Peel, the Whigs, and the recovery of compassionate conservatism?

Sticking with the Young Unionists for a moment. One of the most underrated Northern Irish bloggers is Brian Crowe. In this piece he goes back to an interesting point in British history, the repeal of the Corn Laws and the rise of powerful notions political economy. He links it directly to a new-ish work, by the conservative think tank Policy Exchange, called Compassionate Conservatism: What it is, Why we need it. Crowe argues that something in conservatism died at this moment. Indeed, there is an argument that the tight strictures applied to famine relief in the years following Peel’s reforms by Lord John Russell’s Whig government to protect the independent operation of markets accounts for some of the higher end effects of the Irish Famine.

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  • Compassionate Conservatism: If that isn’t an oxymoron then what is?

  • joeCanuck

    It may have been George W. Bush’s speech writers who coined this phrase during his first presidential election campaign – he certainly used it a lot.
    It seems that it means that you give huge tax breaks to the rich, regardless of the fact that it creates the biggest deficit in your country’s history, and that you start a foreign war that creates enormous profit for your buddies in the oil industry and equally huge profits for your Vice-President’s buddies in the (re)construction industry.
    Oh, almost forgot, it also means f**k the poor; it’s their own fault that they’re not as clever as us compassionist conservatives.

  • Mick Fealty

    That period of history is well worth looking at again. Brian is pinpointing a time when the bulk of the conservative party refused to go along with Peel’s reform of the Corn Laws. In reality he may not have had much choice since the Whigs were in the ascendent at the time, but as noted above, the Tories almost certainly would have been more compassionate in the face of the Irish famine than Russell’s zealous Whigs.

    Indeed, it strikes me that Margaret Thatcher was less Tory by instinct than a radical latter day Whig herself.

  • Garibaldy

    Weren’t the Tory Wets of the Thatcher era the inheritors of this type of paternalism? Thatcherism was indeed a more agressive form of free market liberalism. Very interesting to see Brian Crowe say that Cameron is linking himself to Hayek.

    Michael Moore satirised the compassionate conservative thing on his old channel 4 show years ago. I think by getting drunk stockbrokers to throw food at poor people, but I may well be misremembering

  • páid

    Indeed, it strikes me that Margaret Thatcher was less Tory by instinct than a radical latter day Whig herself.

    A common enough observation, no less true for all that.

    Maggie was a grocer’s daughter, a product of, and “instinctive” supporter of, the English lower middle-classes.

    My feeling is that the old Tories, the aristocracy, and the Queen considered her brand of Toryism a bit brash, but better than socialism.

    Cameron is pushing the Tories out of the class system and into being a modern right-of-centre European party. England is ripe for it.

  • A Reagan Conservative and a Compassionate Conservative are walking around a small pond when they hear frantic screams for help. A small boy is drowning just 100 feet offshore and is going down for the second time.

    “Screw ’em”, says the Reaganite, “It’ll be one less weakling to fuck up the gene pool.”

    Mr. Compassionate berates the jerk as a mean-spirited dinosaur of the Republican past and throws drowning youngster 50 feet of rope.

  • Crataegus

    An interesting document and asks pertinent questions about personal freedom, sharing culture and decentralisation.

  • Margaret Thatcher was much more a National Liberal than latter day Whig.
    If the Tories are pushed out of the class system then they are pushed out of existence. They are defined by class.
    Let’s hope Cameron’s new Tory party is similar to the Swedish conservative party- a minority party.

  • Jim-

    If this is a ‘Compassionate Conservative’ of the Bush ilk, surely he would pat the Reaganite on the back, the two of them would have a chuckle, and they would head off to a black tie gala for fellow millionaires.

    Of course Bush isn’t a compassionate conservative, despite what he might say. He probably can’t even spell ‘paternalistic benevolence’ never mind adhere to it.


    I think nationalistic libertarian rather than national liberal would be a better description of Thatcher. Or ‘cow’ fits well too 😉

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Cribbing from an old post of mine here, so please bear with me…

    “Ireland, being a food exporter, had no such shortage, per se. Livestock and corn were exported during this “famine.” The failure of the potato, however, did threaten the lower classes. Initially, the response from the Peel government was to intervene by ending the Corn Laws and supplying low cost food to alleviate the food shortage. ”

    Compassionate conservatism in action — Peel removed an impediment to feeding the “injured” population and made the food as cheap as possible without creating a financial loss to the government. He balanced needs of government against the needs of the ruled, seeking to create a space where both sets of needs were met. Now, that the Irish weren’t enamored of maize and the Whigs not enamored of the political changes he wrought are other issues…

    As for your comment, Smilin’ Jim, you analogy is flawed, in so far as in the worlds of politics and economy, it is far easier to meet someone halfway.