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Robert Peel

Prime Minister 1834 - 1835, 1841 - 1846

Many prime ministers have been chosen because they didn't particularly offend anyone. A prime minister's role has generally been to act as a figurehead of unity. Brilliant individualists have not been suited to the job. Robert Peel doesn't initially seem to have been any kind of figurehead prime minister. Asa Briggs for example, sees him very much as an active leader of ground breaking reform. But judgments of Peel have been as contradictory as his own record. He is presented by various writers as both a powerful initiator of change, and as someone who simply followed change. The story of Peel, and indeed of British prime ministers in general, is almost Shakespearian in the way prime ministers seem powerful, and without any power at all.


Robert Peel was born 5th February 1788, son of a wealthy cotton manufacturer. He was educated at Harrow and Christ Church College, Oxford. A political career began at age 21, with Peel quickly being picked out as a future star by former general and hero of the Battle of Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Young Robert was placed in Parliament as a Tory MP for a government controlled constituency in Ireland. Ten years were then spent establishing a political career, before breaking through to high office in 1822 as home secretary in Lord Liverpool's government. He continued in this role when the Duke of Wellington took over from Liverpool in 1828. Peel's ideas about a professional police force came to fruition in 1829 with the formation of London's Metropolitan Police based at Scotland Yard. The new policemen were called Peelers or Bobbies. Changes were also made to the criminal code, with fewer crimes requiring the death penalty. This promising phase of his career came to an end when in 1829, with the prospect of religious war in Ireland, Peel decided to reverse his opposition to measures designed to end discrimination against catholics. He supported the Catholic Relief Act. While many of his colleagues never forgave him for this U-turn, Peel realised that Catholic emancipation had to happen. He made life very hard for himself in accepting this. The time was ripe for these new laws in support of catholics, but that did not mean Peel had an easy time going with what had to happen. Going with the flow could be hard work, and it was going to get harder.


By 1830 Britain was in turmoil over ideas of political reform. There were those who wished to move towards a more democratic form of government, and those who like Wellington and Peel saw potential chaos and mob rule in these ideas. Wellington's refusal to support reform saw his government fall in 1830, replaced by Earl Grey's Whig administration, which was committed to introducing reform, as the only way in which the country could be saved from revolution. In opposition Wellington and his former home secretary Peel continued to fight against reform. It is difficult to appreciate now how volatile the general mood was about this issue. There was a serious threat of widespread social breakdown. Peel's biographer Norman Gash describes the scene in the House of Commons on April 22nd 1831 as the Reform Bill was discussed:

"All semblance of order was lost; members left their seats and invaded the floor of the house: Peel spoke at the top of his voice but was inaudible in the tumult. The Speaker, in a passion of fury himself, at length gained temporary respite and called up Peel. Completely carried away by the tempestuous atmosphere, scarlet and shaking with temper, he plunged into an incoherent denunciation of the ministers to a running accompaniment of groans, cheers and calls to order... " (quoted The Life of Sir Robert Peel After 1830 P16).


Duke of Newcastle's mansion at Nottingham Castle

Disorder in Parliament was reflected in the country generally. In London there were huge public meetings, with Peel's Metropolitan Police struggling to cope. Riots in Derby had to be broken up by the army. In Nottingham the Duke of Newcastle's residence at Nottingham Castle was burnt down by a rampaging mob. From 20th October 1831 for three days, Bristol was completely out of control. Country houses were fortified, and Britain was in effect preparing for civil war. In January 1832 Peel and Tory MPs opposing reform founded the Carlton Club. From here a campaign was mounted against the Reform Bill. Peel famously stated that "no government can exist which does not control and restrain the popular sentiments" (see Gash P718). Crucially, however, Peel was not against Reform as such. He argued that specific changes required by the Reform Act were unwise, but accepted that in a general sense changes had to be made. In this way Peel held the middle ground, between reformers and those who would not accept any moves towards wider democracy. It was this indefinability that made Peel acceptable to a wide range of his party, and his opinions adaptable to a wide range of circumstances. This is what now made Peel the effective leader of the Tory Party rather than Wellington. The political crisis reached its peak in May 1832, when Britain again came close to revolution. There were meetings and protests all over the country, and many large northern industrial towns virtually shut down. While the Reform Bill had been agreed by the House of Commons, it was still being blocked by the House of Lords. It took the creation of twenty new peers in the House of Lords, selected for their support, to get the bill passed.


