Weathering the storm

Robert Blake

  • Lord Liverpool: The Life and Political Career of Robert Banks Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool 1770-1828 by Norman Gash
    Weidenfeld, 265 pp, £16.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 297 78453 6

Set in a radio or TV quiz, the following question would flummox most people, even historians: which future prime minister was one-eighth Indian, present at the fall of the Bastille, a colonel in the militia, and had to invoke the King and the current prime minister to overcome his father’s opposition to his marriage? The answer is Robert Jenkinson, second Earl of Liverpool and eighth baronet, whose maternal grandmother, wife of a Nabob, was Eurasian. He is one of the neglected figures of history. Yet he was prime minister for 15 years from 1812 to 1827, till in February at the age of 56 he was incapacitated by a cerebral haemorrhage, called in those days ‘an apoplectic fit’. He resigned a month later, having asked faintly: ‘Who succeeds?’ George IV had many unattractive traits, but harshness was not one of them. He told the second Lady Liverpool that there should be no talk of resignation till absolutely necessary and hoped the Prime Minister would soon be well enough to resume work. ‘No, no, not I – too weak, too weak.’ And he became again unconscious, reviving only to put his hand on a painfully aching head, lamenting loss of memory and saying: ‘I am but a child.’ Late in March he was told that a successor had to be found. He died, a forgotten ghost, nearly two years later in December 1828. By then his successor, Canning, was also dead. Canning’s successor, Lord Goderich, had resigned without even meeting Parliament, and the Duke of Wellington was well into the first year of a premiership which led to the triumph of two causes anathema to Lord Liverpool – Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform.

Liverpool’s shadowy memory for posterity has various causes. Disraeli, whose capacity for phrase-making was only surpassed by his historical inaccuracy, depicted him in a memorable passage in Coningsby as ‘the Arch-Mediocrity who presided rather than ruled over this Cabinet of Mediocrities’. Disraeli went on:

The Arch-Mediocrity himself had some glimmering traditions of political science. He was sprung from a laborious stock, had received some training, and, though not a statesman, might be classed among those whom the Lord Keeper Williams used to call ‘statemongers’. In a subordinate position his meagre diligence and his frigid method might not have been without value; but the qualities that he possessed were misplaced ... In the conduct of public affairs his disposition was exactly the reverse of that which is the characteristic of great men. He was peremptory in little matters, and great ones he left open.

Disraeli has so often been regarded as the guru of the Conservative Party that his version of history is liable to be taken too seriously. In Tancred he was equally censorious – this time about Lord Liverpool’s episcopal appointments, whose principal recommendation, he alleged, was ‘the decent editorship of a Greek play’: ‘The Arch-Mediocrity ... sought for the successors of the apostles, for the stewards of the mysteries of Sinai and Calvary, among third-rate hunters after syllables ... not a voice has been raised by these mitred nullities, either to warn or to vindicate; not a phrase has escaped their lips or their pens, that ever influenced public opinion, touched the heart of nations or guided the conscience of a perplexed people. If they were ever heard of it was that they had been pelted in a riot.’ Most of these observations are unfair. Liverpool was a dull man and he could never have emulated Disraeli’s panache, style, oratory and wit, but no one who was a mediocrity could have governed Britain in war and peace through 15 of the most difficult and turbulent years in the country’s history, nor is there any reason to regard the bishops whom he created as notably second-rate.

There is, however, another reason for his dim reputation. As Professor Gash points out at the end of this scholarly and most interesting biography, Liverpool ‘was a great conservative statesman; but it was before the rise of the Conservative Party and there is no niche for him in the party pantheon.’ No doubt this is a part of the explanation, but perhaps not the whole of it. The younger Pitt was a great conservative statesman who died far longer before the birth of the Conservative Party than Liverpool did. Yet Conservatives have often found a niche for him in their pantheon. The truth is that Liverpool, though undoubtedly a major statesman, was a curiously unlikeable person. Hobhouse, under-secretary at the Home Office in Liverpool’s government, pronounced him to be a man ‘who had fewer personal friends and less quality for conciliating men’s affections than perhaps any Minister that ever lived’. Liverpool was in politics the heir to Pitt, but he had none of the latter’s charisma, which resulted in the foundation after his death of ‘Pitt Clubs’ all over England to drink the toast of ‘the Immortal Memory’ and sing of ‘the Pilot who weathered the storm’. In fact Pitt never lived to weather the storm whereas Liverpool actually did. Yet one can hardly imagine the establishment of ‘Liverpool Clubs’ to commemorate his success.

