2 JUNE 1961, Page 24

Statesman at Work

Mr. Secretary Peel. By Norman Gash. (Longmans, 70s.)

FOR many years after his death Peel had 'a bad press' among historians. Indeed, as long as any flicker remained of the ideological battle between, Tories and Liberals—and it has been snuffed out only quite recently—writers could not easily look at his career with that mixture of interest and detachment which produces good history. Those with a Tory bias were unable to forget that he 'betrayed the party' in 1846, and a certain un- easiness about the conduct of their own hero, Disraeli, on that occasion did not make them any fonder of Peel. Liberals, while praising him for his attitude over the Corn Laws, felt that he belonged to the wrong party. In their eyes his fame was inevitably eclipsed by that of his disciple and protege, Gladstone. Left-wing writers tended to dismiss him as unsympathetic over hours of labour. Biographers in search of the picturesque and sensational found him a stiff, dull and unrewarding character.

For these reasons, and others no doubt, there has never been a proper full-scale biography. Parker's three volumes are a collection of letters, not a connected book. There is a useful short study by Miss Ramsay. There is, of course, Dr. Kitson Clark's great work, Peel and the Con- servative Party, but this is effectively confined to a short period, the eight years between the Reform Bill and Peel's accession to power in 1841. Professor Gash, who is already well known for his able study of parliamentary representa- tion from 1830 to 1850, Politics in the Age of Peel, has now produced the first volume of the long-needed biography. It is very much in the grand manner, nearly 700 pages covering Peel's career until the fall of Wellington's government at the end of 1830. It is admirably written, based on the most careful scholarship, and is likely to be the definitive work on the subject for very many years to come. Some reviewers have com- plained at the length and expense of the book. I cannot agree. It is not as if there already existed a multi-volume biography like Morley's Gladstone, or Monypenny and Buckle on Disraeli. As for expense, a book on this scale cannot be cheap, and it is admirably printed and produced. At the time that this volume ends, the most significant part of Peel's career lay ahead of him, but he had notable achievements to his credit even then. He began his official career by be- coming Lord Liverpool's under-secretary in the Department of War and Colonies in 1810 when he was only twenty-two. From 1812 to 1818 he was Irish Secretary—a post which almost ex- hausted his energies. A brief respite followed, during which he married. Then at the end of 1821 he became Home Secretary and held that position, with a short break during the Canning- Goderich administration, until 1830. He was a tremendous worker. The Dean of Christ Church, Jackson, wrote to his former pupil: Work very hard and unremittingly. Work, as I used to say sometimes, like a tiger, or like a dragon, if dragons work more and harder than tigers. Don't be afraid of killing yourself. Only retain, which is essential, your former temper- ance and exercise, and your aversion to mere lounge.

The advice was unnecessary. Peel only took one real holiday during his six years as Irish Secre- tary. He found time in the interlude which fol- lowed to preside over a currency committee of major importance, and to introduce the Bill based on its conclusions. As Home Secretary he reformed the prisons, reshaped the penal laws, humanised the criminal code, created -a metropolitan police force, and all ttie while had to face the difficulties of preserving order amidst a turbulent and semi-starving population. He regularly worked fifteen to eighteen hours a day during the session. From the moment that he determined successfully to achieve a double first at Oxford until the end of his life, no one could have been more averse to 'mere lounge.' Peel's great gifts were essentially administra- tive. He was not a man of ideas, nor had he the far-seeing vision of a political genius. Events were apt to catch him up and take him by sur- prise, deeply immersed as he was in day-to-day problems of government. It is significant that of the first •twenty • years of a political life which began very early, he spent fifteen in office. For Gladstone the corresponding period was six, and for Disraeli, who did not even get into Parliament until he was thirty-two, it was a mere tea months. Peel had little time to reflect, or to perceive the vast mental and social changes convulsing the revolutionary era in which he lived.

As an administrator [writes Professor Gash] he saw life through the medium of official correspondence and official callers, life in fact as it appeared from a desk . . . life at one remove, not as he lived it but as it came to him for attention, repair, and regulation.

The three great problems of the period in which he lived, Irish Catholicism, parliamentary re- form and the Corn Law crisis, all found him in varying degrees unprepared. In all three cases

he suddenly saw that the line which he had hitherto taken was no longer possible. During the next political generation statesmen thu0 situated had a simple answer: either they could resign and allow the government to be carried On by the alternative set of Ministers which art organised opposition could always provide; or they could dissolve, and endeavour to secure a mandate from the electorate. Neither of these courses was necessarily open w Peel. An appeal to a factious, corrupt and limited electorate solved nothing, and frequently there did not exist any organised opposition able or willing to provide an alternative ministry. Peel believed that it was the first duty of the efficient profes- sional politician to carry on the King's govern- ment, even if this sometimes meant abandon- ment of a policy hitherto defended with vigour. Such conduct was not necessarily reprehensible in days of very different usages and conventions from those prevailing- in the later part of the nineteenth century.

Professor Gash analyses Peel's character with much acumen. He was not a popular figure. His experiences in Ireland caused him early to adopt a frigid and repellent demeanour : you had only to smile, for an Irishman to assume at once that you would give a pension to his uncle, or a col- lectorship of excise to his brother. Peel chose effectively to conceal a naturally warm-hearted personality. His manner of half-closing his eyes when speaking in the House gave him a super- cilious appearance. He was rather too conscious of his own rectitude, and rather too fond of the first person singular. He was never to be a good manager of men, and this unpopularity resulted in his conduct being scrutinised with,a special degree of hostility. There were curious unre- solved strains and stresses in Peel's make-up, which prevented him behaving naturally, and he lacked humility.

By the end of this book we have a wonderfully thorough portrait of one of the most remark- able statesmen in our history. We also have a profound and illuminating study of politics be- tween Waterloo and the Reform Bill. It will be fascinating to see what Professor Gash makes of the second and even more controversial part of Peel's life.