As conservatives respond to the tectonic shifts going on in both the country and American society, they should consider adopting the wisdom of nineteenth-century British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel for their current predicament.
Today, Peel is probably best known for his work on police reform–British cops are known as “Bobbies” in his honor. (His principles for police work are still valid.) But his greater historical significance comes from his 12-year tenure as the leader of the British Conservative Party. Specifically, Peel offers some useful counsel in the face of a changing society, and his approach should be heeded by American conservatives.
Peel came to power within the Conservative Party in 1834 with what is now known as the Tamworth Manifesto, in which he declared his tacit and conditional support for the Reform Act of 1832. Conservatives had vigorously opposed previous proposed Reform Acts, and the Reform Act of 1832 was no exception. The act expanded the franchise substantially and reorganized the seats in the House of Commons. But Peel proposed a different tack, writing:
With respect to the Reform Bill itself, I will repeat now the declaration I made when I entered the House of Commons as a member of the Reformed Parliament – that I consider the Reform Bill a final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question – a settlement which no friend to the peace and welfare of this country would attempt to disturb, either by direct or by insidious means.
Then, as to the spirit of the Reform Bill, and the willingness to adopt and enforce it as a rule of government: if, by adopting the spirit of the Reform Bill, it be meant that we are to live in a perpetual vortex of agitation; that public men can only support themselves in public estimation by adopting every popular impression of the day, – by promising the instant redress of anything which anybody may call an abuse – by abandoning altogether that great aid of government – more powerful than either law or reason – the respect for ancient rights, and the deference to prescriptive authority; if this be the spirit of the Reform Bill, I will not undertake to adopt it. But if the spirit of the Reform Bill implies merely a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances, – in that case, I can for myself and colleagues undertake to act in such a spirit and with such intentions.
Even at the beginning of his tenure, Peel knew when a fight was not worth having; the Reform Bill had passed, and, provided that it did not lead to chaos or present a danger to established institutions, he would not oppose it. Indeed, he would support reforms that he thought were likely to bolster the long-term sustainability of the established order. He kept this same broad approach throughout his tenure. Two examples in particular stand out.
First was his handling of the funding shortfalls of a Catholic seminary in Maynooth, Ireland. Since the Act of Union of 1800, British Parliament had funded a Catholic seminary in Maynooth with an annual grant of 9,000 pounds. The money was inadequate, though, and, by 1844, Peel believed that the poor condition of the seminary served to dissuade potential students from the upper ranks of Irish society from attending. Peel wanted a portion of the students to be from well-to-do backgrounds because they would be less likely to sympathize with radical Irish nationalist movements. Essentially, Peel believed that increasing funding to the seminary would increase the number of applicants, thereby creating a larger pool of “respectable” Catholic priests that were less likely to be nationalist agitators than their lower-class counterparts.
This was not a particularly popular position among the Tories. For many years, the Conservative Party had been seen as the nation’s defender of traditional institutions, one of which was the Church of England. Funding a “competing” religious institution would be a challenge to this. Indeed, Peel himself had spent much of his early political career as an opponent of Catholic Emancipation. Here, however, he acted pragmatically. Peel urged the passage of the additional funds, which provided for an immediate grant of 30,000 pounds for repairs and an increase in the size of the total annual grant of 200%.
This divided the Conservative Party, but Peel felt that increasing the grant to Maynooth would help to show some of the more moderate Irish that the British government was not entirely opposed to their interests. He also thought that moderating the composition of the priesthood might prevent future revolutionaries from emerging. Peel sought to use government funding to undercut the support that Irish dissidents had gained by campaigning in favor of an independent Ireland.
More famous is Peel’s backing of the repeal of the Corn Laws, or Britain’s longstanding agricultural tariffs. Peel was probably never a dyed-in-the-wool free trader; he had alluded to potential changes to the tariff in the early 1840s, and he backed an income tax as an alternative source of revenue. But it took a famous crisis to make Peel move on the issue: the Irish potato famine.
