When the Conservatives under Peel attained power in 1841, they inherited a nation filled with unrest and discontent (i.e. due to ‘knife and fork’ issues, e.g. Chartism) and a huge budget deficit (estimated at ï¿½7.5 million). The Peel Ministry (although often Peel with his ministry in tow) therefore carried out major reforms concerning welfare and trade in order to solve the problems left by the preceding Whig administration.
One interpretation of these reforms is that they were successful in developing Britain as a welfare state. In terms of economic policy, Peel’s boldness was manifested in the 1842 budget, when he re-introduced the income tax for those earning more than ï¿½150 a year, arguing that the poor already had to spend a lot of their income on regressive taxes on many articles of consumption (e.g. sugar), and reduced import duties, in order to boost the economy and stabilise a discontented society. His aim was to make Britain a cheaper place to live, thereby silencing the discontent.
The success of these measures can be seen in the fact that the aforementioned deficit which Peel inherited was into a ï¿½5 million surplus by 1845, and the fact that after Peel was forced to resign, there was a mid-Victorian boom, a golden age of prosperity, which can attributed to these measures among others. In addition to these, the social reforms carried out by the Peel administration included the Mines Act (1843), which ensures that women, girls and boys under 10 could not work in the mines, which is a clear success for the advancement of basic human rights, and the Factory Act, which restricted the working hours of women and children and increased hours of schooling per day, which is yet another advancement in human rights, and thus can be considered a success.
Finally, the repeal of the Corn Law, which was both economic and social reform, was the greatest achievement of the Peel ministry: Peel’s reasoning for the removal of the laws put in place in 1815 by Lord Liverpool was the shortage of food, the threat of the Anti-Corn Law League and, in the short term, the Irish Famine of 1845. The repeal ensured slightly lower prices, no wild price fluctuations and did not result in the ruin of British farmers, thus it can be seen as a huge success. These reforms, then, set Britain on the path to becoming a modern and more equal society.
However, a different interpretation is that Peel’s stubbornness and inflexibility resulted in the destruction of the Conservative Party, and that some of the reforms carried out were not successful. For example, the Maynooth Grant (1835) cannot be classed as a success, as it not only split the Tory party and caused unrest in Parliament, but it did not affect the Irish very much, who were in need of more food rather than more trained priests. This shows a failure on the part of Peel’s ministry. Moreover, despite all the reforms Peel passed in order to silence the Chartist threat, he had to resort to violence (i.e. using troops) in an attempt to stop it, and even after this violence, there was still a third petition in 1848, showing Peel’s ineffectiveness.
Furthermore, the repeal of the Corn Law does not put an end to the Irish Famine, as there was no foreign food to import, perhaps showing the repeal to be a result of Peel’s stubbornness rather than his care for the nation. Finally, much of the legislation passed acted against the landed interest, which included many Conservative MPs, thus Peel alienated many influential people who were perhaps already wary of him after his support for Catholic Emancipation. The repeal of the Corn Laws was the catalyst for the forced resignation of Peel and the second collapse of the Conservative Party in as many decades. The Conservatives would be out of any consistent power for around 40 years now, as a result of the incessant and excessive reforms of the Peel administration.
The reforms of the Peel ministry, then, were a success in that they made British society more equal; however, the Conservative Party was a high price to pay for the often partial successes of destructive reforms.