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January 29, 2008

Richard D. North asks, would Robert Peel understand David Cameron's job? Robert Peel: A Biography - Douglas Hurd

Posted by Richard D. North

Robert Peel: A Biography
by Douglas Hurd
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007
Hardback, £25

Douglas Hurd is an amiable and undogmatic biographer. He doesn't enunciate anything as clear as "Peelism". He is rightly very modest in drawing comparisons between Peel and any modern politicians. And yet he gives us the means to see that there are good parallels between Peel's time and ours. He doesn't say so, but the core similarity is that it is now almost as difficult to characterise party politics as it was then.

Peel was a recognisable modern Tory, not least in being much more a professional than a prophet. He was a reactionary in two opposing senses. He defended the existing order and he responded to events. Mrs Thatcher, by distinction was a very unusual Tory: she had a radical view of the changes which were needed and she made the weather. More usually, like Peel, political conservatives don't really hold any beliefs, and yet they are uncomfortable saying so. Politics is a rhetorical game, and the more it becomes like retail or showbiz, the more rhetorical it becomes.

The beliefs most Tories do hold don't get them very far, not least because they are in equal measure authoritarian and libertarian. They are also simultaneously progressive and nostalgic. Tories are proudly unsentimental, except about the past, the flag, and Parliament, and the Union and the church at a pinch. But good management if nothing else has always dictated that it is a good idea to keep the lower orders fairly cheerful. The moral question of politics is in large measure whether the poor are best looked after by people who much care about them.

Hurd shows us Peel as a Prime Minister admired in all quarters because he conducted business well. It was a Whig grandee who wrote of him:

He is the only person in whom one can feel real confidence, and with whom one feels that honour and talents go together and that he is unshackled, unprejudiced and unguided by any party and set of people.
So on Catholic Emancipation, the 1832 franchise, and Free Trade he abandoned the well-established Tory positions he had himself defended for years and opted for better ones. That infuriated the less flexible but didn't much trouble anyone else.

It is pretty fair to say, with John Stuart Mill, that the Tories are “the stupid party”. They also ought to be proud, as Theresa May was not, of being the “the nasty party”. Their entire point is that they are not dreamers. The reformist left is usually figured as being the opposite of all these (though Nick Cohen does his best to refute some of the characterisation in his What's Left?). It is the remarkable feat of the Neo Cons to make conservatives more like the left in being brainy, moralistic and romantic. Its doctrine was hardly likely to be a big success in Britain. David Cameron is making a pitch for niceness instead.

Tories seldom try to unwind the reforms (the social "improvements") they exist to resist. As Keith Joseph said, there is a reformist ratchet effect at work.

Indeed, like Peel, Tories often distinguish themselves by implementing reforms better than those who thrive by proposing them. When Peel invented the police, he risked ancient freedoms and trashed old law and order institutions. But the job was necessary and was done well. The country noted and appreciated Peel's efficiency as well as noting and sometimes deprecating his expediency. He was often portrayed as having ratted on his friends.

As people felt freer to vote promiscuously, an important element of the nation voted Tory when they thought that conservative good management was better, on the whole, than imaginative chaos. This makes life tricky when the conservatives can't demonstrate competence, or when their opposition does.

Hurd argues convincingly that Peel was the moderniser who gave us the beginnings of party politics (by introducing some sort of organisation, some sort of manifesto). Things have moved to the point where people think that politics can't be undertaken without strong parties. But we could contrariwise argue (as Hurd does not) that 21st century politics may become more like the less partisan 19th century than the very partisan 20th century.

Now, as way back then, class is a poor indicator as to party. Hurd gives us no explanation beyond family tradition for Peel's being a Tory. Come to that, only historians can recall why one bunch of 19th Century aristocrats were Tories and another Whigs. Only academics have a clear idea why the Whig landowning aristocrats were more susceptible to urban and manufacturing radicals than the Tory landowning aristocrats who were more readily identified with gentry farmers. It is only much more recently - in the 20th Century - that there were clear party divides between left and right, between capital and labour, and rich and poor.

That's not to imply that Peel would understand David Cameron's job. Indeed, he would have struggled with the idea that politics is a job at all. One of the biggest similarities between then and now is that we have to think about what sort of profession politics is. We will have to reinvent a means of rewarding leadership.

It is well worth stressing here that Peel didn't do all his adjusting and administering as a means to hang on to power, still less for personal benefit. He was rich. He was principled. He had a life outside politics. His conception of duty - to colleagues, the Crown, the nation, kept him away from his family, pictures and shooting.

