The Tory party, decimated in the general election in late 1832, was in a demoralised state. It had been marked as the party that opposed reform. The reality was less stark. Unquestionably there were die-hard opponents of reform among the Tories. The ultras-Tories in Lords and Commons, outraged by Catholic emancipation in 1829, opposed parliamentary reform, municipal reform, church reform, factory reform and poor law reform. They lost on every issue.
Peel’s attitude to reform
Peel was not amongst them though he did oppose reform on principle as a significant challenge to constitutional order. However, he did not condemn the principle of reform entirely but believed the Whigs had gone too far. In March 1831 he said in the debates in the House of Commons “I do not hesitate to avow, that there might have been proposed certain alterations in our representative system, based on safe principles, abjuring all confiscation and limited in their degree, to which I would have assented.” Later in December 1831, he stated “I am satisfied with the constitution under which I have lived hitherto, which I believe is adapted to the wants and habits of the people.... On this ground I take my stand, not opposed to a well-considered reform of any of our institutions which need reform, but opposed to this reform.”
The clearest statement of Peel’s attitude to reform, however, came in his response to the King’s speech at the opening of Parliament in early 1833: “He was for reforming every institution that really required reform; but he was for doing it gradually, dispassionately and deliberately, in order that reform might be lasting....” This was a bold statement: the strategy of reforming to conserve. Change, if it could be shown to be necessary, was justifiable but must reinforce not undermine the Constitution and Britain’s governing elite. He accepted the reform of Parliament in 1832 as a fact of life but committed himself and his party to protect the institutions of the country such as the Crown, the Established Church and the Union with Ireland. This position was not designed to pacify the ultra right in the party. Opposition for its own sake, Peel recognised, would not restore the fortunes of the Tories. He needed to dismiss the widely held view that the Tory party was reactionary and supported by only a small, unrepresentative part of the population. In Parliament, Peel adopted the tactic of ‘constructive opposition’ to Grey’s and later Melbourne’s government. Instead of voting against each measure, he decided that the best tactic was to judge each issue against his principles and vote accordingly. In the 1833 Parliament, Peel only voted three times against the government. This distanced him from the ultra-Tories who wanted to see the end of the Whig government at any price. However, Peel believed that for the Tories to regain office, they had to be seen in a more positive light than the ultra-Tories’ tactics demonstrated. Opposition for opposition’s sake did not show this; principled and constructive opposition did.
Peel was dedicated to good government by men of efficiency and integrity. His was an executive view of power where authority lay in the hands of the elite with the education and expertise acting in the national interest. Government was there to govern. Public opinion had its place but Peel was concerned to reassert the proper balance between executive authority and extra-parliamentary influence that he believed had been altered by the crisis over reform. Like most of his contemporaries, Peel was not a democrat. The ‘people’, he believed, did not have the necessary education or judgement to make critical decisions. If Parliament surrendered to outside pressure, the quality of its judgements would be weakened and the interests of the nation jeopardised.
Electoral disaster for the Tories in the December General election.
Peel made a statement that he would support the Whig government when it acted in defence of law, order and property.
Stanley and Graham left the Whig government over the Irish Church question. William IV dismissed Melbourne’s government [November] and Peel became Prime Minister of a minority Tory government; the Tamworth Manifesto.
Ecclesiastical Commission set up. Tories gained seats in the General election but Peel is defeated by an alliance of Whigs, Irish MPs and Radicals; return to opposition.
Peel worked for greater co-operation between Tories in the two Houses of Parliament.
Peel, Stanley and Graham co-operated enhancing Peel’s position as Conservative leader; further gains in the General election.
Merchant Taylor’s Hall speech emphasised Conservative support for preserving existing institutions in State and Church.
Disagreements between Peel and Wellington over various issues; Wellington persuaded to abandon opposition to Whig Canada legislation. Conservative unity maintained.
Whigs defeated on vote of no confidence [June] leading to a General Election [July]. Conservatives win and Peel became Prime Minister of a majority government.
Peel in the 1830s was not a leader of the opposition in its modern sense. He did not see his role as providing ‘loyal opposition’ to Whig measures and made it clear that he was prepared to support legislation aimed at maintaining law and order and property in 1833. Neither was he the official leader of the Tories, at least before the end of 1834. The Ultras were a problem for Peel. They distrusted each other. The Ultras feared that Peel would ‘rat’ again as he had in 1829 over emancipation. Peel did not trust the Ultras to act responsibly rejecting their view that politics should be determined largely by the interests of English landowners.
Peel and his notion of ‘constructive’ opposition 1832-34
Though he opposed reform in 1832, Peel was quick to recognise that there was no going back. Reform was here to stay. As early as January 1833, Peel wrote that ‘I presume the chief object of that party which is called Conservative…will be to resist Radicalism, to prevent those further encroachments of democratic influence which will be attempted…as the natural consequence of the triumph already achieved’. The move from the use of Tory to Conservative as the party label was crucial. In the popular mind, ‘Tory’ was associated with a bigoted and selfish opposition to all proposals for improvement and an uncompromising defence of the privileges and monopolies enjoyed by institutions connected to the Anglican, landed elite. For Peel, the term ‘Conservative’ allowed for the possibility of cautious change designed to reconcile those institutions with the prevailing attitudes of the modern world. To argue that this represented at attempt to ‘modernise’ the party neglects the extent to which the ‘Conservatives’ of the 1830s were an extension of the ‘liberal’ Tories with their reformist agenda of the 1820s.
