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.

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