When Peel announced that he supported a repeal of the Corn Laws that protected the landed classes it resulted in his resignation and the split of the Conservative Party and arguably therefore Peel was the ‘founder of modern Conservatism’ (Gash). However although the issue of repeal was the main issue that delivered the final blow to the party, as R Stewart states ‘the rot had set in some years before. ‘ The Great Reform Act had created within the Conservatives a party of movement and a party of resistance.
One was a more liberal type of conservatism, which aimed to appease to prevent the spread of democracy; the other was anti catholic and protectionist, the old conservatism. It was the clash of these two groupings that led to the eventual split in the party. The split although having many causes had its roots in reform but was pushed up into the sunlight by the arrogant actions of Peel. The repeal of the corn laws, if not the major cause, was most definitely the last straw that finally split the two sides of the party; as R. Stewart describes it “for the Conservative party, repeal was a watershed.
To understand the way in which the suggestion of repeal of the corn laws by Peel led to the split in the party we must first look to the causes of the split in opinion between the those in favour of reform and the protectionists. It has been suggested by certain historians such as J. A Thomas that the split over the repeal generally was a class battle between the business and manufacturing classes who tended to favour repeal and the landed classes who tended to be against it due to the relative personal economic benefits that it would bring.
However Professor Aydelotte disputes this, removing the issue of class; although he agrees with Thomas that there were a higher proportion of votes among non-landed members than among landed for repeal. However Thomas ignores the issues of party and constituency, within the Conservative party the landed section was not proportionately more opposed than the non-landed, however the section of Conservative MPs that represented the land was, therefore it could be argued that the Tory Mps were not voting for their own interests but that of their constituencies and thus bowing to public opinion, a result of reform?
When looking at the national social and economic situations that could be argued led to the idea of repeal and thus party split, one must not ignore the Potato famine in Ireland and economic instability in certain parts of England and Scotland. They required a large amount of food at lower prices, removing the corn laws would enable this, Peels view on this can be seen in his memoirs ‘The minister who foresaw… that there would be ‘cruel distress’ in Ireland from the scarcity of food, might surely advise the removal of restrictions on its import without incurring the reproach of treason and perfidy to his party connections. However many historians have challenged the view that it was the potato famine that made Peel’s decision to push through repeal, as Boyd Hilton points out in his journal ‘Peel a reappraisal’ in which he regards the potato blight as merely a ‘pretext for repeal’ and that ‘it is clear that, some time before the first intimations of famine, repeal had emerged as an end in itself. ‘ Indeed Peel’s cabinet itself was not even convinced of the need for appeal following the potato blight.
However Peel had seemingly made his mind up and one possible reason for this could have been the popular pressure of public opinion (such as the anti corn law league), this is a likely explanation, this liberal interpretation is highlighted by Hilton who describes it as seeing Peel ‘as a slave not to intellectual fashion but public opinion. ‘ We have looked at the economic and social reasons for the differing opinions on the repeal and thus the split in the party but it is now important to look at the role the man who suggested the repeal played.
Heavy blame can be placed on Peel not only on the single issue of repeal but also on most other major issues that led to the split of the Conservative party (however these will be addressed later). The most obvious reason blame can be placed on Peel is because it was Peel who was the leader of the government who suggested the repeal, which led to the split in the party. However to really understand why Peel is so much to blame for making the issue of repeal the final straw we must look at his actions leading up to his announcement that he supported repeal.
When the Conservative government was elected to power in 1841 it was believed by most Conservative backbenchers to have been won because it and Peel pledged to maintain the Corn Laws and protect the landed class, it was the traditional Conservative doctrine. Evidence of this belief can be found at Bentick’s reaction to the election results “First let me congratulate you (he wrote to Lord Lincoln) that the country has refused to be cajoled by the latest fabrication from the workshop of Whig trickery and delusion” The ‘Whig trickery and delusion’ he spoke of was of course the case for repeal.
