Wellington and Catholic Emancipation, 1829

By the 1820s, most of the old restrictions on Irish Catholics (and, indeed, Catholics elsewhere in Britain) had been removed, but they were still debarred by their faith from sitting in parliament. Irish nationalist demands for Catholic emancipation were loud, but for Tory backbenchers the exclusion of Catholics from parliament had become a talisman guaranteeing the apparent superiority both of the Protestant religion and of parliament itself.


So it was with incredulity that, in 1829, parliamentarians greeted an emancipation bill presented by the impeccably Tory and protestant Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert “Orange” Peel. Their hand had been forced by an Irish Catholic lawyer, Daniel O’Connell, who – because there was nothing stopping Catholics standing for election – had stood successfully in the 1828 County Clare byelection. Given his enthusiastic mass Catholic support, Peel and Wellington feared serious disturbances in Ireland if he were to be denied his seat, hence the emancipation bill.

A caricature shows Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, chased by a Protestant mob
A caricature shows Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, chased by a Protestant mob after his support of Catholic Emancipation. (Image by Getty)

Although the bill passed, Wellington and Peel’s U-turn disgusted the Tories, making them even more determined to resist upcoming proposals for parliamentary reform. It was a futile stand, which brought down Wellington’s government and effectively kept them out of power for ten years.


Robert Peel and the Corn Laws, 1846

Received wisdom was that the Tory party stood for landowners and for protecting against the cheap import of grain. That was until, in 1846, the Tory prime minister Sir Robert Peel repealed the protectionist Corn Laws and allowed foreign corn to flow freely into the country.

Tory prime minister Sir Robert Peel.
Tory prime minister Sir Robert Peel. (Image by Getty Images)

The Corn Laws were of enormous symbolic importance, because their repeal signalled Britain’s decisive move away from protection towards free trade. Peel had been slowly won over by the arguments of the Manchester-based Anti-Corn Law League, a radical middle-class movement that held little appeal for his conservative landowning backbenchers. The impetus for Peel’s U-turn came with the 1845 outbreak of the Great Famine in Ireland. The humanitarian case for the free flow of food, and for economic prosperity to combat the poverty that had caused the famine, was compelling. In the teeth of bitter opposition from his backbenchers, Peel passed his measure with the support of his Whig opponents; as soon as it was safely passed into law, they promptly brought him down. Internal arguments over the Corn Laws and rancour over Peel’s fall kept the Tories out of real power for a generation.


Disraeli and the Franchise, 1867

Thirty years on from the 1832 ‘Great’ Reform Act, by the 1860s the question of who should be allowed to vote once more dominated political debate. The trade union movement showed many in the working classes to be responsible and trustworthy, but how far among them should the franchise extend? In 1866, Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone, who had already committed himself to a working-class franchise, proposed a Reform Bill that would extend the vote to the more prosperous working men, paying £7 rental a year in the boroughs, and £14 in the counties.

A Punch cartoon showing Disraeli 'dusting off' the 1859 Reform Bill
A Punch cartoon showing Disraeli 'dusting off' the 1859 Reform Bill. (Image by Getty Images)

Even this relatively modest extension of the vote was too much for the Conservatives, particularly Gladstone’s great rival, Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli denounced the proposal as dangerously radical and, with the help of disgruntled Liberals, was able to defeat the bill and bring the Liberal government down. Yet Disraeli then brought in his own Reform Bill , accepting all amendments to it except Gladstone’s, with the result that his bill extended the vote to far more working people than Gladstone’s bill had ever envisaged.

Gladstone was left speechless by Disraeli’s unprincipled U-turn, which gave Disraeli the undeserved credit for the working-class vote. However, it did him little good: the new working-class voters promptly used their vote to put the Conservatives out and Gladstone back into office.

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Wilson and prescription charges, 1968

Founding the NHS in 1948 was one of the proudest achievements of Clement Attlee’s Labour government, but its spiralling costs soon plunged it into crisis. Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health, was adamant that NHS treatment should remain free – but the Chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell, having to fund Britain’s involvement in the Korean War, thought prescription charges essential. As a result, in 1951 he introduced charges for dental treatment and spectacles on the NHS. Bevan, by then in a different post, resigned in fury.

Labour leader Harold Wilson
Labour leader Harold Wilson made a U-turn on prescription charges in 1968. (Image by Getty Images)

Wider prescription charges were subsequently introduced by the Conservatives in 1952, but Labour leader Harold Wilson, who had stood by Bevan on the issue, fought the 1964 election on a promise to abolish them. He did, but the economic crisis of 1967 forced him into both his famous devaluation of the sterling and, in 1968, a U-turn on prescription charges. By then people had got used to paying them and any controversy was overshadowed by the sterling crisis, but, alongside Wilson’s growing confrontation with the trade unions over wages policy, the prescription charge U-turn added to a growing feeling that he was departing from the socialist principles of the Attlee years.


Edward Heath’s multiple U-turns, 1972

Conservative leader Edward Heath unexpectedly won the 1970 general election on a manifesto promising to cut public expenditure, limit immigration, resist big wage demands from trade unions, stop propping up “lame duck” companies and abandon the Wilson government’s attempts to bring in a wage control policy.

By the end of 1972, Heath had been forced into U-turns on all of them. He nationalised Rolls-Royce rather than let such a prestige company go bankrupt and, with unemployment at over a million, went back on his pledge to cut spending by pouring money into public services. Faced with a nationwide strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, he determined to resist their wage demands, declaring a state of emergency and a three-day week to conserve fuel, but then caved in and conceded a 27 per cent wage rise as well as overtime, holidays and pensions.


To cap it all, having said in his manifesto that he utterly rejected wage control, in 1972 he introduced just such a policy. Even his decision to admit the Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin was denounced by some as a U-turn on his commitment to limit immigration. No wonder the Guardian journalist Tim Bale called Heath “the undisputed King of the U-turn”.


Dr Seán LangSenior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University

Dr Seán Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in modern European history and the history of the British empire.