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.

Mitchell’s second line of contention is that, taking up serious politics as a reaction to the failure of his private life, Melbourne had very few political ideas, and these were essentially conservative. The argument is that Melbourne was not a Tory only because he did not approve of the countryside or the claims of religion and thought that politics should be run by a small number of cosmopolitan Whig families – ‘the whig idea that politics was for the few’. Melbourne ‘profoundly believed in a controlled society’ in politics and in religion: an exclusive political club of which ‘newspaper editors, educationalists, much of industrial England [and] the religious enthusiast ... would not be put up for membership.’ These assertions are justified by reference to a few of Melbourne’s sardonic epigrams, as if in teasing or provocative mood he was to be taken strictly at face value.

Mitchell seems much more attached to the old radical jibes about the social exclusiveness of Whiggery than to serious inquiry into Whig political philosophy. As a youth, Melbourne spent two winters in Glasgow, living plainly and studying with John Millar, disciple of David Hume and Adam Smith, and one of the most influential proselytisers for the Scottish Enlightenment. This experience gave him a strong commitment to the principles of political economy; it also profoundly influenced his thinking on the relationship between government and property. To give two examples: Melbourne was Home Secretary during the planning and introduction of the New Poor Law; and he made a major contribution to policing reform. Mitchell’s references to both are cursory and insubstantial.

The third of Mitchell’s arguments which require comment concerns Melbourne’s astonishingly rapid political ascent. He became prime minister in July 1834, only seven years after seriously turning his energies to politics, and he held the post very nearly throughout the next seven. But Mitchell’s Melbourne was a lazy and fatalistic dilettante; his rise, consequently, was not his own doing. Melbourne ‘sought nothing from politics but to be diverted and amused’; he ‘lacked a confidence in decision-making’; ‘he had a passivity in the face of events and difficulties.’ Throughout 1834-5 ‘he followed events rather than led them.’ In July 1834, after his predecessor resigned, he was ‘little more than an errand boy for the king’. When he was appointed prime minister, the news was ‘greeted with rudeness and incredulity from friend and foe alike’. He was accorded a ‘lack of respect’; ‘everyone agreed that Althorp was the only man of importance in the cabinet.’ Similarly, his return to office in April 1835 was ‘barely thought of’. One would have more confidence in Mitchell’s polemic had he produced any effective support for these sweeping generalisations.

The reader in search of an explanation for this fantastical ascent is assured that it was ‘all the work of Fate’. To be fair, Mitchell also raises one other question, but does not reflect on it nearly deeply enough. This concerns Melbourne’s attitude to party, the most important and interesting aspect of his political philosophy. Melbourne was much less of a conventional Whig (if such a person existed) than Mitchell’s stereotyping suggests. By the 1820s, most of the Whig and Tory shibboleths concerning the power of the Crown had lost their resonance. To men like Melbourne, party obstructed the goal of stabilising government in Britain and Ireland on the principles of religious tolerance and political economy. Party government excluded; it created destabilising reactions; it encouraged doctrinaires; it made philosophical men marginal; it discouraged action on pressing economic and religious issues where there was cross-party agreement.

The significance of these views was that they were widely shared by country gentlemen more interested in stability than in ins and outs. Throughout most of the extended political crisis of 1827-35, coalition government was considered both necessary and desirable. Men like Melbourne, Palmerston and Graham were indispensable to its success. Melbourne became prime minister because many people, from the King downwards, saw him as the best symbol and safeguard against party exclusion of one or other kinds: he was attractive – to different groups – as both the most conservative and the most liberal minister likely to keep a government on the road. Mitchell is unwilling to consider the possibility that Melbourne might have had the political adroitness to exploit this situation; he paints a picture of doltish rather than masterly inactivity and talks of passivity rather than flexibility. But the passivity is his own. He ridicules but does not explain Melbourne’s resignation, with Huskisson, from Wellington’s government in 1828. With Huskisson’s resignation that government effectively ceased to be a coalition and assumed a Tory character. Melbourne was no Tory, nor did he see any medium-term political advantage in pretending to be one. His reward came in 1830, in spades.

How, finally, does the book assess Melbourne’s legacy as prime minister after 1834? What can one expect of languid aristocrats? ‘Government was more a dinner party among friends than anything else.’ Melbourne’s governing strategy was ‘in no sense innovative’; it ‘tidied up matters left over from the Grey administration’. Melbourne was ‘not a policy-maker’; he operated ‘merely as a facilitator of polities’, getting departmental heads to work together. Just once, Mitchell so far forgets himself as to call Melbourne a ‘brilliant facilitator’, and he quotes Creevey’s view that his relationships with individual ministers made him ‘invaluable and invulnerable’. But the invective soon resumes. Melbourne is presented as lacking authority over his colleagues and failing to tackle ‘new issues’, so that the government was ‘killed from within’. Cabinets were sometimes a ‘farce, with the Prime Minister reading the newspapers while others spoke’. On some important questions – the Corn Laws, the ballot – the Cabinet actually had to agree to disagree.

Here Mitchell follows a long tradition of interpreting 19th-century politics, according to which the prizes go to the Peels and Gladstones, men who preside over a schoolboy process of decisive ‘reforms’, executed with lofty idealism and a masterly civil service mind. Those who do not sit in the car marked ‘Progress’ are portrayed as merely defensive, negative figures, anxious to preserve property, inequality and their hold on office. These criticisms can be made of Melbourne. However, they can also be made of Peel and Gladstone. To interpret politics by the extent of ‘dynamism’ and ‘vision’ on offer is the task of the partisan spin doctor, not the historian. Politics is the process of managing the conflicting ideals, hatreds and ambitions of individuals and social groups. Political action is shaped by a mixture of belief, promise, vanity, constraint and fear. It creates intriguing and unpredictable consequences, which may occasionally be ‘solutions’ but usually throw up fresh problems and grievances. The political historian is not in the business of applying ‘progressive’ or ‘negative’ labels; his job is to explain assumptions, contexts and effects.

