Sunday, 4 October 2015

Sir Robert Peel: (2) triumph and disaster

Sir Robert Peel,
saviour and destroyer of his party

Peel's triumph? 

The 1840s should have been a triumphant decade for Peel. He had reformed his party after its defeat of 1832 and won the election of 1841.

There was however, a lurking problem.

  1. The Conservative vote was overwhelmingly agricultural and deeply committed to agricultural protection.
  2. Peel himself was increasingly in favour of free trade and his government's budgets saw a steady reduction in duties. Would the Corn Laws be next?

The Irish famine

It is usually believed that it was the Irish famine that converted Peel to free trade, but it is now clear that this simply provided him with an excuse. 

There are posts on this distressing and still controversial subject here and here
Scene at Skibereen, Cork, 1847

By the autumn of 1845 Ireland  was facing a great social and humanitarian catastrophe. On 15 October, Peel wrote to the Lord Lieutenant that the only practical remedy was 
‘the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food - that is the total and absolute repeal for ever of all duties on all articles of subsistence’.
But this was not the real issue. Cheaper bread was not the answer to the immediate problem. The Irish could not afford to buy any bread. The only thing that could save them was food relief on a massive scale. The Corn Laws were therefore an irrelevancy.

The repeal of the Corn Laws

This is one of the most dramatic stories in British political history.

In October 1845, Peel held a series of emergency cabinet meetings. On 6 November he tried to persuade the Cabinet to suspend the Corn Laws by Order in Council and to summon Parliament to reform the existing laws. But only Aberdeen, Graham and Herbert backed him. The Conservative party was already in a fractious state and this was the last straw.

On 22 November Lord John Russell the Liberal leader, announced  that he had been converted to total repeal. He put himself at the head of the national movement and made repeal a party issue. 

On 5 December, finding he had no support in his party, Peel resigned, much to the regret of the Queen and Prince Albert. But the Whigs were a minority in both Houses and internally divided. After eleven days Russell told the Queen he could not form a government. On 20 December Peel returned to power with a reconstructed cabinet. 

Benjamin Disraeli
Peel's nemesis
On 21 December the backbencher, Benjamin Disraeli wrote to his friend Lord John Manners:
‘Peel is so vain that he wants to figure in history as the settler of all the great questions, but a parliamentary constitution is not favourable to such ambitions; things must be done by parties, not by persons using parties as tools; especially men without imagination or any inspiring qualities, or who rather offer you duplicity instead of inspiration.’
Disraeli was prepared to destroy a Conservative government, if by doing so he could bring down Peel.

On 27 January 1846 Peel unfolded his plans to the Commons, with Prince Albert looking on, in a three and a half hour speech. Repeal of the Corn Laws was wrapped up in a general reduction of duties on a large range of articles, many of them foodstuffs like sugar, cheese, butter and dried fish. On corn he proposed simply a progressive lowering of duties until February 1849 when they would cease entirely. The speech was cheered by the opposition but was received in silence by his party.

The attack was launched by Disraeli, to the accompaniment of Conservative cheers and laughter;
‘What other excuses has he, for even his mouldy potatoes have failed him.’
Outside Parliament, there was an immediate storm. There were resignations from the royal household and the lower ranks of the administration. Protectionist meetings were held all over England. Enormous pressure was put on Conservative MPs in counties and small rural boroughs from gentry, parsons and farmers. The two protectionist leaders in the Commons, Lord George Bentinck and Disraeli, concentrated on Peel’s flagrant disregard of party claims and party loyalty. The attacks became increasingly personal.

On 9 February, the debate began in Parliament. It went on for 32 nights (12 parliamentary nights) and was extraordinarily bitter. In his peroration on 16 February, Peel spoke of the famine: the calamities of ‘a suffering people’ had been
‘aggravated by the laws of man restricting in the hour of scarcity the supply of food’.
On the second reading on 27 February 231 Conservatives voted against the government, 112 for (and about forty of these were office-holders). Prince Albert wrote:
‘This does not look like strong government’.
On 15 May in the debate on the third reading, Disraeli attacked Peel in a speech that lasted three hours. He accused Peel of stealing the ideas of (Disraeli’s phrase) ‘the Manchester school’:
'His life has been a great appropriation clause. He is a burglar of others’ intellects ... there is no statesmen who has committed political petty larceny on so large a scale.'
O’Connell said Disraeli’s speeches were the greatest he had ever heard in Parliament. When Peel rose to wind up the debate, he had to struggle to get a hearing. Personal jeers almost reduced him to tears. But he had one effective jibe:
‘The smallest of all the penalties which I anticipated were the continued venomous attacks of the Member for Shrewsbury.’
The Bill passed the third reading by 98 votes, in spite of Conservative opposition. The Chief Whip told Peel that only 117 members (less than a third of the party) supported him. It had an easier passage through the Lords because Russell told the dissident Whigs that he would resign from the leadership if they voted against the bill. Wellington piloted it through the Lords, arguing that they could not isolate themselves from the Commons and the Crown, and on 28 May it was passed by 47 votes.

