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10 July 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 12:21pm

Why today’s MPs should learn a lesson from the age of Robert Peel

The loss of the Conservative majority gives us an opportunity, not only to defeat the Tories next time but to change the country now. 

By George Howarth

Since the unexpected and welcome loss of the Conservative majority in the House of Commons on June 8, commentators have searched for parallels to previous parliaments. The most obvious example being with 1974, when Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street – initially with no overall majority and, subsequently, following a second general election, a tiny majority of three.

There are, indeed, some similarities. As is the case with historical comparisons to contemporary events, however, they are always inexact. Society has changed, politics has moved on and economic circumstances in the UK today are very different to those of the 1970s.

With that health warning in mind, there is another comparison that can be made: the current House of Commons is, in some respects, similar to that following Robert Peel’s abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846. Moreover, in terms of the issues that divided the country and, correspondingly, parliament, there are some striking similarities.

First, the economic clashes in a rapidly changing economy, as a result of the industrial revolution, which centered around Britain’s trade relationships with other emerging economies, particularly as regards tariffs. Free-traders, spearheaded by the Anti-Corn Law League, saw the future in terms of reducing or abolishing tariffs for the raw materials needed to feed a burgeoning capitalist economy and for selling goods abroad. There was also a populist element to the League’s case, as they characterised tariffs on imported grain as “stomach taxes” – high protectionist tariffs, it was argued, artificially inflated staple food prices, such as bread, in order to keep agricultural prices high. The politics were, therefore, about those concerned about being left behind (the agricultural interests), pitted against the nascent industrial modernisers, who saw low or tariff-free international trade as the way to future prosperity (an early iteration of globalisation).

This dichotomy between the essentially nationalist and protectionist agricultural interests and the more internationalist industrialist interest, in turn, created divisions in Parliament.

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The Tory Peelites, although still nominally Tory, had little in common with the more protectionist pro-agricultural mainstream of their party, which settled around the leadership of Derby, Bentinck and Disraeli – the latter, typically, seizing the personal opportunity for the advancement that the parliamentary arithmetic presented.

The Whigs, newly emerging liberals and radicals were similarly divided, as often as not by social status than political approach, but that is not to underestimate the political differences that undoubtedly existed between the factions.

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One further parallel is the potentially pivotal role of Irish MPs, although today it is not so much Irish nationalists who hold sway, but unionists.

It needs to be borne in mind, however, that prior to the limited extension of the franchise in 1867, it was a very limited form of democracy. Estimates suggest that the number of men eligible to vote roughly doubled, from just over one million prior to the 1867 Reform Act to around 2.2m afterwards. Some men would have been eligible to cast multiple votes, owing to business voting and the existence of university constituencies. This electorate is from an estimated population of 21million in England & Wales. 

Nevertheless, this meant that party allegiances were weak and on big issues such as tariff reform, could be almost meaningless. Moreover, unlike today, constituencies – as a result of the limited franchise with some notorious rotten boroughs – were, in many cases, little more than ships of convenience for the MPs that served them. Gladstone, probably one of the most peripatetic MPs in history, served five constituencies during his long parliamentary career. In Burke’s famous dictum, MPs were representatives, free to exercise their judgement as they saw fit, with little or no regard for the views or often the interests of their constituents.

The net effect, was that party loyalty was, at best, nominal and, when it came to the big issues of the day, MPs were at liberty to follow either their personal interests (agricultural or business), or in the case of people like Disraeli, to use the fluidity of the political situation to hold on to power, appeasing the different sentiments to secure a majority for the government’s business in parliament.

The consequence was that individual or sub-groups of MPs could use their individual or collective weight, to secure often highly significant amendments to legislation.

It is tempting to try to draw some comparisons between leading figures from that time and today. David Cameron would be a prime candidate for Peel and, as events unfold in the Tory party, perhaps Boris Johnson (or, dark horse, Michael Gove) as Disraeli, with Jeremy Corbyn as “radical Jack” Durham. But it would be a bit of a stretch to do so: different times, different politics and a very different society.

One parallel that does hold, however, is that MPs and sub-groups of MPs have potentially more power in their hands than at any time since the period following the repeal of the Corn Laws. Even though party loyalties are more well defined and the whipping system much more effective, there are potential alliances to be built across the floor of the House of Commons on, for example, what our future relations with the EU should be, funding for public services, scandals like contaminated blood, and doing right by the WASPI women.

The early indications are that this process is already having an effect of parliamentary business. Stella Creasy’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech on funding abortions in England for women from Northern Ireland is a case in point. And there are signals that the government is having to reassess its approach to the cap on public sector pay.

For Labour, of course, the priority has to be as soon as we get the opportunity to take the next step and win a parliamentary majority. In the meantime, however, as MPs, where appropriate co-operating with like-minded MPs from other parties on specific issues, we can actually make a difference and have a positive influence on some important issues that affect people’s lives, and the future of our country.