Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Bt.

1834 - 1835, 1841 - 1846

Peel (1788-1850) was the son of an admirable and very rich textile entrepreneur and Tory MP, Sir Robert Peel, 1st baronet (1750-1830). Peel was also an extremely intelligent man who was told so too often in his early years. He was a genuinely capable and hard-working Chief Secretary for Ireland (1812-18) and Home Secretary (1822-27, 1828-30). Peel’s man-management skills were however non-existent, as first became apparent with his failure to hold together the large but fissiparous Commons majority that Liverpool had left for his successors in 1827-30.

His first period as prime minister in 1834-35 produced the “Tamworth manifesto,” abandoning the beliefs of much of his party’s base, as he struggled unsuccessfully to gain a Tory majority to back him. He then blew his next opportunity for power in 1839 by mishandling the difficult and Whig-oriented young Queen Victoria. His second government of 1841-46 also showed a disdain for mainstream Tories and a liking for “reformers” who were later to join the Liberals.

Peel’s 1842 restoration of the Income Tax gave the state a solid fiscal basis, which he used for ever more aggressive moves towards mostly unilateral free trade. In the short- and medium- term his policies worked; from 1842 Britain’s economy began a long period of growth that was to last until 1873, with sharply rising living standards for all but agricultural workers and the Irish as the prices of staple foods and manufactures declined. Peel’s free trade moves culminated in the 1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws, which split his party and ended his government. In the very long term, Repeal and the further moves to unilateral free trade of Russell and Gladstone doomed British agriculture to penury once American competition became effective in the 1870s and ended British industrial supremacy as competitors built up behind high tariff walls.

Corn Law Repeal was also damaging to Ireland, which under the Corn Laws had become a substantial granary for the rising British population. Peel and his Whig successors grossly mishandled the Irish potato famine, pursuing the irrelevant remedy of Corn Law abolition while failing for doctrinaire reasons to implement short-term relief measures that had been second nature to Jenkinson and others in the British famines of the 1790s.

Peel was an admirable departmental minister, but twice in 1829 and 1846 failed by poor man-management to carry his party with him on reforms to which he became attached. As a prime minister, he was at best average.

More biographical information can be found in Peel's Chronology entry

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson