‘U-turn if you want to…’

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

The 1867 Reform Bill: ‘A Leap in the Dark’, August 1867 issue of Punch. Wiki Commons.

‘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.’

During the final months of 1828, Wellington and Peel realised that Catholic Emancipation, the repeal of the laws banning Roman Catholics from sitting in the House of Commons, was the only way out of the crisis. The main difficulty was that maintaining the anti-Catholic laws was regarded as a fundamental principle of the Tory Party, of which they were the leaders. Peel contemplated resignation, but on 12th January 1829 he agreed to support Catholic Emancipation.

In his speech in the House of Commons on 5 March 1829, Peel admitted that he had long opposed Catholic Emancipation and claimed to have dropped his opposition not because he now supported Emancipation in principle, but because continued opposition to it endangered the country’s political stability: ‘I yield, therefore to a moral necessity which I cannot control, unwilling to push resistance to a point which might endanger the Establishments that I wish to defend.’

Repealing the Corn Laws

Our second u-turn also involved both Peel and Ireland. One of the cornerstones of Conservative policy ever since 1815 had been the Corn Laws, which banned the importation of foreign corn until the price reached a certain level, thereby protecting British agriculture and keeping the price of corn artificially high. But this also meant that the cost of bread was high and restrictions on international trade made it harder for British manufacturers to sell their products to other countries. Opposition to the Corn Laws grew, particularly after the Anti-Corn Law League was founded in March 1839.

There were early signs that Peel recognised the benefits of free trade. The 1842 and 1845 budgets reduced or removed tariffs on hundreds of items, and Peel was beginning to look like a free trader, to the increasing alarm of protectionist members of his own party. Prompted by the growing catastrophe of famine in Ireland, Peel came to the conclusion in October 1845, as he wrote in a letter to the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Heytesbury, that, ‘The remedy is 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.’ He announced to his cabinet in November 1845 his decision to repeal the Corn Laws. It took six months before repeal was finally approved by the House of Commons, but Peel was dependent on Whig votes to get this through: a rebellion led by Stanley, Bentinck and Disraeli bitterly divided the Conservative party and in the event 231 Conservative MPs voted against repeal and only 112 for.

The Second Reform Act

In 1846, Disraeli was one of the leaders of the attack on Peel. Two decades later, he was himself the initiator of our third u-turn, the only one of the four not to have been provoked by a crisis in Ireland. The Tories had bitterly opposed the 1832 Reform Act, and, except for Disraeli’s own short-lived Reform Bill of 1859, had also opposed the numerous attempts between 1852 and 1866 to extend the franchise. The Liberals’ 1866 Reform Bill was a modest measure, which proposed to add only some 400,000 to the electorate, but the Conservatives combined with a small number of Liberal opponents of reform (‘Adullamites’) to defeat it, ‘amid shouting, violent flourishing of hats, and other manifestations which I think novel and inappropriate’, as Gladstone, rather stuffily, put it.

Lord John Russell’s Liberal Government resigned and the Conservatives, for the third time since 1846, formed a minority government. The Prime Minister, the Earl of Derby, and Disraeli, the leader in the House of Commons, then chose to introduce a Reform Bill of their own, and one which, by introducing household suffrage in the boroughs, went much further than the defeated Liberal Bill. Their reasons for this abrupt volte-face are various: fear of unrest, given credibility by a violent protest meeting in Hyde Park; the opportunistic logic that if reform was coming, it should be on the Conservatives’ terms; the hope that the increase in the electorate of only 40 per cent in the counties, compared to 134 per cent in the boroughs, would leave Conservative dominance in the counties intact; the assumption that, with no secret ballot and no salary for MPs, politics would remain the preserve of the rich; and the hope that new voters would show their gratitude by voting Conservative. The Liberal opposition could hardly vote against reform and the measure passed in 1867.

