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Sir Robert Peel: The Man and the Times

Sir Vince Cable discusses Sir Robert Peel's political career and shares the story of how Peel made Britain into a champion of free trade.
Arguably, the most important British political figure in the first half of the 19th century was Sir Robert Peel. His legacy was huge. He founded the Conservative Party and he later split his party, helping to create the Liberal Party. He established the Metropolitan Police Force as we know it today, and he made a decisive shift in economic policy by abolishing the Corn Laws, allowing Britain to become a champion of free trade. For someone famous now as a great reformer, an economic revolutionary, and a hero of working people, the early part of his political career, which stretched from 1809, when he was elected to Parliament at age 21, to 1860, when he died in a riding accident, was unpromising.
As Home Secretary and a leading Tory, he was deeply reactionary even by the rather undemanding standards of that time, when the British ruling class, and in particular the Tory governments in which Peel served, were haunted by the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. He was born in Bury in 1788, rich and privileged, the grandson of one of Britain’s first large-scale Lancashire cotton textile manufacturers. When the family moved to Tamworth in the West Midlands, he inherited what had become the family seat in parliament as a Tory. His intelligence and debating skills earned him rapid promotion. He first made his mark as Home Secretary from 1822 to 1830.
And he’s remembered now for establishing the first professional police force in London, Peelers, they were called, and for what would now be called evidence-based decision making using experts. This led to reform of the criminal justice system, eliminating hundreds of capital offences and of prisons, including the payment of gaolers who otherwise earned a living from bribes from prisoners. He justified these measures on efficiency rather than humanitarian grounds and was part of a modernising group of Tories who were, in present day language, economically rather than socially liberal. Indeed, he was socially and politically highly conservative, strongly opposed to attempts to widen the franchise.
He was obstructive of attempts to abolish slavery, as indeed, was one of his acolytes Gladstone, strongly favouring the use of force to suppress industrial unrest and peaceful demonstrations. And a fierce opponent of Catholic emancipation, which led to his nickname Orange Peel, though he later did a u-turn on this issue. He was very briefly prime minister before an election in 1835. The Tamworth Manifesto, which preceded that election, defined his future philosophy and effectively launched today’s Conservative Party. A split had opened up in the Tories between the die hards, the so-called “ultras”, and the more moderate modernising group with which he aligned himself.
The modernising group included two young ambitious politicians who were to dominate the latter half of the century, Gladstone and Disraeli. The Tories, under Peel’s leadership, gained seats in 1835, ‘37, and ‘41 when Peel formed the new government, and that administration is now regarded as one of the great reforming governments, somewhat at odds with Peel’s early reactionary reputation. The government machine was modernised. Legislation was passed prohibiting women and children working underground in the mines. The Factory Act limited working hours also for women and children. Cheap and regular rail services were instituted. Peel also introduced income tax, cut import duties, and reformed the banks.
The defining achievement of his administration, however, was the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had been introduced in the form of duties on imported grain to protect the interests of agriculture and particularly the large country landlords, many of them aristocratic, absentee owners. Until that point, Peel had never seemed particularly partial to the free trade movement, which had gathered strength by campaigning on behalf of the industrial working class and buttressed by fashionable economic ideas from Ricardo and others dating back to Adam Smith. But his hand was forced by the great Irish potato famine which began in 1846, heralded by rocketing food prices in Ireland. Now the established view was that it would be wrong to interfere with market forces.
The poor should starve. The ideas of Malthus reinforced the religious view that famine was ordained by God, and that overpopulation inevitably, and actually quite rightly, had to be curbed. On the opposite radical wing end of the political spectrum, the argument for doing nothing was that intervention would come from the idle, exploitative, absentee landlords, whom they saw as the cause of the problem. And this coalition could easily have prevailed had Peel not been moved to act. Peel rejected the advice to do nothing and secretly ordered the 100,000 pounds worth of grain from the United States, which temporarily brought relief.
He then mobilised support in Parliament from a third of the Tories, Irish MPs, and some so-called Manchester radicals to repeal the Corn Laws. By splitting his party, he ended his own career and had to resign. In the short run, the Irish derived little benefit, since potato blight added to the seriousness of crop failure, and the succeeding Whig administration did little to help. A million died, and a million more emigrated out of Ireland’s 8 million population. The long term consequences were, however, profound. The terms of trade shifted towards industrial workers, as free trade boosted the value of their wages via cheap bread and other affordable goods. Britain became the champion of industrial modernisation through free trade.
And the Great Exhibition of 1851, organised by Prince Albert and visited by 6 million people, was a symbol of this new world that Britain dominated. Politically, the Peelite rebels, which included future prime ministers Aberdeen, Palmerstone, and Gladstone morphed into the new Liberal Party. Disraeli remained a Tory bitterly opposed to the new trade policy and beginning decades of rivalry with Gladstone. No party, however, dared to challenge the new free trade orthodoxy, and it has held to this present day.

Sir Robert Peel is famous today as a great reformer, economic revolutionary, and hero of the working people. However, there is little from his early career that would have foreshadowed this reputation.

In the film, Sir Vince Cable explores Sir Robert Peel’s life and career. He discusses how Peel served in the government in various positions including Home Secretary. Peel was also quite involved in party politics founding the Conservative Party and eventually becoming Prime Minister.

Today, Peel is most famous for abolishing the Corn Laws and making Britain a champion of free trade. While this is certainly true, Vince discusses how in many ways Peel’s hand was forced by the great Irish ‘potato famine.’ Throughout British economic and political history, the issue of ‘free trade’ versus ‘protectionism’ has reverberated but more often than not free trade’ has prevailed.

Please discuss in the comments which way you think this debate is leaning today. Should a country open itself up to free trade with other countries around the world or is it better to protect one’s own industries?

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The Politics of Economics and the Economics of Politicians

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