How successful was Peel’s government of 1841 to 1846

Peel entered government for the second time in his career in August 1841 with a strong Tory majority in Parliament gained in part by Peel’s skill as leader of the Opposition and by the failings of Lord Melbourne’s former Whig government. He would lead his new “Conservative” party through many difficulties and end his career with the repeal of the notorious Corn Laws in June 1846. His party was split between the loyal Peelite Conservatives and the older, more reactionary Tories, who still for the most part believed in agricultural protectionism once ensured by the scrapped Corn Laws.

But, as in accordance with Peel’s ideology, failure in the party was not necessarily a failure for the nation. Peel entered government on the back of traditional Tory votes. These came from the agricultural sectors of southern England, especially the landed gentry, tenant farmers and the aristocracy. Any considerable amounts of votes had not, as Peel had hoped for, come from the middle classes and industrialists based in the large northern working towns who Peel had so sought to win over with his Tamworth Manifesto.

This put Peel in a compromising situation over his allegiance. The majority of his more practical policies followed the line of stimulating trade to create prosperity across Britain’s social spectrum. This meant reducing or abolishing trade tariffs and reducing the legislative protection of many of Britain’s domestic markets, namely agriculture. Traditionally, Tory leaders recognised their allegiance to their rich, landed, protestant electorate, and so obediently promoted the protection of their interests.

But Peel made his decisions on what he honestly believed was for the good of the country as a whole, not on what best suited a small, elite sector of high society who expected to profit from the suffering of the oppressed working classes, starved to the brink of famine so those privileged few could live in decadent luxury. This was frustrating for a man as ambitious and able as Peel was, and would lead to friction within the party and the electorate over Ireland, income tax, and eventually the Corn Laws.

The problem was that at a very basic level, much of what Peel stood for was in conflict with a deep-rooted Tory belief in the role of government. Throughout the centuries of the Tory party’s existence, its prime ideology was to serve the landed interest and preserve their power and influence over the good of the country, which couldn’t be more opposed to Peel’s belief in the good of the nation over the good of the party and her interests.

A strange irrationality resided in the Tory mentality that resulted in knee-jerk opposition to the most harmless and necessary social and economical reform. On income tax they automatically opposed him at first, even though a £7 million budget deficit was sitting right under their noses, to which direct taxation was the only answer. For most of the party, the needs of the millions of disenfranchised workers in Britain didn’t even enter into the equation, who they would much rather tax indirectly so as to minimise the financial impact on the upper classes.