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.

It is a problem which Dr Stewart’s book goes a long way towards solving. The book does best – and does extremely well – what its author is most concerned to do: it presents a lucid and thoroughly readable account of Brougham’s political career. This has all the fascination of political biography for those of us who, in Michael Oakeshott’s feline phrase, ‘cannot live without the illusion of affairs’ – even if our experience must perforce be vicarious as well as illusory. No reader of such pages in the early months of 1986 will be surprised to find that unresolved uncertainties remain even when the intricacies of political manoeuvre have been subjected to painstaking scrutiny. Did Brougham or did he not offer to abandon the Queen’s cause in 1820 in exchange for the silk gown of a King’s Counsel? To Chester New in his 1961 Life of Henry Brougham to 1830, the suggestion is ‘nonsense’; to Stewart, ‘whether the offer was made is a matter of doubt.’ Yet Norman Gash in his 1984 study of the then prime minister Lord Liverpool takes the matter seriously enough, and what no one questions is that Brougham was fully capable of such tergiversation. Was there, on this as on other such occasions, some ‘misunderstanding’? Certainly that blessed word has its part to play as a hypothesis to explain some passages in Brougham’s at times tortuous career. In the chapter – one of the best in the book – dealing with the uneasy and short-lived coalition under Canning’s premiership in 1827 and with its aftermath, it is necessary to consider the episode in which Brougham ‘had been spreading the tale that Grey, in casual gossip at the Doncaster race meeting, had said ... that the substance of his opposition to Canning’s government was that it was too favourable to the people.’ For Chester New, this was an occasion when ‘Brougham had been caught out in one of his major lies’: but in Stewart’s judgment, ‘there is no telling who had the truth in this dispute.’ What is especially noteworthy, however, is Brougham’s own suggestion ‘that a very honest mistake may have been the cause of the misunderstanding.’

The trouble with – and for – Brougham was that mistakes and misunderstandings became so frequent as to generate pervasive doubts as to his honesty. At what was to be in more ways than one the decisive moment in 1830 when he accepted the post of Lord Chancellor in Grey’s administration, there is once again a penumbra of uncertainty. It is of course plausible, even persuasive, to argue, as Stewart does, that Brougham’s motives must in this instance have been disinterested, since, by leaving a potentially commanding position in the House of Commons and saving the Whigs from the untenable position they would have been in had they attempted to form a government without him, he sacrificed personal ambition to the needs of his party and its programme of reform. By taking his seat on the Woolsack he lost both in material terms and in political leverage. Among other things, he lost some of whatever political credibility he still retained: for he had strenuously insisted after his August election victory in Yorkshire that he had no wish to hold office in any future government. ‘Nothing on earth shall ever tempt me to accept place.’ Even in mid-November, after the fall of Wellington’s administration, Brougham still declared ‘that he would accept no place in any government.’ Yet almost at the same moment he was indicating in a letter that ‘only the lord chancellorship would tempt him to abandon Yorkshire.’ Whatever the precise nature and strength of the temptation, its acknowledged existence surely affects the picture of Brougham’s going to the Lords as the suffering servant of the Whig party. In the event, indeed, it was as Lord Chancellor that he was to make some of his most notable contributions to the age of reform. As so often with Brougham, no simple or straightforward verdict can do justice either to his merits or to his defects.

The defects were damning and in the end destructive, and Robert Stewart makes no attempt to conceal them. Concerned, legitimately enough, to redress the balance of judgments in which Brougham has too often seemed to be at best an eccentric, at worst a discreditable and egotistical mountebank, he is no hagiographer. And indeed no process for canonisation could make much headway against such an array of hostile witnesses. One of the best things about this biography is the freedom with which its author allows the witnesses – Brougham himself very much included – to speak for themselves, at length and in their own words. The words, time and time again, are words of condemnation. Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus: by that Vincentian canon Brougham stands condemned. If in the end his colleagues could not tolerate him, it was simply because he was intolerable.

Dr Stewart does not materially contest that verdict. Brougham’s ‘friends and colleagues’, he writes, ‘without exception, located the source of his shifting in moral imperfections, in his deceitfulness and vanity. Hence his political ruin.’ Commenting that ‘it is the custom of men to esteem moral above intellectual virtues,’ he goes on to say: ‘the English especially prefer manners to opinions.’ It is not perhaps for a Scot (or, as Dr Stewart prefers to say, a Scotchman) to take issue over English dispositions. Yet unless the term ‘manners’ is being taken in a very far-reaching sense – beyond even what the Enlightenment understood by les moeurs – this is surely to put a minimalist gloss upon a major issue. In words used by the Times not so many years ago, ‘it is a moral question.’ Brougham’s defects were not merely faults in manners in the ordinary sense, though his manners left something to be desired; nor were they faults only of temper, though his tendency to violent over-reaction led many of his contemporaries to think him insane and must lead us to assess him as having been at all events and at times seriously disturbed. The faults that ruined him were, simply, moral deficiencies, however we may choose to define, explain or even extenuate them. Deviousness, untruthfulness, unreliability – these, like the arrogance that led Brougham so frequently to meddle in matters that were none of his business, are crippling defects in any human relationship and must be so in politics. No doubt it is proper and even salutary to be sceptical as to men’s political professions, but Brougham was so quick to see other men’s principles as mere ‘punctilio’ that it is not surprising that he should have been regarded as himself unprincipled.

