Lord Liverpool

How Effective A Prime Minister Was Lord Liverpool?
Having served in government’s highest office for well over a decade, Lord Liverpool was one of this country’s longest serving Prime Ministers. Yet, for his length of service, he is surprisingly little known. When he is discussed, Liverpool is often remembered as a moderate, weak man whose time in office saw little of value, especially compared to the achievements of the younger Pitt before him and the Great Reform Act which followed him. Another view of Lord Liverpool comes from the old radical opinion of his term as a time of repression and reaction. However, more recently both of these views have come to be questioned and revised as Liverpool’s achievements and abilities come to be better appreciated.

Lord Liverpool saw a great deal of political service before his rise to power as Prime Minister. He was an MP under Pitt and saw the terror and destruction of the French revolution, something claimed to have affected his attitude towards popular radical protest. He made his career as a minister during the war - he served as the secretary of the Home Office, Foreign Office and finally excelled as War Secretary. He was not a man who could have easily been noticed early on as the material long serving Prime Ministers are made of - he was often overshadowed by the brilliance of those around him, especially men such as Canning. However, through years of service he acquired a reputation as a dependable, stable administrator, interested in serving his country and king rather than being greedy for power. His steady, reliable style made him popular among the older statesmen of the time, and trusted by his fellow politicians.

He did not seem in a promising position when he first came to power, in fact there could have been few who thought he would last long, let alone the length of time he remained Prime Minister. He was not the first choice of the Prince Regent but was able to form a ministry, and the problems he faced were very great. The first challenge was obviously the defeat of Napoleon, which was pursued effectively. He had no clear majority behind him in Parliament, and his position in the House of Lords meant he had to leave it to others to keep control of the House of Commons. However, he quickly constructed a fairly broad coalition of various different groups, united by the culmination of the wars on the continent and a wish to defend the establishment against the sort of radicalism the French had seen prior to the wars. In this he did well - he already had much experience of government during wartime from his years as a minister, but it was in peacetime that the real challenges were to come and where Lord Liverpool was to prove his ability.

Wartime has a habit in the British Parliament of creating unity and stability for its duration, but it is far harder to maintain support in peace, as there is less of an obvious common enemy. With no great resources of patronage behind him, as his predecessors had possessed, and no centrally controlled and disciplined party system, as would appear later - gaining consistent majorities was no easy task. Liverpool knew that essential to his survival was the support of the Prince Regent, soon to become George IV with the eventual death of his father. Liverpool had a great respect for the crown, and was determined that its powers should be sustained as an integral part of the constitution, but he was just as determined that the wayward Prince would not frustrate government policy. He had very clear ideas on the duties of the crown to support ministers who had the approval of Parliament as well as the duties of those ministers to the crown. He treated the Prince accordingly, paying attention to his wishes and being careful to maintain his support while reminding him of hid duties when the situation accorded such a reminder.

However, whatever his skill in dealing with the crown, the ability which marks Lord Liverpool as a very able man, suited to the post of Prime Minister, was his ability to create majorities in Parliament. He carefully built a coalition of many different groups from many different viewpoints, all united by a desire to protect the constitution, but bound together by the personality of their Prime Minister. This was not a party in any modern sense - they served under Liverpool as he could seem to guarantee stability, as well as his royal support. He extended his well developed sense of service to his other ministers - he expected them to put service to the crown and government above loyalty to any faction they might belong to or dogma they might believe in. One commonly held myth about him is that he could not control his ministers, but this does not fit with his character. He knew the importance of keeping moderate sensible government so as not to upset the delicate coalition, and so kept a firm grasp on the direction of policy. This was the start of collective responsibility in cabinet, and that he could allow his ministers a great degree of freedom while keeping control of the thrust of policy showed not only his fair-mindedness but also his effective control of government.

The charge that he was an "arch-mediocrity" (a jibe about him which stuck), because his government did not pursue radical, important policies does have some basis in fact. He was not disposed to enact legislation which he felt to be controversial, the reason being that this could upset his coalition. He knew he would lose the confidence of the House of Commons should he go beyond conventional opinion. The issue which always threatened to do exactly this was Catholic Emancipation. This was becoming a very important issue and was obviously very controversial - prejudice against Catholics was still a very prominent feature of society, and Liverpool’s cabinet was very divided on the subject - and therefore Liverpool did not face the issue, but simply kept it open, with Emancipation neither granted nor categorically refused.