Now Peel seemed to go through the same process of accommodation he had managed with Catholic emancipation. He accepted the Reform Act, once again angering many in his party who felt he could not stick to his principles. But Peel's principles were to work in the real world in which he found himself. There was an element of fatalism about him. It was in 1833 in a letter to Philip Mahon that he said: "Men, and the conduct of men, are much more the creature of circumstances than they generally appear in history " (Gash P717). The time for reform had come. The old Houses of Parliament accidentally burnt down in a kind of symbolic full stop, and Peel went on holiday to Italy. But fate was soon to call. Earl Grey's government had fallen in July 1833 due to a dispute over reform of the Irish church. Lord Melbourne briefly took over, but resigned after failing to win support from the king, William IV. Peel was recalled from Italy for his first difficult period as prime minister. The rest of the year was spent outlining his government's position, promoting a compromise between reform and tradition, as described in his Tamworth Manifesto. In the Tamworth Manifesto Peel made political history when he referred to himself as leading "the great Conservative Party". This name change was an important break with the Tory past, a past where the Tory Party had represented and been run by the landed aristocracy. Britain was changing. There had been a significant shift of people from countryside to towns, and the old rural power of the Tories was finished. Peel's party had to adapt, and this was the moment when it did so, calling itself by a new name. Peel was the first Conservative Party prime minister, and it was the Conservatives that went into the January 1834 election, trying and failing to win an outright majority in the House of Commons. Without a majority Peel's government was only able to stagger on until April, when Lord Melbourne's second administration took over as the only viable government.



Rhossili Bay, the last place in Britain being farmed with a pre-industrial strip system

In Melbourne's long administration which followed, there were many problems. Irish affairs, unrest in Canada, disputes with Spain, the Poor Law, the protection of children in factories, all kept Melbourne's government occupied. But there was one issue which seemed to focus the period's tensions, and this was the Corn Law issue. The Corn Laws were protective tariffs which kept grain prices artificially high to protect agricultural interests. This of course made bread more expensive. When Britain had been a mainly rural country with most people depending on agriculture for their livelihood, the Corn Laws might, on balance have been accepted. But with the Industrial Revolution forging ahead, Britain's population was becoming more urban by the month. The Corn Laws were increasingly seen as favouring rich landowners over hard working factory workers. Protective tariffs as a whole were a highly contentious issue, and it was an argument over sugar tariffs which had Melbourne's government in turmoil in August 1841. Peel, preparing for the possibility of power, said that he would not hold office unless "he could hold it consistently with the maintenance of my own opinions" (quoted Gash P270). But Peel was careful to keep his opinions, particularly on financial matters, a mystery. Tony Blair famously used the same trick in preparing for the 1997 general election. It was necessary to give the impression of control, to talk about opinions and principles. Equally it was necessary to realise that circumstances might not take any notice of a politician's opinions and principles. It was, therefore necessary to talk about opinions while revealing as few as possible.