Irish Home Rule

Our fourth u-turn is that executed by Disraeli’s great rival Gladstone in 1885-6 over Home Rule for Ireland – for the establishing of a parliament in Dublin to control Irish affairs. When first elected Prime Minister in 1868, Gladstone had declared that, ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland.’ It was a task that was to prove more difficult than he anticipated. The 1869 Irish Church Act and the 1870 and 1881 Irish Land Acts failed to end unrest, and the actions of extremists, culminating in the murder of the Chief Secretary for Ireland and his Under-Secretary in Phoenix Park in 1882, forced Gladstone to reconsider his Irish policy.

After losing power in 1885, Gladstone hoped that the Conservatives might themselves do a sudden u-turn and agree to grant Ireland Home Rule in order to stay in office, but Lord Salisbury had no intention of obliging: ‘I never admired the political transformation scenes of 1829, 1846, 1867,’ he wrote in December, showing that politicians can learn from history, ‘and I certainly do not wish to be the chief agent in adding a fourth to the history of the Tory party.’ So it was left to Gladstone to execute the fourth great political volte-face of the nineteenth century. His son Herbert gave a strong hint of his father’s conversion to Home Rule in December 1885 (the so-called ‘Hawarden Kite’) and when, a month later, Gladstone formed a Government after Salisbury’s Conservative Government was defeated in the Commons, a Home Rule Bill was quickly announced.

Betrayal and Personal Ambition

The ministers responsible for these changes of policy were often accused of putting their own careers above the principles of their party. Thus in their volte-face over Catholic Emancipation, Peel and Wellington faced accusations of betrayal. According to Peel’s later critic, Benjamin Disraeli, ‘It was the past and the present that alone engrossed his mind, …he was … blind to the future.’ Peel’s biographer Norman Gash relates a contemporary joke which circulated amongst Tory backbenchers that ‘the Pope had ordered a new festival to be inserted in the calendar, the conversation of St. Peel.’ Others accused him of putting his career and love of office above his party’s principles, and of changing his policies to follow the tide of public opinion.

Peel’s actions over the Corn Laws 17 years later provoked similar accusations. ‘He could give to his friends no guiding principle for he had none,’ wrote Disraeli. Lord Robert Cecil, later to be Conservative Prime Minister as Lord Salisbury, also criticised Peel’s behaviour, arguing in an article published in 1865 that Peel had failed in his responsibility to his party: ‘He had been invested with power that he might uphold Protection. No change of opinion could justify him in retaining power that he might destroy it.’

In 1867, as in 1829 and 1846, there was a storm of protest in the Conservative party. Three members of the cabinet, Viscount Cranborne, the Earl of Carnarvon and General Peel, resigned. Cranborne launched a scathing personal attack on Disraeli: ‘He is an adventurer …without principles or honesty … And in an age of singularly reckless statesmen he is I think beyond question the one who is least restrained by fear or scruple.’

Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule for Ireland in 1885-86 also provoked a hostile reaction in the Liberal Party: several leading Whigs, led by Hartington, refused to serve under him. The rebels were joined in March by the radical Joseph Chamberlain. Yet Chamberlain and Hartington refrained from the personal attacks and accusations of betrayal which had characterised the three other u-turns we have considered, concentrating instead on their opposition to the policy. Chamberlain’s resignation letter to Gladstone in March 1886 was curiously matter-of-fact: ‘My public utterances and my conscientious convictions are absolutely opposed to such a policy and I feel that the differences which have now been disclosed are so vital that I can no longer entertain the hope of being of service in the Government.’ It was left to the Conservative Lord Randolph Churchill to deliver a personal attack on Gladstone’s motives, alleging that he was proposing Home Rule ‘for this reason and no other: to gratify the ambition of an old man in a hurry’.

Reckless Disregard for Position

How justified were these accusations of betrayal and personal ambition? Peel’s change of heart over Catholic Emancipation was not following the tide, for the evidence suggests that the overwhelming weight of public opinion in England was against it. Many churchmen and Tories were horrified by a measure which, following close on the heels of the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, appeared to indicate the gradual erosion of the Anglican position and the unraveling of the Revolution Settlement of 1689.

