The Peel Web

I am happy that you are using this web site and hope that you found it useful. Unfortunately, the cost of making this material freely available is increasing, so if you have found the site useful and would like to contribute towards its continuation, I would greatly appreciate it. Click the button to go to Paypal and make a donation.


The Conservative Party was, to some extent, the continuation of the old Tory Party, members of which began forming "conservative associations" after the 1832 Reform Act. John Wilson Croker, writing in the Quarterly Review on 1 January 1830 first used the name "Conservative" as a description of the party. At this point in time, the Duke of Wellington was the leader of the Tories in parliament: it might be said, therefore, that he was the first leader of the Conservatives. Certainly he spoke of a partie conservateur - a "conserving party": it is interesting that he chose to use the French term rather than an English equivalent.

Conservatism as expounded by Sir Robert Peel was based on Tory traditions built up under Lord Liverpool: defence of Crown, Church and Constitution. Defence of the constitution meant

Conservatism was Toryism but using different tactics. Professor Norman Gash ("The Earl of Liverpool", in The Prime Ministers) maintains that: 'The work of Peel's great ministry of 1841-46 ... can only be appreciated when it is seen as a conscious resumption of the principles and policies initiated in 1819-27'. Toryism was a commitment to strong government: it defended "our settled institutions in Church and State". Peel's continued belief in this commitment is reflected in his comment:

'The question only is - what, in a certain state of public opinion, and in a certain position of society, is the most effectual way of maintaining the legitimate influence and authority of a territorial aristocracy'.

There is no support here for parliamentary reform and Peel resisted Whig proposals for a Reform Bill to the bitter end. Also, support for the Anglican Church was the life-blood of Toryism, which therefore implied opposition to Catholic Emancipation on principle because it would destroy the constitutional supremacy of the Anglican Church. However, by 1830 there were some Tories who accepted the need for change and once convinced that change was necessary, would do something. These men were known as Peelites but ultimately became the core of the Conservative Party.

After Wellington's resignation in November 1830 the Tories set about transforming themselves into an opposition party. They stopped being the party of the Crown, and thus robbed themselves of one of their articles of faith. They also changed their name to "Conservative". The key event in the formation of Peel's Conservatism was the 1832 Reform Act. In March 1831 Peel opened his attack on the Bill and maintained his opposition until the Act passed into law. However, Peel's rapid acceptance of parliamentary reform as a fait accompli and his distancing himself from the Ultras was important. Norman Gash (Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics) says that: 'substantially the foundations for the Victorian two-party system were laid by the divisions of politicians into Reformers and Conservatives over the Bill of 1831'.

"Conservative" was becoming the normal name for Peel's followers and implied for Peel a less narrow and dogmatic party than the Tories had been before 1830. It did not mean any desertion of the fundamental political principles of his earlier years, which were the bedrock of Peel's "new" Conservatism. In a speech in 1838 Peel stated that

By Conservative principles I mean ... the maintenance of the Peerage and Monarchy - the continuance of the just powers and attributes of King, Lords and Commons in this country ... By Conservative principles I mean that, coexistent with equality of civil rights and privileges, there shall be an established religion and imperishable faith and that established religion shall maintain the doctrines of the Protestant Church ... By Conservative principles, I mean ... the maintenance, defence and continuance of those laws, those institutions, that society, and those habits and manners, which have contributed to and mould and form the character of Englishmen.

The need for strong government to "conserve" the fundamental institutions of Britain was imperative, given the strength of radicalism at that time. After 1832 Peel's problem was to make the Conservative Party attractive and acceptable to Whigs who were not prepared to remain as radicals but who were still reformers, without alienating the traditional Tory core of his own following: he found the former easier to do than the latter. The foundations of Conservative recovery after their disastrous election campaign of 1832 began with the movement of reformers across the floor of the House of Commons to join the Conservative opposition. Consequently Peel began to

As Peel wrote to Goulburn in 1833

I think such a party acting with firmness and restraint ... will soon find in the circumstances a bond of Union and will ultimately gain the confidence of Property and good sense of the Country.

Many of the Whig reformers were afraid of the extremism of the Radicals who seemed to have an undue influence on the government. Peel set out his thoughts concerning the future of the Conservative Party in a letter to Goulburn on 3 January 1833. Peel believed that the constitution had been subverted in 1832 and that a strong executive was needed for the prevention of anarchy: this was Conservatism. Since the Radicals heavily influenced the Whigs, Peel felt it to be his duty to support the moderate Whigs. Consequently, the Conservatives supported the

This was consistent with Peel's belief, set out in a Memorandum on 4 July 1837:

'The recourse to faction of temporary alliances with extreme opinions for the purpose of faction, is not reconcilable with Conservative opposition'.

Peel used the Tory majority in the House of Lords as a brake on Whig legislation, but had to rely on Wellington to keep the Lords in line. In his Private Papers in 1837 Peel noted:

'Few people can judge the difficulty there has frequently been of maintaining harmony between the various branches of the Conservative Party - the great majority in the House of Lords and the minority in the House of Commons consisting of very different elements that had been in open conflict within a recent period'.

