The Peel Web
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In 1846, following the repeal of the Corn Laws, Sir Robert Peel resigned as Prime Minister. He had stood for election in 1841 on a platform of maintaining the Corn Laws: this was the third time he had changed his political stance. The first time was over Catholic Emancipation (1829) and again in 1832 over the Reform Act. This third shift was too much for some Conservative MPs, one of whom wrote this attack on the PM.
There is no question which he has handled, on which he has not run us aground. What can we say of our future voyage, when in past times our pilot has so failed us? We once thought this was owing to want of experience, to be corrected by years and adversity. We were wrong. It is owing to the defects of his mind and of his character, defects which strengthen with years. His course has been always the same. He fancies that he looks ahead: the truth is, that he sticks to his course till the soundings tell him that he is on the sands; then, in haste and alarm, he throws his cargo in one moment overboard. He took this course on Emancipation. He was the champion of the Protestants; No surrender, was his cry. He stuck to this whilst opinions changed, and objections grew, and he languidly defended a cause which in his soul he had deserted. Then on a sudden loomed the breakers; the Clare election; the terror (quite unfounded) of a disaffected army and an Irish rebellion. Instantly, without a pause, helm about, and the whole cargo, the professions of a life, were cleared at a blow. So it was on Reform: not a point would he concede, not a member to Birmingham, not a representative to Manchester: then, defeated, (for there, it is due to him to say, he met defeat), he made a total change, every principle recast and turned upside down, to suit, as he thinks, a new world.
Look, lastly, at his conduct on the Corn-laws... At first, he was the high protectionist; agricultural protection was essential to land, to labour, and to trade. This doctrine he preached from 1815 to 1830, earnestly and loudly... In 1837 he was its advocate: he fought the fight in 1838, 1839, and 1840; he clenched it, as we have shown, in 1841. He made a new law of protection in 1842. Is he the advocate of protection still? Read the speeches which he and Sir James Graham delivered on 10th of June last ... Read the remarks of the Birmingham meeting delivered whilst we write. What do they all say of Sir Robert Peel’s views of protection? That they are gone; that the game is up; that protective duties are to be abandoned. All his arguments that protection was essential to the farmer; that it was needful to be independent of foreign supply; that if we let in cheap corn, worse soils would be abandoned farmers ruined, and labourers expelled; that it was by protection that tillage climbed the hill, and ran into the vale; that from protection arose the smiling hamlet and the thriving farm: all these statements made, dwelt upon, repeated with the dexterity of a first-rate debater and the authority of a party leader, enforced with the utmost seriousness, as if he really felt and believed them, are gone, absolutely gone!
It shows us that the Prime Minister is prepared to throw overboard every principle on pressure; it warns us, that no faith can be placed on his past assurances; that no trust can be reposed in his general principles; that his policy is the work of chance and pressure, and that, if occasion serves, he will give up every institution in England... The man who abandons principle, betrays his cause... He says that you must respect existing prejudices, and not shake existing institutions. But there is no such respect. The opponent attacks them with vigour; the leader of the defence is silent; his followers are afraid to speak; the tactique prevails; silence is observed. The public note it. They suppose that laws and institutions which are not defended, have no good defence. Then comes an excitement, and the demand for change: and then the same man who has been silent through cowardice, obeys the calls from terror, declares that the pressure is irresistible, and carries the revolution. And this his friends call wisdom.
J. C. Colquhoun M.P., 'The Effects of Sir R. Peel’s Administration on the Political State and Prospects of England', in The English Review, December, l845.
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