Robert Peel was born in 1788 in Bury Lancashire. He was an MP at 21 and was soon known as the rising star of the Tory party. He was the first notable MP to come from an industrial family. His first job was as a secretary to Ireland, then he moved to the Home Office and had two terms as Prime Minister.
Robert Peel was a grammar school boy, who modernised the Tory party as the country changed from an agricultural economy and adjusted to the industrial revolution. Britain had become the powerhouse of the world. His first job in Parliament was as a secretary in Ireland. He would witness first-hand the poverty and the overpopulation that would allow the potato famine to ravish the country 25 years later.
He was the rising star and quickly became the deputy to his mentor and Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington. He took over at the Home Office and did outstanding work at modernising the British legal system. He created the Metropolitan Police Force in London which greatly reduced crime. He reduced the number of crimes that attracted the death penalty, consolidated criminal law into a sensible system, paid jailers and educated prisoners.
Gradually he would take over from Wellington, and he had the chance of the premiership in 1834, but he did not have the seats to stay in power. He announced the Tamworth Manifesto, that defined the modern Conservative Party. He remained in opposition until 1941, when he did get the chance to be Prime Minister.
Having a workable majority, he got to work passing modern legislation. The factory’s act was a vital piece of work for health and safety of the new industrial workforce. He also improved conditions and working hours, especially for children. He regulated mines and railways which were expanding greatly at the time.
In 1841, he inherited a growing national debt. Reinstituting an income tax of 3%, he started to reduce import tariffs. He was a firm believer in free trade, but was unable to put much legislation through parliament due to the influence of the landed gentry, who were agriculturalists.
Peel was an opponent of Catholic emancipation and often came up against Irish leader Daniel O’Connell. Or though it is said they never met, they nearly had a duel when younger. He did appear to have a bias against the Irish, but it is hard to tell. Often in the commons he would take a traditional Conservative stance, then reverse his position and promote liberal reform.
There are times in Government when not a lot happens, and there are times when small decisions can have dramatic events. The important thing is to have someone with ability in power to make the right moves. His time came in 1946 with the Irish Potato famine was claiming many lives, action needed to be taken. Many MP’s, Peel included, doubted reports of mass starvation a few hundred miles away. But Peel took the opportunity. He used the famine as a pretext for repealing the Corn Laws. They imposed tariffs on foreign grain imports, therefore protecting the profits of the landed gentry with their agricultural power base. Bread was the staple diet and removing these laws would allow cheaper flour to the working people, most of whom did not have the vote. Peel’s main aim was to promote free trade, the traditional Tory MP’s were not happy and voted against him, thus splitting the party and losing power. There is a suggestion that Peel knew his time was short and wanted to promote a liberal agenda for the future.
The upshot was that the Whigs helped pass the Bill, the people had cheaper bread and hailed Peel as a hero, Peel and the Tories were out of office, free trade was promoted, but the Irish who were supposed to benefit did not. They needed free food, not cheap food. It is estimated that one million starved and another million emigrated. The staple diet of the Irish agricultural worker was the potato and nothing else. The blight killed all spuds and there was nothing left but charity. Western Ireland was devastated.
Peel promoted measures such as imported Indian Corn, work houses and infrastructure projects to allow people to earn money. But these were not properly instituted by the incoming laissez faire Whigs.
The great tragedy of Ireland in the 1840’s was that it could have been prevented. Peel had Irish experience and maybe could have done more. By using the famine, a context for his own agenda, he may have been disingenuous. Another great tragedy was that Daniel O’Connell strength was fading and he was soon to pass away. He promoted the same ideas Peel had. Whose ideas they really were, we don’t know, it does not matter. Tragedy struck Ireland as in the past as it would in the future.
The truth is not easy to get at. Peel was not a great man of principle, not as much as Pitt. He argued from both sides of an issue, but he got things done. He pushed through a lot of important legislation for Britain, like no other politician before or since. But like many Irish myths, we can never know the truth. What was his motivation, there is no point in wondering what might have been?
The lesson from history is if you can be a legislator like Peel, grasp the opportunity with full force and get it done. But if you are not really represented by your politicians, you must get elected, and do it yourself.
God bless Robert Peel, and may God save Ireland.