Who is Sir Robert Peel?

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A biography of Robert Peel, British prime minister from 1839-46, his life and works.

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Robert Peel was born into a noble family in the late 1780s, his father was a successful Lancashire businessman who had benefitted greAtly at the start of the industrial revolution .  His youth passed without much incident and Peel's first post in government was as minister for Ireland during turbulent times from 1812 to 1820.

His devout maintenance of the supremacy of the protestant Church of Ireland over the more popular native Catholic Church garnered him a reputation as a strict Tory, the Party of the established British Church, and the nickname 'Orange Peel.'  As he was still very young during this spell of upholding Tory values, he also gained a reputation as a potential future leader of the Tory party.

His appointment to the position of Home Secretary in 1822 coincided with other changes in the cabinet of the then Prime minister Lord Liverpool which gave the Tory government from this point onwards a more lenient reputation.  Peel's main contribution during his tenure until 1829 was to almost completely reform the judicial system, streamlining the court process, making prisons more humane both for prisoners and gaolers and removing over 110 death penalty offences.

However, by the end of his spell as home secretary the questions of parliamentary reform and catholic emancipation in Ireland were becoming very prominent and when Daniel O'Connell, the leader of the Irish campaign for religious freedom, won an election against a Tory representative, it became obvious that the Tories would have to accede to his demands to prevent a civil war in Ireland.

The Tory party at this time was divided into two sections after the death of Lord Liverpool, the Ultras, who were strict Tories, and the Caningites, who were far more liberal.  Peel was an Ultra but as the head of the party it fell tto him to give in to Catholic Emancipation, which contrasted greatly with his 'orange peel' years, and led many Tories to view him as a traitor.

The party was plunged into disarray, allowing the Whig opposition to take power.  In 1832 when they made to pass the Great Reform Act, Peel was again opposed, having become Tory leader once more.  However, again Britain was on the brink of civil war, and although Peel did not support it the Reform Act was passed and the Tory party were at their lowest ebb ever.  

The Whig government was not popular, however, and Peel in opposition had a number of opportunities to win back Tory power by damaging the Whigs.  His style of opposition was unusual in that he was willing to cooperate with the party in power to secure what was best for the country as a whole.  This approach was rewarded just two years later when he became prime minister for 100 days between Whig troubles.  Although the Tory party did not achieve anything during this period, it enhanced Peel's reputation inn the country at large.

The Tories had had a justified reputation as an oppressive party of the upper clases, but Peel saw that the reason the Whigs were unpopular was because they were more repressive than they said they would be.  Peel enacted an image change for the Tories in the mid 1830s which put them on a par with the Whigs for public support.  The main tool of this change was the Tamworth Manifesto, an election pledge by Peel that outlined his willingness to consider minor reforms.

The Tory party became known by the less derogatory name of 'conservatives,' and there was a countrywide reorganisation that the Whigs, who were in porwer still, could not keep up with.  This is reflected in the shift of voters from Whigs to Tories throughout the 1830s, and in 1839 Peel actually turned down the cjance to become Prime minister when Queen Victoria refused to restaff her palace with Tories, forcing an ineffectual Whig government to come back to power and show how good Peel and the Tories were by comparison.

In 1841, however, Peel and the conservatives were indeed elected  as government, on the back of promises to protect the country farmers by keeping corn prices high.  Peel's six and a half years in power were distinguished by a free trade policy in economics, and by more trouble with the potato famine in Ireland.  Peel's economic focus was maybe a logical extention of his background in industry, but it won him many enemies who saw it as an all consuming obsession.

His troubles were in Ireland, however, his attempts to appease the Catholic Church were hated by his Party and baely acknowledged by the church, and Peel was seen as a Prime Minister rather than aTory, which obviously made him unpopular with Tories.  Whern he finally decided to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846 his party refused to bacjk him because of the damage this would do to the landowners who were still its primary force, and so Pel resigned from ministry in July 1846.

He lived on as an advisor and elder statesman to politicains of both parties over the next four years, earning a reputation as a heroic figure.  However, he died whilst out riding in 1850, and the crowds of mourners who flocked to his house to pay tribute were testimony to the devotoin he inspired.