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‘An appetite for detailed reform’
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