At the end of 1830 the Tory party collapsed. This was partly due to the issue of Catholic Emancipation and the party’s attitude towards parliamentary reform. However under the leadership of Robert Peel the Tory party was gradually able to revive itself. In August 1841 the newly named Conservative party won a large electoral majority in the General Election making Peel the Prime Minister from 1841-1846. Yet, during these years Peel faced several large problems left by the disorganisation of the Whig party’s administration. These problems consisted of an economic slump, abysmal working conditions, agitation from the Ireland and pressure to repeal the Corn Laws. This essay aims to assess the success Peel had in concerning these issues.
A large area of success in the Peel’s ministry was the management of the British economy. When Peel became Prime Minister, the number of exports had decreased causing an industrial slump. Industry seemed to be at a stand still and a series of poor harvest since 1837 helped to keep the costs of bread high. In addition the Whigs had left a deficit of over 2 million. Peel aimed to encourage free trade and to help the problems of the workers. The work on free trade had already been started by Huskisson during the reign of Lord Liverpool when many tariffs were removed, yet the Whigs had not taken Huskisson work any further. With the help of the Manchester School (a group of northern industrialists) Peel came to believe that tariffs were bringing down the British Economy. He saw that import duties made raw materials (such as cotton and iron ore) more expensive and this kept production costs high. He also realised the knock on effect that this had as foreign countries less willing to trade with Britain as tariffs were too high.
Tariffs on imported foods such as corn meant it was even more difficult for the poor to buy food. Peel saw that the removal of tariffs would counter act these problems and bring down the cost of British goods abroad, increase exports, revive industry and provide more jobs as well as lowering the costs of living for the working classes. In Peel’s budgets of 1842 and 1845 Peel managed to get rid of a large proportion of remaining duties so that after 1845 duties on over 600 articles had been removed, and duties on 500 other articles has been greatly reduced. This was a successful part of Peel’s ministerial reign as these measure worked exactly as how Peel had predicted. They helped to bring about a trade revival, increase the number of exports, allow unemployment to dramatically decrease and allow food to become cheaper (although bread was still expensive due to the Corn Laws). The removals of tariffs therefore lead Britain out of the ‘hungry forties’.
Another success of Peel with the British economy was his re-establishment of the income tax. This tax has been abolished by the pressures of Tory backbenchers in 1816 due to the fact that Britain was in peacetime. However, Peel brought back the tax as a temporary three year measure in order to compensate the losses in revenue with the abolition of so many duties. However this project turned out to be so successful and profitable that Peel was able to persuade parliament to keep the income tax for a further three year period. Between the trade revival and the income tax Peel was able to turn the Whigs 2 million deficit into a healthy surplus!
However not all of Peel’s financial reforms shared major economic success. Peel’s Bank Charter Act of 1844 which was aimed to bring about a gradual safe currency system was also considered generally successful. This was because it had the desired effect of phasing out the note-issuing function of ordinary banks. This meant the Bank of England came to control the amount of currency in circulation and there was a less danger of over issuing notes.6 Therefore, the English currency to become stable and London was regarded as the world’s leading momentary centre. In contrast the Companies Act of 1844 which aimed to make all companies legitimately registered and issue to prospectuses and regular accounts was not as successful. Its chief weakness was that the act did not apply to companies that needed to get special approval from parliament (e.g. railway companies) and it was often these companies that were the worst for losing money!
The success of Peel’s ministry could also be measured in Peel’s approach to the social problems of Victorian Britain. Peel was well aware of the social problems in the working conditions of industrial Britain. In fact his father Sir Robert Peel was responsible for the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act in 1802 as well as the first Factory Act in 1819.8 However Peel did not directly aim to make social justice legislature a priority in his Premiership. Peel’s instinct told him that the most effective way to deal with the working conditions of the lower classes was to all his economic policies to come into action and provide jobs and wages for the poor to make the hardships disappear. Peel was also cautious in his approach to the welfare of the poor as he wanted to keep the allegiance of the middle-class businessmen. By interfering with the working hours and condition of the factories that these men owned, Peel was afraid that he might lose their support. However in 1842 redundancy reached its peak and a new urgency came into the scenario.
Peel was also under strain from Shaftsbury and the Ten Hour Working Movement and was forced into creating the Mine Act of 1842 and later on a revised Factory Act of 1844, in order to improve the working conditions.10 Conversely the credit for these Acts belongs to Shaftsbury rather than Peel, and both of these Acts were severely flawed. Peel was further pressured into looking at the social problems of industrial Britain by Edwin Chadwick and the government had to carry out a Royal Commission into the ‘state of large towns and Populous Districts’ which produced disturbing findings in 1844 and 1845. However, Peel was weighed down by the Corn Laws problems and was not able to take any further action and it was therefore left to the subsequent government to introduce the first Public Health Act of 1848. It is evident to therefore say that social reform was not a major success in the ministry of Robert Peel.
