October 19, 2023 - 11:45am

Among those Tories whose veins run truly blue, Tamworth is a semi-mythical name. It has clear Romantic heritage: Anglo-Saxon, former capital of Offa’s Mercia, a market-outpost on the edge of Birmingham sprawl. But for some Conservatives, it’s more like Bethlehem or Arthur’s Tintagel: the hallowed birthplace of the so-called Tamworth Manifesto, a letter sent in 1834 by then Tory leader Sir Robert Peel to his constituents in the town, and then widely circulated in the press. It was in this letter, as many political commentators are unthinkingly repeating today, that Peel supposedly “founded” the modern Conservative Party.

For now however, and certainly for today, the name and reputation of Tamworth is blighted. The by-election in the town will see it finally elect an MP to replace Chris Pincher, the nominatively-determined groper who dragged his exit out so long that he has outlasted the prime minister he helped topple.

The Pincher debacle seems a world away from the stately Victoriana of Robert Peel. But Peel and the ongoing idolisation of his Manifesto is really symbolic of the Conservative Party’s one constant: its ceaseless ideological revisionism, product of a simultaneous allergy to stasis and revulsion at change. British Conservatism is truly a movement that has always preferred inventing its traditions to establishing them.

Mostly a statement on the arcane debates of its day, the key passage in the Manifesto comes when Peel concedes that the 1832 Great Reform Act was “a final and irrevocable settlement”, before promising “a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper”. These clauses alone are seen to mark a new era of pragmatic leadership, accepting mild democracy and promising measured, Burkean reform.

But as a democratic document, it was redundant months after production — the Peel family had effectively owned the Tamworth seat for decades and like many Victorian elections, the subsequent vote there was unopposed. And this wasn’t a direction of travel so much as an acknowledgement of political defeat. The early 1830s had been the most politically violent in our history. As the issue of Parliamentary reform was repeatedly blocked, Britain’s famously quiescent population took up pikes and muskets for the last time in real anger.

In 1831, a crowd smashed all the windows of the Hyde Park mansion belonging to the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington; in Bristol, the town hall’s wine cellar was emptied and the building set on fire. The Duke of Newcastle’s castle in Nottingham was so thoroughly razed that it couldn’t be restored until 1875. “Britain”, E.P. Thompson later wrote “was within an ace of revolution”.

Peel was urging the nascent Conservative Party to accept the Reform Act, the settlement that had quelled this situation. But his own colleagues barely trusted him. Peel had already betrayed them by accepting Catholic Emancipation, the repeal of restrictions against “Popists” in public life. This was a deep wound — Peel had founded his career and reputation as a young, anti-Catholic firebrand — and only a foretaste of his later heresy.

In 1846, 12 years after he “founded” the Conservative Party, Peel destroyed it for a generation, repealing the Corn Law tariffs on imported grains, a victory for the urban middle class against Tory landed interest. For the next 30 years, a Whig-Liberal alliance of free traders governed Britain, with the rump of Peel’s followers joining them two years after his death in 1852. As the greatest living historian of the period has written, Peel was truly “not the founder of the Conservative party but was the progenitor of Gladstonian liberalism”.

Generally proud of its lack of strict principles, the Conservative Party is keen on its history in a vague, sentimental way. It has projected onto Peel and Tamworth the kind of political gradualism that, in its more organised moments, later allowed it to metamorphose from the party of the postwar consensus to a neoliberal revolutionary movement, from a nest of Cameroon patricianism to a Eurosceptic vanguard.

It is comforting to believe that this survival instinct, this evolutionary flexibility, has august roots. But while the beliefs of Robert Peel — cold, mechanistic, moralistic and evangelical — have few living adherents, a Conservative instinct towards the chaos that engulfed him is with the party to this day, as the past couple of years in government prove beyond doubt.

Nicholas Harris is a Commissioning Editor at UnHerd.