In fact even the Whigs believed that Peel was one hundred percent behind sustaining the Corn Laws, this can be seen in Lord Monmouth’s comment that the election of 1841 was being fought between, on one side a free trade party and on the other a protectionist one. It is clear to see from this evidence why so many members of the party felt betrayed by Peel’s apparently sudden u-turn on the issue of repeal, Bentick’s reaction clearly reflected the protectionist feeling of betrayal, describing Peel and his accomplices as ‘no better than common cheats…. politically lying and pledge breaking. Confidence in Peel was shaken so much not necessarily because he supported repeal (although of course this did play its part) but rather because of the manner in which he had seemingly committed ‘treason’ against his party and the pride in which he seemed to take in declaring he had devised his scheme of repeal without caring whether or not he would receive the support of the backbenchers. It is this arrogance and failure to look to see the future consequences of his actions that made Peel such a danger to his party and inevitably was one of the reasons the split occurred.
However there is the opinion amongst some historians that many at the time believed ‘Conservative success at the elections in 1841 derived principally from confidence which the electorate placed in Peel’s administrative ability. ‘ Indeed the Tamworth Manifesto did not mention preserving the Corn Laws or protecting agricultural or landed interests but instead spoke of preserving the integrity of the two Houses of Parliament, the Monarchy and stability; as Gash states it was a ‘constitutional and religious not a social and economic policy. Therefore the extent of Peel’s ‘betrayal’ and the extent to which he is to blame may be bought into question, although the fact remains that Peel had publicly announced his support of the Corn Laws.
As for the argument that Peel ignored his backbenchers thus causing substantial tension and eventual split; Stewart argues that since the days of Pitt there had been strain within the party between the business men of the cabinet and the squires of the backbenches. Perhaps then Peels arrogance towards the backbenchers was nothing out of the ordinary and we should be careful about how much blame we place on Peel.
However Gash makes the important point that in the days of Pitt he could afford major defeats as he had the crown to fall back upon, but by the time of Peel parliament had far more authority in making the controversial administrative decisions and therefore Peel needed the support of his party. Perhaps if Peel’s actions and attitude towards the repeal of Corn Laws had been the only way in which he acted slightly tyrannically, as some of protectionists described his actions, then the party may not have become so unstable; however it was not.
The other major issue in which Peel’s decisions contributed significantly to the split in the Tory party was the way in which he handled the situation of Catholicism and Ireland; Once again the backbenchers were left unconsulted and their opinions ignored. There was a certain tradition within the Conservative party of anti-Catholicism and attacks on the Irish, Catholicism was seen by the Anglican, protestant Conservatives to be a threat to Anglican dominance which had already been substantially weakened by Catholic Emancipation and the Great Reform Act of 1832.
The greatest example of these attacks on the Catholic Church in Ireland came from the quarterly reviews, which mounted the most extreme attacks. At first, although not joining in on the anti Irish and Catholicism, Peel and the leaders were at least ‘wise enough not to disassociate themselves from it’; this split therefore as Stewart puts it was ‘papered over’. However, it did not last, the biggest controversy was caused by the Mounoth Act, described by T. F Kebbel as ‘one of the most pitiful incidents in the whole history of Toryism. The decision by Peel to increase and make permanent a grant of money to the Catholic Irish college of Mounoth nearly split the party there and then. Peel was on such dangerous ground because anti-Catholicism was to be the nerve centre of protectionist policy, anti Catholicism was inexplicitly linked with the right of the party and the Ultras, for Peel to act as he did meant a gulf now appeared between the liberal Peelites and the anti catholic, protectionist right of the party.
