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on 14 March 2014
‘Robert Peel’ (2007) by Douglas Hurd is an excellent example of a biography; I think, in this case but not universally, there are four reasons for such success.. He has mastered the sources, he is experienced in the world of politics, he writes well and he likes/respects Robert Peel. I should add the illustrations are most apt for conveying the picture of one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers in his surroundings.
Douglas Hurd has clearly read widely both secondary sources (especially N. Gash) and primary (e.g. personal letters between Peel and his wife). His judgements are sound, although I think he may under-value people who did not get on with Peel such as Canning, Russell and Disraeli. He clearly appreciates the contribution to History of the steady workers like his hero but re’ Canning he states: ‘A man... may fascinate and charm. He may draw to himself devoted followers and a great verdict from history; but he will find it more difficult to transact daily business than a man with fewer talents who has earned greater trust’ (94). A case of tortoise vs. hare, perhaps.
Douglas Hurd writes well with carefully constructed sentences and balanced arguments. His style is lively rather than ‘academic’ – perhaps because he’s written several thrillers. It is certainly a history book one can sit and enjoyably read for hours at a sitting. In his final paragraphs he argues for the subtle and anticipatory influence of Peel in the workings of the modern world: and yet he was last British Prime Minister NOT to be photographed. Perhaps our hearts may sometimes out-stretch our judgement.
Before starting this review I googled Douglas Hurd. It is clear that Hurd likes Peel, perhaps because they share certain traits – both made careful, balance judgements; both were Conservatives but open to ‘advanced policies’ such reform of the Anglican Church (Peel) or reducing the prison population (Hurd); both proved ready to change stances on certain issues – the author argues this potential requirement produces the calumny of politicians using ‘weasel-words’; both were prepared to work very hard and both did very well at university. The author is quite prepared to soft-pedal Peel’s use of ‘rotten boroughs’ to obtain a Parliamentary seat but trumpets his willingness to reform such as a matter of principle. He honours Peel’s idea of ‘constructive opposition’ – missing out one intriguing contrast between then and now: c. 1830 individuals could switch parties to support ideas whereas today the public find it hard to distinguish between policies of parties which retain a rigid membership. He may criticise some of Peel’s building ideas at Drayton but he admires his energy in tackling the construction of two homes during his marriage. Hurd was a Foreign Secretary but Peel was never that, although as PM, largely acting through his Foreign Secretary ((Lord Aberdeen), he sorted out disputes with the USA about boundaries and slave shipments and managed to preserve an ‘entente cordiale’ with France.
Hurd deals with the personal life of his subject in some detail – his relationship with his father, his love and devotion for his wife, Julia, and their family and His PERSONAL interaction with contemporaries such as Wellington and Croker. However, I consider this work could be aptly sub-titled a ‘Political Biography’ because Peel and Hurd served in Ireland and the Home Office, were involved in Commissions into the Church of England and have a close interest in the treatment of crime in our society. Of course there are differences – Peel was never Foreign Secretary and Hurd was never Prime Minister (though he tried to succeed Margaret Thatcher in 1990). Even so, what really fascinates me is how Douglas Hurd weaves into the book analogies / comparisons with recent history – remember Peel died in 1850. So in describing the continued terror inspired by the French Revolution decades before felt by several politicians he states how in McCarthy-dominated 50’s USA many had to be assured that ‘not all American problems could be blamed on Communism’ (P.67). A more trenchant comment is delivered when describing corruption in Irish politics c. 1820: ‘Politicians... are tempted to exchange something they have for something they want. In politics this is called corruption. In recent governments with low standards, such as those of Lloyd George and Blair, the focus has been on allegations that honours...... have been given in return for party funding’(P29). Occasionally he makes a very shrewd point such as that in 1841 less than half the constituencies were contested ‘but this was not a sign of apathy. Today parties aim to fight just about every seat. They are interested in the total number of votes cast.... in 1841 the parties were only interested in winnable seats...’ (P.220).
Perhaps the author’s attitude and treatment of his subject is summed up by his describing an ‘appetite for detailed reform’ (P. 252) as being behind the achievements of Peel. Certainly by ‘detailed’ Peel would have rested on his words in the Tamworth Manifesto issued in 1934 and considered a founding document of the Conservative Party); this stated an aim of ‘a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical undertaken in a friendly manner, combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances’. Even so, the devil may well lie in the words ‘friendly’, ‘proved’ and ‘real’.
Peel stayed true to his principles, even though it may have taken time for him to link them with ‘difficult decisions’. In Paisley in 1841 he was confronted by financial collapse and set about combating the resulting hardship and rebuilding financial security by PRIVATE intervention (even recruiting the Queen to help). A strong belief in the need for order led to his founding the Metropolitan Police (1829) and to his resisting the Chartists with their political demands for universal male suffrage etc. and O’Connell’s Repeal Association as steps too far, As a reformer he re-introduced income tax at 7d in the £ (2.92%) in 1842, organised much of the modern financial system by the Bank Charter Act (1844), tried unsuccessfully to conciliate the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland by the Maynooth Bill and first cut (1842) and then repealed (1846) the Corn Laws. By such activity he attracted Disraeli’s comment that ‘he caught the Whigs a-bathing and stole their clothes’ – a comment more usually applied now to Disraeli himself and the Second Reform Act (1867).Revengeful Protectionists joined Whigs to bring down the Government by rejecting on 26 June 1846 the Irish Life and Property and ‘the emperor was without his army’ (Disraeli qu. P.368)
Peel had his weaknesses. His prolonged reconsideration of position earned the barb of being a rat regarding Catholic Emancipation (1829)and much worse was hurled during the collapse of his ministry in 1846. ‘Compared with born orators like O’Connell or Disraeli, Peel was clumsy in his handling of general concepts’ (P.321) – almost a certain disaster in our age of sound-bite and media hype. ‘Peel was saved from his chilly self-righteousness by the relentless working of an honest mind; facts and figures were the fuel which drove it’(P. 389)
In sum, Robert Peel virtually created the modern Conservative Party out of Toryism, but by pushing for reform (so necessary in hindsight) almost destroyed it.
An excellent account, easily worth 6
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 13 December 2013
Robert Peel, born in 1788, and who died in 1850 was a remarkable British politician. His father was a rich textile manufacturer at the time of the early industrial revolution, and was determined to give his son a proper education and the right start in life. Peel became Home Secretary in 1822 and spent some years in the unique environment at the time in Ireland. He was Prime Minister from 1834 to 1835, and again from 1841 to 1846. His reforms created a political system more like the one the British people live with today, somewhat removed from the aristocratic influence and royal nominations.