Following Melbourne's resignation on 30th August 1841, Peel's new government was formally installed on 3rd September. His five year ministry was to see furious arguments, and important legislative milestones relating to education, working hours in factories, and taxation. Peel often held an ambivalent position in the storm. Often his own views struggled with a sense of larger circumstance. When it came to measures to reduce factory working hours, Peel said that of course instinctively he wanted to support this kind of legislation. But Peel had a responsibility to look at the bigger picture. He was advised that reducing working hours would reduce productivity, and so reduce wages. Two experienced factory inspectors claimed that a reduction of the working day to ten hours would result in a 25% reduction in wages. This reduction for people already struggling on low incomes would be disastrous. Eventually such worries turned out to be exaggerated, but Peel did not know that at the time, and must have spent many painful nights wondering what to do. But it was over the Corn Laws that Peel's strangely powerful and yet powerless position came truly into focus. The crucial struggle began in the summer of 1845 when potato disease began to appear in central and western Europe. In August potato blight was reported in Kent, and by September it had reached Ireland, where millions of people subsisted on a diet of potatoes. Peel took scientific advice, and immediately realised that a huge disaster was looming in Ireland. He organised the biggest relief effort the world had yet seen, buying in £100,000 worth of foreign wheat, enough to feed a million people for forty days. He also knew that this wasn't enough, since there were potentially four million people to feed for months rather than days. It therefore seemed inevitable that the Corn Laws, standing in the way of foreign imports, and keeping the price of bread artificially high, would have to go. In so many ways the time of the Corn Laws was over. Britain was becoming an urban rather than a rural society, and the situation in Ireland was the final straw for this out of date legislation. A majority of MPs in the House of Commons agreed. But a majority of MPs in Robert Peel's own Conservative Party, where agricultural land owners were strongly represented, certainly did not agree. Peel realised that getting his party to agree to a repeal of the Corn Laws was impossible. The decision was made to press ahead with repeal even though it was clear the Conservative government would be torn apart. The Conservatives were not in a position to do what needed to be done, so resignation became inevitable. Peel resigned in December 1845, but was forced to return to office when Whig Party leader Lord John Russell could not make a government out of his argumentative colleagues. Into 1846 an increasingly exhausted Peel fought on inspite of howls of protest from his own MPs, led by Benjamin Disraeli. In the teeth of this ferocious opposition, measures were passed which would end tariffs on a whole range of goods. The time had come for these changes, but that did not mean they happened easily. Peel had to call on all his qualities of endurance and eloquence to win through against his own MPs. The night of 15th May 1846 shows Peel fighting at his hardest. Disraeli got up and delivered a vicious speech about Peel being the burglar of other men's intellects. Peel nearly broke down, but pulled himself together and continued to argue for the end of protective tariffs. Any idea that Peel just went with the flow of opinion does not give credit to nights like these. It does not give credit to the fact that Peel worked ferociously long hours, and showed great intelligence, in preparing for the many battles he had to fight. Peel won the vote to repeal protective tariffs, with an overall majority of 98. But within his own party there was a high price to pay: 106 Conservatives voted with Peel, 222 against (figures - Gash P591).

It was during the battle over the Corn Laws that Harriet Martineau wrote to Peel and described him as a "great doer of the impossible". This accurately indicates what Peel had to go through to repeal the Corn Laws. And yet Martineau's great doer of the impossible is described by writer Walter Bagehot in terms which suggest a completely opposite viewpoint. Bagehot writes: "From a certain peculiarity of intellect and fortune, he was never in advance of his time. On almost all the great measures with which his name is associated, he attained great eminence as their opponent before he attained even greater eminence as their advocate. On the Corn Laws, on the currency, on the amelioration of the criminal code, on Catholic emancipation... he was not one of the earliest labourers or quickest converts. He did not bear the burden in the heat of the day; other men laboured and he entered into their labours" (quoted The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P375).

Somehow both Bagehot and Martineau are right. Peel was not one of the earliest labourers it is true, but it would be ridiculous to say he did not bear the burden in the heat of the day. Robert Peel reflects a strange truth about life. There is an inevitability about affairs, which nevertheless does not let individuals relax into a sense of fatalism. Peel still battled on as if he could make an individual difference. Asa Briggs might claim that Peel was ahead of his time, setting the pace which others followed. But you could argue that people who are truly ahead of their time rarely appear to succeed. There are plenty of examples of visionary people who were simply marooned in a time not yet ready for them. Their bright ideas sit out of place like desert islands. Progress depends on many factors coming together, and you could say that Peel had a knack for knowing when things were coming together. Peel was not ahead of his time; he was of his time and could not escape its strictures; but that was why he was part of the changes of his time.

Peel retired exhausted from his position as prime minister on 29th June 1846. He spent the next few years trying to remain a neutral figure in Parliament, and attempting to support the troubled ministry of his successor Lord John Russell. Thankfully he enjoyed some peaceful times at his home of Drayton Manor in Staffordshire with his wife Julia. Sadly he was to die in the summer of 1850, from injuries sustained when his horse unexpectedly threw him to the ground on Constitution Hill in London.