How successful were Peels social and economic reforms between 1841 and 1846?
How successful were Peel’s social and economic reforms between 1841 and 1846?
Peel’s reforms and creation of new policies during the years 1841 to 1846 had varying effects on the government and country. As historian Norman Gash argues, through the reforms that he had carried out during his spell in power Peel aimed to “turn the Tory party of one particular class into the Conservative party of the nation”. Peel wanted to make the Conservative party less dogmatic, and his aim was to evolve policy to embrace the new industrial society and gain the support of the middle-classes, a section of society whose backing was extremely important for the future of any government and it is through the various reforms and changes made between 1841 and 1846 that Peel set about to further liberalise the Tory party. Although I believe that on the whole the that policies Peel had made were indeed successful and beneficial to the people of Britain, such as the Factory and Mines Act, there were certain aspects of Peel’s reforms which questioned just how successful Peel had been in the creation of his new reforms, hinting at the fact that he could have gotten ‘lucky’- Britain had already been moving in the direction of free trade, or that, as Eric Evans claims, more could have been done to fully suit the needs of society at the time.
Peel, an efficient and competent, if not slightly reserved, character believed in the theory of executive government and saw the support of his backbenchers as unnecessary. With these traits, he sought to create many policies to change the face of the Tory party at the time. It is however first of all key to point out just how tough it had been for Peel at the time to maintain control and order. The economy in Britain in 1841 hadn’t been at all strong- the previous Whig government had failed to balance the budget, and this had led to waves of unemployment in the industrial towns of the North. A weak economy had traditionally reduced the maneuverability of government and therefore it could be argued that this made it a lot harder for Peel to carry out his expertise and skills to a ‘full potential’. Peel was also in the process of facing the Chartist challenge, a growing radical movement demanding wide scale reform to the country, as epitomised by the Newport Rising and The Plug Riots, and was therefore under pressure to get rid of the movement (though as later will be explained the Chartist challenge may not have been that threatening after all, as Steadman Jones explains in his ‘nasty state’ theory) final obstacle that Peel had faced was one from the cloud in the west, Ireland. His old enemy Daniel O’Connell had whipped up large support which aimed to repeal the Act of Union, and so Peel was put in the extremely tricky position of aiming to win over moderate Catholic opinion whilst retaining the key features of the protestant establishment.
Peel’s first aim was to create a budget which would allow the country to raise sufficient funds in order to combat the 2 million pound plus deficit left behind by the Whigs. The introduction of income tax, whereby taxpayers would be charged 7 pence in the pound, allowed Peel to generate more money. Another way in which he allowed the government to obtain more money in 1842 was by the lowering of tariffs on goods such as raw materials. Peel was of the belief that removing tariffs and abolishing all export duties would bring down bring down the cost of British good abroad and also reduce the cost of living for the working classes. The measures had worked exactly as Peel had hoped- trade became revived and Britain began to move out of the so-called ‘hungry 40’s’ into a golden age of prosperity lasting until the 1870’s. However, following Peel’s reforms many cheap products flooded the country, damaging landed interest, so the effectiveness of this policy comes into question. He also rejuvenated business confidence and greatly helped to regulate it. The Bank Charter Act of 1844 placed serious restriction on credit and had built the building blocks for future modern methods used to control the economy, another example of Peel’s competence of implementing a sense of continuity in the country; putting an emphasis on lasting. The Sliding scale and modification of the Corn Laws was also beneficial to reducing unemployment and was a symbol of the consistency that Peel had been trying to impose. The Companies Act, the baking framework and free trade, as well as income tax, all lasted well into the future, and this is a key feature of Peel’s success. However it could well be argued that Peel’s banking policy had been a little overly-restrictive, and one could once again evoke the argument that peel had gotten ‘lucky’ through the founding of extra gold in Australia and California.
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Peel’s desire to widen the support of his party by further liberalising it is shown in these reforms. By reducing regressive taxation and increasing direct taxation, the previous inequalities of the system whereby the poor would pay more tax had been ‘cut down’; therefore these economic reforms helped appeal to the middle classes. The transformation of a deficit into a surplus through a system where both the rich (from increased trade) and poor (from reduced taxation) benefited shows just how competent Peel had been economically, and how successful his measures had been. However it can be argued that the basis of peel’s budget reforms had rested on luck- that Britain had already been heading for an improved economy due to the developments of the industry, therefore demeriting Peel’s successes.
