The Conservatism of Lord Liverpool

Detail of portrait of Robert Banks Jenkinson by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1828 (Wikimedia)
A new biography assesses Britain’s longest-serving prime minister.

As our American political system has shifted and realigned itself over the past few years, many on the right have wondered how to define conservatism. It is not an easy question. Marxism, feminism, and even the new cult of intersectionality have their formative works, but a theory of conservatism is harder to pin down. This makes some sense: New ideas typically map out where they intend to take society. Conservatism, in seeking to retain the good that already exists in society, is often less explicit in its philosophy.

Some thinkers on the right look back to Edmund Burke as the founder of modern conservatism. He is, without a doubt, a good person with whom to begin, but to track the evolution of conservatism in Britain and ultimately worldwide, it is necessary also to understand the life and times of the United Kingdom’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Banks Jenkinson, the 2nd Earl of Liverpool. In his recently published Lord Liverpool: A Political Life, Mississippi State history professor William Anthony Hay does so in a comprehensive biography of Liverpool and the Tory party over which he presided.

Jenkinson was born in 1770, the son of Charles Jenkinson and his wife, Amelia Watts. His father was even then a member of Parliament and a close adviser to King George III. His mother was from an English family that had become prominent in India. Modern biographers have gotten away from long family-history chapters, but in the case of an English aristocrat, the background matters more than it would for a politician in a republic. The Jenkinson family’s long history of conservative politics and high-church Anglicanism informed Liverpool’s own views on many issues, making him a conservative in an important sense: the maintenance of tradition. Even as he and his father occasionally drifted away from the Tory party, the family tradition of deference to the monarch and support of the Church of England inevitably drew them back to the only party dedicated to those two causes.

His mother died shortly after his birth, and young Jenkinson was raised by his aunt under his father’s guidance (with the usual collection of governesses and tutors) with an eye toward molding the boy for national leadership. In the course of his education, the future prime minister displayed many traits modern readers would not typically associate with politicians. Hay notes that the boy “missed social cues and failed to pick up on non-verbal communication,” which, coupled with “clumsy behavior,” set him apart from his peers. On the other hand, his academic development was excellent. Hay writes that Liverpool’s “lifelong quirks were more than eccentricity.” Indeed, what the 18th century saw as quirks appear to the 21st-century reader as indicia of an autism-spectrum disorder. Hay, wisely, does not attempt to diagnose the patient from beyond the grave, but he lays out enough clear observations of the subject that readers might draw their own conclusions.

After Jenkinson went to Oxford University and made a tour of the Continent, his father engineered the 20-year-old’s election to the House of Commons in 1790. He marked himself as a serious student of foreign affairs early on, making his maiden speech in 1791 in defense of the policies of the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger. The major issue of the day, and for the next generation, was the French Revolution. Britain, more than any nation in the world, remained a stalwart foe of the various governments of France after the Bourbon monarchy was overthrown, adding ideological opposition to the French radicals to a longstanding pursuit of balance-of-power politics in Europe. Jenkinson saw the upheaval in France as a threat to the established order everywhere.

He rose in the party ranks, aligning himself with Pitt’s wing of the Tory party. On the other major issue of the day — Ireland — he differed from Pitt in one significant way: While favoring the Act of Union, which joined the parliaments of Ireland and Great Britain into one United Kingdom, Jenkinson opposed Catholic Emancipation, the policy that would have allowed Catholics to participate in public life on the same terms as Protestants. Pitt saw this as a necessary concession to keep Ireland peaceful and happy in the newly united kingdom. Jenkinson, like many Tories, agreed with King George that the measure would invite disunity and violate the king’s coronation oath.

Unifying the British and Irish nations without a level playing field for Catholics would lay the groundwork for 120 years of discontent, ending in Irish independence in 1922. In this way, at least, Jenkinson’s conservatism arguably created more disorder, not less. The clash between Pitt and the king brought down Pitt’s government in 1801, but Jenkinson stayed in good favor when Henry Addington led his branch of the Tory party to organize a new government. Jenkinson entered the cabinet that year as foreign secretary, an office for which many — including his friend George Canning — thought him unqualified. Canning’s opinion and jealousy would cause a break between the two men, who had been friends since their time together at Oxford.

Pitt was back in charge by 1804, and Jenkinson (now known by the courtesy title of Hawkesbury) stayed in the cabinet, one of just a few men who maintained the confidence of the King and the leaders of both wings of the Tories. (One of the insoluble problems of writing about British aristocrats is that they are always getting new titles and changing their names; throughout this biography, the subject is known variously as Jenkinson, Hawkesbury, and Liverpool.) When Pitt died, King George asked Hawkesbury to organize a new government, but he believed he lacked a majority and went into opposition under the short-lived Whig government led by William Grenville.