By November 1845, the situation in Ireland was clear: the island faced a massive and virtually unprecedented food crisis—the society relied heavily on the potato, and a staggering percentage of the potato crop had been wiped out by the blight. Private English charity would not sustain the Irish population. And, in addition to the ongoing human disaster, Peel worried about both increased Irish dissent and British radicals using the famine as a way to attack the entire system of landholding. This wasn’t a far-fetched fear; at the time, the Anti-Corn Law League was generating votes through land purchases with the overall aim of challenging the present order of a landed aristocracy. (Even after the Reform Act of 1832, the franchise was limited to landholders and renters who paid a certain level of rent. Strategic purchases of land in critical districts could swing electorates.)
Repeal of the Corn Laws would decrease the price of food coming into Britain, and potentially help alleviate the famine in Ireland. Ideally, this would head off more aggressive efforts for transformation of British society. Peel pushed a budget that repealed the Corn Laws and reduced many other tariffs. He did this with the support of the opposition Whigs, and very few Conservatives, who were strong backers of the tariff. Peel’s actions cost him his Prime Ministership, but the proof of Peel’s wisdom was in the pudding: the British aristocracy was not displaced or discarded. On the contrary, Britain experienced economic prosperity and growth throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, the product, in part, of a remarkably stable political regime. Moreover, it avoided much of the tumult that enveloped the European continent in 1848.
If there is one lesson to take from Peel, it is that to preserve what is essential in society, it is often necessary to tinker with it and reform it. Peel supported increasing the funding at Maynooth to attempt to weaken potential Irish nationalism, and he sought a repeal of the Corn Laws to prevent a radical transformation of English landholding. In both cases, prudential reform reduced the likelihood of bad outcomes.
Fast forward to today. America’s “conservative” party, the Republicans, are at something of a high-water mark in terms of American politics. But their position is quite precarious at this time.
First, although the party is in power, there is enormous intraparty dissent brewing. Old-line Republican and former presidential candidate John McCain has flat-out accused libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul of working for Vladimir Putin. Senator Tom Cotton has been a vocal critic of Paul Ryan’s PPACA replacement. There is a core Republican Party that is torn between its traditional principles and nascent Trumpism, but there is also a loud #NeverTrump faction and an increasingly assertive white nationalist fringe. Currently, the GOP is broad, but almost too much so to put forward a coherent, unified agenda.
Second, parties in power are mostly judged by the effectiveness of the president. And President Trump has yet to demonstrate competence in the face of a crisis. To date, Trump has faced several crises of his own making and has muddled through. But what about an unexpected crisis, or an economic recession? If he handles it badly, Trump and the Republicans will be punished by voters.
Third, although they are out of power, progressives have mobilized an effective opposition and growing public support. Anecdotally, it appears that inexperienced or previous low-information voters have become activated by their opposition to Trump, participating in street protests and remaining engaged in American politics to a level far beyond what we’ve seen after previous elections. These might represent loyal future progressive voters. Most distressingly for conservatives, progressive policies and figures appear increasingly popular. Bernie Sanders has a 61 percent approval rating, which is substantially higher than his 44 percent rating from March 2016. (Sanders’ approval rating probably wouldn’t survive a tough campaign. But surely this should be a warning sign for conservatives that a substantial share of people are open to socialism.) The Affordable Care Act is up to 50 percent approval, likely because people fear losing health care security in the face of new policy changes.
Put this all together, and the future is dangerous for conservatives: Republicans have power but no real unity behind a governing agenda. The president is, at best, dangerously inexperienced, and Republicans will be graded in the 2018 and 2020 elections on how well he performs. And the Democrats are turning fairly hard to the Left.
Modern-day Britain has had a similar experience with an emerging Left, as Jeremy Corbyn has taken control of Labour. But their Conservative Party has been substantially more responsible under Prime Minister Theresa May. May has forged a different path, pushing for a new direction for the ruling Conservative Party.
