Have been reading Douglas Hurd’s weighty but impressive bio of Sir Robert Peel (UK Prime Minister for 6 months in 1834-1835 and then 1841-1846) – full of anecdotes and interest about a man who is much maligned but arguably the first modern Prime Minister in that he came to power as the result, not of the monarch’s whim, but the popular (albeit limited) vote.
Was struck by a number of things. In the years after the first great reforms of the House of Commons and talking about the state of UK politics in the year that Peel became Prime Minister for the second time, Hurd picks up the contrast with how things are today:
Perhaps we can take one last, almost nostalgic look back at the 1841 election. It is easy to stress the narrow electorate, the inconsistency of the argument, the noisy confusion of the hustings, and the strong grip which traditional influences still held on much of the reformed electorate. But these were genuine local contests which produced robust argument and definite results. Events showed that those elected were very conscious of the particular pledges which they had given. These men were elected as individuals to a Parliament composed of individuals. They carried a party badge, but thought of party discipline as secondary to local interests and their own views.
In the last century and a half, this local and individualized character of a Member of Parliament has been largely squeezed out of elections. Those of us who care to do so wearily elect a homogenised House of Commons, voting for candidates who are trained and equipped to say the same things wherever they stand, as if Cornwall was the same as Carlisle, Wigan identical to Witney. The individual canvass is now usually a token affair, designed to produce a photograph or a local story. The excitement of the hustings has gone/ The habit of holding village and ward meetings has in most places evaporated. Political colour has vanished from gardens and windows. We are now encouraged to vote inertly by post. These are the politics of obesity. We can sit at home without being required to visit a polling station, let alone trundle in a coach or on horseback across half a county to cast a public vote in front of a cheering or jeering crowd.
He has a point, although I’m relieved that we have moved on to secret ballots. But party machinery and the power of the whip, while necessary and unavoidable perhaps, have robbed politics of its interest and integrity (as well as obviously clipped the wings of the political mavericks and egomaniacs).
The thing that Peel is most attacked for (and was as a result often accused of being a rat in his lifetime) is that he CHANGED HIS MIND in public. 3 things in particular:
- He changed from being an opposer of constitutional reform to being in favour of some reform (through his famous Tamworth Manifesto)
- He changed from being a strict defender of Protestant political supremacy (while Chief Secretary in Ireland – to the extent that his nickname was ‘Orange Peel’) to advocating and helping to bring about Catholic emancipation (ie Catholics could be elected to Parliament)
- He changed from being a protectionist to advocating total repeal of the Corn Laws (partly because of the tragedy of the Irish Potato Famine).
Well this reminded me of a brilliant cartoon I saw recently. It speaks for itself:
Very helpful review of the book by Ferdinand Mount in the TLS.