The left's favourite Tories: Robert Peel

In the early 1990s, I began spending occasional weekends at my girlfriend's family home on the edges of the old Lancashire mill town of Bury. A prominent local monument was "Peel Tower", named for Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) and positioned high on Holcombe Hill. Even all these years later, Peel is revered in Bury (but not quite as revered as the rock band Elbow). Its grand civic architecture - the town hall, the old library, the wonderful parish church where we were married - bespeaks a lost prosperity and confidence.

I used to talk to my girlfriend's parents, resolute northern Tories, about Peel, the so-called father of the modern Conservative Party and one of the most singular politicians of the Victorian era. In the language of today's politics, Peel was a moderniser. Following the passage of the Reform Act 1832, which the Tories opposed, he knew that the party he had, in effect, created was compelled to reach out to new constituencies, especially the emerging wealthy industrial class. In his Tamworth Manifesto of 1834, he laid out a vision for modern conservatism: reformist, adaptable, reactionary, yet prepared to accept change.

The son of a hugely wealthy self-made industrialist, Peel was educated at Harrow and Oxford, where he took a double First, and then entered the Commons at the age of 21. He was dour, driven and extraordinarily determined. William Gladstone spoke of his mentor's "righteous dullness". As with William Hague today, another talented northern Tory, Peel never lost his accent: it was said that he "guarded his aspirates with extreme care". "He had managed his elocution like his temper," said Benjamin Disraeli, Peel's great tormentor: "neither was originally good."

Peel is best known as the creator of the modern police force; but I most admire him for his struggle to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws. Introduced in 1815, these were tariffs used to keep the price of wheat, oats, barley and other agricultural commodities artificially high, even as bread shortages and the potato famine in Ireland were leading to the misery and deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Peel had demonstrated before that he could be pragmatic and, like a true Tory, he was capable of accommodating democratic agitation. As a young politician he was a Protestant supremacist, and yet, in 1829, he sponsored the Catholic Emancipation Bill, which ended the restriction on Catholics entering parliament.

It was the struggle over repeal of the Corn Laws that defined but also broke Peel's premiership. Harrowed by the plight of the urban poor and the starvation of the Irish peasantry, and instinctively on the side of free trade, he challenged his party over the Corn Laws. Disraeli understood that Peel's difficulty could be his opportunity, and, from the back benches, he led a brilliant and witty rebellion against his prime minister.
Peel eventually won the argument; the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, but only with the support of Whigs and Radicals. The political outcome for him was grave - the government fell and the Conservatives split, with Peel leading a new "Peelite", or liberal Conservative, faction. Prominent among the Peelites was Gladstone, who became leader of the Liberal party, formed out of a coalition of Whigs, Radicals and Peelites.

Peel died in July 1850, shortly after falling from his horse while riding on Constitution Hill in Westminster. He was remembered as an austere and cold utilitarian, the embodiment of an unrelenting Protestant work ethic. But he was on the right side in the conflict over protectionism and the Corn Laws, and courageously used the power and privilege of the prime minister's office to challenge the hegemony of the feudal landowning class, even at the expense of splitting his own party.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman