Thursday, 12 February 2009

Peel’s Reputation

Many contemporaries regarded Peel as having sacrificed his own career for the sake of the nation. Subsequent historians have reinforced this image. For Norman Gash he was the founder of modern Conservatism and the architect of the stability of the 1850s. His government is seen as one of the most able of the century. Yet he betrayed his party twice, in 1829 and 1846. He was unable to change the attitudes of his own party in the 1830s. He lacked political sensitivity particularly towards those who did not have his lofty vision. He was hardly a pragmatic politician but one bound by the principles of political economy he has adopted in the 1820s and his belief in the importance of expertise led to arrogance and intolerance towards those who saw politics simply in terms of power. His career may not have been ‘a study in failure’ as Ian Newbould suggested of his leadership of the Conservative Party in the 1830s but it was hardly one of innovation. Bagehot was correct when he suggested that Peel had ‘the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man’. His grasp of administrative detail was without equal but his legislative record contained little that may be regarded as original. His success was in adapting existing institutions, of accommodation to change; his failure was political, an inability to persuade his own party of the changing political environment created in 1832.


The Peelite wing of the Conservative Party was gradually absorbed, between 1846 and 1859, into the Liberal Party. In his budget speeches of 1853-4 and 1860-66 Gladstone spoke of continuing and completing the free-trade policies of Sir Robert Peel. Within the family, Peel’s second son, Frederick, entered parliament as a Liberal in 1849; his eldest son, the third Sir Robert, who succeeded to the representation of Tamworth, served for four years as Irish secretary in Palmerston’s Liberal ministry of 1859–65; and his youngest son, Arthur Wellesley, began his political career as Liberal member for Warwick in 1865. It has therefore sometimes been suggested that Peel had all along been in the wrong party. But this is to ignore the fact that Peel himself, with his background, perceived no contradiction between manufacturing interests and Tory principles. To portray him as a Liberal manqué overlooks his abhorrence of Whig principles and his contempt for the Whigs’ levity and carelessness in government. It overlooks, too, the extent to which Peel’s supporters did not so much choose to be Liberal as have Liberalism thrust upon them.

Historians have often professed to see continuity between the Conservatism of the Tamworth manifesto and the Conservatism of subsequent generations. Certainly, a deferential attitude to crown, church, and aristocracy may be said to link Peel with Lord Salisbury and even with Stanley Baldwin. But Salisbury still referred to Peel as the man who had betrayed his party twice, and other Conservative leaders who conceded that one of Peel’s two changes of course might have been a principled one did not agree which one. Catholic emancipation ceased, after a generation, to be an emotive issue, but protection and free trade continued, as Balfour and Baldwin found, to divide the Conservative Party. Far into the twentieth century, the party related more easily to the pragmatism and balance of the 1842 budget than it did to the capitulation of 1846. Peel, who dominated the parliamentary debates of his age, found no assured resting place among succeeding generations of Conservatives.

In the Dictionary of National Biography, Peel’s grandson G. V. Peel wrote that in an age of revolutions Peel alone had had ‘the foresight and the strength to form a conservative party, resting not on force or corruption, but on administrative capacity and the more stable portion of the public will’. Certainly Peel re-educated the party after the debacle of 1831-2, and returned it to power in 1841. The case is strong, but the question then remains, why did Peel, in 1845-6, follow a course which led to the destruction of the party he himself had made? Peel explained that his ‘earnest wish’, during his tenure of power, had been ‘to impress the people of this country with a belief that the legislature was animated with a sincere desire to frame its legislation upon the principles of equity and justice’[1]. Peel wrote to Aberdeen on 19th August 1847 that when he perceived that ‘it was impossible to reconcile the repeal of the Corn Laws by me with the keeping together of the Conservative party’, he had ‘no hesitation in sacrificing the subordinate object’. Here, he was not to be disappointed and he rose in the affections of the people in proportion as he lost the favour of his party. While members of one sectional interest, Tory landowners, draped their prints of Peel with crêpe or turned them to the wall and those of another, at the heart of the Anglican university establishment, made sure that Peel’s portrait never hung in his college dining hall, the nation’s fortuitous passage through the year of revolutions, 1848, showed that thoughts of the dissolution of our institutions were indeed being lost, as Peel had hoped they would be, amid the enjoyment of prosperity. Two years later, when Peel died, 400,000 working men contributed 1d each to a memorial fund, used to buy books for working men’s clubs and libraries.

Peel’s Speeches were published in four volumes in 1853, an imperfect edition but one that has never been replaced. Peel’s Memoirs, covering the three episodes he was most sensitive about, Catholic emancipation, the acceptance of the king’s commission to form a ministry in 1834-5, and the disintegration of the Conservative Party during the corn law crisis in 1845-6 were published by Philip Stanhope (Lord Mahon) and Edward Cardwell in 1856–7. But plans for an ‘official’ biography hung fire. Peel’s intimate, J. W. Croker, was the obvious choice. But he died in 1857 with nothing accomplished and the commission passed first to Goldwin Smith and then to Edward Cardwell, both of whom gave up. In 1891-9, C. S. Parker published three volumes of extracts from Peel’s papers that allowed Peel and his correspondents to speak for themselves, but offered little interpretation or evaluation. In the meantime various lives appeared: at least a dozen in the half century between 1850 and 1900. These were all based upon the readily available sources, and none was more authoritative than the article in the Dictionary of National Biography. No more could, perhaps, have been said, until Peel’s papers were deposited in the British Museum in 1922. Even then many years passed before the first full-length case for the consistency of Peel’s actions, the purity of his motives, and the scale of his achievement was at last made in Norman Gash’s two-volume biography (1961, 1972), a portrait so favourable that it has already led to less flattering revisions especially by Boyd Hilton and V. A. C. Gatrell.

[1] Norman Gash, Sir Robert Peel, 2nd edition, 1986, page 590.

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