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How justified was Disraeli's accusation that Peel's leadership of the Conservative Party (1834-46) amounted to a betrayal of Tory principles?

Since Peel's 'Conservative party' was merely " old crazy factor, vamped up, and white-washed into decency..." [from Sybil or The Two Nations, pg 132, by Disraeli (1845)] Peel was therefore at the helm of the fragmented old Tory party, which he disguised under the veneer of his mythical new Conservative principles. If Peel's inconsistencies and contentious achievements are viewed as the actions of the Tory leader, Disraeli is right in saying that Peel betrayed Tory principles. One need only consider the Maynooth grant, the Repeal of the Corn Laws, the Bedchamber crisis and the earlier Catholic Emancipation to realise that Peel consistently flouted the Tory protestant principles of Crown, Church and Constitution. To be fair Peel found it necessary to divide the Tory party he had helped to rebuild because, in the transitional period in which he lived, he sensed that he should do more than copy Wellington's policy of "stopping the nineteenth century" (Seaman). However, the reason Peel attempted to do slightly more than attempt to quieten the winds of change was that he would not be able to keep hold of power. It is therefore clear that because of Peel's "vaulting ambition" he felt no qualms at betraying the Tory principles upheld by his most faithful friend, Wellington, and manipulating Wellington into betraying those principles himself. Peel apologists like Norman Gash would probably argue that it was a measure of Peel's 'greatness' that he felt it necessary to betray these Tory principles to respond to the new transitional climate of the 1 830s and 1840s. This argument has more holes in it than a colander. It was Peel's belated reaction to this new industrial climate, which demonstrate that Peel helped to rebuild the Tory party on the sole principle of the spineless pursuit of votes: his only 'great' achievement was the deception of the British population, which was not difficult, and the deceit of usually perceptive historians. After the 'unnecessary' Reform Act of 1832 Peel supported Bonham's amoral and unethical work in restructuring the Tory party at the Carlton Club. Bonham tried to manufacture support for the Tories by the use of dead men's names, the production of fictitious receipts for rent and the disenfranchisement of hostile voters. Further proof of his megalomaniac attitude is given by his production of an "unprecedented electioneering document", the Tamworth Manifesto, in 1834. If it is accepted that the Tamworth Manifesto formed the basis of a new party, which it clearly did not, through its vagueness and attempts to confuse by seeming to clarify, it was a party without backbone, value or ideas. since the Constitution is based upon precedent the Tamworth Manifesto, which was unprecedented, can be seen to be a subvention of the sacred Tory Constitution. Peel's vacillation between opposition to the Reform Act and acceptance of it, which he repeated over the Corn Laws, is clear evidence of Peel's O'Connorite confusion to the changes in society and suggests that Peel did not know his own mind. This demonstrates Bagehot's contention that Peel only came round to ideas when they were widely accepted and fiercely avoided them "as long as they remained the property of first-class intellects" (from Bagehot's 'Biographical Studies').

Peel responded to Whig ineptitude with policies which were "Aw a muddle" (from Dickens' Hard Times), like the period itself, and were presented as the dubious policies of a "real working government". After winning the 1841 General Election upon the assumption that he would maintain the Corn Laws, he imposed free trade dogma which he had 'fished' from his opponents' heads. The Whig Report of the Select Committee on Import Duties (1840) acknowledged the need for tariff reform. It can be seen that Peel's economic policies betrayed the established Tory principles and were consequently only slightly less incompetent than the Whig's "bottomless deficiencies'. In returning to the Gold Standard in 1821 Peel set the tone for his attacks on the aristocracy and the Constitution in the 1830s and 1840s. Since the landed classes were heavily mortgaged it has been argued that 'Peel's Act' was the cause of the economic difficulties of farmers in the 1820s. Peel's reintroduction of income tax, which Liverpool had repealed in 1816 and which put taxes more heavily upon the rich, was hardly a part of any Tory economic policy. Pitt had introduced income tax at a time of national crisis but he was just as much a Whig as a Tory. Peel's policies were as confused as O'Connor's and the other Chartist leaders. However, Peel's trading "on the ideas and intelligence of others" (Disraeli) was largely unsuccessful since there was an economic depression in 1845 and in the wake of the potato famine in both Ireland and England, Chartism reared its discontented head in 1848. The epithet "Prosperity Peel" is therefore based upon the long-term consequences of Peel's economic reforms, which although they formed the foundation for the prosperous years of the 1850s and 1860s they also sowed the seeds of Britain's economic decline at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. The Bank Charter Act of 1844 was a sound piece of legislation since it was anti-inflationary and it paved the way for the necessary nationalization of banks; but in times of economic depression it had to be suspended - in 1847, 1857 and 1866 for example, since it prevented the necessary free-flow of cash required to counter an economic slump. Peel's alleged economic competence in deviating from Tory principles should be seriously questioned.

