The Real Founder of the Liberal Party

Jonathan Parry

  • Lord Melbourne 1779-1848 by L.G. Mitchell
    Oxford, 349 pp, £25.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 19 820592 9

Those politicians who know little of academic life tend to assume both that history will take them at their own estimation, and that it will be written by disinterested Solomons, free from prejudice, passion, envy and the desire for fame or money. William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne, prime minister in 1834 and 1835-41, had no such illusions. He loved reading history because it pricked the pomposity of vain and foolish ‘great men’. But he also knew that historical judgments were relative and that historians were no worthier than the dynamic men whose errors they condemned from the safety of their desks. He vowed that he ‘would prefer to sit in a Room with a Chime of Bells, ten Parrots and one Lady Westmorland to sitting in a cabinet with Lord Macaulay’.

Melbourne might have been more scathing still about his latest biographer, Leslie Mitchell. Mitchell’s technique is to repeat – and repeat, and repeat again – his own unsympathetic spin on Melbourne’s well-charted weaknesses. His Melbourne is as monochrome as he is unlikeable, deficient in will-power, dominated by women and left emotionally frozen by his disastrous marriage. He entered politics for amusement and diversion, and, lacking vision or social sympathy, was as spineless there as in private life. He died lonely and embittered, rendered unable to love by his frigid temperament, to follow a moral system by his flippancy, and to grasp the real problems of Britain by his aristocratic prejudices. This is a middle-class morality story; Mitchell chooses to re-invent himself as the Hannah More de nos jours. The question is whether Melbourne deserves such treatment, and whether Mitchell is any sort of guide to his character, his views, his political ascent and his legacy.

There is no denying that Melbourne had a weak character. He was the product of an extra-marital fling on the part of his strong-willed mother, whose liberality with her affections helped to establish the Lamb family at court. Pampered, dominated, and early inculcated in the family trait of nonchalant arrogance, young William became a fashionable and good-looking presence in high society without acquiring the vigour and determination necessary to kindle his innate intelligence. Shortly after becoming heir to the Melbourne title in 1805, he took the unstable Caroline Ponsonby as wife – or, more accurately, she took him as husband. From the beginning, he seemed henpecked: on the occasion of his first big Parliamentary speech in 1806, she visited the Commons dressed as a man. Her affairs humiliated him in society, especially when his mother chose to compete for the ardour of two of Caroline’s most famous paramours, Byron and Michael Bruce. Yet his emotional dependence and lack of ruthlessness prevented him from leaving her until his family pushed him into a separation in 1825. Jibes about his subordination to women probably had a permanently damaging effect on him; perhaps the need to vent his frustration about them helps to explain his apparent enthusiasm for punishing with the whip some of the young girls whom the Lambs informally adopted into their household. His marriage certainly damaged him in other ways; thereafter he sought out women for amusement, not commitment.

This is familiar stuff, but Mitchell overeggs it. Early on, seeking to ‘characterise his whole approach to life’, he resuscitates Melbourne’s account of walking away from a fight which he was losing against a bigger boy at Eton: ‘I stood and reflected a little and thought to myself and then gave it up.’ To see this as evidence of common sense and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom would offend against one of the idées fixes of the book. So would an account of Melbourne’s energy and organising ability as Home Secretary. So would a more balanced portrait of his personal political relationships. Melbourne was a successful politician very largely because he was agreeable company, easy-going and trustworthy. He managed not only a talented and quarrelsome Cabinet, but two difficult monarchs.

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