Misunderstandings

J.H. Burns

  • Henry Brougham 1778-1868: His Public Career by Robert Stewart
    Bodley Head, 406 pp, £18.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 370 30271 0
  • Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society: The ‘Edinburgh Review’ 1802-1832 by Biancamaria Fontana
    Cambridge, 256 pp, £22.50, December 1985, ISBN 0 521 30335 4

Only in the imagination of the authors of 1066 and All That was there ever a custom of executing public men ‘for being left over from the last reign’. Had such a custom prevailed – and Queen Victoria for one might have wished at times that it had – Henry Brougham would surely have been an obvious candidate. In respect of high office at least, the ‘public career’ with which Robert Stewart’s book is concerned ended in the reign of William IV: but Brougham – who, if he had indeed been decapitated, would surely have walked and above all talked for long enough after the event – lived on until Victoria had reigned for over thirty years. When he died at last in 1868, the Daily Telegraph sounded a Last Post for ‘the old drum-major of the army of liberty’; and if there were other less generous memories, time had no doubt softened the bitterness which his by then distant political activities had so frequently generated. As with the white cobra in Kipling’s ‘The King’s Ankus’, the fangs had long been harmless, the poison-sacs dried up. Yet Brougham had been a terror and a torment in his time. To Lord Sefton he was ‘the Archfiend’; Lady Grey, in a shrewder assessment, identified him with Dryden’s Achitophel. No one, it is true, had ever been able to deny his extraordinary abilities, or the almost frenetic energy with which he applied them to the innumerable objects he had in contemplation at any given time. Yet the game was played out, for all practical political purposes, when, in November 1834, he unceremoniously handed back the Great Seal to the King’s secretary in a bag, ‘as a fishmonger might have sent a salmon for the king’s dinner’. Brougham never held public office again.

For a dozen years and more Brougham had been, by common consent both at the time and in the judgment of historians, the most popular man in the country. That popularity had several sources. His championship of Queen Caroline during her ‘trial’ in 1820 had undoubtedly enabled him to achieve lift-off: but he was propelled in a remarkable orbit by his support for – often by his leading role in sustaining – causes of more enduring significance. It can indeed be claimed for Brougham, as his latest biographer amply demonstrates, that virtually all the public causes to which he was committed were wholly admirable: the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery it-self; Catholic emancipation and the relief of the Dissenters; the systematic reform of the tortuous and burdensome processes of the law; the extension of political rights; the improvement of educational opportunities, and above all the diffusion of ‘useful knowledge’ to the mass of ordinary people – it is a list in which any statesman would be fully entitled to take pride. In large measure, too, it is a list of achievements, not merely of aspirations. Yet the man who had all this to his credit lost his command of the centre of the political stage at a time of life when many others have still had the peak of their careers to come. Grey in Brougham’s own time, both Gladstone and Disraeli later (to say nothing of Churchill), were all, on attaining the highest office, older than Brougham when he became ‘a political Ishmael’; Melbourne and Russell, Balfour and Lloyd George, were not significantly younger. That Brougham could ever have become prime minister is no doubt an improbable proposition, but his virtual eclipse at the age of 56 must constitute a problem in political history.

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