The sheer unpopularity of the act can be seen through the 3000 petitions that Peel received against the act, most of which came from his own party. The disgruntlement of the right wing of the party was made worse by the fact that Peel had refused to grant money on a number of occasions to the Anglican church, for example The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
This clearly sent out a message of the declining influence of the Anglican church that it could no longer collect aid from the state by right; the fact that the Roman Catholic church on the other hand was receiving money paid for by English taxes greatly angered many Conservatives. Sir Robert Inglis went so far as to proclaim not just that this issue could result in the split of the Tory party but of the Union itself. Disraeli’s speech on the matter did more to add to the gulf that was forming within the party, describing Peel as a ‘great middleman… e is a man who bamboozles one party and plunders the other. ‘
Although this issue played an important role in if not opening, widening the gulf in the party, it is important to note that the party stayed in tact after this affair, does this then suggest that the gulf it caused was not in fact all that important? This is not the case, for as is pointed out by Stewart, the party held together during the late 1830’s and early 40’s due to a ‘common respect for and recognition of the necessity of Peel’s leadership, by the end of 1844 that bond was gone. Therefore just because the party did not ‘split’ at this point it does not make Peel’s actions here any less destructive than his actions during the repeal of the Corn Laws. One slightly longer-term factor that must be taken into consideration for which Peel is not quite so responsible for is the effect that the Great Reform Act and growing liberalism played on the party. Certainly the party had changed since the Reform Act, proof of this lies in the posts held by the Ultras and those on the far right of the party such as Graham and Lord Staley who held minor positions.
Anna Gambles brings up the idea that the reform had resulted in a ‘modernised Conservatism which had adapted to the reform act of 1832 against a protectionist alternative. ‘ Certainly it can be argued that Peel represented this more liberal type of Conservatism, who just as the Whigs had advocated reform to prevent revolution and democracy so to Peel and his liberal Tories saw free trade as ‘a necessary concession to new interests in society, a concession which would save the aristocracy from an outright radical assault. Here the knock on effects of the Reform Act can clearly be seen, the ‘new interests in society’ being those newly enfranchised middle class men.
However others such as the Duke of Richmond saw repeal as a further step towards democracy ‘I ask you, will they stop here?… It is the first step; they feel that it is the yeomanry of England that stand between them and the democratic principles which they wish to carry out. As Gambles rightly suggests after the Great Reform Act protectionism ‘gained new significance as an economic instrument with which governments could represent and balance propertied interests with the reformed constitution. ‘ It was for the right of the party the last great barrier against the reform act protecting the landed classes; it is therefore no wonder they fought so passionately if helplessly to defend it. Just as during the great debate around the reform act had caused splits in the party in 1832, these same splits were re-emerging but were also more apparent.
The question raised by the influence of the reform act is whether or not a Conservative party is justified in carrying out changes it has already resisted; is Peel justified in going back on his policies? It raises the question of whether Peel did betray his party because of a lack of intelligence as Disraeli so often attacked him for, a lack of seeing the future consequences of his actions therefore making Peel mostly responsible for the split in the conservative party or was it in fact a well thought out adaptation to the constitution to prevent revolution and protect the landed classes?
Peel was an opportunist, a number of historians agree with this view such as Anna Ramsay, however Peel’s great weakness was his arrogance and failure to see future consequences of his actions made him the solely most important factor in the split of the Conservative party. The way In which he acted was at times despotic even tyrannical, not only on the issues of corn and Ireland but on numerous other occasions such as the attempt by parliament to reduce the working hours in factories, the act was passed but Peel threatened to resign and thus the act was reversed.
Peel could have and did get away with acting in this way many a number of times but his failure was that he did not know when to stop his ever increasing liberal actions that to his colleagues on the backbenches smacked of democracy. Peel and the liberal Tories were children of the reform of parliament, the reformed Tories, the problem was that the rest of the party took a reactionary approach to the reform act, one that Peel foolishly thought he could ignore.
Would the Conservative party have split without then potato famine and other economic factors leading up to the repeal? Yes, would it have split without the actions of Peel? Eventually yes, as rot had already set in before Peel came to office but it is unlikely it would have happened so soon.