Throughout the emancipation crisis, in fact, Peel showed a reckless disregard for his own position and future – he offered to resign his seat for Oxford University if his constituents thought it necessary and stood by his word, fighting and losing a by-election at the height of the crisis on 26th February. (A safer seat was quickly found for him at Westbury in Wiltshire.) He and Wellington also resigned their offices on 4th March because of George IV’s opposition to Catholic Emancipation. The King accepted their resignations, but then found it impossible to construct an alternative government and recalled them.

In 1846, too, Peel defended himself against the charge of lack of principle by pointing out the damage he had done to his own career: ‘I must be insane if I could have been induced by anything but a sense of public duty to undertake what I have undertaken in this session.’ He argued that a true statesman had to put the wider interests of the nation above the narrow outlook of one party. ‘This is the true Conservative policy,’ he wrote in a letter in August 1846, ‘but gentlemen who call themselves Conservatives will be content with nothing but that their own passions and sordid interests should be the rule of a minister’s conduct.’

Peel’s courage and lack of concern for his own career were also recognised by Richard Cobden of the Anti-Corn Law League: ‘The League would not have carried the repeal of the Corn Laws when they did had it not been for the Irish famine and the circumstances that we had a Minister who thought more of the lives of the people than his own continuance in power.’

It is perhaps more difficult to defend Disraeli against Cranborne’s accusation that he was ‘without principles or honesty’, for to oppose the Liberals’ Reform Bill only to go on and introduce his own does point to inconsistency, even hypocrisy. The concept of Tory Democracy, a Conservatism which promoted sensible reform, could be used to justify Disraeli’s advocacy of a widening of the franchise. Yet a truly sincere believer in parliamentary reform would have voted for the Liberals’ 1866 bill, just as Gladstone voted for the Conservative bill in 1867.

As for Gladstone himself, it has been noted that the accusation that he was ‘an old man in a hurry’ gratifying his ‘ambition’ came from a Conservative opponent, not a disaffected member of his own party. As early as 1882, we now know from Gladstone’s diary, driven by the failure of his earlier efforts to resolve the Irish problem, he was considering the possibility of Home Rule. By the autumn of 1885, he was actively preparing for it. ‘I have long suspected the Union of 1800 a gigantic, though excusable, mistake,’ he wrote in his diary in September 1885, but he hesitated to make public his conversion to Home Rule, because he believed it would provoke a furore in his own party. He was right of course, but perhaps if he had shared his musings about Home Rule earlier, he would have prepared his party better for his eventual announcement.

Disastrous Consequences

Leaving aside the motives of the protagonists, what were the political consequences of these four u-turns? Wellington and Peel’s u-turn over Catholic Emancipation was disastrous for their own party. It is a textbook case of how a sudden change of policy on a major issue can destroy a party previously seen as dominant. The row over Catholic Emancipation contributed to the end of a long period of Tory ascendancy and the party’s defeat in 1830. The Whig Government’s passage of the 1832 Reform Act added to the Tory Party’s woes, abolishing the rotten boroughs and enlarging the very restricted franchise which had sustained Tory dominance for so long.

Yet both Peel’s career and his party’s fortunes revived surprisingly quickly, demonstrating that a party torn apart by dissension after a u-turn can, if the conditions are right, recover with remarkable speed. Although Peel opposed the Reform Bill, saying that he was ‘unwilling to open a door which I saw no prospect of being able to close’, once it was passed he quickly accepted it as irreversible and set about adapting his party to the new conditions which the act had created. In the Tamworth Manifesto of December 1834, Peel declared himself willing to consider proposals for moderate, sensible reforms, while opposing changes which would endanger the institutions of the Crown, Parliament and the Church of England. The manifesto laid down the principles of the new Conservative Party, and also helped it to regain office. Just six years after Catholic Emancipation and five years after the Tories’ defeat in 1830, Peel was back in office as Prime Minister of a minority Conservative Government. It lasted only a few months, but by 1841 Peel had led his party to a decisive general election victory.