However, in two important respects, Peel’s analysis of the consequences of reform in 1832 proved accurate. First, Peel predicted that reform would generate further demands for change. For many Radicals, the Reform Act did not go far enough and they called for an extension of the franchise, the secret ballot and triennial parliaments. This posed a real threat to the aristocratic and landed elite and given that radical sentiment was strong opposed to the power of this group, Peel believed that there would be calls for the reform or abolition of the House of Lords and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In addition, he expected a broad assault on the position of the Church of England from Protestant nonconformists who already had considerable electoral influence. Secondly, he rightly identified a fundamental weakness within the Whig government and argued that it would quickly come to rely for its continued existence on the support of a diverse alliance of interests in parliament and outside. In fact, from 1835, the Whigs governed only because they had the support of the Irish MPs led by O’Connell and a ragbag of backbench Radical MPs.
It is therefore surprising that Peel preferred to support rather than oppose Whig ministers in parliament. In March 1833, he defended the government’s Coercion Bill to combat agrarian unrest in Ireland and in July efforts were made to ‘whip’ Conservative MPs in order to save the Whigs from defeat on a radical motion for triennial parliaments. Peel only voted against the Whigs in three of the forty-three parliamentary divisions in the 1833 session. The following year saw the Conservatives come to the rescue of the government on two occasions. On the biggest questions, such as poor law reform in 1834 and reform of the municipal corporations the following year, Peel either actively supported the government or did not interfere. Peel was determined to resist the temptation of entering into opportunistic alliances with the radical or Irish MPs simply to embarrass the government. Choosing to shield ministers from the attacks launched by his own nominal supporters.
It suited Peel’s purpose to see ministers coming under attack from their own backbenchers. His underlying strategy is explained in letters written to his friend Henry Goulburn in 1833 and 1834 respectively: ‘Our policy ought to be rather to conciliate the goodwill of the sober-minded and well-disposed portion of the community and thus lay the foundation of future strength’ and ‘My opinion is decidedly against all manoeuvring and coquetting with the Radicals, for the mere purpose of a temporary triumph over the Government…If it [the government[ breaks up…in consequence of a union between Radicals and Conservatives, in my opinion, the Government which succeeds it will have a very short-lived triumph.’
However, he recognised that nothing could be more suicidal for the Conservatives than opposition for opposition’s sake since it simply drove the Whigs closer into the arms of the radicals and this did not suit Conservative interests. Peel’s policy of supporting the government was designed to perpetuate divisions between Whigs and radicals and thus prevent radical ideas from gaining ground among Whig ministers. Peel’s long term aim was to subtly promote the gradual disintegration and ultimate collapse of the government’s substantial parliamentary majority. Some Whig MPs were already, by the beginning of the 1833 session alarmed at the sight of their leaders coming under pressure from radicals and Irish MPs. Peel reckoned that these moderate Whigs could well move across to become Conservative supporters.
Although Peel may have had a clear idea of what ‘constructive opposition’ meant, it arguably shows the difficulties he faced in the period between the Reform Act and the minority Conservative administration of 1834-5. Peel was undoubtedly the dominant figure on the opposition front-bench but he was not in any official sense ‘leader of the opposition’. It was not until he was asked to form a government in December 1834 that he truly became the leader of the Conservative Party. Peel could not command the loyalty of opposition MPs: in March 1833 more than half of the Conservative MPs voted for a radical motion on currency reform to which Peel was strongly opposed. He also faced the continuing antagonism of the Ultras, estranged since Peel abandoned the Protestant cause in 1829 by introducing Catholic Emancipation. Peel made no attempt to gain their support and rejected the suggestion of a rapprochement in 1831 since he had no intention of building up an opposition party reliant on ultra support.
His efforts to establish a broad, central coalition by wooing moderate Whigs was partly designed to neutralise the ultra. By early 1834, there were signs that this strategy was about to pay dividends. Internal Cabinet disputes over Irish policy culminated in May with the resignations of four ministers (Lord Stanley, Sir James Graham, Lord Ripon and the Duke of Richmond) raising expectations of an imminent ministerial collapse. This appeared to vindicate his constructive opposition to the government and his unwillingness to enter into alliances of convenience with radical and Irish MPs. He believed that moderate Whigs would be drawn into Conservative ranks only if his party acted responsibly in opposition.
Peel adopted a non-partisan approach to opposition politics. It represented a realistic response to the fact that, in the immediate aftermath of the Reform Act, the Conservatives were only a small minority in the House of Commons. It gave him the opportunity to establish his leadership on terms acceptable to himself and to stamp his personal authority on the Commons.
Was there a two party system in the 1830s?
Although the 1830s saw increasingly clear party divisions between Whigs and Conservatives, some important riders must be made. Voting records in the Commons suggest that most MPs now voted consistently according to the wishes of their party leaders. However, a substantial number did not and some, though reducing in number continued to reject party labels. In this sense, Britain in the 1830s did not have a ‘two party system’ in the modern sense. The powers of the monarchy, though significantly diminished, had not disappeared completely. Peel became prime minister in 1834 because William IV dismissed the previous government, the last occasion, though this was not known at the time that the monarch would dismiss a government with a majority in the Commons. The monarch in the 1830s was more than a titular position and the notion of the ‘King’s minister’ was not an empty one. Peel’s perception was that he did not become prime minister because he was a leader of a party in the Commons but because he was appointed by the King. This may be a subtle constitutional distinction but it was central to Peel’s view of the role of ministers and did not alter between then and the end of his career. He saw himself as an executive servant of the Crown first and the leader of a party second.
In the 1830s, both major political parties were a fairly loose coalition of interests. Historians sometimes talk about the ‘Whig-Radical’ party in the 1830s. No such party existed. The ‘Radicals’ were a group of politicians who supported a wide range of political causes including nationalism or separatism for Ireland and further political reform; some were democrats, others were not. What they had in common was a belief in the importance of extra-parliamentary pressure and agitation to achieve their objectives. What they were not, in any meaningful sense was a ‘political party’.