Robert Peel in Government 1841-46

 

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By 1841 the Whigs were in total disarray. Facing a deficit of 2,500 000, they seemed utterly bereft of political enthusiasm or ideas. Peel won a clear majority of 80 seats at the general election and gathered a strong team around him - Wellington, Aberdeen, Stanley and, later, Gladstone. In an England in the depths of depression those suffering, and those concerned, proposed many different remedies such as Chartism, Corn Law repeal and cooperation.

 

It is important to note here that Peel made the surprising - and radical - decision that a bold policy of fiscal (tax) and financial reform was needed to resolve England's economic problems. 'We must,' he wrote to Croker, 'make this country a cheap country for living.' Is this an example of Peel understanding the nature of the industrial revolution?

 

Free trade budgets

Peel first turned his attention to the Corn Laws and revised the sliding scale of 1828. He now wanted to substitute 'fair protection' as opposed to total prohibition of corn imports.. Corn imports were allowed below 73 shillings a quarter but, to the Tories, this was unpleasant medicine and kick started a ripple of nervousness among Protectionist back-benchers. Cobden (the great free trader) on the other hand, saw it as a tinkering measure - 'a bitter insult to a suffering nation.' It was to tariff (customs duties) revision, however, that Peel looked for rapid improvement in the country's economic position. By lowering tariffs (currently paid on over 1200 articles) he hoped to stimulate trade and manufacturing in Britain.

 

It is essential that you know in some detail the details of what came to be known as Peel's great 'free-trade' budgets of 1842 and 1845. (This is in Lowe or Watts. Basically, a sliding scale of tariff duties and selective remissions was introduced during the ministry and, by 1847, over 8,000,000 in government customs and excise revenue had been lost. In 1841 Peel reintroduced income tax to make good the current deficit left by the Whigs and then continued it to balance his future tariff concessions.

 

Despite the loss of 8,000,000 in tariffs, Peel's government was in surplus by 1846. This was a magnificent achievement, fully vindicating Peel's bold fiscal approach. Admittedly, he was aided by a run of good harvests and a railway-building boom which encouraged investment, industry and employment. But it was an ambitious programme which deserved success.

 

To support these free-trade measures he introduced a Bank Charter Act in 1844. This completed the work he had begun in 1819, prepared the way for the supremacy of the Bank of England and restored confidence in the pound. It aimed to give confidence to investors who risked their money in developing new industries like the railways. Opinion is divided on the success of this Act, but all agree that the Companies Act which followed (which enacted that all companies must now register and display an annual balance sheet) actually encouraged business and public confidence, and stimulated investment.

 

An alternative view of the work of his ministry, however, might be that Peel's interest in the economy was not his only preoccupation. As PM he was concerned with national defence and, indeed, increased expenditure on the army and navy from 1841-6. Secondly, he was concerned with problems of law and order and dealt firmly with Chartism in England and O'Connell's attack on the Union in Ireland. Peel was also concerned about national unity and pursued policies such as taxation and tariffs which would benefit all citizens and not just special interest groups. Nor was he inflexibly opposed to social reform.

 

Social reforms

Peel, once characterised as 'a businessman who brought business methods to government', is justly famous for his financial and administrative measures. He was a brilliant administrator and financier, rather than a social reformer. As was shown by his monetarist approach to the 'condition of England' question when he took office in 1841, he did not believe that the state could solve problems by intervention. Yet his ministry was not devoid of social reform achieved by state intervention: a Mines Act was passed in 1842, a Factory Act in 1844, and - after Chadwick's investigations into the sanitary condition of the labouring poor had prompted the setting up of a Royal Commission - a Public Health Act under Russell.

 

The complicated and detailed administrative work of Peel's ministry was helped enormously by the 'administrative revolution in government' which occurred in the 1830s and 184Os. During these years the foundation of the Civil Service was laid, more efficient procedures were devised to speed up parliamentary legislation and more dedicated administrators appointed to supervise all aspects of government work.