Social reforms had also become a key part of Peel’s success and became ingrained in his legacy to the working-classes. The Factory Act of 1844 reduced the working hours of children in factories and improved the safety of conditions of in factories, and the Mines Act 2 years earlier sought about forbidding children under 10 and women to work, an example and further evidence that Peel was appealing to the wider sections of society attempting to broaden his support. The Railway Act regulated the activities of the new railway companies. However questions must be asked about the overall effectiveness of these social policies, and the way in which they were passed. Firstly, Peel was said to have little interest in social policy, and it has been previously said that it was high influential, effective members of Peel’s government and peel himself who helped formulate and pass the acts- for instance the passage of the Factory Act is widely accredited to Sir James Graham, and The Railway Act had mostly been undertaken by William Gladstone. The effectiveness of these policies also came into question. On the surface, they seemed very beneficial to the poor and represented a big step from the past ‘horrors’ of the workplace. But information such as the fact that the average life of Liverpudlian labourers had been 15 and wages did not rise in industry between 1825 and1850 show that he could have maybe done more in the area of his social reforms- Peel’s belief that government should not interfere so much with people’s lives and his belief that factory reform should have been restricted may have stopped the acts becoming as successful as they could have been. The 1847 cholera outbreak also showed that he had done little to improve public health provision. However in Peel’s defence, Peel was the first one to take the ‘big step’ forward in the reform of social conditions and, whilst they could have gone further, substantial improvements had been made and Peel had sowed the seeds for future social reform, displaying why his reforms had been successful. What is also important to mention here is that the spirit of the times limited his room for manoeuvre, and Peel had an ideology that encouraged self-reliance and not self-dependence, which is displayed in his renewal of the Poor Law in 1842. Peel’s job was to create the conditions, and not interfere with people’s lives and ‘spoon feed’ them. He therefore did what he had to do in terms of social policy and placed his faith in the power of the market and his economic reforms to further strengthen social conditions and create prosperity of wealth in England- something which is often misunderstood when interpreting Peel’s political philosophies. The fact that there was a massive outflow of grief upon his death shows the impacts of social policy Peel had created- although not ‘massive’, something like this and never really been undertaken before- to do what Peel had done in those times was fairly remarkable. Steadman Jones reinforces this view- that Peel and his government did not project the typical “nasty state” that past governments had made a name for themselves for, but instead offered a variety of policies which showed that the government really did care.
The way in which Peel dealt with Ireland is also telling of how successful his policies had been. Daniel O’Connell posed a direct challenge to Peel by setting up the Repeal Association, aiming to repeal the Act of Union of 1800. Peel had been put in a tough position; he had to quash the Irish nationalist rebellion but at the same time had to win over the general opinion of the Irish people, especially that of the Catholics. Though he also had to retain the key features of the Protestant establishment. His room for manoeuvre and ‘freedom’ of policy creation was clearly limited by the state of the times, and the policies he created had brought about somewhat inevitable accusations that he had betrayed his party and passed policies that had been unacceptable to protestants.
The way in which Peel dealt with the challenge from O’Connell had indeed been commendable, the banning of the potentially massive meeting, the arrest of O’Connell and therefore the eventual decline in support for the movement shows Peel’s political power to weather any storms. Peel’s introduction of positive measures thereon after highlighted his desire to further broaden the party’s support, and to fashion a type of new, more liberal Conservative party, and to set Ireland on a new course, focusing on continuity and the lasting of policies.
His implementation of the Devon Commission could potentially be seen as one of his ‘failings’. It offered hope- to improve relations with Catholics by investigating land disputes, but however produced no results legislation-wise. The Charitable Bequests Act aimed to improve Catholic relations by encouraging payments to the Church, and this Act, along with the Maynooth grant, whereby the college Catholic priests attended would be paid for by the government, display the genuine concern that Peel was showing for the Catholic Church. These acts however only reinforce the view that it had been extremely hard to please nationwide opinion, and whatever Peel had tried to introduce it would be impossible for him to satisfy all demands. The failure of the Academic Colleges Act of 1845 epitomises this- the fact that they were “overly-atheist” in the eyes of the Catholic Clergy shows how finding the right balance had been difficult. His repeal of the Corn laws aimed to help out the Irish as it had been the only way of getting cheap food into the starving, crippled Ireland. He faced much opposition from his cabinet, and perhaps rightly so- the removal of the corn laws would cause an influx of cheap foreign wheat, which would ruin the British agriculture and create mass unemployment, hence why one would argue his proposed reform were not as successful as the appear. However, as historian Donald Kerr notes, although some of the acts polarised opinion, such as within his very own party when he had been accused of going against classic Tory Policy and threatening Anglican relations within Ireland with his ‘pro-Catholic’ acts, the policies he had made “considered in the context of the time and the prejudices of his own party, were remarkable”. There was no way Peel would please everybody, but he had at least attempted to improve the conditions of a country which in the past had been the subject of mistreatment from England.