As a logical conclusion to Peel's unoriginal forays into free trade the repeal of the Corn Laws of 1846 was viewed by protectionists and anti-protectionists alike as an attack upon the Tory principles of Crown, Church, Constitution and the aristocracy. Although the repeal of the Corn Laws can be seen to be a response to the changing industrial state of society and a fulfillment of Peel's vague promise to protect the interests of all sectors of society, it was really Peel's desperate attempt to preserve the aristocratic system of government. The fact that this Tory attempt to prevent democracy was veiled with the pretence that industry was now pre-eminent over agriculture explains the old Tories' subsequent hatred of Peel and the mistaken conviction of historians that he was the founder of the modern Liberal party. Peel acknowledged that he led a faction of the Tory party when he said he was "much more surprised that the union was so long maintained that that it was ultimately severed". Through the Repeal of the Corn Laws, Peel showed himself to be intrinsically a Tory because he pretended to change to conserve. Paradoxically, though, Peel had betrayed the Tory principles of Crown and Church and Constitution in the Bedchamber crisis and the Maynooth grant. The Bedchamber crisis of 1839 was an attack upon the royal prerogative to choose the Prime Minister, which Peel had inconsistently supported in 1834. Although 'Orange Peel' was almost as protestant as Gladstone, throughout his political career he was ironically forced to support Catholics. Although Catholic Emancipation can be excused because Peel had to allow this to uphold law and order in Ireland, the Maynooth grant of 1845 was a deliberate attack upon the protestant church. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836, which was largely the work of Peel's government, also attacked the protestant church and explained the Tory protectionists' belief that Peel was subverting Tory principles in repealing the Corn Laws. To the extent that Peel was the leader of the protectionist party Peel did betray Tory principles in 1846 in passing Corn Law Repeal. 

Although the Tory party has traditionally used the House of Lords to reject opponents' legislation, Peel's overt manipulation of the Lords through Wellington to force through bills for the supposed 'good of the country' - which he did with 1832 Reform Act and the 1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws - seem to be unconstitutional in that the Lords had only been covertly manipulated before and led to the Constitutional crisis of 1911. It can be seen, though, that Peel forced these bills through the House of Lords because he wanted to secure his immortality. At the same time Peel realized that in order to uphold law and order - the 1832 Reform Act was passed to prevent a revolution - some concessions to reform had to be made. However, as can be seen by the limited nature of the 1832 Reform Act and the fact that the Repeal of the Corn Laws consolidated the aristocracy Peel, unlike the pre-French Revolution Pitt, did not like reform. Although Disraeli's pursuit of votes and the bending of his principles in promoting the Second Reform Act was Peelite, it was something Peel would only have done if he had ever, in a Gladstonian fashion, ridden off into the sunset chasing the glory that was receding with his hairline. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how one looks at it) Peel fell off his horse in 1850 and died on 'Constitution Hill - ensuring that the Constitution which Peel had manipulated and twisted so much, got its own back -which prevented Peel from unleashing his puppy, Aberdeen, upon an unsuspecting world and plunging Europe into another Crimean War. It is still possible, therefore, for Peel apologists like Gash to pretend that Peel was the greatest statesman of all time who put the nation before any idea of party.

 However, since Disraeli's claim that Peel betrayed Tory principles is true, Peel's sense of mission, which was almost Thatcherite at times, damaged the nation irreparably. This is not to say that Tory principles are good for Britain's health but that Peel's spineless pursuit of votes and determination to enforce dogma upon the country established a pernicious precedent. Peel's work in converting Britain to free trade, not only sowed the seeds for limited mid-Victorian prosperity but also for the Crimean War and the economic decline which was a consequence of Britain's reluctance to adapt Peel's 'perfect' free trade climate. Although Peel did not found the modern Conservative party or Liberal party his work established the rules by which politics is run in the twentieth century - through his subversion of the Tory principles of Crown, Church and Constitution and his support' of Bonham's amoral work at the Carlton Club he set the precedent for the Machiavellian political world of the late twentieth century.

Please note that this essay deliberately is provocative and was written with this approach in mind.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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