Yet his second u-turn five years later undoubtedly did enormous damage to the Conservative party: Peel’s government fell from power within weeks and he never held office again, while his party did not win a majority for 28 years. The Repeal crisis marked the end of Peel’s political career. Although he remained in the House of Commons and the one-third of Conservative MPs who had remained loyal to him became known as Peelites, he did little to provide leadership for his followers and showed no inclination to return to government. ‘I do not know how other men are constituted,’ he wrote to Aberdeen in August 1846, ‘but I can say with truth that I find the day too short for my present occupations, which chiefly consist in lounging in my library, directing improvements, riding with the boys and my daughter, and pitying Lord John [Russell, his successor as Prime Minister] and his colleagues.’ Peel died in 1850 after a fall from his horse.

Within months of the passage of the 1867 Reform Act, Disraeli had succeeded Derby as Conservative leader and Prime Minister, but his minority government was quickly defeated in the House of Commons. Only delays in preparing the new enlarged electoral register delayed an election until the autumn of 1868. The Conservatives faced it with some trepidation. ‘I am convinced,’ wrote Carnarvon, ‘that we are in a very critical position. Household suffrage will produce a state of things in many boroughs the results of which I defy anyone to predict … The Conservative party is in imminent danger of going to pieces now if indeed it does not disappear in the deluge that the Government are bringing on.’

The outcome of the election was a heavy defeat for the Conservatives, yet in the medium term the party recovered. Gladstone, who had replaced Russell as Liberal leader at the end of 1867, formed his first ministry in 1868. Disraeli remained Conservative leader, but his position was by no means secure as his reform strategy appeared to have failed. The critics who had forecast disaster had, it seemed, been proved right. In February 1872, a meeting at Burghley House led to an attempt to depose Disraeli and replace him by the 15th Earl of Derby (the son of Disraeli’s predecessor). Yet this plot came to nothing and Disraeli’s position as Conservative leader was secured by his election victory in 1874.

On 7 June 1886, 93 Liberal MPs voted against Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill, enough to see it defeated by 343 votes to 313. Gladstone called an election, which he lost, relegating the Liberal Party to nearly 20 years in opposition, except for a short-lived and unhappy interlude from 1892 to 1895. The split in the Liberal Party was a permanent one, with most of the Liberal Unionists eventually finding their way into the Conservative Party. Although the triumphant landslide of 1906 was still to come, some historians argue that the decline of the Liberal Party in the early twentieth century dated from the split of 1886.

Dramatic Change

So why was there such a series of major u-turns by British Prime Ministers during the nineteenth century, often with disastrous effects on their parties? It was a period of dramatic change – economically, with the middle decades of the century seeing an unprecedented period of rapid growth; technologically, with the advent of cheap and fast rail travel, the growth of mass circulation newspapers made possible by the steam press and the dawning of the age of electronic communication, with the invention of the telegraph. The needs of the people were changing and the minds of politicians had to change with them, especially as successive extensions to the franchise made parliament more closely reflect the opinions of the people.

Let’s leave the last word with Gladstone, who, speaking in 1868, put this better than I can:

If we have witnessed in the last forty years, beginning with the epoch of Roman Catholic Emancipation, great increase in the changes of party or of opinion, among prominent men, we are not at once to leap to the conclusion that public character, as a rule, has been either less upright, or even less vigorous. The explanation is rather to be found in this, that the movement of the public mind has been of a nature entirely transcending former experience; and that it has likewise been more promptly and more effectively represented than at an earlier period, in the action of the Government and the Legislature. 

Issues to Debate

  • Of the four u-turns discussed in this article, which had the most serious political consequences?
  • To what extent were any of these u-turns the occasion for, rather than the real cause of, party splits?
  • Were there any u-turns of comparable magnitude in twentieth-century British History? 

Further Reading

  • The Liberal Party 1894-1906’, History Review, September 2000
    John Walton, Disraeli (Routledge, 1990)
  • Bob Whitfield, The Extension of the Franchise, 1832-1931 (Heinemann, 2001)

Mark Rathbone is Head of History at Canford School, Wimborne, Dorset, and a prolific writer of articles on British, European & American History & contemporary British & American Politics.