Friday, 3 October 2008

Sources: Peel on Conservatism in the early 1830s

Peel’s Speech in the House of Commons, 1832

Sir Robert Peel opposed the introduction of a Reform Act from the beginning of the campaign to the last vote in the House of Commons. In this extract, he explains why.

It is my duty to support the Crown... and the support I give is dictated by principles perfectly independent and disinterested... I have no desire to replace the Honourable Gentlemen opposite. I have wished to give them my support, from increased confidence in them as public men; but I regret to way, that I am unable to do so. I give them my support on public grounds, as Ministers of the Crown who want it. I mean no disrespect to the House - but I think, as I have thought from the beginning - the great change which has been made in its composition required a change in the conduct of the public men who were disposed to agree with me in politics... When the House of Commons was divided between two great parties - one of them in power and the other not, but confident in its principles - it was natural and right that they should adopt those tactics which might have the effect of displacing their opponents ... But circumstances have now changed and I do not feel myself at liberty, holding the opinions that I do, now to resort to what may have been, at other seasons, the necessary and legitimate tactics of party. When I see the government disposed to maintain the rights of property, the authority of the law, and, in a qualified sense, the established order of things against rash innovation, I shall without regard to party feelings, deem it my duty to range myself on their side... Believing it would be a public misfortune in the present crisis of the country that the hands of the government should be weak, it is my determination to strengthen them as much as possible.

Conservative Principles

In this letter to Henry Goulburn, Sir Robert Peel explains what he means by ‘Conservative’ principles: Peel to Goulburn, 3rd January 1833

I presume the chief object of that party which I called Conservative, whatever its number may be, will be to resist Radicalism, to prevent those further encroachments of democratic influence which will be attempted (probably successfully attempted) as the natural consequence of the triumph already achieved.

I certainly think that - as that party will be comparatively weak in numbers; as victories gained by mere union with the Radicals will promote mainly the views of the Radicals; as there is no use in defeating, no use in excluding a government, unless you can replace it by one formed on principles more consonant to your own - 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, than to urge an opposition on mere party grounds, and for the purpose of mere temporary triumph.

I think it is very difficult to lay down any course of action in detail. Circumstances which we cannot foresee or control will determine that. I should recommend a system of caution and observation at the first commencement of the Session, rather than that we should be the first to take the field, of instantly begin hostilities. We act on the defensive. The Radicals must move, they must attack. We can, in my opinion, act with more effect after that attack shall have commenced than before.

The best position the government could assume would be that of moderation between opposite extremes of Ultra-Toryism and Radicalism. We should appear to the greatest advantage in defending the government, whenever the government espoused our principles, as I apprehend they must do it they mean to maintain the cause of authority and order.

Possibly we shall find them indifferent to this, and afraid of an open rupture with the Radicals. In that case we must oppose their united forces with all the energy we can, but even so our power will be greater should the union which we resist appear to be the voluntary deliberate act of the government, rather than an act forced upon them by our precipitate or unreasonable opposition.

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