Hurd traces the life and career of the first 'Conservative' Prime Minister, a man whose career started in the days of Rotten Boroughs and a monarch (George IV) who played an active part in government to the beginnings of the party system with mostly-contested elections and manifestos and a monarch (Victoria) who was soon sidelined after her initial meddling. And on the way he helped ensure that Roman Catholics could become MPs, he created the first organised police force, he reformed a chaotic penal code, he sorted out the US-Canada border, he helped the Whigs bring in the Great Reform Act, he reformed working conditions for women and children in mines and factories, and, during the Irish famine, he repealed the Corm Laws which imposed tariffs on imported corn, keeping the price of bread artificially high. In order to get this last piece of legislation through he had to battle against his own right wing; he split his own party and carried the vote with the help of the Whigs and Radicals in opposition. He was therefore remembered in two ways: as a turncoat who twice (Catholic emancipation and the Corn Laws) abandoned earlier principles and the self-interested principles of his own party and as a man who put the well-being of the ordinary people, particularly those who had no vote, before the interests of faction.
Unfortunately, Hurd is writing in 2007. He assumes that the Tory hard right (the 'Ultras' as Peel called them, the 'sour right' as Hurd labels them) are a self-destructive lot who will never win power as mainstream Conservatives; in the aftermath of Brexit we now know that to be wrong. He also assumes that Peel's repeal of the Corn Laws, a unilateral abandonment of a key tariff, was the first step in an unstoppable journey towards globalisation and free trade. In the aftermath of Brexit this is another conclusion that now looks unsupportable.
Some great moments:
- "The Conservative Party will always include within its ranks those who in Peel's time were called the Ultras - men, and now women too, who instinctively resist change and pine for a golden age that never was." (Introduction)
- "If a man was clever and not ashamed of it, then it was thought almost certain that he was using his cleverness for manoeuvres and deceits from which decent men should recoil." (Ch 7)
- "Croker though Canning should be Prime Minister, but believed 'he could hardly take tea without a stratagem'." (Ch 7)
- "The second and smaller group of Ultras are the sour Right. There is nothing warm or nostalgic about their politics. Many of them are intelligent and sincere; but there appeal is to the prejudices and cruelty which are part of human nature." (Ch 7)
- "Politicians are often in a state of outrage. They find it a convenient condition for a day or two. They usually recover quickly and get on with the other pleasures of life." (Ch 9)
A well-written and eminently readable biography of a politician whose multiple achievements deserve to be better known.
July 2021; 397 pages