Today is an important day for Conservatives. And though it is likely to be overshadowed by the historic victory of the House of Commons passing the Equal Marriage Bill, it could not have fallen on a more auspicious date for healing the breach exposed by its passage.
It was on this day, in 1788, the founder of our party Sir Robert Peel was born. But he is not important only because he founded the modern party but because he is essentially a nexus bridging the Tory and Whig (conservative and liberal) traditions which preceded it and – as we saw today – continue to divide the party.
Due to the continued use of the word ‘Tory’ as shorthand for ‘Conservative’ (which I read somewhere has survived due to it being used by journalists to save column space!), people often forget that Peel established a fresh political philosophy in Conservatism, not simply a new party with a new name.
Tories and conservatives – Peel among them – had opposed to the last the Whigs’ great Reform Act of 1832 – which enfranchised the middle classes and abolished many of the ‘pocket’ and ‘rotten’ boroughs which had for so long distorted the electoral process.
Yet the pivotal detail in Peel’s ‘Tamworth Manifesto’, read in his constituency in the 1834 election, was that the new Conservative party accepted the change brought about by the Act and would not repeal it. Instead, it would adapt itself to these new set of circumstances and, given time, even embrace the ideas behind them.
This was a seismic change for a party which, in its Tory incarnation, had hitherto been identified only by its dogged opposition to change, its closeness and subservience to the monarch and its jealous protection of the privileges of the Church of England.
This new philosophy was essentially an echo of that of Edmund Burke’s – himself a Whig who enthusiastically supported the American Revolution but not its French offspring – which, coupled with the later desertion of Peel’s followers to the newly emerging Liberal party, is testimony to the enduring compatibility of liberalism and Conservatism.
Peel’s Conservatism was a sort of ‘cautious liberalism’ – sharing many of the same goals as those of Liberals but endeavouring to effect them through slow, considered and organic processes with a high premium on the burden of proof – in contrast to the more thrusting radicalism of the Whigs. Through this method, still used by the party today, the Conservatives could appeal to both conservative and reformist sections of society in the dawn of the democratic age.
That said, Peel was himself prone to the odd bout of radicalism when he had become thoroughly convinced of an idea – such as when he repealed the Corn Laws in support of free trade – and even Disraeli, staunch Tory Protectionist turned political realist, described himself as ‘a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad.’
Now how can any good liberal argue with that?