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Taken from Norman Gash, The Age of Peel (London, Edward Arnold, 1973), with the kind permission of Professor Gash. Copyright of this document, of course, remains with him.
Having been beaten on a vote of no confidence in June 1841 the government dissolved parliament. The general election which followed produced a majority of about eighty for the Conservatives. The new parliament met in August and following a defeat by ninety-one votes on the Address, Melbourne's ministry resigned office. After a short adjournment while Peel formed his new ministry, parliament reassembled on 16 September. The speech from which the extract is taken was made by Peel in a debate on 17 September on going into committee of supply. He was replying to charges by Lord John Russell that the composition of his party and ministry would prevent him from following an enlightened policy in economic affairs, especially in connection with the Corn Laws. Similar charges had been made about Peel's future policy towards Ireland in the debate on the Address in August and had been rejected by Peel in terms similar to those used below.
The noble lord, after having, not reluctantly, but at once, admitted, that I had triumphed over the difficulties which threatened my course with respect to Ireland, says, that on account of the composition of the government, and the menaces which have been held out in parliament, it will be impossible for me to perform my public duty on other questions which concern the domestic policy of the empire. I can assure the noble lord that it is my intention to act upon a sense of public duty, and to propose those measure to parliament which my own conviction of public duty shall lead me to think desirable. Sir, it is right that there should be a distinct understanding as to the terms on which a public man holds office. The force of circumstances, and a sense of duty to the country, have compelled me to undertake the harassing and laborious task, in the performance of which I now stand before you. What can be my inducement to undertake that task, and to make the sacrifices which it entails? - what but the hope of rendering service to my country, and of acquiring an honourable fame? Is it credible that I would go through labours which are daily imposed upon me, if I did not claim for myself the liberty of proposing to parliament those measures which I shall believe conducive to the public welfare? I will claim that liberty. I will propose those measures: and I do with confidence assure this House, that no consideration of mere political support shall induce me to alter them. I will not hold office by the servile tenure which would compel me to be the instrument of carrying other men's opinions into effect. I do not estimate lightly the distinctions which office confers. To any man who is fit to hold it, its only value must be, not the patronage which the possessor is enabled to confer, nor the personal distinction it confers on him, but the opportunity which is afforded to him of doing good to his country. And the moment I shall be convinced that that power is denied me, to be exercised in accordance with my own views of duty, I tell every one who hears me, that he confers on me no personal obligation in having placed me in this office. Free as the winds, I shall reserve to myself the power of retiring from the discharge of its onerous and harassing functions, the moment I feel that I cannot discharge them with satisfaction to the public and the approval of my own conscience.
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