He was unlucky in another respect. Between the Hanoverian succession and the First Reform Act five prime ministers had ten or more years of continuous office. The last of them, Liverpool, was the only one to be in the House of Lords. Walpole, Pelham, Lord North, who had the courtesy title as heir to the Earl of Guilford, and Pitt sat throughout in the Commons. And the Commons, even in those comparatively unrepresentative days, was, as now, ‘the barometer of public opinion’, to quote Professor Gash. The House of Lords, though under strong royal influence, was not unimportant, but the last time it had ejected a government was in 1783 – and that action had indeed been one of compliance with the King. A government’s survival depended first on support of the Crown, and secondly and almost equally on management of the Commons, and it is not easy to manage a body to which one does not belong. Had he been a member, he would have been able to blur the effects of the disastrous rivalry for the leadership of the Commons between Castlereagh and Canning, who hated each other so much that they had actually fought a duel in scandalous circumstances, though before Liverpool’s premiership. For ten years he seemed to be merely the dull tertius gaudens of the rivalry of two far more brilliant figures. It was not till the tragic suicide of Castlereagh in 1822 that he acquired a satisfactory team in the Commons. Canning was an extremely tiresome man, and many of Liverpool’s colleagues wondered at the Prime Minister’s determination to retain his services. Liverpool knew better. With Canning as leader, and with Peel prepared to settle for the inevitable succession, he had two debaters who could flatten the opposition.

Not that Liverpool now much liked Canning. At the end of his life he complained of Canning’s habit of sending him so many letters a day about public affairs. ‘I live in continual dread every time the door opens that it is to bring a note from Mr Canning, till I am driven half distracted.’ They had always had an uneasy relationship. They were contemporaries at Christ Church, that seminary of statesmen which can count to its credit 13 prime ministers and 13 Viceroys of India; Jenkinson came from Charterhouse and Canning arrived seven months later from Eton. At first they were close friends. As Professor Gash says, ‘theirs was an attraction of opposites; but to Canning, with his hard crystalline mind and temperamental inability to appreciate the effects of his actions on others, Jenkinson’s moral seriousness and emotional sensitivity made him a natural subject for teasing.’ Canning carried teasing to remarkable lengths. ‘Jinks’, or ‘Jenky’, as Canning called his solemn friend, joined the militia in 1793, like several junior ministers, to set a patriotic example. He became a colonel in Pitt’s Cinque Ports Regiment of Fencible Cavalry. It was a stock practice on placards appealing for recruits to assure potential militia men that they would not be sent abroad. Canning had a packet of bogus ones in verse printed and delivered, as if in response to an order, to Jenkinson at a dinner party given by a mutual friend, Charles Ellis. The covering note implied that the posters were already up in the streets. It was an appeal for

Tight lads who would wish for a fair opportunity
Of defying the Frenchmen with perfect impunity ...
’Tis the bold Colonel Jenkinson calls you to arm
And solemnly swears you shall come to no harm.

It went on in this vein for fifty lines and was read out at the dinner. Jenkinson burst into tears, had to be comforted for two hours by Lady Malmesbury in another room and then departed to dine elsewhere. He was not angry, he said, but he felt that it was so unkind of Canning. It was now Canning’s turn to be distressed. He proffered a half-hearted apology, which Jenkinson only half accepted. Canning then got out of Jenkinson’s carriage and walked home in a huff. For some weeks they were not on speaking terms. At last Canning called on his old friend and said that he would forgive him for his bad behaviour – a piece of effrontery so brazen that Jenkinson, in Professor Gash’s words, ‘did not know whether to be amazed or amused’. He decided to be amused and the two young men shook hands. When Cyril Jackson, the formidable Dean of Christ Church, was told about the episode, he remarked that it was as foolish a business as he had ever heard, and just like their behaviour in college.