Another feature of his term in office which has tarnished his reputation is his association with the Corn Laws. These are popularly viewed as a greedy act of landed society to enhance their prosperity at the expense of the commercial and industrial interests of the country and causing unnecessarily high food prices. However, this must be understood in the context of the time. It was firstly nothing very new - there had been duties on imports since the seventeenth century. It was also not a greedy measure to increase the profits of a narrow class at the expense of the rest of society. At this time industry was decades away from becoming dominant in the nation’s economic well-being - agriculture was the dominant part of the economy as well as employing many people, and there was a genuine fear that after the years of war, when producers had invested heavily to bring as much land under the plough as possible, the farming community could be devastated by the flood of cheap grain from the continent. Ideas of free trade, prevalent later, were still relatively new and hardly universally accepted. In 1812 Liverpool had indicated he was a supporter of freer trade when he said "the less commerce and manufacturing were meddled with the more likely they were to prosper", but he would place practical considerations first - the Corn Laws seemed necessary to maintain support of the mainly landed elite and made good economic and social sense.

The final major charge popular belief makes at Lord Liverpool was that his government was repressive and reactionary, refusing popular demands and overreacting to popular movements. A charge of being reactionary is usually levelled against a government which resisted eventually successful movements - which Liverpool did with such movements as that for Catholic Emancipation, Parliamentary reform and repeal of the Corn Laws. However, his government was never insensitive to demand from below - shown for example by the Poor Employment Bill of 1817 - and he governed in the traditional aristocratic fashion, preferring a "national view" to a narrow interest view of a particular class or group. He might resist demands for a radical change because it threatened the essential nature of the constitution, which he held as sacred, but he was not insensitive.

Charges of repression are often made, especially in view of several famous events which took place, such as the Spa Fields Riot, the March of the Blanketeers, the Pentridge Rising and especially the Peterloo Massacre. However, as with the Corn Laws, these events must be put into their historical context. This was a time of great confusion and uncertainty. The unprecedented effects of industrialisation, erratic employment, bad harvests and economic problems caused by the end of the war (including 300,000 men discharged from the services) made a unique situation, especially with the still fresh memories of the French Revolution. The reform movements must have seemed a dangerous element in this, and so action against them was understandable. Besides, violence was usually the fault of incompetent yeomanry or frightened magistrates, rather than government policy. The "repressive" Six Acts of 1820 were in fact very mild, preventing drilling with weapons by radicals and increasing magistrate powers to break up meetings, and they were largely to reassure the backbenches and elite that government was taking the situation seriously, and they succeeded in restoring confidence.

On balance, Lord Liverpool was a very effective Prime Minister. He presided over a very turbulent time in the nation’s history, and managed to keep peace and stability. He believed in the constitution, but was not blind to the fact it had to change to retain its vitality and popularity. He understood society was changing and if the new forces found nothing to admire in the old system it would not last, and so he was careful to help the new industrial and commercial classes, making them feel government was sensitive to their needs and reforming slowly and carefully - while being careful not to alarm the landed elite. Through his term in office he never stopped looking for new ways of getting support and enlarging his coalition. The vital role he played in holding his party together is best shown by events following his retirement from politics, caused by a stroke. There was great political confusion and the coalition disintegrated very fast indeed. Demands for Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary reform became too great to resist and several Prime Ministers rose and fell in a short time. It could be claimed that this was a failing of Lord Liverpool - that he failed to construct a coalition that could outlast him, but he did not intend to make a party. He was dedicated to service, not to party political ends, and he managed to hold a stable government together through very unstable times, and in this he proved to be very effective. He also showed that the constitution could work, providing effective and stable government, renewing confidence in the government when the world seemed to hold fewer certainties.



