Bristol in the hands of the mob for three days, the Mansion House and three prisons sacked, rioters killed in Derby, Nottingham Castle burned to the ground – that was the news from England in the summer of 1832. We should not be beguiled by the calm portraits of Sir Robert Peel or his heavy, measured prose. He led his party through times much more violent than our own. During a time of tumultuous social change he fundamentally changed its direction.
Historians rightly advise us against overdramatising particular events. But it is fair to say that the manifesto which Sir Robert Peel issued at Tamworth in 1834, a few weeks after he first became prime minister, marked the birth of a new Conservative Party. He deliberately extended the appeal of the party from the country gentry and their tenants, the parson and the Pitt Clubs, to moderate up-and-coming men of all professions who detested violence and believed in cautious and wellprepared reform. It was Peel who acted as the herald of the Victorian age.
Ironically, it is the mantle of Disraeli which would-be philosophers in the Conservative Party constantly try on in the hope, usually vain, that it might fit. Disraeli was an orator, a cynical romantic, a good novelist, and a great tease. He teases us still a hundred years after his death. It was Disraeli who analysed the two nations of England, who was sent primroses by an adoring Queen, who shone at the Congress of Berlin and set in motion the rhetoric of Empire. But it was Peel who founded the modern policing of London and of Ireland, who reformed the penal laws, who created our modern budgetary system. Above all, it was Peel who, in the words of Lord Blake, created a ‘libertarian fiscal policy which would in the end bring increased affluence to every class in society and thus relax the tensions which in the hungry 1830s and 40s threatened revolution in Britain’.
Disraeli was the dreamer and the word-smith, Peel the doer. Both men achieved notable changes in the interests of the nation and of social reform: and Peel paid the price in his career. He was always determined to relate his actions to facts. Nothing is more striking than his constant demand for information, as Chief Secretary in Ireland, as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister, at a time when facts and reliable statistics were few and far between. The magistrates of County Tipperary, accustomed to communicating with government only rarely and in the most general terms, must have been baffled by the questionnaires which showered upon them.
The trouble about facts is that, once ascertained, they become stubborn. Peel, like his party, strongly believed that Catholics should be kept out of Parliament and out of high office, until the facts persuaded him that Ireland was ungovernable on that basis, So it was that he and the Duke of Wellington led the Conservative Party to propose Catholic emancipation. He just managed to avoid getting into the same position with the Great Reform Bill. But in 1846 the facts spoke again. They persuaded him that it was not possible to continue to protect British agriculture by keeping up the price of corn. By acting on the facts and in furtherance of what was clearly the national rather than class interest, he temporarily and damagingly split his party. But because he acted on the facts, the country settled into the long Mid-Victorian afternoon of internal peace. Peel paved the way for the ‘One Nation’ Conservative Party. On the day on which he was buried the mills in the great cities stopped work, the shops closed and the flags of the merchant fleet in our harbours flew at half-mast.
It is always a temptation to stretch the neat celebration of an anniversary beyond reasonable bounds. The political agenda in 1988 is quite different from that which faced Peel. The Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher, embarked with confidence on its third term, is very different from the uncertain and demoralised party which Peel took over after the Reform Bill. If he had been with us over the last decade, he would have been pleased, but not perhaps surprised, at the enormous increase in general prosperity brought about by the encouragement of free enterprise. But as a good Victorian he would be surprised and disturbed that this rise in the general standard of living should have been accompanied by a decline in religion, in discipline, and in respect for the law, rather than by the rise in standards of behaviour which accompanied Victorian prosperity.
The theme of two nations explored by Disraeli in Sybil fitted the social condition of his time. But the similar rhetoric of the Left today is increasingly empty and unreal. Society today is not neatly divided into, on the one hand, a small, wealthy, privileged minority, and, on the other, an exploited, propertyless majority. On the contrary, there has been, over the past decade, an exceptional increase in the prosperity of the great majority of the British people. Yet no worthwhile Conservative can be content that, while more and more people live in prosperous suburbs and shires, there remains at the heart of many of our once great cities – in which much of the wealth of Victorian England was generated – and on gloomy estates isolated on the edges of our cities, a very different world. It is a world unattractive to employers, badly designed, blighted by crime, excessively dependent on inadequate or tyrannical local authorities, and above all lacking cohesion. This world exists under that cloud of discouragement which the Prime Minister pledged the Government to lift when she spoke on the stairs at Conservative Central Office on the night of our election victory. That is why our policies in the cities are not an extra or a luxury: they treat a disease of the heart.
