Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel brought a new vision for the Tories. He was not the dogmatic, uncompromising hardliner seeking to defend privilege at all costs. He was a much more conciliatory and thoughtful politician who sought to build bridges and win over some of the newly enfranchised electorate to his more centrist vision for Britain. He brought in landmark legislation in many social spheres for example he cut working hours for women and children, he created cheap and regular rail services, and reorganised the policing of London. In many ways he was responsible for turning the Tory party into a much more progressive and electable 'Conservative Party' although he would earn his share of internal enemies as a result of this transformation.

Earlier in life he had seemed a an arch-Unionist opposing Catholic emancipation (earning the nickname 'Orange Peel'). He would become the Home Secretary for a line of Tory PMs although he would begin some of his reformist tendencies in that position. He changed the penal code which resulted in around 100 fewer crimes being punished by death. He also reformed the gaol system with payment for jailers to try and reduce corruption and abuses within prison and even introduced the concept of education for the inmates.

It was as the Home Secretary of the Duke of Wellington that he began his real political transformation. Convinced of the social strife and danger to British democracy posed by suppression of Catholic political and social mobility, he converted towards the promotion of Catholic Emancipation and even steered it through the Houses of Parliament. He also introduced the first professional police in London (which still retain the nickname 'Bobbies' after him) in 1829.

In 1834, the King asked the Duke of Wellington once more, but he declined suggesting Peel in his place. Peel was in Italy at the time and rushed back (with Wellington acting as caretaker until he arrived). An election was held where Peel issued the 'Tamworth Manifesto' which laid out the more progressive policies which contrasted with those of the high Tory old-guard. He went on to win the election but only with a slight majority. However, the Irish MPs would form an alliance with the Whigs which would lead to a run of defeats for Robert Peel's party and he stepped down just 100 days into his premiership.

Peel nearly managed to return as PM in 1839 but was worried about >Viscount Melbourne's influence over Queen Victoria who refused to allow her household advisers and ladies in waiting be replaced by Conservative ones. He deferred and waited until he won an absolute majority in 1841.

The 1841 ministry was to be the reforming government that would change the very direction of British economic and political power - although not in a way that many of his supporters would have wished. He started with a series of vital factory laws that would limit the hours and type of work that could be conducted by women and children. This was an important break on unrestrained exploitation by factory owners. However the real challenge for this administration was after a series of failed harvests. Both Corn and Potato crops were severely affected and the price of all foodstuffs rose. Britain suffered from the turmoil (indeed much of Europe was similarly affected) but Ireland was particularly devastated due to its dependence on the potato crop. Ireland rapidly degenerated into a full blown famine and millions were to go hungry, emigrate or die from malnutrition. Robert Peel wished to aid the Irish but was prevented by the so-called Corn Laws that forbade cheap imports. English landowners were quietly profitting from the artificially high prices and lack of competition for their goods. Peel was no free trader philosophically but he quickly grasped the urgency of reform in order to try and mitigate the human disaster occurring in Ireland. Unfortunately for him, his own supporters, MPs and Lords were often the same people who were profitting from the Corn Laws and were reluctant to remove this privilege. Peel had to rely on the support of the opposition benches to force the liberalisation of Britain's trade laws but he was to pay for this noble position by being defeated on another bill on the very same day he finally got the repeal of the Corn Laws through parliament. It was an epic political battle and one that opened up the Free trade, Laissez Faire British economic model for the rest of the Century.

Amazon Amazon Amazon

Prime Ministers

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe