Thursday, January 14, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF DOUGLAS HURD'S ROBERT PEEL

Here is a fine biography of a politician written by another politician.

Robert Peel, while a figure of considerable importance to British history, led what many would regard as an unexciting life, and Peel was the kind of aristocratic figure many people today might find relatively unsympathetic. So it is a good measure of Hurd's success with the book that he makes it interesting, and it is very well written.

I use the adjective "aristocratic," because Peel was actually one of the "new men," a rich merchant's talented son, but his political alliances were necessarily frequently with the landed aristocrats who played a large role in the Conservative Party of that time, and his own views were not the stirring stuff of democratic principles and modern conceptions of human rights. Of course, he was given a title for his service, a practice which itself reflects the evolution of British government with the growth of the middle class.

What Douglas Hurd does exceptionally well is to show us the decent and sympathetic man Peel was. Peel was ready when his keen mind perceived that the world was changing in ways that warranted change by government to advocate the needed change, often finding himself opposed by the kind of conservatives who believes little should ever change. We get a nice feel for the stresses and difficulties involved in Peel's various efforts at reform, given his political world and party.

I admired Hurd's effort to give the modern reader some appreciation of the changing nature of Parliament and its rules, often giving comparisons with how things worked then to how they work now. The nineteenth century was a dynamic era of political change in Britain - driven by the forces of the industrial revolution and exploding world trade - as the country developed into a modern democratic state, and the book reflects that.

This is a fine book for students of British or European history or social change or the evolution of modern democratic government.

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