As mentioned previously, Peel had been a firm believer in executive government. His government and backbenchers at the time largely steered toward the traditional, old-fashioned, protectionism; they wanted to turn back the clock, something that went against Peel’s ideology, to rule as a liberal Tory. He therefore rules as an executive politician- as the minister of the King- and his statement that his backbenchers were “an intolerable burden to consult” demonstrated his unwillingness to be ‘held back’ by his cabinet. He therefore often polarised opinion in the policies that he made. He was said to have ‘bullied’ his cabinet into the creation of policies- such as the Factories Bill and Sugar Duties, where 62 backbenchers opposed to the reform and Peel had threatened to resign. He passed the repeal of the Corn laws with over 100 more backbenchers voting ‘against’ rather than ‘for‘, and needed the Whig support to pass Maynooth. This shows how the mismanagement of his own party could be seen as a detraction from his success, as for a PM to be truly efficacious it is required of him to keep his cabinet happy to achieve maximum potential. Though you could make the argument that maybe Peel felt as if in order to achieve the best out of his time in power he needed to ‘break away’ from the shackles of his party that had entrapped him in order to make the big step to the liberalisation of his party, therefore his boldness in ignoring key members of his cabinet could be seen as one of his successes. However, as Ian Newbould points out, The Conservatives enjoyed a revival throughout the 19th Century not because of the work of Peel, but rather due to the Conservatives retaining their traditional support in the countryside and in agriculture, as represented by the Conservative MP’s who favoured protectionism. The argument that Peel rightly battled against Protectionism has been made, however it is also key to note that protectionism may not have been such a negative factor- it did after all make farmers cultivate more land during the Napoleonic blockade, through the farmers reclaiming marginal land, so Peel’s clear dislike and ignoring of the protectionist section of his party may well have been on the whole unwarranted, hence why he may not have been all that successful, despite his insistent paternalistic stance.
To conclude, Peel’s economic and social factors were in my view very satisfactory, and highlighted his competence and effectiveness as Prime Minister. Peel offered something wholly new- he offered a decrease in the classic dogmatism that the Tories had been associated with and went about attempting to broaden it’s support to appeal to the wider sections of society- the middle classes. It is however important to mention that Peel believed that government should not interfere much in the lives of people, and Peel’s laissez faire principles never promised that government would be able to ‘flawlessly’ aid and improve the lives of everyone in the country. As shown with the policies with Ireland, such as the Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Academic Colleges Act, it had been nigh on impossible to please everyone and find the perfect balance, therefore certain failings and discrepancies and can be overlooked. Peel had been determined to change the face of the Conservative party by introducing more liberal measures, such as the Factory and Mines Act, and although they didn’t go the ‘full way’ in totally improving social conditions, they were the first ‘groundbreaking’ types of reforms that had been seen before. By ignoring the majority of his cabinet and trying his best to break away from the protectionism that pervaded the Tory party, his economic reforms not only provided the government with more money, turning the past deficit into a surplus, but also helped reduced unemployment and increase trade through the lowering of tariffs and income tax. His decision to go against his protectionist, ‘old-value’ cabinet was also very wise, although one could argue that he greatly mismanaged his party through passing acts that had little backing, perhaps it was necessary for Pitt to take full control in order to ‘break free’ from protectionism and implement the new face of the Tory party that he had been trying to generate. Peel focused on continuity. He placed an emphasis on acts lasting, as evidenced by the banking framework changes, and managed to lay down the solid foundations for the future. In the eyes of the working class, he had at least ‘done something- in the mood of the public times he seemed to have managed to connect with the public, and had had an ‘overall vision’ that sought to improve Britain socially and economically.
In the end, perhaps it is the fact that monuments struck, bells rang, and statues had been built in the honour of Peel’s death, which epitomises the successes he had during his tenure.