An accidental prime minister: the underrated career of the pragmatic Lord Liverpool

In the age of Putin and Assad, British politics could learn a lesson from Liverpool.

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Lord Liverpool, who took office in 1812, was in some ways an accidental prime minister. He succeeded Spencer Perceval upon his dramatic assassination in the House of Commons and then became one of the longest serving prime ministers, whose nearly 15-year tenure, longer than Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair’s, was exceeded only by that of Robert Walpole and Pitt the Younger. Yet in other ways, as this splendid new biography by the American historian William Hay makes clear, Liverpool was one of the most obvious candidates for the position. He had held many of the main offices of state – including foreign secretary, home secretary and secretary at war – and he had already turned down two previous invitations from the King to become prime minister.

Liverpool was born into politics as Robert Banks Jenkinson, son of Charles Jenkinson, formerly joint secretary of the Treasury and later president of the Board of Trade. His mother tragically died shortly after he was born. His father was subsequently raised to the peerage as Lord Hawkesbury, and then as First Earl of Liverpool, titles Robert was to inherit. Here readers need to keep their wits about them, as the profusion of titles becomes a little confusing once the hero reaches early middle age. Robert Jenkinson inherited from his father not only a wealth of political connections, but also a command of issues and detail that marked him out against more expansive characters such as Charles James Fox.

A particular strength of this biography is the way in which the author locates Liverpool within the crucial European context. His first speech was given in support of William Pitt’s failed attempt to persuade the House of Commons to support his robust response to Russian encroachments in the Black Sea – the “Ochakov Crisis” – in many ways the start of the “Eastern Question”. Even more significantly, Liverpool’s formative political experience was the French Revolution, which he personally witnessed in Paris in 1789. His engagement with those events and their consequences in the shape of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars shaped much of his career, including the first years of his premiership.

As Hay shows, Liverpool charted a middle way in both domestic and foreign policy. He did not share Edmund Burke’s absolute determination to crush the Revolution as an ideological excrescence, but he agreed that French ambitions posed a mortal threat to the European balance upon which British liberties rested. As foreign secretary, he played a large role in assembling the unsuccessful Third Coalition against Napoleon, and as war secretary he did much to keep up the contest when the outlook was bleak. At home, Liverpool was cautious but not reactionary. As home secretary, he opposed Catholic emancipation as a threat to the British constitution, and the abolition of the slave trade, at least at first, but in general he favoured slow evolutionary change.

This balanced approach characterised Liverpool’s time in office. Hay shows that he deserves at least as much credit as Castlereagh for the final coalition that brought down Napoleon. Liverpool had the ability not merely to manage his fractious cabinet, and the temperamental Prince Regent, but also the necessary head for figures. It was a difficult time, because the prime minister had to balance the demands of both the European theatre and the war that had erupted with the United States in 1812. The establishment of a new balance in Europe, through the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and in North America, through the Treaty of Ghent that same year, were in part his achievement.

Liverpool also managed the transition to peace, whose implications were domestic as much as international. Here, the third way really came into its own. Abroad, Britain remained engaged in the European system, with the foreign secretary Castlereagh playing a prominent role, but refused to sign up to Austrian chancellor Prince Metternich’s more repressive and conservative platforms such as the Holy Alliance. At home, the end of nearly 25 years of more or less continuous warfare enabled Liverpool, whom we would today dub a budgetary hawk, to oversee the transition from the 18th-century “fiscal-military state” to what Philip Harling and Peter Mandler call the “laissez-faire state” of the early 19th century. At the same time, he was also the principal architect of the Corn Laws, which were designed to protect agricultural producers from foreign competition, at least before a certain price for grain had been achieved.

It is a cliché, but like all long political careers, Liverpool’s inevitably ended in failure. In the mid-1820s, he was surprised by a financial and economic crisis that caused widespread misery and unrest. His position on Catholic emancipation was becoming increasingly untenable: he died in 1827 before the extent of the crisis became clear. He was, though, spared the re-emergence of the Russian problem after 1829, when Tsar Nicholas I intervened in Greece and shifted the contours of the Eastern Question, which led ultimately to the Crimean War.

The author is, of course, not the first scholar to tackle Lord Liverpool, whose world has been vividly illuminated by historians such as Norman Gash and, more recently, Boyd Hilton. Hay brings to the story a more biographical approach, which allows him to focus closely on Liverpool’s personality, which is brilliantly evoked in a series of anecdotes and quotations from contemporary observers. Hay, who is admirably attuned to his subject’s intellectual, religious, political and social context, also makes a strong case for seeing Liverpool as a late 18th-century figure, rather than primarily the harbinger of the 19th century.

William Hay wisely does not try to draw any parallels with the present time but the reader of his wonderful biography may be tempted to do so. It is hard to say whether Liverpool’s “Liberal Toryism” resonates in the Conservative Party of today, because some of the issues involved – such as Catholic emancipation and slavery – seem remote. In one respect, however, his career is highly relevant. The House of Commons that refused to confront Russia over Ochakov, eventually had to do so at great cost in the Crimea. In the age of Putin and Assad, perhaps British parliamentarians need to be reminded that voting to ignore a problem will not necessarily make it go away.

Brendan Simms’s books include “Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation” (Penguin)

Lord Liverpool: A Political Life
William Anthony Hay
Boydell Press, 365pp, £45

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran