How successful was Peel’s ministry of 1841-46? 

After a successful campaign, which led to Peel assuming office in 1841, Peel had constructed enthusiastic party support, and the strong feeling that he was the “One man who could tackle forcefully the major problems that faced the country”. Peel seemed to be confident that he could justify that trust, however what needs to be explored, is the level of confidence Peel had, and how fast he pushed his ministry to achieve that trust. As Sir James Graham, who was a pro Peel, can support this view, for he thought” Peel was rushing too much”. What also should be noted is that Peel was not only Prime Minister; he was also head of the conservative party; however this did not seem the case for many people of that time, particularly the backbenchers.1

When Peel took office in 1841, he recognised that the major problem facing Britain was economic, and as Richard Brown points out “His priority was to make the country debt-free and affluent”. He set about establishing a government based on administrative effectiveness, on top of trying to solve the problems created by the Whig government. In addition was should be noted is that Peel and his ministry were voted for they were most likely to protect landowners and defend the established church. However, “Their perspective was far narrower than Peel’s.2

“Peel increasingly adopted policies out of sympathy with the majority of his MP’s. Public duty on behalf of the monarch and in the interests of the nation was his priority; party came a poor second. This proved to be a problem, particularly as the election had been thought largely on the question of protectionism”3

This extract from Richard Brown justifies the way Peel set about his work, and can prove that he himself was successful for the good of the people, and as Prince Albert, who was a great admirer of Peel, adds “Peel was carrying out a national policy”.

Financial policies were central to Peel’s policies, creating critical Conservative opposition despite improving economical conditions. At the beginning of Peel’s second ministry, the country was facing severe economical difficulties. An industrial slump coupled with a government deficit of over �2,000,000 set off decaying conditions for the working classes. “Thus, priority had been given to finance and Peel felt through economical reforms he could put down social unrest, so vivid due to the radical Chartist movement”. The budget of 1842 reintroduced income tax; this not only attracted support from Working classes due to its fairness but also appealed to the protection of the propertied classes. The return of �5 million, a further �2 million than predicted, showed what a success the measure, in spite of facing Landowner resentment as the measure inhibited production. The following reduction or abolishment of 75% of tariffs sparked further disapproval from Conservative shires, concerned that this movement towards Free Trade would not stop until the repeal of the Corn Laws. Subsequent tariff reductions in later budgets were followed by a Sugar Duty Bill in June 1844, a sensitive matter due to the abundance of Conservative supporters in the large West Indian plantations. The new sliding scale Corn Bill in 1842 also faced resistance, yet agricultural Mps accepted it, as they did not want to jeopardize government unity and strength at a time of political and economical discontent.

However as Paul Adelman argues, MP loyalty was “Not echoed at constituent levels, and their feelings resulted in desertion of many farmers by their supposed representatives, angry at the agricultural interest not being considered or voiced”. The issue raised enough support for Lord Chandos’ resignation, and disillusioned many agriculturalists in the Party. The working class enjoyed a lower cost of living praising the sliding scale too for its attempt to stabilise bread prices. The financial measures worked profitably to the nation as a whole, with trade reviving, exports increasing with unemployment falling.4 The improving economic conditions undermined the chartist movement and suppressed much social unrest, and again as Prince Albert underlines “If the country gets richer everyone will get richer”. However, the strains in government were growing, not only on matters of principle, evidently after Peels threat to resign over the Sugar Bill. Peels domination over Party members created great tension and resentment, labelling Peel as arrogant and stubborn, a matter that presented itself even more during the ministry’s undertaking of social reform.

Given the overwhelming domination of domestic problems and policies during the 1840’s, foreign affairs had little impact on the progress of Peel’s ministry. However, Catholiscism in Ireland proved a strenuous task for Peel to resolve, and as Peel’s Irish reforms did little to gain nationwide support, Peel felt that the Irish problems could be dealt not with economics, but institutional reform especially through education. “He undertook a ‘Plan of Conciliation,’ wanting to appease and convince the Irish the benefits of the Union, whilst also repressing the social unrest caused by O’Connell”. This, however, caused much resentment within the Conservative Party. In 1845 the Maynooth Grant was introduced, which some of the party saw as a step too far, and it triggered much resistance from Party members. Peel’s justification for the grant was the fact that “Priests exercised a growing control over the working class in Ireland, and by injecting more money to the Training College; it would expand gratitude and convince the Irish to see the Union in a favourable light”. Justifiable or not, the planned trebling of the Grant to �26,000 created a huge protest in the Party. Conservatives resisted as it undermined the government’s defence of the Church of England and for many it reminded them of Peel’s shocking actions over the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act, and it was yet another Peelite betrayal.5 Graham’s resignation over the issue further depressed matters and as Gash summarises the consequences: “It was this episode more than anything else that finally destroyed the morale of the Party and broke the last emotional tie between Peel and many of his followers.”

The Corn Laws, unsurprisingly, created much opposition form the Party, and proved Peel’s desire to put national interest through the sacrifice of Conservative dissolution. The Corn Laws combined the principle and the personal condemnation for Peel’s treacherous action to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846. Conservative opposition fought because the Corn Laws protected the country from an invasion of foreign corn that could destroy the national market, cause unimaginable unemployment in rural England and wound the livelihoods of thousands of farmers. The nature of Peel’s handling of the situation also caused great bitterness as he had surrendered to the pressure of the Anti-Corn Law League, showing weak leadership. “The total disregard of 1841 election pledges was unforgivable, and Peel was now seen as the arch-traitor, who had again let down the Party’s supporters.” On the other hand, the repeal brought great approval from the middle classes, which saw the protection of the landed interest unjust, particularly at a time when agricultural importance in the market was declining.

The ongoing Famine in Ireland just exploited the urgency and rationalization for repeal. The repeal saw the last obstacle for ‘Free Trade’ much to industrial and the Anti-Corn Law League delight. The working classes saw the prospect of cheap bread to support the repeal, as did the Chartist movement. The consequences of the repeal did justify Peel’s hopes for the protection of the landed interest too, despite its intense opposition. In addition, as Richard Brown argues: “Economically the repeal did not have a negative impact on the agriculturalists”, as the rising population and expanding demand for British produce resulted in increasing rent tolls and farming profits. It was Peel’s determination to act according to public interest that allowed him to ignore the narrow landed interest that his Party reflected.6

As Paul Adelman clarifies: “The government was essentially ‘Peel’s ministry’; he had created it and in the end he was to destroy it”.7 Peel was able to put the nation above Party, and so his reforms were always more popular with the country, than with the party. Therefore Peel and his ministry helped the needs of the working and middle classes, and not just the narrow landed interest that his party suggested, outlining a successful achievement. Nevertheless he received criticism for ignoring his Party’s wishes, significantly due to the fact he was leading a predominantly Protectionist Party as the 1841 election outlined, and so by consistently betraying the promises of Protectionism, he lost Party support.