Peel’s success can also be evaluated by his approach to the Irish problem. Following the 1800 Act of Union nearly every government in the nineteenth century had to deal with the problem in Ireland. Although having minor improvement and social victories in Ireland such as the Tithe Act and the admittance of Irish men into Ireland’s police force, the Irish were not satisfied with the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act. This is because the Act was an empty victory since it had taken away the voting rights of the 40 shilling freeholders, and therefore during Peel’s ministry Irish affairs came to the forefront and in 1846 they were significant into the downfall and schism of the Conservative party. To deal with the Irish demand of separation from the United Kingdom, Peel combined his firm approach on the rejection of home rule with a few mild allowances for the Irish.
Firstly Peel appointed the Devon Commission to investigate problems of land-holding in Ireland; this reported in 1845 yet was unsuccessful to peel’s government since there was no time to act before Peel’s administration fell14. In addition Peel also tried to please the Irish Catholics by increasing the annual government grant to Maynooth College (which trained Catholic priests) from 9000 to 26000. However this move aroused hostility amongst Peel’s protestant supporters, many of whom voted against it in Parliament, and therefore Peel had to rely on the Whig vote in order to get the bill passed in Commons.
Irish affairs had deeply divided Peel’s Conservative party, and in addition Peel had been unable to levitate some of the extreme poverty in Ireland. This was soon to be exacerbated by the Irish Potato Blight in 1845 that would leave the country on the verge of famine and bring a new urgency to the issue of the repeal of the Corn Laws. Thus one can conclude that with matter of Ireland Peel’s ministry was well meaning but unsuccessful. This is for the reason that they were not granted enough time to help the Irish question, and the action that Peel was able to take during his time in government was the main reason why Peel’s government fell from grace.
To truly measure Peel’s success one must look at Peel’s approach to the Corn Laws. At some time between 1842 and 1845 (prior to the Irish famine) Peel had made up his mind that the Corn Laws were not serving any useful purpose and that British farmers ought to be capable of maintaining their profits during the absence of the Corn Laws as long as they modernised their methods of farming. Peel had come to this conclusion via the persuasive arguments the Anti Corn Law League provided during parliament as well as his own logic.16 However Peel’s problem was that the Conservative party had pledged to keep the Corn Laws and if he issued his repeal too quickly he was in danger of infuriating the landowners and splitting the party.
Therefore he hoped to gradually to prepare the party for the repeal the Laws and allow the country to decide whether or not it was a good idea at the subsequent general election of 1848. Nevertheless in 1845 the Irish peasants were struck by a blighted potato harvest which left the poor facing starvation. Peel tried to relieve this problem by distributing 16000 worth of American maize to be sold cheaply to the Irish, yet this sold quickly and did little to alleviate the suffering. In addition to the Irish crop fail, crop failures in all of the UK were occurring and thus Peel was forced into fast tracking the repeal of the Corn Laws.
This decision was not meet amicably within the Conservative Party and several members accused Peel of betraying his party again as he had done over Catholic Emancipation since many did not believe that the situation in Ireland warranted this reaction. Consequently the repeal of the act destroyed Peel and split the party and left the Conservatives out of government until 1866. In conclusion the success of Peel’s confrontation with the Corn Laws often leads to large historical debates. This is because in one way they show Peel as a successful statesman as he upheld the needs of the people before party politics, yet in another light Peel can be viewed as an unsuccessful Conservative party man since this act contradicted the conservative principal of protecting the Landed’s interest.
To conclude Peel’s political career was full of striking achievements, first as Irish secretary (1812-1818), then as Home secretary (1822-1830) and finally as Prime Minister, he was able to achieve financial stability, a trade revival, and a start to solving the problems with Ireland. Peel was a truly successful statesman and believed that national interest was more important than party. This is evident in Peel’s approach to the Corn Law repeal and the way he resigned when the Conservative refused to back him on his Irish and Corn Law policies all in the name of party politics. However Peel’s success varies in the different sectors of his ministry. Peel was most successful in his approach to finance and trade and yet suffered insignificant success in his policies towards Ireland and helping the Irish. Therefore whilst it is important to recognise Peel’s administration as a successful one of its time, especially considering the state of the government Peel had to amend after the mismanagement of the Whig party, it is also equally important to acknowledge that Peel’s office was not wholly successful.