Again, Hurd doesn't stress this, but it is hard to fit Peel into the standard analysis that politicians back then existed to defend "interests". Peel was often engaged in a rather lonely analysis of the limited data available to him. He had, in Hurd's account, the gift of quite often being right when he did make up his mind. And he was thinking of very wide well-being, not sectional interest, almost all the time.

Nowadays, we hardly know what to do with the idea of duty. But reading about Peel, we realise that we urgently need to find ways of motivating his sort - the best sort - of person to take up political life, and we have to do it without recourse to the noblesse oblige which served pretty well for hundreds of years. Pride in good management may have to do, though it is hardly a tocsin.

As we look back at Peel's time, we recognise an era when extraordinary cross-currents defied party organisation. The Whigs and the Tories both had aristocratic support and political stars. Both were home to committed social reformers. (The Tories had Ashley, the factory act obsessive, and the Whigs had John Russell, the serial reformer.) There were Free Traders and protectionists in both parties. There were disloyal trouble-makers in both.

If there was a large characterisation which could be made, it was richly counter-intuitive. The Whigs were the more obviously magnificently aristocratic of the parties, and the home to the most ardent constitutional reformers. It fell - typically - to Peel to undertake the great enfranchisement of 1832 and then to thrive electorally in the years following it. Greville, the Whig diarist, wrote:

The truth is that the Government is Peel, that Peel is a reformer and more of a Whig than a Tory, and the mass of his supporters are prejudiced, ignorant, obstinate and selfish.
Hurd is right often to note that Peel, as a practical Tory politician, was constantly harried by the Ultras. These were the diehards whose thinking was always a generation or two out of date. They tended to be narrowly nationalistic, and one imagines Hurd thinks the analysis holds for the modern Europhobes. Of course, in a way they were and are the proper Tories, since it is the Tory job to be unfashionable and stick in the mud.

But for Peel pragmatism trumped even that, as in the case of tariff reform. In the end, for Peel, the best way of combining good economics with well-fed poor people was to reduce the cost of imported staples. He didn't opportunistically steal an opposition policy, he yielded to a logical argument which was leant urgency by people’s hunger. And damn the purists.

As politics evolved, we have seen a century or so of a socialist zeal for social change and economic stasis constantly fighting against a Tory pessimism about social change and enthusiasm for economic progress. Since it has turned out that most or much of socialism has turned out to be a mistake, it turns out also that the Tory position was much more justified than might be supposed. It seems also that we have reached a weird stalemate. The social and taxation arrangements which have evolved in the 20th century look likely to survive a good bit longer. No-one dares reform them much. Indeed, only Tony Blair dared even to articulate an ambition for change.

There are other elements to the stalemate. Mrs Thatcher introduced but also exhausted the idea that the Tories could be radical. Messrs. Blair and Brown have persuaded people that Labour government could be professional. Essential party stereotypes have collapsed. This matters as much as the problem more often posed: that the parties share a single rhetoric.

The upshot could be a Peel-ite politics in which party loyalty matters less. After all, modern means of communication ought to make it easier for individual MPs to establish personal profiles, funding and support. One could imagine that various powerful party leaders might emerge, and be capable of forming cabinets, not necessarily from within their own party, but with platforms which were quite flexible and maybe not even binding.

It might be hard but not insuperable to maintain a sense of cabinet responsibility alongside a degree of fluidity. Individual party politicians might begin to reach beyond their party for support for policies. One could imagine that groups of MPs might coalesce around this or that reform, or around resistance, without worrying too much about party loyalty.

Some of that picture is quite like Peel's own scene, and is much more like his than anything we have seen since World War II. It might look like a recipe for the kind of chaos or at least muddle which characterised 19th century politics.

That might not be a bad thing, if it meant people found politics interesting instead of risible. But there is in any case one huge difference between then and now, and it is the existence of a large professional civil service.

Peel was an administrator who liked good administration and helped bring it about. Hardly any politicians nowadays dare talk about such things and most give the impression of not caring. They ought to be more Peel-like.

What would that be like? I suspect we ought to think of the civil service as like the management of a corporation. It should be a trusted and professional operational elite with real responsibility for conceiving and executing policy (but not deciding on it). It would be answerable to Parliament and the ruling administration's cabinet operating as the "board" on behalf of the voters, or "shareholders".

I don't say Peel would have recognised this sort of thinking, but he was chronically overworked and quite often had to get into administrative detail. That at least might have made him open to a more orderly solution in which politics was about the big picture. He would not have been afraid of innovation, either, especially if it wasn't radical.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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