When is it right for a politician to change their mind? Planning a lesson on Peel yesterday I came upon the excellent Radion 4 programme The Long View which set out to compare Sir Robert Peel with Nick Clegg. Thinking that students would identify with this, I set out to resource the lesson. It starts with graffiti and placards from the NOvermber 2010 protests. On the one hand we have an image of Clegg triumphantly brandishing his pledge not to increase tuition fees, next to an image of his face branded LIAR. I then switched to Peel. In his old college , Christ Church Oxford, (where he was the first students to gain a double-first), there is still the oak door on which are studs shaped in the form of two words: ‘No Peel’. Given that this was his college, for which he became MP, why the sudden anger? Cue 1829 Catholic Emancipation etc.
So can we take the comparison further:what do these two men have in common? Peel was the son of the richest self-made man in England: Clegg descends from Russian aristocracy. Both were expensively educated at Harow and Westminster. But were they both establishment figures? Peel was certainly not. He was an outsider. How principled were they both, and did they both ride roughshod over their principles? Peel did , arguably 3 times. He claimed, as does Clegg, that he was acting in the national interest. Peel resigned, Clegg hasn’t. Peel, it was said, split the Tory party. There are signs that Clegg might be heading in that direction with the Lib Dems.
Are there any lessons we can draw from the comparison which can usefully be shared with students? Well, probably two: if you change your mind, even twice or more you can still get away with it; but you do need to work the party.