Still the wars on the continent raged on. Hawkesbury had backed the Peace of Amiens in 1802, the first continent-wide truce in years, but Britain broke it a year later when they joined with Russia and the Holy Roman Emperor to strike at France’s increasing domination of Europe. Back in government under the Earl of Portland in 1807, Hawkesbury held high office again as home secretary. Hawkesbury — known as Liverpool after his father’s death in 1808 — became King George’s favorite MP, making him an important member of the cabinets of Portland and his successor, Spencer Perceval. When Perceval was assassinated in 1812, the cabinet united behind Liverpool, who became prime minister.

He would remain head of government for nearly 15 years, a consecutive tenure that none of his successors would approach (Margaret Thatcher’s eleven straight years at Number 10 comes the closest). That longevity alone, one might expect, would elevate Liverpool to the ranks of great leaders in British history. Certainly the times in which he presided over Parliament were monumental, from the victory over Napoleon to the domestic unrest that followed, and finally to the tranquility that mostly reigned when he passed from the scene. Yet other members of the cabinet, especially Canning and Viscount Castlereagh, overshadow Liverpool in the histories.

Hay suggests that Liverpool’s introverted personality is partly to blame. Liverpool stayed on good terms with both wings of the Tory party and — an even more difficult task — with both George III and his son, George IV, but when he died, he left behind no fervent acolytes to spread his legend. Nor, in times that predated mass politics, were there crowds of voters determined to uphold his legacy. His work in building stable parliamentary coalitions was more interpersonal, and while colleagues may have remembered him fondly, that did not translate into the sort of hagiography that would later attach to Peel, Disraeli, or Gladstone.

Liverpool’s memory may also have faded because of the very nature of conservatism. In foreign policy, he worked tirelessly to defeat the French Revolution. While he was successful, the credit for military victories will always go to the generals — in this case, to the Duke of Wellington. Even the restoration of the balance of power after the war was credited to the men who met in Vienna to hammer out the terms, which meant Liverpool’s foreign secretary, Castlereagh, is seen as the diplomatic genius.

The nature of that victory, too, is conservative in the literal sense. The four major powers that defeated Napoleon joined with a reestablished French kingdom to reconstruct, as best they could, the old Europe that the Jacobins had smashed. When Liverpool died in office in 1827, that effort was still mostly a success. Putting the revolutionary genie back in the bottle for a generation is a noteworthy achievement, but success in the popular mind more often involves change than preservation.

Domestically, the theme of maintaining the conservative order of church and crown continued in his responses to unrest in Britain itself, and one event that is associated with Liverpool’s tenure is the Peterloo massacre. Demobilization, bad harvests, and a massive national debt made the early years of Liverpool’s premiership difficult. In 1819, a massive crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to demand reforms to the way the people were represented in Parliament. Cavalry charged the crowd to disperse them, killing 15 and injuring hundreds more.

The act was an overreaction to a peaceful crowd, but the trauma of the French Revolution made the establishment jumpy and determined to nip populism in the bud. Parliament quickly passed what became known as the Six Acts, which sought to suppress reform rallies and eliminate the threat of revolution. Some acts were temporary and were allowed to expire after a few years; others, such as the ban on militia-style drilling, remained in force until 2008 (it is still in effect in Northern Ireland). The post-Peterloo repression of ancient civil liberties was the start of the divergence between British- and American-style liberty.

Liverpool’s reaction to calls for reform was repression. The biggest complaint — that booming industrial cities had no parliamentary representation while depopulated, ancient boroughs retained theirs — was for Liverpool a feature, not a bug. As Hay writes, Liverpool “believed giving the right of election to populous manufacturing towns would spark turbulence among inhabitants subject to a perpetual canvass.” Order and stability were more important than liberty and democratic equality.

The Whigs came to power three years after Liverpool’s death and soon passed the Great Reform Act of 1832. Instead of the slight tinkering with the ancient system that Liverpool and the Tories favored, Earl Grey and his Whigs made sweeping changes, rationalizing much of the system and bringing it a large step closer to the electoral regime the U.K. currently enjoys. Further Reform Acts followed in 1867, 1884, 1918, and 1928, but the effect of the first was the greatest in the public mind. The 1832 Act served as a sort of year zero for the reformed Parliament and relegated Liverpool and his government to an earlier era that was becoming unrecognizable.

It is the nature of Liverpool’s conservatism that most of his work is now unnoticed. As Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge would do in America a century later, Liverpool’s government represented a return to normalcy after the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars. No slogans, no rallies, no great celebrations accompanied that effort, only slow, steady efforts to lower taxes, improve trade, and by the 1820s oversee a significant improvement in economic fortunes. Liverpool’s was the sort of government most Britons were happy to live under, but about which few felt compelled to write.

Professor Hay’s volume fixes that error and provides an insight into the conservatism of the United Kingdom’s longest-serving prime minister. If there must be one criticism of this work, it is that it is too short. Students of the era will appreciate the brisk pace, but for a general audience, a deeper explanation of the people surrounding Liverpool would more fully explain the period. That aside, Hay’s book is an impressive addition to the scholarship and a welcome look at an unjustly neglected figure in the history of conservative thought and governance.



The Latest