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The Age of George III

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Account for Lord Liverpool's long tenure of power

In Disraeli's view of Lord Liverpool's 'Arch mediocrity', the talents of Liverpool have been underestimated and, as a result, other factors such as the weak opposition of the Whigs, and the talents of his various Cabinets have been used to account for Liverpool's long tenure of power. However, Liverpool played an important role in the maintenance of his leadership due to numerous self-made circumstances including the Cabinet reshuffle of the 1820s; the unification of the 'old Pittites' such as Castlereagh and Canning with the new emerging talents of Peel, Huskisson and Palmerston. On the whole, the skill of Liverpool was the most significant reason for his long tenure of power. Asa Briggs eloquently claims, in The Age of Improvement, 'the system lasted so long because of Liverpool'. Furthermore, it seems that Liverpool held the Tory party together, as, after his death, the Tories effectively 'cracked' and were not to hold power until 1852, if Peel is not judged to be a Tory.

The irresolute opposition of the Whigs cannot be stressed highly enough in accounting for the longevity of Liverpool's leadership. In a letter to Thomas Creevey, Squire Western admitted 'There is no superior mind amongst us (and) no super-eminent power to strike out a line of policy, to command the confidence of the country'. Indeed, this deficiency of the Whigs had been caused by C J Fox, according to P Brown, in the French Revolution in English History, as he caused 'the decimation of the Whigs', between 1790 to 1794, due to his idealization of the French Revolution. This 'decimation of the Whigs' was still apparent in 1812 when Asa Briggs reflected on 'the sharp Whig divisions which resulted in a party 'divided and bankrupt of constructive ideas'. Certainly, the more prominent leaders of the Whigs lacked the ability of Liverpool's stalwarts. Henry Brougham 'was looked on with grave suspicion', according to Briggs, Earl Grey lacked ambition while Lord John Russell was advocating parliamentary reform, without strong public pressure. Between these men, M Roberts, in The Whig Party, claims that 'they could not agree in championing any intelligent strategical plan'. Indeed, the opportunity to defeat the Tories over the 'Princess Caroline saga' was not taken by the Whigs, due to their incompetence: the Whig leader in the House of Commons George Tierney, is often blamed; especially in light of Squire Western's view of him: he described him as 'narrow and wrong as ever'. The social struggles of 1816 and 1820 also divided the Whigs, as Grey and Grenville broke their 'tenuous political understanding' according to Briggs. The importance of the Whigs was demonstrated further by their performance in General Elections of 1818 and 1826:

L W Cowie, in Hanoverian England, wrote that 'in the general election of 1818 the government maintained its majority over the divided opposition'; while Liverpool won an increased majority in 1826, when several of his leading critics lost their seats. Moreover, the Whigs only returned to power in 1830 because of the immense divisions within the Tory party, therefore they hardly won that election due to the skill of Grey. The opposition of the Whigs, then, was important in the sustainment of Liverpool's long tenure of power but Liverpool and his ministers were also important.

Reflecting upon Lord Liverpool's administration, Benjamin Disraeli, in Coningsby, wrote that 'they knew as little of the real state of their country as savages on an approaching eclipse, (and) the chief members of this official confederacy were men distinguished by none of the conspicuous qualities of statesmen'. Furthermore, EJ Evans, in The Victorian Age, claims that although Liverpool remained PM, 'the driving force was now in the hands of Canning, Peel, Robinson and Huskisson'. Disraeli's critique stems from the repression of 1815 to 1819 yet it is easy to reflect upon the threat of revolution with the benefit of hindsight: Disraeli had written Coningsby in 1844. Liverpool merely acted to preserve the institutions of Britain, by following William Pitt's methods of the 1790's, although J L and B Hammond in The Skilled Labourer 1760-1832 argued that this administration (Liverpool's) was comparable to the 'Tsar's government of Russia'. However, it is feasible to argue that Liverpool's repression accounted for his long tenure of power as after the 1818 election the number of Tory MPs had risen from 253 to 261 while the Government fringe rose from 78 to 80 MPs, therefore Liverpool had won an extra 6% of support in the Commons. Liverpool's contribution to sustaining and increasing his support was demonstrated frequently during his term as PM. He did maintain and increase his support in 1821 when he settled the dispute with the eternal Grenvillites by making Peel Home Secretary, and Wellesley Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Indeed, Liverpool's Cabinet reshuffle during 1821 and 1822 was a creditable move by him as his old 'die-hard' Tory ministers were replaced by men who were aware of the need for policies to satisfy public opinion and contemporary needs: Asa Briggs reflected on the 'further cabinet changes, engineered by Liverpool, (which) prepared the way for "liberal Toryism". Moreover, although critics of Liverpool such as Disraeli would argue that Canning had only replaced Castlereagh due to his unfortunate suicide, it was Liverpool's determination which had persuaded the King to allow Canning to be included in the Cabinet.