That there were intellectual virtues to reckon with as well as moral vices is true enough. Yet it may seem that in this respect Dr Stewart pitches his claims for Brougham rather too high, seeing him – at least at some stages in the analysis – as an ‘intellectual’, ill at ease with the necessities of ‘the English party system’, courting ‘restless dissatisfaction’ because he wished ‘to be both prophet and politician’. It may be granted without argument that Brougham was a highly intelligent man, possessed of immense mental energy and an astonishing capacity for hard work, and concerned throughout his long life to maintain an active interest in knowledge and ideas over a wide range of subjects. None of this, however, makes him ‘an intellectual in politics’ in the sense in which that description applies, for instance, to John Stuart Mill (or even perhaps to Arthur Balfour). Brougham’s intellect could serve him superbly in political life, especially perhaps in the mastery of complex subjects displayed in some of his astonishing speeches. Yet the great 1828 speech on law reform, whether or not Brougham was ungenerous in failing to acknowledge explicitly his debt to Bentham, was the work, not of a ‘prophet’, but of a politician seeking to publicise a programme of reform and thus lay the foundations for its fulfilment. Brougham’s voluminous writings – his collected works fill 11 volumes – afford no basis for rating him highly as a thinker. Dr Stewart’s conspectus of them in his final chapter makes discouraging reading, even though Brougham might have retorted with some relish by pointing to a fact not mentioned in this biography: that his massive two volumes entitled Political Philosophy took their place with Plato, Aristotle and Montesquieu in the syllabus for the paper in ‘History and Political Philosophy’ which formed part of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Tripos from 1860 to 1867!

There is nevertheless an important intellectual dimension which certainly forms part of Brougham’s ‘public career’ and which perhaps receives less attention in Stewart’s book than it merits. This is his work as what we may term an intellectual entrepreneur. A single chapter under the somewhat threadbare title ‘The Schoolmaster Abroad’ deals in twenty pages with themes for which New thought five chapters out of his 22 were required. Readers must still go to that earlier account for an adequately detailed analysis of Brougham’s labours in education, for the Mechanics’ Institutes and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; and towards the establishment of the University of London, in all their varied lights. Dr Stewart quotes with approval Brougham’s desire to have it as his epitaph ‘that he was the founder of the universal education’: but the balance of the book as a whole makes it hard to see why that may in the end be a fair enough appraisal.

Brougham would have been ill satisfied, on the other hand, to see the intellectual figure he cuts in Biancamaria Fontana’s study of the Edinburgh Review. True, her subject would hardly have existed had it not been for Brougham’s energetic efforts. Chester New listed well over two hundred and fifty articles probably written by Brougham for the Review during the period, down to 1830, covered by his biography. Among over a hundred numbers published in those years, there were perhaps half a dozen to which he did not contribute; and in the early stages he had at times some excuse for the feeling that ‘I had literally to write, I may say, the whole’ of some numbers of what he then called ‘that d—d, blasted, b——g, brutal Review’. It is hardly to be wondered at if the quality of what he wrote did not always match its scale or its extraordinary range of subject-matter. But on the issues of political economy, with which Dr Fontana’s book is concerned, Brougham stood high both in his own esteem and in the expectations of others. Review articles apart, Brougham sought in 1803 to make his name by his substantial Inquiry into the Colonial Policy of the European Powers. This may well be, as Robert Stewart says, ‘an astonishing virtuoso performance for a man still not twenty-five years of age’. Judged, however, as ‘an economic treatise in the Scottish line’ taking its departure from Adam Smith, it is characterised by Dr Fontana as ‘voluminous, theoretically confused, badly arranged’. Brougham fares little better, at these critical hands, with his 1804 review of Lauderdale’s Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Public Wealth. The description – ‘violently abusive, arrogant in tone and often inaccurate’ – has obvious resonances with the reactions of Brougham’s later colleagues and opponents in political life; the substance of the article, we are told, displayed his ‘careless handling of theoretical questions’, ‘his limited talent for theory’, his ‘personal lack of interest in genuine theoretical speculation’.

