Why did Robert Peel risk the unity of the Conservative Party by supporting Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the repeal of the corn laws in 1846?
First of all, let us look at the question of Catholic emancipation. Initially, Sir Robert Peel, as with virtually the whole of the Tory Party, was profoundly hostile to the very notion. He himself had served as Chief Secretary for Ireland in the government of Lord Liverpool between 1812 and 1818. During that time, he gained a reputation as a hard-line defender of the status quo. As a Member of Parliament for Oxford University, a bastion of Anglican Toryism, Peel was also a staunch supporter of the established Church of Ireland, despite the vast majority of Irish being Roman Catholic. Peel's reputation as a Tory Ultra was also enhanced by his refusal to join the administration of George Canning in 1827 precisely because of that government's proposals for removing a range of civil disabilities from Catholics.
So why did such a die-hard Protestant Tory come to support the cause of Catholic emancipation? Peel changed his position largely due to the course of events. He, like the Duke of Wellington, looked at the issue as political rather than religious. Although Catholics could not take up seats in either the British or Irish Parliaments, they could still vote provided they owned sufficient property. As a result, it became increasingly important for politicians with Irish seats, such as the Duke of Wellington, to pay heed to the wishes of the overwhelmingly Catholic population, especially the growing middle class.
The decisive moment for Peel came in 1828, when Daniel O'Connell, who was Catholic, was elected to the Irish Parliament for the vacant seat of County Clare. The election of O'Connell created a constitutional crisis. All those elected to Parliament were required to take an oath that regarded the Catholic Mass, the invocation of the Virgin Mary, and the saints as impious and idolatrous. No self-respecting Catholic could ever make such an oath, and O'Connell was no exception.
Peel, as Home Secretary in the Duke of Wellington's government, was responsible for maintaining public order, and he genuinely believed that the public order would be under serious threat if concessions were not made. This meant that some form of Catholic emancipation was necessary even if it was undesirable.
Peel's support for the government's measures earned him the contempt and abuse of his fellow Tories, who regarded him as a traitor to the party, to the Church of England, and to the country as a whole. He resigned his seat in Oxford and in the ensuing by-election asked his constituents for a vote of confidence. It was not forthcoming. As he must have expected, Peel was comprehensively rejected by an electorate consisting largely of staunch supporters of the Church of England and its privileges. These supporters were not prepared to countenance what they saw as a raft of measures that would undermine the established Church.
In relation to the repeal of the Corn Laws, practical considerations were also uppermost in Peel's mind. For a number of years, the price of corn had been kept artificially high by punitive tariffs on imports. Although Britain had been the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the diminishing agricultural sector was still being protected at the expense of commerce and manufacturing. The real victims of the Corn Laws, however, were the poor. As their wages often failed to keep up with the artificially high price of corn, they encountered serious hardships and often struggled to keep body and soul together.
Despite growing opposition to the Corn Laws, the Tory Party initially remained steadfastly opposed to their repeal. The main reason was that large landowners, who benefited from keeping the price of corn at a consistently high level, formed the backbone of the Party and were not about to see their economic interests undermined. Peel had come to power in 1841 on a platform that explicitly affirmed that the Corn Laws would not be repealed, so the repeal of the Corn Laws seemed unlikely in the extreme.
At the same time, however, a growing campaign for repeal was emerging and becoming more powerful by the day. The Anti-Corn Law League (ACLL) was established and soon became a formidable movement for reform. What made the ACLL especially powerful was that it consisted of industrialists, manufacturers, and men of commerce, the very people responsible for Britain's economic prosperity. They knew that if people had to spend most of their income on staple foodstuffs, then they would have little or nothing left over with which to buy manufactured goods. In turn, this would lead to a stagnant economy, in which a chronically inefficent agricultural sector was protected while the major source of Britain's wealth was neglected.
Ultimately, Peel could not afford to ignore such powerful interests. He was sympathetic to the arguments for repeal, not least because he himself had come from a manufacturing background. He understood that Britain's future prosperity as a nation depended on the success of its industrial base, and that so long as the Corn Laws remained on the statute book, industry would never be able to develop to its full potential.
As with Catholic emancipation, Peel's eventual support for the repeal of the Corn Laws earned him the undying enmity of many within his own party. Once more they castigated him as a traitor, and once more the Tories were deeply split. Yet one could reasonably argue that, whatever Peel's motivations may have been, his support for Catholic emancipation and for repeal of the Corn Laws place him very much on the right side of history.