock Companies Act 1856 passed - the first nationwide codification of company law in the world. He has been referred to as "the father of modern company law". This status was again referred to in the presentation by Lord Sainsbury of the second reading leading up to the new United Kingdom Companies Act 2006.

"One hundred and fifty years ago, my predecessor Robert Lowe, later First Viscount Sherbrooke, brought forward the Bill that created the joint stock limited liability company. It was the first nationwide codification of company law in the world, and he has recently been described as "the father of modern company law". Our company law continues to have an excellent record. Since 1997 new incorporations have risen by over 60 per cent and the number of foreign firms incorporating in the UK has more than quadrupled. No doubt this is because, according to the World Bank's assessment, it is quicker and cheaper for companies to set up in the UK than in any other EU member state.

In 1859, he went to the Education Office as Vice-President of the Committee of the Council on Education in Lord Palmerston's ministry; there he pursued a vigorous policy, insisting on the necessity of payment by results, and bringing in the revised code (1862), which embodied this principle and made an examination in "the three R's" the test for grants of public money. He felt then, and still more after the Reform Act of 1867, that "we must educate our masters," and he rather scandalized his old university friends by the stress he laid on physical science as opposed to classical studies. Considerable opposition was aroused by the new regime at the Education Office, and in 1864 Lowe was driven to resign by an adverse vote in Parliament with reference to the way in which inspectors' reports were "edited." The result was unjust to Lowe, but a good deal of feeling had been aroused against Lingen's administration of the Education Office, and this was the outcome.

Reform

Lord Palmerston had been a towering opponent to widening democratic participation and his death in October 1865 opened the way to the Russell-Gladstone reform ministry, which introduced the Reform Bill of 1866. Lowe carried his former Prime Minister's views, as part of the Canning and Peel Liberal school. Moreover he had been heavily shocked by his experiences of the comparatively developed union movement in his time in Australia in a less rigid class system. He had already made known his objections to the advance of "democracy", notably in his speech in 1865 on Sir Edward Baines's Borough Franchise Bill. He was not invited to join the new ministry. He retired into what Bright called the "Cave of Adullam," and opposed the bill in a series of brilliant speeches, which raised his reputation as an orator to its highest point and helped to cause government's downfall.

However Benjamin Disraeli who led the subsequent Conservative government proposed his own Reform Bill, which by splitting the parties succeeded to become the Reform Act of 1867. As he said in the third reading of the Bill, Lowe thought any step towards democracy was bad because it engendered "a right existing in the individual as opposed to general expediency… numbers as against wealth and intellect". So the bill contained "the terms of endless agitation".

Proponents of the Bill argued a lower property qualification would give the vote to respectable members of the working class. But Lowe thought:

"the elite of the working classes you are so fond of, are members of trades unions... founded on principles of the most grinding tyranny not so much against masters as against each other... It was only necessary that you should give them the franchise, to make those trades unions the most dangerous political agencies that could be conceived; because they were in the hands, not of individual members, but of designing men, able to launch them in solid mass against the institutions of the country.

Being a man of company law, Robert Lowe saw unions as a threat to the order, which as he drafted, allowed only for social participation through investment of capital, not investment of labour. As it was the case that participation in Parliament was also only possible through possession of property, Lowe was fearful that a change in one part of the world he understood would lead to another, ending in unforeseeable chaos.

"This principle of equality which you have taken to worship, is a very jealous power; she cannot be worshipped by halves, and like the Turk in this respect, she brooks no rival near the throne. When you get a democratic basis for your institutions, you must remember that you cannot look at that alone, but you must look at it in reference to all your other institutions. When you have once taught the people to entertain the notion of the individual rights of every citizen to share in the Government, and the doctrine of popular supremacy, you impose on yourselves the task of re-modelling the whole of your institutions, in reference to the principles that you have set up

Office

In spite of the fact that his appeals did not prevent the passing of the Second Reform Act, Robert Lowe beat Walter Bagehot in the next election to become the first Member of Parliament (MP) for the London University, a new constituency created by the very Act he opposed. In 1868 he accepted office in the Gladstone Cabinet as Chancellor of the Exchequer, an office that he described in the following terms in the House of Commons on 11 April 1870: "The Chancellor of the Exchequer is a man whose duties make him more or less of a taxing machine. He is entrusted with a certain amount of misery which it is his duty to distribute as fairly as he can."

Lowe was a rather cut-and-dry economist, who prided himself that during his four years of office he took twelve millions off taxation; but later opinion has hardly accepted his removal of the shilling registration duty on corn (1869) as good statesmanship, and his failures are remembered rather than his successes. His proposed tax of a halfpenny a box on Lucifer matches in 1871 (for which he suggested the epigram ex luce lucellum, "out of light a little profit") roused a storm of opposition, and had to be dropped. In 1873 he was transferred to the Home Office, but in 1874 the government resigned.

He spoke against the Royal Titles Bill in 1876 at East Retford and implied that Queen Victoria had been responsible for the bill's introduction. As a result, when the Liberals returned to power in 1880, Victoria made it clear that she would not accept any ministry that included Lowe. Nevertheless, he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Sherbrooke against the express wishes of Queen Victoria, but with the backing of William Gladstone (a peerage that would become extinct upon his death). But from 1875 till his death at Warlingham, Surrey, his health was constantly failing, and by degrees he figured less and less in public life.

During the 1870s the following epitaph was suggested for him by one of the wits of his day:

"Here lies poor old Robert Lowe;
Where he's gone to I don't know;
If to the realms of peace and love,
Farewell to happiness above;
If, haply, to some lower level,
We can't congratulate the devil."
Lowe was delighted with this, and promptly translated it into Latin, as follows:
"Continentur hac in fossa
Humilis Roberti ossa;
Si ad coelum evolabit,
Pax in coelo non restabit;
Sin in inferis jacebit,
Diabolum ejus poenitebit."

Notes

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