‘U-turn if you want to…’

Mark Rathbone analyses the causes and consequences of sudden changes of policy in nineteenth-century British politics.

‘U-turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning,’ Margaret Thatcher told the Conservative Party Conference in 1980, chiding faint-hearts in her own party and justifying pressing on with monetarist economic policies despite a steep rise in unemployment. But in the nineteenth century, sudden u-turns on policy were a notable feature of British politics. This article looks at four great u-turns: the decision in January 1829 by the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel to introduce Catholic Emancipation; Peel’s decision in 1846 to repeal the Corn Laws; Disraeli’s conversion to the cause of parliamentary reform in 1867; and Gladstone’s adoption of Home Rule for Ireland at the end of 1885. We will examine what circumstances led to these u-turns, what motivated the leaders who executed them, and what consequences they had for the parties concerned.

Catholic Emancipation

It is a remarkable tribute to the importance of the Irish Question in nineteenth century British politics that three of the four u-turns were provoked by crises in Ireland. In 1828, the Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister and Sir Robert Peel as leader in the House of Commons faced the first of these, which came to a head when a by-election in County Clare was won by Daniel O’Connell for the Catholic Association. This amounted to an open attack on the Irish representative system, as the law prevented Roman Catholics from sitting in parliament. Growing disorder in Ireland put pressure on Wellington and Peel to act. ‘Nothing can be more clear than that Ireland cannot remain as it is,’ advised Anglesey, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; ‘The Catholic question must be adjusted, or the Association and the Priests must be overruled.’

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