The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 12, 2018

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The Diplomacy of Conservatism and the Conservatism of Diplomacy
David Clinton - 10/15/08

When the July Monarchy fell to popular revolt in 1848, Peel happened to be in the House of Commons to hear the news; it is said that he pointed to the ranks of Tory members sitting behind him, who had opposed his repeal of the Corn Laws, and said, “This is what would have happened here if I had listened to them.” As it was, in his last months in office in 1846, he had written,

I have done everything in my power [ . . . ] to harmonise the action of conflicting authorities in the State, and to maintain order and contentment among very powerful and enlightened classes of society, by convincing them that their comfort and happiness is one of the main objects of civil government. This policy may be obstructed; it may temporarily fail; but I have a deep conviction that it is the true Conservative policy, and that another policy, though sanctioned for a time by powerful majorities, would ultimately tend to discord and confusion.

A considerable distance separates this self-assessment from the conclusion reached by Monypenny and Buckle in their magisterial biography of Disraeli. Reflecting the bitter opposition that Disraeli had led to Peel on the repeal of the Corn Laws, they contended,

Peel was trying to substitute for the Toryism of the past something which was almost a contradiction in terms—a middle-class Toryism. His Toryism was better than Eldon’s in that it was in motion; but he moved, not according to principles or towards a goal of his own choice, but by a series of retreats before the pressure of the enemy, and this could only end, as it did, in his facing about and adopting the enemy’s line of march.

In part, the difference between the two evaluations is the difference between the conservatism of resistance (which Disraeli adopted in the 1840s) and the conservatism of reform (with which Peel associated himself and to which Disraeli acceded after Peel’s death).

In the search for conservative reform, foreign policy adventures were for Peel a costly distraction, and he sought as avidly as Calhoun to limit overseas commitments and to avoid international collisions through negotiation and compromise. Even military actions could have as their objective a settlement that would be ultimately sustainable through diplomatic and not purely military means. Immediately upon Peel’s taking office in mid-1841, he had the opportunity to name a new Governor-General of India, but the outgoing occupant of the office, Lord Auckland, took the occasion of his impending retirement to launch an invasion of Afghanistan with the proclaimed purpose of seating a British-selected king on the throne of that country, once it had been united by British arms. Peel feared “a terrible retribution for the most absurd and insane project that was ever undertaken in the wantonness of power,” but the slowness of communication between London and India prevented him from countermanding that or almost any other step before it could be taken. Unfortunately, his own choice to replace Auckland, Lord Ellenborough, proved to be equally rash, and it was not until Peel sent out an old colleague, Sir Henry Hardinge, as military commander, that he found someone who would follow the restrained policy he wished. Hardinge ignored the order for a precipitate retreat issued by Ellenborough, retrieved the military disasters that had followed on Auckland’s invasion, and then, having restored the credibility of British arms with his victories, pulled back from Afghanistan into India. Peel was as pleased with the retraction of the British defensive position as with the triumphs on the battlefield; coupled with a peace treaty settling the Opium War with China, which the Whigs had bequeathed to their successors, the ending of the Afghan War stanched a severe drain on British resources in Asia.

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