- This is about the British Prime Minister. For the figure in Christian Science, see also Robert Peel (Christian Science).
The Right Honourable Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet (February 5, 1788–July 2, 1850) was British Prime Minister from December 1834 to April 1835, and again from June 1841 to June 29, 1846.
Born in Bury, Lancashire to an industrialist and British Member of Parliament also named Robert Peel, and educated at Christ Church, Oxford, the younger Peel entered politics at the young age of 21 as MP for the Irish rotten borough of Cashel City, Tipperary. With a scant twenty-four voters on the rolls, he was elected unopposed. More importantly, his sponsor for the election (besides his father) was Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, with whom Peel's political career would be entwined for the next twenty-five years. His maiden speech in the Commons was a sensation, and famously described by the Speaker of the House of Commons as "the best first speech since that of William Pitt".
For the next decade he occupied a series of relatively minor positions in the Tory governments of the time (Undersecretary for War, Chief Secretary for Ireland, and chairman of the Bullion Committee charged with stabilizing British finances after the end of the Napoleonic Wars). He also changed seats twice, first picking up another rotten borough, Chippenham, then becoming MP for Oxford University in 1817.
He later served as MP for Tamworth from 1830 until his death.
He was considered one of the rising stars of the Tory party, and first entered the cabinet in 1822 as Home Secretary, in which capacity he introduced a number of important reforms of British criminal law. His changes to the Penal code resulted in fewer crimes being punished by death. He also reformed the gaol(jail) system with payment for jailers and education for the inmates.
He resigned from this position after the prime minister Lord Liverpool was incapacitated, leading to his replacement by George Canning; Canning favoured Catholic Emancipation, and Peel had been one of its most outspoken opponents. Canning himself died less than four months later, and after the brief premiership of Viscount Goderich, Peel returned to the post of Home Secretary under the premiership of his long-time ally the Duke of Wellington. During this time he was widely perceived as the number two man in the Tory Party after Wellington himself.
But the forces being exerted on the new ministry by advocates of Catholic Emancipation were too great, and a bill to that effect was passed the next year. Peel felt compelled to resign his seat at Oxford, as what had made him attractive to that constituency in the first place was his opposition to it (in 1815 he had, in fact, challenged to a duel the man most associated with emancipation, Daniel O'Connell). He instead moved to another rotten borough, Westbury, and retained his cabinet position.
It was at this point that he arranged for his most-remembered act: the organization of a metropolitan police force for London based out of Scotland Yard. As a result the colloquial term for police in Britain, "bobbies", is taken from Peel's name, as is the older slang term "peelers". Though at first unpopular they proved very successful in cutting crime in London, and by 1835 all cities in the UK were being directed to form their own police forces—see British Police.
The lower classes in England at that time, however, were in a passion for reform, and Catholic Emancipation was only one of the ideas in the air. As the conservative Tory ministry refused to bend on other issues, they were swept out of office in 1830 in favour of the Whigs. The following few years were extremely turbulent, but eventually enough reforms were passed that King William IV felt confident enough invite the Tories again to form a ministry in succession to those of Earl Grey and Viscount Melbourne in 1834. Peel was selected as Prime Minister, though was in Italy at the time, so Wellington acted as a caretaker for the three weeks in November and December it took Peel to return.
This new Tory ministry was a minority government, however, and depended on Whig goodwill for its continued existence. As his statement of policy at the general election of January 1835, Peel issued the Tamworth Manifesto, the document which is considered the point at which the Tories became the Conservative Party. In it, he pledged that the Conservatives would endorse modest reform, but the Whigs instead formed a compact with Daniel O'Connell's Irish Radical members to repeatedly defeat the government on various bills. Eventually Peel's ministry resigned out of frustration, and the Whigs under Lord Melbourne returned to power.
In May 1839, he was offered another chance to form a government, this time by the new monarch, Queen Victoria. However, this too would have been a minority government and Peel felt he needed a further sign of confidence from his queen. Lord Melbourne had been Victoria's confidant for several years, and many of the higher posts in Victoria's household were held by the female wives and relatives of Whigs; there was some feeling that Victoria had allowed herself to be too closely associated with the Whig party. Peel therefore asked that some of this coterie be dismissed and replaced with their Conservative counterparts, provoking the so-called Bedchamber Crisis. Victoria refused to change her household, and despite pleadings from the Duke of Wellington, relied on assurances of support from Whig leaders. Peel refused to form a government, and the Whigs returned to power.