But the Government’s analysis goes beyond simply identifying social problems with inner cities. The picture is not that simple. Recorded crime figures are by no means a perfect guide, but they suggest a trend worth noting. The overall level of recorded crime is rising more slowly. Within this total some interesting currents are at work. For example, in some of the cities where crime has been worst, notably London and Liverpool, total recorded crime, though still too high, is edging down. In the shires, where crime has traditionally been much lower, it continues to rise apace despite the massive increase in police strength and the significantly tougher sentences being passed by the courts. The violent disturbances in small cities and market towns which ushered in the New Year of 1987 are a case in point. There is no question here of deprived, unemployed victims of discrimination or of something called Thatcherism. That night, and in dozens of similar cities and market towns up and down the shires since then, we have seen disturbances caused largely by youths who were white, employed, affluent and drunk.
Where were the Police on these occasions? They were there of course, under attack. Not, generally, because of any reasoned resentment against the Police, but simply because they were handy targets for those seeking violent excitement. Other questions can also be posed. Where were the teachers who should have helped to mould the sense of responsibility, obligation and discipline of these youths, and who might be expected to exercise some influence over their beliefs and behaviour? I see a clear connection between Kenneth Baker’s reforms, and in particular the content of the national curriculum, and the influence which teachers ought to exert in favour of respect for traditional morality, for the law and for the rights of other people.
Where were the Churches? That is perhaps the question which Peel would have asked most insistently. What has become of the influence, never complete but once strong, which the Churches of all denominations used to exercise over the manners and morality of the people? We should not resent comments of churchmen on political and social affairs. They have every right to intervene and have a long tradition of such intervention behind them. Equally, those who are involved in politics have an equal right to comment on the presence or absence of the Churches and on their sometimes bizarre choice of priorities for discussion. It is not a political but an individual gospel – the building of a foundation for individual behaviour and values – which desperately needs preaching today.
But above all, where were the parents of these youths and what influence have they had on the way their children conduct themselves? Of course there are battles of will between parents and their children: there always have been. Parents have to know when to loosen restraints or to step in to keep their offspring on the rails. Relations can become perilous as children edge towards adulthood. But too many parents seem to have opted out: giving youngsters their head is all well and good, but only when they have been equipped with fixed points – a sense of responsibility and values – by which to steer a course.
Clearly, much still remains to be done in the renaissance of Britain. The present government has been remarkably successful in ending the economic cycle of stagnation and defeatism which the received wisdom declared to be inevitable. Now the heartbeat of an enterprise economy is good and firm. The creation of wealth is the necessary condition of social progress. But the enrichment of the individual and his or her family is only a part of the Conservative agenda for the 1990s. I think it was Guizot, the French Conservative leader in the time of Peel, who advised his followers: Enrichissez-vous, mes enfants. Peel would never have agreed that the accumulation of private wealth was the final aim of policy, nor does this government. The fruits of economic success could turn sour unless we can bring back greater social cohesion to our country. Social cohesion is quite different from social equality – indeed the two are ultimately incompatible. But social cohesion alongside the creation of wealth through private enterprise: these are the two conditions of our future progress.
We reject a soft-centred vision of the world where the collective dominates the individual. We should continue to reduce the interference of the state in people’s lives where the advances in levels of education and affluence make this realistic: but I am also talking about the need to equip people to use and respect this freedom.
Conservatives are clear that government alone cannot undertake this task – although ministers must give a lead. If statutory schemes and the spending of taxpayers’ money alone could secure social cohesion, then it would have been secured long ago. But we have to find, as the Victorians found, techniques and instruments which reach the parts of our society which will always lie beyond the scope of statutory schemes. That is why the work assumed by the Prince of Wales should be wholly and unreservedly welcomed, for it is addressed exactly to this point. That is why the immense increase in charitable activity must be supported and given an updated legal framework. I believe that the inspiring and enlisting of the active citizen in all walks of life is the key. The active businessman can help to stimulate the arts or create employment in a discouraged area. The active citizen can make sense of a Neighbourhood Watch scheme or a crime prevention panel. The active parent will under our reforms have much greater opportunities in shaping the education of his or her child. The would-be house-owner has already been given greater opportunities – it is now the turn of the active tenant to exert himself under our new legislation.
The amazing social cohesion of England, formed under Peel and the Victorians, is in need of repair. The Victorians took a society badly shaken and divided by war and the onset of the industrial revolution. They transformed it into a country which led the world, not just in the multiplication of wealth, but also in the arts of good government and the cohesion of its society. We would not have survived the fearful strains of the Great War without that achievement. During this century the unravelling of this cohesion has gone dangerously far. During the remainder of the 20th century we have set ourselves the task of knitting it together again. That coupled with our reforms to give greater responsibility to the individual and to modernise our economy forms a programme in the best traditions of Peel’s Conservatism.