Sunday, 15 February 2009

Peel: Changing historiography

Peel’s reputation in political and intellectual circles declined quite rapidly after his death in 1850. In part, this was a mark of the success of his free trade policies that remained the basis of government policy for the remainder of the century and it is easy to lose sight of just how significant Peel’s achievement actually was. In 1841, Britain was a country still wedded to protectionism; by 1846 it look forward to free trade. For Peel’s early historians, he comes across as an overly cautious administrator with a limited intellect and whose ideas evolved at roughly the same rate as the average person (Walter Bagehot) or as a half-hearted Liberal who spent his life pursuing modest measures of reform from within a party obviously unsuited to the task (Justin McCarthy and J.R. Thursfield).

Since the 1920s, Peel has been subject to some degree of rehabilitation beginning with the work of Anna Ramsey and George Kitson Clark and culminating in the two volume biography by Norman Gash published in 1961 and 1972. Gash sees Peel as a pragmatic administrator and an instinctively consensual politician whose great achievement was to establish the principles of the modern Conservatism. Peel’s career took on greater historical significance with the demise of the Liberal party and the impressive record of the Conservatives as the dominant political party in the twentieth century. For Gash, the Tamworth Manifesto was the key document in the evolution of Conservative ideas with its emphasis that his party must accept the need for gradual change to become a viable party of government and occupy the middle ground in politics. He argues that Peel helped the Conservatives extend the social basis of their support by appealing to urban middle class voters as well as landowners and farmers. Even the Conservative part, which repudiated his leadership in 1846, was soon forced to learn that there was no alternative but to adopt Peelite approaches to politics. Gash concluded that the period between 1830 and 1850 in British history was justifiable known as the ‘Age of Peel’.

This assessment of Peel has been called into question by a number of historians approaching the subject from different positions. Peel’s allegedly pragmatic style of administration, for example, does not fit well with his resolutely anti-reformist stance that he took on many major issues early in his career. The granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 came after a decade in which Peel had been one of the leading critics of such a policy. He opposed the 1832 Reform Act to the end; resisted the extension of religious equality to cover Jews in 1830 and, while he never explicitly opposed the abolition of slavery, his speeches in the 1820s and 1830s did nothing but place obstacles in the way of decisive action. Any claim that Peel was a consistent supporter of reform therefore rests on his record at the Home Office in the 1820s. Gash presents his efforts of consolidate the criminal law, abolishing many capital offences in the process as evidence of Peel’s humanitarian concerns. In 1974, however, Derek Beales demonstrated that Peel’s rationalisation of statutes had only limited effects and that credit was really due to the Whig ministers who continued the reforms in the 1830s. Gatrell[1] argued that Peel has no right to be regarded as a humanitarian Home Secretary and that his instinct was to resist appeals for clemency and allow the law to take its course.

It is difficult to accept that before 1832 Peel was a great reformer. However, it could be argued that the true test of Peel’s credentials comes with an examination of his career after 1832. Gash may be right in arguing that Peel tried to persuade the Conservative party to be more adaptable but it is less clear that he succeeded in transforming his party. Robert Stewart and Ian Newbould[2] have both shown that, despite Peel’s advocacy, the Conservative party was little changed by 1841. It remained the party of the English counties and smaller boroughs in the 1841 election, an event that was dominated in Conservative seats by agricultural protectionism. Peel certainly promoted constructive reforms after 1841 but he did so with the declining support of his own MPs.

The most important revision of Gash’s view of Peel has come from Boyd Hilton in a seminal article published in 1979[3]. Hilton does not see Peel as a pragmatist who sought the middle ground in politics, but as a rigid and doctrinaire leader who was unwilling to compromise on his views. His analysis focuses mainly on Peel’s thinking on economic policy arguing that it betrayed signs of his training as a mathematician at Oxford. Hilton maintains that Peel’s intellect was readily susceptible to the charms of a system and once convinced of the theoretical correctness of a proposition, it was necessary for him to fit everything else into the model. The problem was that Peel had an insufficiently flexible or creative intellect to adjust the model when the ‘facts’ did not fit. He suggests that Peel was probably converted to the principle of Corn Law repeal by the end of the 1820s and his doctrinaire adherence to laissez-faire principles meant that in the 1840s an opportunity was missed for the government to establish regulatory control over the railway network. So Hilton concludes that Peel’s legacy was not to modern Conservatism but that he could properly be seen as the originator of Gladstonian Liberalism and certainly the ‘moral energy’ created by his supreme sacrifice in 1846 was eventually transfused into the Liberal political tradition.

Peel’s stature as a Great Statesman may have been reduced to some degree by recent historical writing. In part, this historiographical reaction against Peel is a consequence of the attention currently being given to the Whig governments of the 1830s and 1840s. We can no longer treat them as dismissively as Gash did. This should not, however, undervalue his political achievements. Peel did establish a system of fiscal and commercial policy that endured for almost a century. Perhaps even more importantly, he compelled the whole of the British ruling elite, Liberals and Conservatives, to be responsive to the needs of the growing urban population and this influence was vital in terms of establishing social stability. Peel’s influence lay across the political system and he may be said to have lad for foundation for the mid-Victorian ‘age of equipoise’ if only because this depended on the endorsement of his free trade policies across the political spectrum.


[1] V. A. C. Gatrell, ‘Mercy and Mr. Peel’, The hanging tree: execution and the English people, 1770–1868, Oxford University Press, 1994, chapter 21.

[2] I.D.C. Newbould ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative Party, 1832-1841: a Study in Failure?’ English Historical Review, volume xcviii, (1983), pages 529-557.

[3] Boyd Hilton ‘Peel: a re-appraisal’, Historical Journal, volume 22, (1979), pages 585–614.

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