Henry Brougham, then, does not provide much grist for Dr Fontana’s mill. Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society looks elsewhere in the first 30 years of the Edinburgh Review for the substance of its theme. This is, obviously, a book utterly different in kind from Stewart’s essay in political biography. We are presented with, essentially, the published version of a doctoral dissertation – and it must be acknowledged that the book is reviewed by one who helped to examine, and to approve, the thesis from which it has emerged. The question for consideration here is not whether the book deserved publication (which it clearly did), but whether it has a claim upon the attention of non-specialist readers. Such readers will not have their pulses set racing by a title which could perhaps have been bettered. Yet they would be well advised not to leave the book unopened on that account. What we have here is indeed intellectual history in a fairly austere form: the history of ideas in a prevalent Cambridge style, with the emphasis firmly on the ‘recovery’ or the ‘reconstruction’ of concepts and debate. Though deftly written in most respects, it does not make easy reading: and yet the effort of reading it has it rewards.

An important piece of ‘decoding’ is offered in the first paragraph of Dr Fontana’s Preface, where, after using the somewhat esoteric term ‘modern commercial society’, she immediately adds: ‘or, as we would say today capitalist society’. At once we know where we are and that it is somewhere important. An attempt to understand capitalist society – an attempt, moreover, made contemporaneously with the early 19th-century development of that society – cannot lack ‘relevance’ even in the dying decades of the 20th. And the sense of immediacy is certainly not lessened by the fact that the young Edinburgh Whigs who launched their Review – and with it a new genre of intellectual journalism – in 1802 were living in the shadow of revolution, and of war which, if not yet ‘total’ in the 20th-century sense, was being waged on an unprecedented scale. Their problem, as Dr Fontana presents it, was largely that of adapting and applying to the post-Revolutionary and later the post-Napoleonic world the principles of that political economy which had in some sense been created by Adam Smith and which had been mediated to them and their contemporaries through the teaching of Dugald Stewart. It is important to stress the fact that it was a problem in political economy, and not simply in what is now commonly understood by the term ‘economics’. This again, after all, may seem to render the subject more accessible to readers for whom economic theory remains a closed – or, if opened, a sibylline – book.

The point here has at least two aspects. On the one hand, Smith’s political economy was a theory of society grounded in a particular understanding of history – a view in which ‘commercial society’ appears as the last of ‘the four stages’ through which, conjecturally, social development has proceeded. The Reviewers’ problem was to account in terms of that theory for the cataclysmic transformations set in motion in 1789. If we adopt Duncan Forbes’s thirty-year-old designation of the philosophes of the Scottish Enlightenment as ‘Scientific Whigs’, then the Edinburgh Review in its early decades represents the applied science of Whiggism. That science, however – and this is the second aspect – was very much a political science. The book under discussion is avowedly concerned with the politics of commercial society; and this, among other things, entails an examination of the relationship between the Edinburgh Review and the Whig party. Brougham found it convenient in the last, rather desperate stages of his active political career, in the mid-1830s, to claim that the Review had never been a Whig organ. Certainly some of his own contributions in relatively early years had scandalised Whig readers by their ‘Jacobin’ tendencies. There cannot, however, be much real doubt as to the fact that the Review was perceived as a Whig organ, even if – as Dr Fontana shows – the relationship between doctrine, policy and interest is more intricate than it might be made to appear. The political issues at stake, moreover, were not simply those of economic policy, important as these were under wartime pressures and in the conditions of post-war depression. There were also fundamental issues in regard to the distribution of political power. The debate on the Reform Bill, with which Dr Fontana’s final chapter is concerned, comes as an appropriate climax to the entire analysis. What she refers to as ‘the question of the social identity and political influence of the “middling ranks” ’ combines with the issue of a still wider diffusion of power ‘in advanced commercial society’ to remind the reader once again that he is being invited to reflect upon fundamental aspects of the entire process of social and political modernisation as it has been and is still being experienced.

In her Conclusion (which might with advantage have been more fully developed) Dr Fontana argues that, while the reviewers of 1802-32 failed in ‘their early intellectual ambitions’ (in that they made no ‘comprehensive and durable contribution’ to the theory of society), they succeeded in certain other respects. In particular, by way of ‘an unprecedented expansion of the reading public’, they ‘discharged in fullest measure the educational commitments and responsibilities as public moralists’ which they inherited from their intellectual progenitors in the Scottish Enlightenment. This leaves unresolved the problems posed by the Reviewers’ ‘uncompromising commitment to politics, not only to politics as a science, but to politics as a practice and as a style of public discourse’. With this in mind, it is at once sobering and perplexing to reflect that none of those who founded and sustained the Edinburgh Review was more thoroughly committed to political action than Henry Brougham. That stubbornly enigmatic figure stands as an odd and somewhat ominous monument to the political aspirations of the formidable ‘Scotch reviewers’.