Their careers, so curiously entwined for forty years, in the end changed from the intimacy of youth into a relationship more like that between Gladstone and Disraeli – with the added complication that they belonged to the same party. It was no doubt mortifying for Canning, who certainly thought himself cleverer than Jenkinson, to be outstripped on the track to promotion. Jenkinson was a very able debater and a very efficient administrator, but he had none of the panache of his rival. What he did have, by the chance of birth, was a head start in terms of wealth and patronage. His father, whose character corresponded far more closely than the son’s to Disraeli’s description, belonged by descent and connection to the class that had governed England for two centuries by the time he died in 1808. He was a quintessential King’s Friend and accumulated under Lord North a series of lucrative offices which he held for life. He watched the career of his son with all the vigilance and passion for success displayed by the first Sir Robert Peel or the father of the Kennedy brothers. His letters to Robert sound like a homily by Polonius. Pitt made him Lord Hawkesbury in 1786 and Earl of Liverpool ten years later. ‘Jenky’ thus had assets which Canning never possessed. His only difference with his father was over his marriage. He fell in love, surprisingly, with Lady Louisa Hervey, a daughter of the eccentric Bishop of Derry who fortuitously inherited the earldom of Bristol. Lord Bristol had abandoned his pious Evangelical wife. He was a perpetual traveller and a keen admirer of Rousseau and Voltaire. Atheistical bishops are two-a-penny now but at that time they were frowned upon. However, what weighed more with the first Lord Liverpool was the absence of money for a dowry. In the end, under the combined pressure of Downing Street and Windsor Castle, he gave way. It turned out to be a happy marriage, though there were no children. Louisa luckily took after her mother, rather than her father or her flibbertigibbet elder sisters.

Liverpool was regarded as a potential prime minister well before his accession in 1812 following the assassination of Spencer Perceval. He had refused the post in 1806. He had held the Foreign Office not altogether successfully, the Home Office competently, and the War Office with distinction at a time when it was the most important of the three secretaryships of state. The new Prime Minister was certainly conservative. The sight of the storming of the Bastille when he was a young man on the Grand Tour had given him a marked aversion to radicalism and revolution. The first decade of his tenure was anything but placid. Till Waterloo it was dominated by the war. For the next seven years the problems of peace were no less worrying. Liverpool is sometimes depicted as a timid reactionary associated with press prosecutions, Peterloo and the Six Acts, but the dividing line between order and liberty varies with the eye of the beholder. Liberal-minded Victorians, knowing that there never was an English revolution, could brush aside the menace. It seemed different at the time, and in 1984 one can have some sympathy with Lord Liverpool’s warning to the peers, based on his memories of Paris thirty years earlier: ‘It was the desperate conduct of the few, and the fears of the many that produced revolution ... The fear of the mob invariably led to arbitrary government and the best friends of liberty were therefore those who put down popular commotion and secured the inhabitants of the country in the peaceable enjoyment of their rights.’ No one can now judge the real danger of the situation. Informers may have exaggerated, but there was the indisputable episode of the Cato Street Conspiracy, when a group of fanatics, penetrated by Lord Sidmouth’s spies, planned to murder the entire Cabinet. The ministers made a joke of it but at heart they cannot have regarded it as funny.

Revolution was not the only threat to Liverpool’s peace of mind during these years of stress. The Crown was crucial in politics. The role of the prime minister, as Professor Gash observes in a characteristically shrewd analysis of the constitution, ‘resembled that of a United States president rather than that of later British prime ministers. His authority was of a different origin from that of the legislature with which he had to deal.’ It derived from the Crown, not from ‘the people’, the electorate or even Parliament. When the Crown was George IV, either as Prince Regent or King, this could be awkward. The scandal of Queen Caroline, which fell to Liverpool’s lot, far surpassed the problems of Stanley Baldwin over ‘the King’s matter’ in 1936; and, apart from that, the King was self-willed, capricious and erratic. Fortunately he was also lazy. Liverpool survived partly because in 1812 the Prince Regent lacked the energy to get rid of him, and as time passed, he became a habit, easier to follow than to break.

The century that followed the accession of Pitt saw an immense change in the fiscal and economic arrangements of Britain. It saw the abandonment of tariff restrictions and restraints. It led to the country becoming the wealthiest in the world. Liverpool was a liberal-conservative. Pitt began the process of liberal economic change; Liverpool in his final five years continued it; his pupil, Peel, carried it even further; and Peel’s pupil, Gladstone, consolidated it. Professor Gash writes: ‘Liverpool clearly ranks as one of the great though unacknowledged architects of the liberal, free-trade Victorian state, second only to Peel in importance. For a man who had already led the country through the closing, victorious stages of the Napoleonic Wars and the equally strenuous post-war years of disorder and discontent, this was no small achievement.’ In his Postscript Professor Gash sums up: ‘Lord Liverpool could be described as a politician’s politician ... He lacks any qualification for the heroic; his appeal (if he has any appeal) is to a discerning few. It is a taste which has to be acquired and can scarcely be appreciated without a sympathetic understanding of the political environment in which he lived.’ Professor Gash’s triumph in this highly percipient book – a historian’s history, a biographer’s biography – is not only to analyse a puzzling personality, but to explain a political environment which, despite similarity of nomenclature, is so remote from modern politics as to constitute an entirely different world.