Sir Robert Peel: The Life and Legacy

Sir Robert PeelSir Robert Peel: The Life and Legacy

Richard A. Gaunt


264pp £20

ISBN 978 1848850354

Sir Robert Peel’s ability to generate both lively debate among professional historians and continued attention from non-specialists is a bit of a puzzle. He has been dead for 160 years and the Conservative party he led has changed out of all recognition. Claims that he be considered the architect of modern Conservatism run into some well-known obstacles. His party broke up in 1846 when he ignored backbench hostility over the Corn Laws. The Conservatives would not win another parliamentary majority until 1874. Compared with the other big-league Tory players, Peel lacked Disraeli’s chicanery and sparkle, Salisbury’s control and enigmatic cynicism, Churchill’s driven, protean egotism – and Thatcher’s gender. It is already clear that he and David Cameron would have paid good money to be kept at opposite ends of a dinner table. The fluent, consensual Etonian and the touchy, divisive, heavy-duty Harrovian have expensive educations and good Oxford degrees in common but little else.

Peel was not light or engaging company. Contemporaries found him either shy or supercilious, nakedly ambitious, defensive about both his origins and his light Lancashire accent. Like many insecure but clever folk, he tended to believe that those he disagreed with were either stupid or malign. He was quick to take offence – even to the point of regular threats to demand ‘satisfaction’ – and he did not forget slights. In short, Peel was hard work. 

Nor has recent historiography done much to lighten the weight of opprobrium which contemporary opinion laid on his reputation. In reaction to a monumental biography by Norman Gash, which for all its scholarship barely stayed on the right side of hagiography, revisionism has suggested that Peel was a doctrinaire, rather than a flexible, politician, that his supposedly ‘liberal’ reforms at the Home Office were more administratively tidy than they were humane, that his personal responsibility for the Tory triumph in 1841 was extremely limited and that, as prime minister, he acted as if he were leading the political party he ought to have been given rather than the ignorant hunters, fishermen and farmers which predominantly reactionary electors had misguidedly voted in. Consequently he acted in 1845-46 as if party politics did not matter. Much the most favourable account of Peel to appear in recent years has come from a professional politician, Douglas Hurd. Since he had to suffer Margaret Thatcher at uncomfortably close quarters it may be that his elegant prose about another awkward customer was sympathetically informed not only by insider experience of the political process but also by the sheer joy of survival.

Richard Gaunt has set himself the task of explaining Peel’s policies within the context of the intellectual and economic climate which fashioned them. He also engages with the many debates that those policies engendered, both in the first half of the 19th century and subsequently. He is well equipped for the task. He has extensively researched the high politics of the Peel period but he is never overwhelmed by detail. He is a master of the printed, and most of the main archival, sources. His publisher has permitted him to reveal the full weight of his scholarship: the footnotes and bibliography run to 57 pages in a book which barely exceeds 200.

The book offers no major reinterpretations. It remains uncertain precisely when Peel determined that the nation must have free trade in corn. On religion, Gaunt is surely right to warn against the idea that Peel was a staunch Protestant anti-reformer on Ireland before Catholic emancipation and a ‘liberal’ conciliator afterwards. He was a Protestant with evangelical leanings. In 1829 and 1845-46 he was making necessary political concessions to Catholics not changing his mind about the necessity of a Protestant Ascendancy. Similarly it is useful to be reminded of how unpopular the Bank Charter Act of 1844, which Gladstone called Peel’s ‘Baptismal Creed’, was in the last years of his life.

Gaunt’s learning is lightly worn. He covers the whole of Peel’s career and he summarises the sometimes technical debates with authority. It is a shame that he did not analyse the views of Peel’s acolytes in greater depth. Peel’s ‘bright young men’ had generally warmer tales to tell of him than did most contemporaries. It would have been useful to judge to what extent their observations should modify the judgment of history, about which Peel himself was increasingly concerned.

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