by Douglas Hurd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Robert Peel, the 19th century British Prime Minister, appeared as a supporting character in a number of things I've read and watched in the last year. I had a growing intuition that Peel is the sort of leader our nation will require in the next generation to recover from our current crisis. So, I wanted to know more about him.
This biography is written by Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign and Home Secretary, writing as a contemporary Conservative politician on the founder of the Conservative party. Hurd's asides comparing Peel and his time to issues in our time are part of the joy of the book.
In short, I have come away from the book hoping that America will find someone like Peel to help lead us in the middle of this century. But, yet, how unlikely that will be because Peel is so singular and rare. We can only hope.
Peel created the modern police force, revised the entire English economy, helped to reform the church, reformed the banking system, completed negotiations with the US settling our northern border, revised the entire English criminal code, and helped open public office to Roman Catholics. But his greatest achievement, according to Hurd, was establishing free trade as the dominant global force it has become.
What Hurd admires most about Peel's position on free trade, is that Peel did not make it a matter of negotiation with other nations, with some quid pro quo. He eliminated English tariffs unilaterally because he felt it the right thing to do. Primarily that it would lower the cost of living for the poor and working classes, helping to improve their lives. And also that the bounties of nature (God's blessings) ought to be able to move about the world freely to the benefit of all.
Peel's form of conservatism was devoted to some key ideals and values, not any dogmatic positions on issues and policies. For he radically changed his mind on major issues more than once--Catholic emancipation and the Corn Laws being the two supreme examples. Where others, such as Benjamin Disraeli, saw hypocrisy and equivocation, Peel saw his changes of mind as furthering the core values.
Those were conservative values of maintaining order and stability and moving slowly and deliberately to change and only when the facts and reason compelled it. Peel studied the French Revolution in-depth, clearly in an attempt to understand what forces had led to it and how to avoid something similar in Britain. So his changes of mind on major issues were often because he realized that to hold dogmatically to a position would invite social discord and lead to the destruction of the things he valued most. He could not grasp why other conservatives did not understand this.
So his concerns to alleviate poverty did not arise from some deep humanitarian feeling--quite the contrary--but because he saw poverty as leading to social disorder and revolution. Therefore poverty should be alleviated.
He was also committed to diplomacy and a quieter, persuasive foreign policy. The more adventurous foreign policy of Palmerston, for instance, appalled him. He thought a strong nation was made stronger by persuading others to adopt its values (Hurd has a little commentary on recent American foreign policy at this point).
In the introduction Hurd writes that 150 years is a relatively short time in the life of a nation (a sentence I marveled at as an American) while making the point that the issues dominant in Peel's day are not completely gone from British life and his solutions created the systems still followed.
Peel was pragmatic, studied deeply, worked hard, led decisively, was convinced by facts and reason to change his mind, and was devoted and loyal to family and friends. Even when he was the leader of the opposition, he argued that it was wrong to oppose everything the Whigs did, that instead the proper role for the opposition was to help for the good of the country to achieve the best legislative outcomes. He also thought that doing so built trust that would lead to electoral success, and he was proven right.
So I read this book with a deep sense of admiration and sadness at the current plight of America and what we lack in our political leaders.
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