His political world seemed to be filled largely with issues of Ireland, Catholic Emancipation, electoral reform, Corn Law, tariffs, Chartists, police and law and order, currency and Bank reform, the blossoming British Empire, relations with America and France. In particular, the disaster of the Irish potato famine filled his last years as Prime Minister with difficult debates and decisions. Coupled with the looming threat in his later political years posed by Disraeli and in particular over the Corn Law repeals through 1845 and 1846, Peel retired from politics as a man who had largely fulfilled his political purpose, but was often nearly broken in body and spirit over the hard road he set for himself.

His family was always paramount and never far from his mind; a loving husband and father, he committed as much of his time and energies as he could to family life. Peel was considered by many to be a strange stand-offish man; described by the young Queen Victoria as a "cold, odd man" he was the master of detail, but never the master of wit and scathing oratory like his later political opponent Disraeli. His sad death when he was perhaps at the height of his personal happiness reflected the great good he had done to his country in the national mourning that followed it.

Robert Peel was a Conservative, a Christian and an English patriot who strove to do what he believed was right for the resolution of the "condition of England". A remarkable man, and this biography serves to offer him to a modern reader in a very empathetic and honest light. Peel was not without his faults, by any means, but he honestly strove to do what was right for his country according to his beliefs as they stood. This book is a great read, and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey of Robert Peel, the man and his times.
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on 5 January 2014
"...He Founded The Modern Conservative Party.."

Which is why reading about him is so important of course, particularly if one likes politics and law and like me Administrative Law.

I must say that if one wants to know about early Conservative Party History then this is the book. Due to the fact that it covers the modern state's relationship with the Tories and vice versa I would advise one to read it as a preferred text if one really wants to know how our modern society was forged. For example, how often have we heard that the Tories are still as divided on Europe as they were on The Corn Laws. I knew very little about the Corn Laws until I read this text let alone how to put them in their historical context and that repealing them effectively brought about Peel's downfall'.

