Alis­tair Lex­den

A Bag of Nerves

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Lord Liver­pool: A Po­lit­i­cal Life, Wil­liam An­thony Hay, The Boy­dell Press, £45 (hard­back)

No one ever loved Lord Liver­pool, Bri­tain’s third long­est-serv­ing prime min­is­ter, apart from his am­bi­tious, self-made politi­cian fa­ther and his two wives; he mar­ried the sec­ond im­me­di­ately af­ter the death of the first to es­cape oth­er­wise in­evitable lone­li­ness. One of his col­leagues wrote that ‘he had fewer per­sonal friends and less qual­ity for con­cil­i­at­ing men’s af­fec­tions than per­haps any min­is­ter that ever lived’. When a crip­pling stroke forced him to re­sign in 1827, it was widely noted how lit­tle any­one seemed to care about the man him­self amidst in­tense spec­u­la­tion about the po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of his en­forced re­tire­ment.

Born in 1770 and an in­stinc­tive Tory of the deep­est hue, Liver­pool was a pro­fes­sional politi­cian to his fin­ger­tips with few out­side in­ter­ests. A rot­ten bor­ough was pro­vided for him (as for many oth­ers favoured by party lead­ers) when he was twenty, a year be­fore he was legally en­ti­tled to en­ter the Com­mons. A min­is­ter three years later, he was only out of of­fice for a few months dur­ing the rest of his life. The one se­nior cabi­net post that eluded him was the Chan­cel­lor­ship, a sur­pris­ing omis­sion since he rel­ished fi­nance and took per­sonal con­trol of eco­nomic pol­icy as premier, as­sisted by docile Trea­sury min­is­ters who did what they were told.

Though out­wardly calm, he was in fact a bag of nerves. Cabi­net reshuf­fles brought him close to col­lapse. A quar­rel with the Duke of Welling­ton over a bish­opric which the lat­ter wanted for a brother with an adul­ter­ous wife made him phys­i­cally ill as he in­sisted on the moral pro­bity of the epis­co­pal bench. It was said that he could not open a let­ter without trem­bling in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the bad news he ex­pected it to con­tain. But he en­joyed stand­ing up to the monarch from whom he would take no non­sense. Turn­ing down Ge­orge

IV’s re­quests for favours to his cronies, he wrote that ‘the K. will find him­self very much mis­taken if he sup­poses that if he dis­missed me any one of my col­leagues would re­main be­hind’ to sup­port him in the ‘stormy and mis­er­able’ state into which he would be plunged.

He was of­fered the pre­mier­ship twice be­fore he fi­nally ac­cepted it in 1812. Only two of his pre­de­ces­sors, Robert Walpole and the Younger Pitt, ex­ceeded his fif­teen years at Num­ber 10; it is vir­tu­ally in­con­ceiv­able that any­one in the fu­ture will ever over­take him. His cab­i­nets con­tained great tal­ent. Of the next ten prime min­is­ters, six had served un­der him. It is to his most able col­leagues – Castlereagh, Can­ning and Robert Peel – that the suc­cesses of his govern­ment have gen­er­ally been at­trib­uted. Dis­raeli con­ferred on Liver­pool the ep­i­thet by which he is chiefly re­mem­bered, the arch medi­ocrity. He came to be re­garded as good at just one thing: calm­ing the ten­sions that were rife among his min­is­ters. A re­spected late nine­teen­th­cen­tury bi­o­graph­i­cal dic­tio­nary as­serted that ‘he was not an able or elo­quent man’, but ‘un­der his mild supremacy politi­cians of op­po­site views were con­tent to live on de­cent terms’.

For years pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans shrank from the task of scour­ing the ar­chives of the pe­riod to pro­duce a full bi­og­ra­phy of this un­ad­mired man. It was not un­til 1984 that the work was first taken in hand by Nor­man Gash, a firm ad­her­ent of the Con­ser­va­tive Party and justly praised bi­og­ra­pher of Robert Peel who cre­ated the modern Party out of Liver­pool’s faith­ful, but poorly or­gan­ised, Tories. Gash’s re­searches were some­what con­strained by age. Now, nearly 200 years af­ter his death, Liver­pool’s ca­reer has fi­nally been scru­ti­nised in great de­tail. The scru­ti­neer is a young Amer­i­can his­to­rian, Wil­liam Hay of Mis­sis­sippi State Univer­sity. At the out­set he is at pains to point out that he has over­looked noth­ing rel­e­vant to his sub­ject. Af­ter vis­its to the Royal Ar­chives, county record of­fices and other in­sti­tu­tions, ‘the Bri­tish Li­brary’s man­u­script room be­came a home away from home.’ The book has been il­lus­trated very sat­is­fac­to­rily with the help of ‘a Ge­orge Humphrey shop al­bum of print satires from 1820’ which he stum­bled across in Con­necti­cut. Hay’s en­thu­si­asm does him great credit.

Liver­pool emerges from his in­ten­sive re­searches as a man of un­com­pli­cated, strongly held views. He was in ev­ery way a model Tory. ‘Nei­ther re­ac­tionary nor re­pres­sive, Liver­pool sought to de­fend Bri­tain’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal or­der along with in­sti­tu­tions he be­lieved gave them ex­pres­sion’. Yet many ac­cu­sa­tions of re­ac­tion and re­pres­sion were laid against Liver­pool’s govern­ment at the time by op­po­nents of his so­cial and po­lit­i­cal or­der, some of whom were happy to use vi­o­lence. Liver­pool’s firm re­sponse to rad­i­cal ag­i­ta­tion af­ter 1815, much of which had revo­lu­tion­ary aims, has been widely re­garded by left-wing his­to­ri­ans and oth­ers as con­firm­ing the ac­cu­sa­tions. In Bri­tain, the counter-mea­sures taken by those in author­ity are al­most al­ways judged more harshly than the dis­af­fected el­e­ments who pro­voke them (a habit from which the IRA has prof­ited in our own day).