Another factor which accounts for Lord Liverpool's long tenure of power was the way in which he united his so-called reactionary cabinet with the more 'enlightened' Cabinet of the 1 820s. Indeed, the Castlereagh and Canning duel of 1809 suggested that these men would be in eternal conflict. However, rather like Margaret Thatcher with respect to the Nigel Lawson resignation, Lord Liverpool seemed to hide the differences of opinion between Castlereagh and Canning from the public eye; which emphasises Asa Briggs' analysis of Liverpool: he described Liverpool as having 'the right blend of qualities to act as a mediator and a reconciler of both men and ideas'. On a broader scale, Liverpool's success of unifying, in the public eye, his various ministers was a very important factor in accounting for his long tenure of power, which contrasts sharply with the Duke of Wellington during his years as PM when he did not bother to try to unite the 'Huskissonites', 'Canningites' and the 'High Tories'. Certainly, although the adage of 'scratch them and you will find a Tory' was true to an extent even Canning was determined 'to prevent any change in the system', according to William Cobbett in his Political Register - Liverpool's skill kept the party together: L W Cowie wrote; 'the success of his (Liverpool's) ministry had depended on his ability to keep its members together'. Indeed, Liverpool also played an instrumental part in persuading Canning, Wellington and Richard Wellesley to return to the party, to enter his Cabinet, and to become a potential Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, respectively, thus accounting for his long tenure of power.

The essence of Evans' claim that Liverpool was not the driving force behind the Tories, is an attempt to imply that he merely 'sat back' and was not in control of his ministers, therefore accounting for his long spell as PM. Moreover, Liverpool did not sit in the Commons, and consequently, he did not have to defend his policies, thus it is feasible to argue that this factor prolonged his leadership. However, the claim by Evans is challenged by the views of Asa Briggs in The Prime Ministers. Briggs wrote: 'It is clear that the guiding lines of policy were always firmly in Liverpool's hands, in consultation with an inner ring of ministers'. This point is emphasised by Liverpool's involvement with Huskisson in the 1820s. Liverpool had 'made many characteristic free trade utterances of his own', according to Briggs, therefore it seems that Huskisson and Liverpool had consulted each other; which demonstrates that Liverpool was more liberal than he is credited for and it also displays a touch of pragmatism: a factor which accounted for Peel's success.

Another factor which prolonged Lord Liverpool's long tenure of power was the calibre of his ministers, especially in the so called 'Enlightened' period. His reactionary ministry, though, was widely criticised at the time by men such as Lord Byron, William Cobbett and Henry Hunt, although J E Cookson in Lord Liverpool's Administration claims that the reaction 'managed to keep the support of those popular forces which were triumphant in their immediate future' The Foreign Secretaries of Liverpool's various 'ministries' Castlereagh and Canning laid the foundations for 99 years of European peace, due to their superb foreign policy ideals: a competent Foreign Secretary was important in determining the success and length of a Ministry; which was evident by the Earl of Aberdeen's misdemeanours during the 1850's. The Home Secretaries of Liverpool also helped to sustain his leadership. Sidmouth successfully, albeit harshly, dealt with the post-war discontent and distress. He accounted for his repression by claiming that he was acting 'for the maintenance of our liberties', Indeed, C D Yonge in The Life of Lord Liverpool, claimed that the ministry 'mingled compassion with firmness'. Peel, as Home Secretary, in the 1820s, also played an important role in maintaining Liverpool's integrity: Asa Briggs wrote of Peel 'reacting to public opinion' over the question of the reform of the criminal law. While Vansittart was impotent of economic reform, Huskisson and Robinson embarked upon a series of economic and trade reforms, which stimulated British industry and commerce, therefore the radicals of the day were weakened and as a result, strengthened Liverpool's leadership. A poor economy may have threatened this stability of Liverpool; the Whigs faced this scenario in the 1 830s. On the whole, Liverpool was respected and admired by his Cabinets, which increased the Tories' credibility (cf the Duke of Wellington 1828-30) and helped to account for his long tenure of power. The essence of Liverpool's correspondence to Charles Arbuthnot was that if he resigned, his cabinet would follow him. Although this claim by Liverpool seems to suggest an element of arrogance, Peel actually enforced Liverpool's belief: he indicated, that if Liverpool was 'sacrificed' or if he retired there would be a dissolution of the government as he felt it to be disloyal to simply replace him.

On the whole, Liverpool's leadership was prolonged by the poor opposition of the Whigs, the calibre of his ministers, and by the incompetence of the Radicals, such as Hunt, but the contribution made by Liverpool was also significant. The underestimation of Liverpool is probably due to him being compared to Peel and Pitt. These two PMs were very autocratic in their leadership: both effectively entirely controlled their Cabinet; while Liverpool gave his various Cabinets more autonomy. The importance of Liverpool was demonstrated after his death when the Tories split: the Canningites refused to serve under the Duke of Wellington; Peel resigned because of the concessions to the Catholics; and the Huskissonites drifted aimlessly after the death of Huskisson - who despite his competent economic sense was not very able at assessing train speeds. Whether or not Liverpool would have kept the Tories together during 1828-1830 is open to question. However, in light of his efforts between 1812 to 1827, it was a possibility, at very least.


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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