Anyone who is prime minister for nearly seven years necessarily presides over innovation and leaves a legacy. So what, in reality, was Melbourne’s? We should start by considering the importance of history to him and to other intellectually-minded Whigs. It was not a dilettante hobby, but an essential training in the pursuit of good government. That was why Whig salons and Whig cabinets made room for historians, however tedious. Nothing was more distinctive about Melbourne’s government than the presence of himself and Russell as its two leading lights; as Lord Hatherton remarked in 1837, ‘the two best-read men in high life in England are the leaders of the two Houses of Parliament.’ History gave them cultural breadth and perspective by offering insights into the nature of human character, the relationship of politics to social change, and the possibilities and limits of political initiative. It taught Melbourne the humility and tolerance needed to manage other men’s egos; he kept his government going by a constant process of surmounting difficulties, soothing vanities, giving steers and dropping hints. And it taught him the danger of bad government, i.e. over-government.

Melbourne’s instinctive suspicion of heavy-handedness was the real reason he was not a Tory. It had a significant effect on the politics of the 1830s. It, rather than his ‘fatalism’, explains his restrained response, as Home Secretary, to the riots which punctuated the reform crisis of 1830-1. It explains his commitment to the principles of religious toleration, seen in his sturdy defence of his controversial appointment of the liberal thinker R.D. Hampden to the Regius Chair of Divinity in Oxford in 1836. And, most important, it accounts for his sustained interest in the Irish question. Melbourne did not believe that government had an answer to Irish economic and social discontents, but this made it all the more important to alleviate the damage done by the arrogant, violent imposition of the Protestant Church Establishment on Ireland, contrary to common sense and in defiance of the popular attachment to that most impressive of historical phenomena, the Church of Rome. Sympathy for ecclesiastical liberalisation in Ireland was one of Melbourne’s most fixed notions. The single most puzzling failing in Mitchell’s book is his description of Melbourne’s Irish policy as merely a continuation of Grey’s, and one which, moreover, left the Irish ‘as far from reason as ever’. Melbourne became prime minister in 1834 because, unlike the King, Grey, nearly half the Cabinet and most of the British political establishment, he was willing to accept Russell’s forward policy on Ireland, including appropriation – with all that that implied both about Ireland’s right to embrace Catholicism and about Parliament’s right to reallocate any Church’s resources in line with popular needs. This was a decisive step, both in Irish policy (leading to a substantial reform programme between 1835 and 1841, which Mitchell ignores) and in the intellectual and political evolution of the British governing coalition, which, accordingly, in the late 1830s, became more and more widely known as the Liberal party. It was Melbourne’s skill in keeping his ministry going which drove the stake through the ancien régime in Church and State.

Melbourne’s style of handling other policy questions also made a major contribution to the development of Liberal politics. His resort to ‘departmental’ government and ‘open’ policy issues was not the consequence of personal weakness, but a conscious strategy in the face of four considerations: the historicist awareness that government had a duty to engage with changing social circumstances and external pressures; the view of important Whigs that this required an unprecedented burst of legislative initiatives; the attempt to proceed towards these initiatives by some sort of consensus; and the dictates of a small Parliamentary majority and a hostile Lords. In any case, this style of government was not as ‘unconventional’ as Mitchell claims; Cabinets had traditionally been means of keeping political heavyweights on side, rather than policy-making bodies, and Liverpool as well as Canning had only survived in government by resort to open questions.

What it meant, in the context of the 1830s, was that policy and tone drifted. By 1841, however, government and party seemed much less resistant to the grievances of Dissenters, Corn Law repealers and Irish radicals than they had in 1835. The Whigs – or Liberals – had lost the Anglican countryside and become a largely urban party. That Melbourne presided over this process is testimony to his relativism, though also to his desire for a quiet life. Aware that the great reforming majorities of 1831 and 1832 were artificial, and conscious of the alarm of peers and country gentlemen at the pace of change, he made his protests against the wisdom of some of the innovations. His part, however, was not that of the blustering blimp, but that of the sinuous conceder and appeaser – so common a figure over the next 150 years.

It is not too much to say that Melbourne, though only half intentionally, was the founder of the Liberal Party. Superficially this is paradoxical, for he was both old-fashioned and suspicious of party. But the Victorian Liberal Party was not the kind of narrow, doctrinaire, exclusive party which he disliked. The secret of its dominance, especially in the 1850s and 1860s, was that it squared the political circle, combining an urban Dissenting constituency base with a centrist Parliamentary image acceptable to large numbers of men of property. Its approach was broad-bottomed and consensual rather than programmatic and dynamic. It was the sort of party that men of the world were better at leading than zealots.

This Liberal Party reached maturity under Palmerston, Melbourne’s like-minded brother-in-law. Possessing circumstantial advantages over Melbourne and a much stronger personality, Palmerston consciously pitched for a wide coalition of support on the same basis of manly, flexible common sense. He adopted a variety of public poses, disciplined the radicals to accept his leadership by asserting his greater popularity, and made the Conservatives seem marginal and disreputable. He personalised politics, presenting himself as the embodiment of progressive Englishness by cleverly defining progress so narrowly as to be almost unobjectionable, and by forging opportunistic alliances with groups across the political spectrum. He minimised hostility to government by decentralising as many unpopular responsibilities as possible. By such means, he secured dominance for himself and a twenty-year hegemony for his followers. That was how the Liberal Party developed in the 19th century. It is, very probably, how it will be reborn, under another name, at the end of the 20th.