The resignation of Peel

However, it was clear that the ministry could not survive for long. The Conservative protectionists began plotting revenge, and the issue they chose was the proposed Irish Coercion Bill. On 8 June Bentinck attacked Peel as a prime minister who was
‘supported by none but his forty paid janissaries and some seventy other renegades … it is now time that atonement should be made to the betrayed constituencies of the empire’.
On 26 June Peel was defeated by 73 votes on the Irish Coercion Bill a few hours after the Corn Bill passed its final reading in the Lords. The Whigs, Radicals, Irish, and 74 Conservatives voted against the bill.  On 29 June Peel resigned. His last speech as Prime Minister contained two remarkable statements. The first was the tribute to Cobden as the real author of repeal even though he had previously censured him completely and had always loathed the tactics of the League.
‘The name which ought to be associated with the success of these measures is not the name of the noble Lord, the organ or the party of which he is the leader, nor is it mine. The name which ought to be associated with the success of these measures is the name of one who, acting I believe from pure and disinterested motives, has, with untiring energy, made appeals to our reason and has enforced those appeals with an eloquence the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned: the name which ought to be chiefly associated with these measures, is the name of RICHARD COBDEN.’
Predictably, this enraged the already furious Conservative Protectionists. It might also have been factually wrong because, according to some historians, Peel’s decision to abolish the Corn Laws had almost nothing to do with the League. The second statement was his famous peroration:
‘In relinquishing power, I shall leave a name severely censured I fear by many who, on public grounds deeply regret the severance of party ties … I shall surrender power severely censured also, by others who, from no interested motive, adhere to the principle of protection. … I shall leave a name execrated by every monopolist … but it may be that I shall leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of good will in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by the sense of injustice’.
Greville dismissed the speech as
‘claptrap about cheap bread’.
Both statements reflected Peel’s belief in the ethical imperative for free trade derived from views concerning the operation of providence as revealed above all in the contemporary situation in Ireland. This also accounts for his willingness for martyrdom and the quasi-religious exaltation with which his supporters followed him into the wilderness.

The Whigs in power

Russell then formed a government that was returned in the election of 1847, and it would be 28 years before a Conservative prime minister again headed a government with a clear majority. In wrecking Peel’s career, Bentinck and Disraeli came very near to wrecking his and their party too.

Peel stayed in politics. He was friends with Prince Albert, and government members often asked his advice. His anomalous position made it difficult for a two-party system to emerge. The ‘Peelites’ included nearly all the office-holders and men of ministerial calibre. Among them was William Ewart Gladstone. All that now united the Conservatives was the issue of protection.  In 1850 Disraeli said that protection was not only dead but damned. So had it all been for nothing?

In June 1850 Peel died from internal injuries sustained after being thrown from his horse.

Results of repeal

  1. The repeal led to a formal split in the Conservative party, the loss of five consecutive general elections and virtual exclusion from power for almost thirty years. (They had only two periods of minority government in 20 years.) The 1850s and 1860s were periods of Liberal dominance. This has led Boyd Hilton Hilton (A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People?) to disagree with the twentieth-century consensus that Peel was the founder of modern Conservatism.
  2. Peel’s fall showed the significance of party – in future all prime ministers would have to carry their parties with them if they wished to carry out legislation. Disraeli said in the debates:
    ‘Maintain the line of demarcation between parties, for it is only by maintaining the independence of parties that you can maintain the integrity of public men and the power and influence of Parliament.’
  3. Peel’s violent death increased the messianic sense of his followers. He persuaded many of the poor that the state was not indifferent to their fears and aspirations.
  4. The story of British agriculture in the second half of the 19th century was one of relative decline at a time when the industrial and service sectors were growing in importance. The repeal was a powerful defeat for the agricultural interest – landowners as a body were now less able to determine the political agenda. 


The Corn Laws were repealed not because of the Irish famine but because Peel no longer believed in them, and had ceased to believe in them since 1842.   This is in marked contrast to his change of policy over Catholic emancipation, which had been a matter of concession rather than conviction.  Peel believed that free trade was a moral imperative.