Peel finally had a chance to head a majority government following the election of July 1841. His promise of modest reform was held to, and the second most famous bill of this ministry, while "reforming" in 21st century eyes, was in fact aimed at the reformers themselves, with their constituency among the new industrial rich. The 1844 Factory Act acted more against them than the traditional stronghold of the Conservatives, the landed gentry, by restricting the number of hours that children and women could work in a factory, and setting rudimentary safety standards for machinery. Interestingly, this was a continuation of his own father's work as an MP, as the elder Robert Peel was most noted for reform of working conditions during the first part of the 19th century.
The most notable act of Peel's ministry, however, was the one that brought it down. This time Peel moved against the landholders by repealing the Corn Laws, which supported agricultural revenues by restricting grain imports. This radical break with Tory protectionism was triggered by the appalling Irish potato famine.
At first sceptical of the extent of the problem, Peel reacted slowly. As realization dawned however, he hoped that ending the Corn Laws would free up more food for the Irish. Though he knew repealing the laws would mean the end of his ministry, Peel decided to do so out of humanity. His own party failed to support the bill, but it passed with Whig and Radical support on June 29, 1846. A following bill was defeated as a direct consequence, however, and Peel resigned. Unfortunately, repeal did little to alleviate the suffering, but in the end Peel was willing to sacrifice himself in an attempt to help.
As a historiographical aside in reference to the Repeal of the Corn Laws. Peel did make some moves to subsidise the purchase of food for the Irish, however this was small and very little effect. To criticise Peel for acting to late in repealing the Corn Laws or for not giving enough subsidies to the Irish, shows a gross misunderstanding of the historical context. In the age of laissez-faire taxes were small, subsidies almost non-existent, that subsidies were actually given was very much out of character for the political times. Secondly the repeal of the Corn Laws was more a political action than a humanitarian one, there had been poor harvests all across Europe so the repeal made little difference.
The historian Boyd Hilton argues convincingly that Peel knew from 1844 that he was going to be deposed as Conservative leader, many of his MP's had taken to voting against him. Hilton's hypothesis is that Peel who had led a very Liberal ministry wished to be deposed on a Liberal issue so that he might later lead a Peelite/Whig alliance.
He did retain a hard core of supporters however, known as Peelites, and at one point in 1849 was actively courted by the Whig/Radical coalition. He continued to stand on his conservative principles, however, and refused. Nevertheless, he was influential on several important issues, including the furtherance of British free trade with the repeal of the Navigation Acts.
Peel was thrown from his horse while riding up Constitution Hill in London on June 29, 1850, and died three days later at the age of 62. His Peelite followers, led by Lord Aberdeen and William Gladstone, went on to fuse with the Whigs as the Liberal Party.
Sir Robert Peel's First Government, December 1834–April 1835
Sir Robert Peel's Second Government, September 1841–July 1846
- October, 1841—Lord FitzGerald succeeds Lord Ellenborough as President of the Board of Control
- February, 1842—The Duke of Buccleuch succeeds the Duke of Buckingham as Lord Privy Seal
- May, 1843—Lord Ripon succeeds Lord FitzGerald as President of the Board of Control. William Ewart Gladstone succeeds Ripon at the Board of Trade.
- 1844—Lord Granville Somerset, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, enters the Cabinet
- January, 1845—Sidney Herbert succeeds Sir Henry Hardinge as Secretary at War
- 1845—The First Commissioner of Woods and Forests, Lord Lincoln, enters the Cabinet, while Sir Edmund Knatchbull, the Paymaster, leaves it.
- December, 1845—W.E. Gladstone succeeds Lord Stanley as Secretary for War and the Colonies. Gladstone's successor at the Board of Trade is not in the Cabinet
- January, 1846—The Duke of Buccleuch succeeds Lord Wharnecliffe as Lord President. Lord Haddington succeeds Buccleuch as Lord Privy Seal. Lord Ellenborough succeeds Haddington as First Lord of the Admiralty. Lord Lincoln becomes Chief Secretary for Ireland. His successor as First Commissioner of Woods and Forests is not in the Cabinet.