Bibliography





Cookson, J E, Lord Liverpool’s Adminstration 1815-22, Scottish Academic Press, 1975

John W Derry, Politics In The Age Of Fox, Pitt And Liverpool, Macmillan, 1990

Eric J Evans, The Forging of the Modern State : Early Industrial Britain 1783-1870, Longman, 1983

Glyn Williams and John Ramsden, Ruling Britannia - A Political History of Britain 1688-1988, Longman, 1990
Having served in government’s highest office for well over a decade, Lord Liverpool was one of this country’s longest serving Prime Ministers. Yet, for his length of service, he is surprisingly little known. When he is discussed, Liverpool is often remembered as a moderate, weak man whose time in office saw little of value, especially compared to the achievements of the younger Pitt before him and the Great Reform Act which followed him. Another view of Lord Liverpool comes from the old radical opinion of his term as a time of repression and reaction. However, more recently both of these views have come to be questioned and revised as Liverpool’s achievements and abilities come to be better appreciated.

Lord Liverpool saw a great deal of political service before his rise to power as Prime Minister. He was an MP under Pitt and saw the terror and destruction of the French revolution, something claimed to have affected his attitude towards popular radical protest. He made his career as a minister during the war - he served as the secretary of the Home Office, Foreign Office and finally excelled as War Secretary. He was not a man who could have easily been noticed early on as the material long serving Prime Ministers are made of - he was often overshadowed by the brilliance of those around him, especially men such as Canning. However, through years of service he acquired a reputation as a dependable, stable administrator, interested in serving his country and king rather than being greedy for power. His steady, reliable style made him popular among the older statesmen of the time, and trusted by his fellow politicians.

He did not seem in a promising position when he first came to power, in fact there could have been few who thought he would last long, let alone the length of time he remained Prime Minister. He was not the first choice of the Prince Regent but was able to form a ministry, and the problems he faced were very great. The first challenge was obviously the defeat of Napoleon, which was pursued effectively. He had no clear majority behind him in Parliament, and his position in the House of Lords meant he had to leave it to others to keep control of the House of Commons. However, he quickly constructed a fairly broad coalition of various different groups, united by the culmination of the wars on the continent and a wish to defend the establishment against the sort of radicalism the French had seen prior to the wars. In this he did well - he already had much experience of government during wartime from his years as a minister, but it was in peacetime that the real challenges were to come and where Lord Liverpool was to prove his ability.

Wartime has a habit in the British Parliament of creating unity and stability for its duration, but it is far harder to maintain support in peace, as there is less of an obvious common enemy. With no great resources of patronage behind him, as his predecessors had possessed, and no centrally controlled and disciplined party system, as would appear later - gaining consistent majorities was no easy task. Liverpool knew that essential to his survival was the support of the Prince Regent, soon to become George IV with the eventual death of his father. Liverpool had a great respect for the crown, and was determined that its powers should be sustained as an integral part of the constitution, but he was just as determined that the wayward Prince would not frustrate government policy. He had very clear ideas on the duties of the crown to support ministers who had the approval of Parliament as well as the duties of those ministers to the crown. He treated the Prince accordingly, paying attention to his wishes and being careful to maintain his support while reminding him of hid duties when the situation accorded such a reminder.

However, whatever his skill in dealing with the crown, the ability which marks Lord Liverpool as a very able man, suited to the post of Prime Minister, was his ability to create majorities in Parliament. He carefully built a coalition of many different groups from many different viewpoints, all united by a desire to protect the constitution, but bound together by the personality of their Prime Minister. This was not a party in any modern sense - they served under Liverpool as he could seem to guarantee stability, as well as his royal support. He extended his well developed sense of service to his other ministers - he expected them to put service to the crown and government above loyalty to any faction they might belong to or dogma they might believe in. One commonly held myth about him is that he could not control his ministers, but this does not fit with his character. He knew the importance of keeping moderate sensible government so as not to upset the delicate coalition, and so kept a firm grasp on the direction of policy. This was the start of collective responsibility in cabinet, and that he could allow his ministers a great degree of freedom while keeping control of the thrust of policy showed not only his fair-mindedness but also his effective control of government.

The charge that he was an "arch-mediocrity" (a jibe about him which stuck), because his government did not pursue radical, important policies does have some basis in fact. He was not disposed to enact legislation which he felt to be controversial, the reason being that this could upset his coalition. He knew he would lose the confidence of the House of Commons should he go beyond conventional opinion. The issue which always threatened to do exactly this was Catholic Emancipation. This was becoming a very important issue and was obviously very controversial - prejudice against Catholics was still a very prominent feature of society, and Liverpool’s cabinet was very divided on the subject - and therefore Liverpool did not face the issue, but simply kept it open, with Emancipation neither granted nor categorically refused.