From the book:

"Peel was strongly moved by concern for what was called 'the condition of the people'.... The Chartists looked for an answer in radical political change, Lord Shaftesbury pressed for social legislation to improve working conditions. Marx and Engels out of their research hatched the theories of Communism. Disraeli toyed with the romantic notions of Young England. But Peel was the man who acted. "

But it was not just the Corn Laws that moved Peel to act upon. It was Criminal Law in general (among a long list of other concerns)

Now what modern politician would have such principles... Errrm yes I like you am still awaiting the answer.

Not By Accident Is This So Well Written by Douglas Hurd a master in my opinion of Political Biography.

Read it an enjoy it. I did.
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on 8 September 2015
Yes, like an earlier reviewer, I bought this book in the hopes of blowing away fifty years of fog surrounding the Corn Laws and their famous Repeal. And it succeeds admirably. It's always said that the hardest thing for authors is to write a book that is easy to read. If so, Douglas Hurd must have really exerted himself to write such a clear, concise but detailed, delightfully easy book about an increasingly sidelined politician.
I also enjoyed his very apposite modern parallels. Very enjoyable and informative. But one niggle: one reviewer particularly praises the illustrations, yet my new paperback had no illustrations at all! What were the publishers thinking of?
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on 23 May 2015
A very informative account of Peel's life and politics in a very readable prose, which I recommend to anyone interested in this person and period. I knew little about Robert Peel before, but now have a better understanding of the greatness of this unassuming man.
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on 31 August 2010
I know little about history or politics: I wanted to learn more about 19th century Britain and I thought that a political biography would be a good way of doing it. I do not support the Conservatives so I was apprehensive about trying a biography by a Tory about a Tory but I decided to trust the Amazon reviews and I am glad that I did.

I was pleasantly surprised by both the depth of Hurd's research and his objectivity when presenting his findings - he didn't try to thrust a Conservative viewpoint and highlighted Peel's weaknesses as well as his achievements. Many people of the time considered the man to be aloof and I thought that the author showed all kinds of skill in presenting the human interactions in a natural way; Queen Victoria's gradual warming towards Peel is just one example. Hurd drew some interesting links between problems that Peel was having to confront and parallels in modern times, using his own political experience to highlight, at a general level, some of the issues that need to be considered by politicians (of all parties) today; Ireland was one topic that has a very strong link to modern times and I thought that the author covered the subject in a detailed yet meaningful way. Flashes of humour made the book easy to read and Peel is now definitely on my list of 'interesting' people.

I finished this book understanding a lot more about the massive changes that have taken place in our political system during the last 200 years. You do not have to be a historian to enjoy reading this well written book.
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on 6 September 2012
Peel was a hero of mine at school many years ago and I was hoping that Douglas Hurd would find some new and interesting things to say. If he has I have largely missed them.

This is an adequate conventional history of an exceptionally interesting period in our constitutional history but in my view no more than that. Relating Peel and his contemporaries to Thatcher, Blair et al was probably clever at the time (and no doubt a selling point promoted by the publisher) but seems rather dated now (2012). I did not get the impression that Mr Hurd knew intimately what happened in-between which makes it read a little strangely. I could have saved a lot of time by just reading Wikipedia.

The book seems old-fashioned in its style and presentation, but then I am not a Tory and find the smug clubbiness of Harrow and Eton a bit much to take in the era of Cameron and Johnson.
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on 7 August 2015
Well written and researched book and helpful to understand the life and times in England when Peel was PM. Enjoyed it.
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on 22 January 2014
Enjoyable account of Peel's life from someone who is clearly an admirer. A nice easy read as well. Good book!
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on 15 November 2010
With his own background as a senior politician Douglas Hurd is the ideal biographer for Robert Peel who was the founder of the modern Conservative party and an excellent example of compassionate Conservatism. Though he initially resisted change - he was against voting reform and made a reputation as a hardliner in Irish affairs - he came to be a major supporter of Catholic emancipation and of course masterminded the repeal of the Corn Laws. The latter split the Conservative party for which many have not forgiven him but Hurd's excellent biography shows that Peel was a balanced and thoughtful politician.

Hurd writes well and he has researched his subject thoroughly. A very good read.
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