One crit­i­cism of Liver­pool above all fre­quently re­curs. His govern­ment has been blamed for ‘the Peter­loo mas­sacre’ of Au­gust 1819 when troops were used to dis­perse a demon­stra­tion out­side Manch­ester; eleven were killed and hun­dreds in­jured. The long-es­tab­lished habit of con­demn­ing Liver­pool’s min­is­ters will be pow­er­fully re­in­forced by a widely pub­li­cised new film. Its gar­ru­lous left-wing direc­tor, Mike Leigh, be­gan to pro­mote it months be­fore its re­lease. He re­gards Peter­loo as a peace­ful pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tion which should have been al­lowed to pro­ceed. Sym­pa­thy for Leigh’s point of view, if not the man­ner of its ex­pres­sion, is not con­fined to the Left. Daniel Finkel­stein, So­cial Demo­crat turned Con­ser­va­tive, told read­ers of The Times in Au­gust that Peter­loo was ‘an em­blem of the re­pres­sive con­ser­va­tive ob­sti­nacy of a priv­i­leged elite’, a wholly mis­taken view of an era in which ev­ery­one ex­cept a small rad­i­cal mi­nor­ity be­lieved that the de­mand­ing tasks of govern­ment should be in the hands of an elite which had the ex­pe­ri­ence to carry them out in the over­all na­tional in­ter­est. Pro­fes­sor Hay is nearer the mark in com­mend­ing the elite for adapt­ing in­sti­tu­tions to draw ‘new, ris­ing in­ter­ests to its side, thereby deny­ing their sup­port to ad­vo­cates of sweep­ing change.’ Liver­pool told the House of Lords in 1815 of how he had come ‘to value the com­mer­cial in­ter­est’ along­side the tra­di­tional landed classes. His eco­nomic pol­icy, with free trade at its heart, re­flected that con­vic­tion.

Hay’s ac­count of Peter­loo, based on the his­tor­i­cal records, dif­fers sharply from Mr Leigh’s and Lord Finkel­stein’s. A crowd of be­tween 20,000 and 60,000 men, women and chil­dren ar­rived at St Peter’s Fields in for­ma­tions that re­sem­bled troops on pa­rade. Post­poned twice, the meet­ing had been de­clared il­le­gal. Liver­pool’s min­is­ters ad­vised lo­cal mag­is­trates, on whom re­spon­si­bil­ity for law and or­der rested, to act only if vi­o­lence threat­ened. They be­lieved that it did; a later in­quiry found that the area had been ‘in a state lit­tle short of ac­tual re­bel­lion’. Pri­vately, the govern­ment felt that the Manch­ester mag­is­trates had acted im­pru­dently, but, as the Duke of Welling­ton pointed out, if min­is­ters had not backed them ‘oth­ers in fu­ture would not act at all’ when disor­der threat­ened. Those who fol­low a pol­icy of de­lib­er­ate re­pres­sion never ex­press con­cern about hu­man ca­su­al­ties. Liver­pool, the least cal­lous of men, al­ways re­gret­ted the loss of life in times of peace, but the re­sources and in­sti­tu­tions at his dis­posal made it im­pos­si­ble to avoid death on a small scale very oc­ca­sion­ally. His con­tem­po­raries con­trasted this record with the per­sis­tent harsh­ness of con­ti­nen­tal regimes. His over­rid­ing aims were to iso­late the ag­i­ta­tors and pro­tect the law-abid­ing in ac­cor­dance with un­chang­ing Tory pre­cepts.

Liver­pool does not emerge from his 200 years of ob­scu­rity as a de­light­ful and cap­ti­vat­ing hu­man be­ing. Child­less, al­most friend­less, with lit­tle in­ter­est in the arts and much given to cry­ing, he im­mersed him­self com­pletely in the busi­ness of govern­ment and the work of par­lia­ment, mak­ing only one speech out­side it. He ex­celled in both spheres. Prob­a­bly his great­est ser­vice was the un­stint­ing sup­port he gave Welling­ton dur­ing the Penin­su­lar War, pro­vid­ing un­prece­dented fi­nan­cial back­ing and al­low­ing the widest lat­i­tude of ac­tion. In peace his prin­ci­pal preoccupation was eco­nomic re­cov­ery, based on ‘the gen­eral prin­ci­ple of free trade as the great foun­da­tion of na­tional pros­per­ity.’ As so many said un­char­i­ta­bly dur­ing his life, he presided gen­tly over un­ruly col­leagues; Pro­fes­sor Hay notes his ‘will­ing­ness to sub­or­di­nate per­sonal in­ter­est to their col­lec­tive ser­vice’ .

Hay records ev­ery twist and turn of his ac­tiv­i­ties in high pol­i­tics over a pe­riod of nearly forty years in rather heavy prose in this work of im­pec­ca­ble schol­ar­ship. His cu­ri­ous habit of call­ing the work­ing classes ple­beians may cur­tail his read­er­ship among those on the Left.

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