Another feature of his term in office which has tarnished his reputation is his association with the Corn Laws. These are popularly viewed as a greedy act of landed society to enhance their prosperity at the expense of the commercial and industrial interests of the country and causing unnecessarily high food prices. However, this must be understood in the context of the time. It was firstly nothing very new - there had been duties on imports since the seventeenth century. It was also not a greedy measure to increase the profits of a narrow class at the expense of the rest of society. At this time industry was decades away from becoming dominant in the nation’s economic well-being - agriculture was the dominant part of the economy as well as employing many people, and there was a genuine fear that after the years of war, when producers had invested heavily to bring as much land under the plough as possible, the farming community could be devastated by the flood of cheap grain from the continent. Ideas of free trade, prevalent later, were still relatively new and hardly universally accepted. In 1812 Liverpool had indicated he was a supporter of freer trade when he said "the less commerce and manufacturing were meddled with the more likely they were to prosper", but he would place practical considerations first - the Corn Laws seemed necessary to maintain support of the mainly landed elite and made good economic and social sense.

The final major charge popular belief makes at Lord Liverpool was that his government was repressive and reactionary, refusing popular demands and overreacting to popular movements. A charge of being reactionary is usually levelled against a government which resisted eventually successful movements - which Liverpool did with such movements as that for Catholic Emancipation, Parliamentary reform and repeal of the Corn Laws. However, his government was never insensitive to demand from below - shown for example by the Poor Employment Bill of 1817 - and he governed in the traditional aristocratic fashion, preferring a "national view" to a narrow interest view of a particular class or group. He might resist demands for a radical change because it threatened the essential nature of the constitution, which he held as sacred, but he was not insensitive.

Charges of repression are often made, especially in view of several famous events which took place, such as the Spa Fields Riot, the March of the Blanketeers, the Pentridge Rising and especially the Peterloo Massacre. However, as with the Corn Laws, these events must be put into their historical context. This was a time of great confusion and uncertainty. The unprecedented effects of industrialisation, erratic employment, bad harvests and economic problems caused by the end of the war (including 300,000 men discharged from the services) made a unique situation, especially with the still fresh memories of the French Revolution. The reform movements must have seemed a dangerous element in this, and so action against them was understandable. Besides, violence was usually the fault of incompetent yeomanry or frightened magistrates, rather than government policy. The "repressive" Six Acts of 1820 were in fact very mild, preventing drilling with weapons by radicals and increasing magistrate powers to break up meetings, and they were largely to reassure the backbenches and elite that government was taking the situation seriously, and they succeeded in restoring confidence.

On balance, Lord Liverpool was a very effective Prime Minister. He presided over a very turbulent time in the nation’s history, and managed to keep peace and stability. He believed in the constitution, but was not blind to the fact it had to change to retain its vitality and popularity. He understood society was changing and if the new forces found nothing to admire in the old system it would not last, and so he was careful to help the new industrial and commercial classes, making them feel government was sensitive to their needs and reforming slowly and carefully - while being careful not to alarm the landed elite. Through his term in office he never stopped looking for new ways of getting support and enlarging his coalition. The vital role he played in holding his party together is best shown by events following his retirement from politics, caused by a stroke. There was great political confusion and the coalition disintegrated very fast indeed. Demands for Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary reform became too great to resist and several Prime Ministers rose and fell in a short time. It could be claimed that this was a failing of Lord Liverpool - that he failed to construct a coalition that could outlast him, but he did not intend to make a party. He was dedicated to service, not to party political ends, and he managed to hold a stable government together through very unstable times, and in this he proved to be very effective. He also showed that the constitution could work, providing effective and stable government, renewing confidence in the government when the world seemed to hold fewer certainties.



Bibliography





Cookson, J E, Lord Liverpool’s Adminstration 1815-22, Scottish Academic Press, 1975

John W Derry, Politics In The Age Of Fox, Pitt And Liverpool, Macmillan, 1990

Eric J Evans, The Forging of the Modern State : Early Industrial Britain 1783-1870, Longman, 1983

Glyn Williams and John Ramsden, Ruling Britannia - A Political History of Britain 1688-1988, Longman, 1990

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