Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet (1788-1850), was a British Conservative politician who served as Prime Minister in 1834-35 and again from 1841 to 1846. He played the central role in organizing the Conservative Party in the 1830s; they were popularly called "Tories".
As Home Secretary he organized Britain's first modern police force, the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829 (to this day police officers are sometimes known as 'Bobbies' in his honor, and as 'Peelers' in Ireland). Peel had to change his early opposition to Catholic emancipation and the redress of Irish economic grievances (at great political cost to him in England).
In 1846, as Prime Minister, the economy was by far Peel's major concern, since it included Irish problems, the budget, and the Corn Laws. He secured repealed the protectionist 'Corn Laws', which restricted the import of grain. The new policy enabled the importation of cheap foreign grain and caused a fall in the price of bread, but at the price of alienating his powerful landowning supporters. When repeal of the Corn Laws destroyed the Tory Party, he proved unable to create a nonpartisan government.
Gash (1961, 1972) presented Peel as a leader who recognised the wisdom of appealing to the urban middle class as well as to the landowning class and the farmers; he argued that Peel, as a pragmatic administrator and a natural consensus politician, was the founder of modern Conservatism. However Boyd Hilton has argued that – far from being a pragmatist – Peel was a doctrinaire leader with an inelastic mind who was unwilling or unable to compromise on his views.
Scholars have advanced several explanations to resolve the puzzle of why Peel undertook the seemingly irrational decision to sacrifice his government to repeal the Corn Laws, a policy which he had long opposed. His actions were sensible, however, when viewed in the context of his concern for preserving aristocratic government and a limited franchise in the face of threats from popular unrest. Lusztig (1995) argues that Peel was primarily concerned with preserving the institutions of government, and he viewed reform as an occasional necessary evil. He acted to check the expansion of democracy by ameliorating conditions which could provoke democratic agitation. He also took care to assure that concessions would represent no threat to the British constitution.
Newbould (1983) rejects the view that Peel's hard work and skillful leadership after passage of the Reform Act of 1812 was responsible for the Conservative victory in 1841. This view, put forward at the time by Peel and others, credited Peel for transforming the Tory party from a factionist party in disarray into a moderate group committed to the Tamworth manifesto for deliberate reform and cautious change. Thus, the 1841 election victory was the reward for the decade of work that strengthened his position at the expense of the ultra-Tories within the transformed party, which now appealed to a wider electorate. On the contrary, rather than building a new party, Peel failed to broaden the base of Conservative support and to hold the ultra-Tories in line. Conservatives made most of their gains in 1841 in the counties and small English boroughs where the traditional issues of corn and the Church were paramount. The Poor Law question and factory reform were also important in achieving victory. These were the very questions on which Peel gave support to the Whig government during most of the preceding decade, but he failed to influence the Tory party enough to have his principles adopted, broaden its base, and create a truly new party.
- Gash, Norman. Mr Secretary Peel (1961); Sir Robert Peel (1972), outstanding 2 vol. scholarly biography
- Gash, Norman. Politics in the Age of Peel (1953)
- Gash, Norman. The Age of Peel (1968)
- Gash, Norman. Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics, 1832–1852 (1966)
- Read, Donald. Peel and the Victorians. (1987). 330 pp.