The Conservative Party will always believe in free markets. And that’s precisely why it’s this party that should act to defend them.
From Edmund Burke onwards, Conservatives have always understood that if you want to preserve something important, you need to be prepared to reform it. We must apply that same approach today.
That’s why where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene.
This is vintage Robert Peel: support a reform to stave off the public interest in worse solutions. Instead of burying her head in the sand, May has opted to engage with the public demand for reform. Labour is marginalized, and the Conservatives are responsive.
But in a Britain where the Conservative Party were not responsive to public concerns, or ineffectual, or incompetent, a Corbyn-like figure would stand a better chance of coming to power. That’s the dangerous territory for the American Republican Party, where after four ineffectual years, Donald Trump could face a Left candidate like an Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Kamala Harris–none of whom are quite as out there as Corbyn–and lose, badly. Replacing the large, aimless Republican majority would be a disciplined Democratic coalition, more ideologically homogenous and more used to the transactional politics needed to hold together a ruling majority.
So, what is to be done? Unfortunately, any advice on this is now perhaps somewhat outdated–the die may well be cast, the future may be headed in a certain direction. And Republicans currently are divided between the profligate impulses of the president and their past rhetorical and philosophical commitments to shrinking the size and reducing the role of government. What’s occurred to date is the blending of those two tendencies. But a third tendency would be welcome: conservatives need to abandon their now-quixotic quest for a massive rollback of the role of government, and work to use the federal government, in limited ways, to address public concerns.
The election of 2016 should prove it for good: neither Republican voters nor Democratic voters are particularly interested in small government. It’s easy to say that philosophically, government should not be in the business of spending money on health care or education. After a shock to the system, what emerged might be better. But this has two flaws. First, conservatives must be cognizant of path dependency and the dangers of massive dislocation; there are systems in place deeply intertwined with the federal government, and, as much as there might be better approaches in theory, blowing them up is risky policy that might not work as intended. Second, causing mass disruption that does not address the public desire for security in healthcare and education is likely unsustainable, as Republicans will be rebuked at the polls, and victorious Democrats will claim a mandate for aggressive government action.
Conservatives need not abandon their position in support of constitutionally-limited government. Quite the contrary: it should retain that as part of the American settlement worth conserving. But to do so, it is crucial for the GOP to develop an agenda that addresses the major concerns in ways that are both fiscally responsible and politically responsive. Two areas stand out with problems of cost and access: health care and education. For health care, conservatives should consider approaches like guaranteed federal reinsurance on catastrophic expenses, and increased out-of-pocket expenditures for predictable health care expenses, with a sliding scale of subsidies targeted at lower-income Americans. For education, conservatives should explore accreditation reform, better career-training incentives, and incentives for disaggregating educational programs (so that individuals can seek out high-quality higher education without necessarily needing to pay for four years). As it prefers, the GOP can move responsibilities for these areas to state governments, with the federal government setting standards.
In the absence of responsible Republican policymaking, Democrats will fill the void and create policies that are politically responsive. But their solutions likely will deprioritize the fiscal responsibility piece, and will almost assuredly emphasize centralization and additional federal responsibilities.
Robert Peel, arguably, would have understood the necessity for reform in the face of a greater danger, and Theresa May certainly does, today. But does the Republican Party?
**Much of the historical information in this article comes from two sources: Norman Gash’s biography of Robert Peel from 1972, and T.A. Jenkins’ more recent treatment. Jenkins saw Peel as a traditional conservative, writing, “Peel himself remained unrepentant about the course he had adopted. . . . [he viewed] his actions as those of a true Conservative who, through timely concession, had prevented circumstances from arising which might have posed a grave threat to the social and political authority of the ruling elite.” It is worth noting that some scholars view Peel as having grown more reformist throughout his life, being a sort of Conservative-in-Name-Only by the end of his political career. For this view, Boyd Hilton’s “Peel: A Reappraisal” is a good example.
Image by ell brown