Sir Robert Peel and the modern Conservative party

Today (5 Feb) marks the birthday of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), the 19th century prime minister traditionally credited with founding the modern Conservative party. Peel is also subject of a new BBC ‘Prime Properties’ episode – click here to view – and the latest video from the History of Parliament’s public engagement team.

Perhaps more than any other Victorian leader, Peel’s career was dominated by themes and events that continue to have striking resonances today. These include implementing controversial constitutional reforms that divided his party, heading a short-lived minority Tory government and winning a landslide Conservative election victory using new electoral techniques. The extent of Peel’s role in rebuilding the Conservative party after its catastrophic election defeat in 1832, however, has always been a moot point. Peel was notoriously aloof and awkward as a leader. A new breed of party officials instead exerted considerable control behind the scenes during the years he was in charge. What then should we make of Peel’s personal contribution to modern Conservatism?

It is often forgotten that Peel, though immensely wealthy, was not ‘born to rule’ in the same way that many of his Harrow or Oxford University contemporaries were. His father, a highly successful and socially ambitious Lancashire industrialist, had bought his way into the landed gentry, acquiring a country estate near Tamworth and becoming its Tory MP. Generous donations to the party earned the family a baronetcy, but Peel and his father never completely lost their regional accents or parvenu status.

In 1809 the father bought Peel, aged just 21, a seat in the Commons for a ‘pocket borough’. Within a year Peel was given a junior post by the Tory government, beginning one of the most meteoric ministerial careers on record. His anti-Catholic sympathies earned him the nickname ‘Orange Peel’ during his six year stint as Irish secretary, while the new police force he established as home secretary became known as ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’.

Anti-Peel graffiti at an Oxford College

In 1829, however, Peel helped to trigger a major revolt in the Tory party. Already facing criticism for his role in repealing many of the civil restrictions on Dissenters, Peel’s decision to do the same for Catholics, allowing them to hold office and become MPs, left many Protestants aghast. At Oxford University, where he had been an MP since 1817, Peel’s ‘betrayal’ of Britain’s ancient Protestant constitution sparked outrage. Effigies of the ‘traitor’ Peel were burned in protest. In Parliament, incensed Ultra-Protestants quit the Tory party in droves, withdrawing their support for the Tory ministry led by the Duke of Wellington. This split in the Tory party, more than any other event, paved the way for the Whigs to assume power in 1830, ending 25 years of Tory rule. Within a few months the Whig-Reform coalition had brought in their famous reform bill.

Why did ‘Orange’ Peel back Catholic emancipation? Electoral realities explain some of it. By 1829 the electoral power in Ireland of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association had become a major headache for the Tory ministry. By offsetting the effects of emancipation with the disfranchisement of poorer Irish voters – it is often forgotten that the 1829 act also removed 175,000 Irish Catholics from the electoral rolls – Peel and Wellington hoped to reconfigure Irish electoral politics and bring stability to the country.

Cartoon showing Peel (left) and Wellington ‘burking’ (suffocating) the British Constitution

 

Electoral realities also go some way to explain Peel’s even more controversial U-turn in 1846, over the corn laws. Fearing the electoral power of Richard Cobden’s immensely successful Anti-Corn Law League, which had mobilised an entire army of newly registered freehold voters for the next election, Peel tried to avert disaster by bowing to popular pressure and repealing the corn laws. Unfortunately two-thirds of his MPs disagreed. Their rebellion, still the biggest on record in British political history, ended his government. The resulting split in the party between Peelites and Protectionists helped keep the Conservatives out of office for all but five of the next 28 years. It was not until 1874 that they were again able to win a majority at the polls.

Other explanations for Peel’s policies, stressing his business-like pragmatism, economic theories and high-minded willingness to always put country before party, can be found in the leading works of Norman Gash, Boyd Hilton, Douglas Hurd and Richard Gaunt (see below). Ian Newbould’s provocative article on ‘Peel: a study in failure?’ also remains essential reading, not least because it argues that the Conservatives’ landslide election victory of 1841 owed far more to a resurgence of traditional church-and-field Toryism than support for the new ‘moderate’ Conservatism peddled by Peel in his famous Tamworth manifesto.

The most striking assessment, however, remains that of Disraeli, Peel’s nemesis in debate and successor as Tory leader in the Commons. In his speeches and books Disraeli attacked Peel as a devious unprincipled charlatan, a man totally devoid of political integrity whose entire career revolved around ‘stealing’ other people’s ideas when expediency suited him and ratting on his colleagues. This compulsive ‘political larceny’, as Disraeli termed it, explained not only Peel’s betrayal of the Protestant constitution in 1829, but also his complete volte face in taking up the cause of free trade in 1846.

That Disraeli, a former Radical turned Tory, was no stranger to similar character traits makes his assessment all the more compelling. It was Disraeli, of course, who was later responsible for passing one of the most extraordinary acts of ‘political larceny’ in the 19th century – the 1867 Reform Act. Based almost entirely on adopting the policies of his opponents, in what was widely seen as a cynical ruse to stay in power, this landmark extension of the franchise was deemed a ‘political betrayal’ without ‘parallel’ by the future Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury.

Whether Peel’s motives lay in political expediency or high-minded statesmanship, there can be little doubt about his personal influence and enduring legacy in the development of the modern Conservative party.

Further reading:

Commons speech by Disraeli, 15 May 1846

History of Parliament Peel Biography in 1790-1820 volumes

History of Parliament Peel Biography in 1820-1832 volumes

B. Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck (1852)

N. Gash, Mr Secretary Peel (1961)

N. Gash, Sir Robert Peel (1972)

B. Hilton, ‘Peel: a reappraisal’, Historical Journal (1979), xxii. 585-614

I. Newbould, ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative party: a study in failure?’, English Historical Review (1983), xcviii. 529-57

D. Hurd, Robert Peel: a biography (2008)

R. Gaunt, Sir Robert Peel: the life and legacy (2010)

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