Sir Robert Peel and the ‘moral authority’ of the House of Commons

This week, senior Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that UK prime minister Theresa May risks "splitting the Conservative party like Sir Robert Peel" if she fails to deliver a clean break from the European Union. Twice prime minister (1834–35 and 1841–46), Peel was forced to resign in 1846 after his party revolted over the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had been introduced to protect British agriculture. Peel remains one of the most fascinating and written about politicians in 19th-century British history. Yet one aspect of his career remains relatively unexplored: his attitude to the House of Commons...

A portrait of Sir Robert Peel by by English painter Henry William Pickersgill. (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
Here, professor of British history Matthew Cragoe attempts to gain an insight into Peel’s outlook by examining an episode from the later 1830s in which the constitutional privileges of the Commons were called into question. The house traditionally claimed the right to the sole judgment of cases where the election of one its own members was called into question. In the late 1830s, this right was disputed; the house found its doughtiest champion in Sir Robert Peel.

To understand the crisis, we need to go back to the beginning of the decade. The Great Reform Act of 1832 changed British politics, enfranchising industrial centres like Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, and extending the vote to the essentially middle-class householders with property worth £10 a year.

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However, many aspects of electoral life were not affected by the act, and corruption remained commonplace – so common, indeed, that after every election, defeated candidates presented petitions to parliament alleging their opponent had gained the seat by corrupt means.

The house treated such petitions seriously. A committee of randomly-chosen MPs was appointed to try each one, and decide whether the result should stand or the election be awarded to the petitioner.

The committees worked well until mid-1830s. After 1835, too many decisions appeared to reflect the party bias of the majority of MPs on a committee: Whig MPs favoured Whig candidates; Tory-dominated committees found for Tories.

A major campaign, backed by the might of the Times newspaper, gathered pace outside parliament demanding reform: either distinguished external lawyers should be appointed to chair committees and keep MPs in check, or that the whole process should be handed over to the Courts of Law.

It was against this campaign that Peel took up arms; in doing so, I suggest, he revealed an interesting view of the role of the House of Commons in the reformed political world.

His chief contention was that the relationship of the House of Commons to public opinion had become dangerously unbalanced since the passing of the Reform Act. Before 1832, it was understood that the House led public opinion; since 1832, however, it seemed that parliament was expected to obey ‘public opinion’.

Yet was it constitutionally desirable that parliament submit to a ‘public opinion’ that could be whipped into a frenzy by any demagogue or newspaper editor? Only be restoring the ‘moral authority’ of the House, he argued, could anarchy be avoided.

The question of removing the judgment of election petitions from the House of Commons was exactly the kind of campaign whipped-up by newspaper editors that he so hated and feared. And so Peel opposed it.

Instead of yielding their privileges, Peel argued, they should reform their processes and restore their purity. He proposed a series of measures that would create a context in which MPs could rise above their party affiliations and judge petitions on their merits; their exemplary behavior would in turn restore the moral authority of the House in the eyes of the public, and allow the Commons to exercise that function of leadership that Peel felt was vital if good government was to prevail.

The bill attracted furious opposition outside the House, and from some of those within: Peel faced substantial opposition from a section of his own backbenchers who argued that if they didn’t yield gracefully on the issue, public opinion would tear the right from them.

To Peel, it was that kind of weakness that exemplified why parliament had to regain the upper hand, the ‘moral authority’ to lead the country. If they simply gave away their privileges every time anyone shouted loudly outside parliament, the possibility of good government would be at an end.

Peel’s bill became law in 1839. It was an important restatement of the House of Commons’ constitutional rights in the new political world opened up by the Reform Act of 1832; it was also significant as an articulation of the idea that public opinion should be guided by parliament and not vice versa.

That Peel should have invested so much personal capital to ensure its passage, reflects his concern to ensure that proper limits should be set to the process of ‘reform’ before it degenerated into anarchy. It also, however, reflected his view of the House of Commons: in his eyes it was the most important part of the legislature, the epicentre of British politics. It was for this reason that he remained one of its proudest members. He was in short, the archetypal ‘House of Commons man’.

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You can read this article, which was first published in January 2013, in full and for free at the Oxford Journals website