Peel also tried to widen the basis of Conservative support beyond the aristocracy, country gentry and Anglican clergy and get into the ranks of the middle class. This was the message of the Tamworth Manifesto.

After 1832, Peel adopted a more practical and positive style of Conservatism. Peel was the leader of the Conservative Party from 1832 to 1846; he gave the party strong and effective leadership between 1832 and 1841. He was a skilful parliamentarian and PM in due course. Between 1832 and 1841 Conservative MPs progressed from disunity, demoralisation and impotence to unity, confidence and dominating strength. Peel made the Conservative party coherent and united. He is seen by Gash as the "founder of modern Conservatism". However, if Peel destroyed his party in 1846, he destroyed his own handiwork. He twice "betrayed" his followers. Still, the cohesiveness of such a large party in opposition was a remarkable development, even though in 1851 Disraeli argued that Peel was not the real creator of the Conservative Party. So far as reorganisation of the party after 1830 is concerned there is little evidence for crediting Peel with it.

Peel's basic policy was the "maintenance of our settled institutions in Church and State" - i.e. opposition to further political reform - and the defence of the Anglican Church. Both implied strong government, even under the Whigs, to defeat radicalism, Dissent and the Irish. It did not rule out moderate reform. Progressive policies were aimed at widening the basis of Conservative support in the middle class urban areas by moderation in opposition. His success as party leader (Gash) has been questioned by Newbould, who says Peel's attempts to win over the middle class were largely a failure.

After the General election of 1841 Peel said:

'If I exercise power, it shall be upon my conception - perhaps imperfect, perhaps mistaken, but my sincere conception - of public duty'.

For Peel, therefore, Conservatism was not to be equated solely with the Conservative Party, and certainly not with its traditional economic interests. To Peel, the Conservative Party was primarily "a constitutional and religious party" and he never regarded maintaining the Corn Laws as a sine qua non of Conservatism.

The outcome of the 1841 election was a decisive win for the Conservatives and a personal triumph for Peel. The Conservative Party was still the party of the land and therefore made few inroads into the new urban industrial centres. Peel tried to make the Conservative Party adapt to the needs of the new industrial age but the long-term effects of Peel's policy destroyed the dominance of the landed interest. Peelite Conservatism did not capture the hearts and minds of the majority of the parliamentary (Tory) party. Peel believed that strong governments achieved more and were preferred by the governed and the first object of government was to maintain law and order. Reforms were therefore designed to promote public order.

Peel was both Prime Minister and head of the Conservative Party. He was an authoritarian who believed that the responsibility of a P.M. lay primarily to Queen, country and his own conscience, and only secondarily to the Conservative Party. A responsible PM, Peel insisted,

'will not condescend to humiliating submission for mere party purposes; will have neither time nor inclination to be considering how many men will support this public measure, or fly off to gratify some spite or resentment; he will do his best for the great principles that his party supported and for the public welfare, and if obstructed, he will retire from office, but not from power; for the country will do justice to his motives, and will give him the strength which his party had denied to him'. (Croker Papers)

The duty of the Conservative government was to govern; the purpose of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons was to support that government with its votes. Others (like Disraeli) thought the party should guide government policies and by 1845 Disraeli was in almost open revolt against Peel, with deadly effect. Disraeli said, "A Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy". Peelite Conservatives were in a minority in the parliamentary party. A hard core of

There was some overlap between the groups, for example, Shaftesbury over religious and social reform. Also, personal animosities, self-interest and political ambition all played a part: Peel's opponents were not completely disinterested. Tory Radicals regarded themselves as old-fashioned Tories. They opposed 'liberalism' and committed themselves to "the Altar, the Throne and the Cottage" (Oastler). Tory radicalism was a larger movement outside parliament than inside, however, and it had little parliamentary impact. The Tory Radicals

The Agricultural interest was very important. Lord Ashburton wrote to Peel in September 1841 saying:

'I am aware to what extent our Conservative party is a party pledged to the support of the land, and that that principle abandoned the party is dissolved'.

The Conservative Party accepted nonchalantly Peel's achievements after 1841 but attacked him when landed interests were at stake.

Peel did not try to form his 112 supporters into a party after the fall of his second ministry in 1846, nor did he encourage anyone else to do so. Consequently he contributed decisively to the confusions and uncertainties of political life and kept the party system in a state of suspended animation. Peel's role was less that of a creator of the modern Conservative Party than that of the contemporary statesman, who bent the young and experimental organisation to contemporary purposes and in bending, broke it. Boyd Hilton argues very strongly that Peel may be seen more accurately as the founder of the Liberal Party.

Meet the web creator

These materials may be freely used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances and distribution to students.
Re-publication in any form is subject to written permission.

Last modified 4 March, 2016

The Age of George III Home Page

Ministerial Instability 1760-70

Lord North's Ministry 1770-82

American Affairs 1760-83

The period of peace 1783-92

The Age of the French Wars 1792-1815 Irish Affairs 1760-89

Peel Web Home Page

Tory Governments 1812-30

Political Organisations in the Age of Peel

Economic Affairs in the Age of Peel

Popular Movements in the Age of Peel

Irish Affairs
Primary sources index British Political Personalities British Foreign policy 1815-65 European history
index sitemap advanced
search engine by freefind