Britain’s Guardian Ganders

Lord Grey’s malicious comment on the Radicals was: ‘Is there any one of them with whom you would trust yourself in the dark? Had this question been put to the Government it would as a man have answered no, not one of them, in the dark or in the daylight. The Government of the day was Tory, as it had been for the last two decades with one brief interlude of coalition. The Prime Minister was Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool.

Liverpool’s administration has been called one of the most reactionary and repressive in British history. Certainly between 1812 and 1820 it did behave in a repressive and reactionary manner. Reaction had become the Tory principle, a positive adoration of things as they supposedly always had been, i.e., pre the French Revolution. Its shadow hung over the whole period far more blackly and menacingly than that of the Corn Bill. Give an inch to the-spirit in the manufacturing districts and the same hideous pattern would follow in England. That France was not England, that the French differed in temperament, tradition and history, that the circumstances were dissimilar from those in 1789 was ignored. A false parallel was drawn and having drawn it the Government stuck to it. Their diagnosis that England was on the brink of revolution was ironically partially correct. Had Hunt possessed Hitler’s demonic powers, had the Radicals produced a really great leader, the country could have pitched over the abyss. The classic symptoms of revolution were present: mass unemployment, deprivation and frustration. But having arrived at their diagnosis from the wrong angle, the Government had perforce to ignore these very real symptoms. That is not to say they were unaware of the economic distress. They not only appreciated its existence, they also accepted that distress is the parent of discontent. But they kept returning to their French Revolutionary diagnosis which led them to the belief that they must at all costs uphold the status quo to save the country from similar terror and bloodshed.

Map showing principal towns mentioned in the text.

In addition to dealing with the tangible and intangible effects of the Industrial Revolution, of a country sloughing off one skin and trying to find another, the Government had other severe problems. Britain had been at war for twenty years, and the change-over from war-time to peace-time economy is one over which later British Governments have also stumbled. There was the enormous National Debt against which Cobbett and the Radicals fulminated so strongly. So it is fair to say that Liverpool’s administration had to deal with one of the most difficult and complex periods in British history. To sail through the stormy, uncharted seas of post-French wars, embryonically industrialized Britain, men of great vision, imagination and toughness were required; men who knew how far to bend towards the new forces, what to retain and what to throw out; above all men with a sense of change and possessing flexibility. Such men are hard to find outside the realms of romance. It is not surprising that Liverpool’s Government did not contain them. But unfortunately it was composed of men whose calibre was peculiarly unsuited to the needs of the hour.

Liverpool himself was born in 1770, the son of a politician. He went to Charterhouse and Oxford, then straight into Parliament. He was always a good Tory reactionary, opposing Pitt’s early Parliamentary Reform Bills, consistently-in favour of the French wars, against Catholic Emancipation. On becoming Prime Minister in 1812, at the peak of the Luddite Riots, it was hardly likely that he would change his spots. He stayed in office for fifteen years, the third longest tenure in British history. He was the last Prime Minister who had the personal power to govern. Since Lord Liverpool, as the business of government has become increasingly complex, no other Prime Minister has had the same power. Conversely, over the years, as single responsibility has decreased, and the mass vote increased, somebody has had to appear to be solely responsible, and the post of Prime Minister has acquired its awful, individual weight. But in Lord Liverpool’s day, although he had genuine power, nobody considered him personally responsible for the state of the country. (Partly because the concept of the Government being responsible for its people’s well-being was in its infancy) Therefore to the Radicals, Liverpool was but one among a loosely linked collection of hated ministers. He escaped with such mild comments as, ‘the Jenkinsons were ever liars’. The qualities that saved him from the heaviest attacks were those that kept him in office, and enabled him to hold together a cabinet which, if mainly united in being reactionary, was not united in its degrees of reaction, nor in its love of each other. He was as unflamboyant as a field mouse, and within the confines of the cabinet he was tough, tactful and an excellent administrator. What he particularly lacked was what the hour particularly needed, the trait Cobbett possessed in full measure, the feel for the pulse of the country. A public image was not a highly prized attribute. We were in power, justly with our backgrounds and traditions, and we did not greatly care in what esteem the country held us. But a politician however autocratic, and by temperament Liverpool was not, must have an instinct for the general emotion which he may then manipulate, but whichever way he acts an image is reflected back. But Liverpool was neither a one-way nor two-way mirror. Opaquely he stuck to his diagnosis.

Even more lacking in a sense of, or flair for, public feeling were Viscounts Sidmouth and Castlereagh. Sidmouth held the office most vital to Peterloo, that of Home Secretary, but on both the opprobrium was heaped.

Sidmouth was born Henry Addington in 1757. He was the son of a country doctor who bettered himself by moving to London and becoming physician and friend, on the accepted hierarchical level, to the rich and influential. Among Doctor Addington’s most grateful patients was William Pitt the Elder, and their two boys, Henry and William, grew up together. The younger Pitt was the decisive influence on Sidmouth’s life. On leaving Oxford, where he obtained a moderate BA and wrote bad verse, it was through Pitt’s encouragement that he entered Parliament as MP for Devizes in 1778. It was due to Pitt’s patronage that he became Speaker of the House within five years. Although he was a terrible speaker in the oratorical sense1 he made a good Speaker in the Parliamentary one. He was an excellent organizer within narrow limits and he was generally trusted in an age of corruption as being honest and possessing integrity.

Had he remained Speaker for the rest of his life Sidmouth might not have been so well remembered, but his memory might have been held in higher esteem. Unfortunately, with Pitt the revered mentor at his elbow in life and overshadowing him in death, with his strong sense of duty, and of the obligations of a member of the elite (albeit on a lowish rung) to guide and thus serve his inferiors, he accepted jobs for which his talents did not qualify him. Among these, in 1801, was the highest political job in the country. As Prime Minister he had the, in retrospect, ironic privilege of having Cobbett as an ally. After two years as Prime Minister he was dethroned and Pitt recalled, to nobody’s surprise. Then, in 1806, Pitt died. It was a blow from which Viscount Sidmouth never recovered (he was ennobled in 1805 as a sop for being put out to grass). For the rest of his life time stood still at 1806. The few actions he took were shaped by his idea of what Pitt would have done, bearing little or no connection with the steps the master would actually have taken.

Sidmouth stayed in Government in minor capacities until Liverpool became Prime Minister in 1,812 and made him Home Secretary. Liverpool had no great opinion of his Home Secretary’s capabilities, but he needed the Parliamentary votes Sidmouth carried, those of the country gentlemen who abhorred change and only too rightly believed, that Sidmouth was not the man to countenance any. According to The Times of the day, the Home Office was ‘the sink of all imbecilities attached to:every ministry for the last thirty years’. Among the imbecilities were the Home Secretary’s responsibility for matters of the police, the regular army, the militia and volunteers, and all civil matters. In fairness to Sidmouth, if the Home Office as an office was inadequate to the needs of 1812 onwards, the staff was even more ‘inadequate. But it was into the hands of the man- whose background had instilled implicit belief in Church,- Constitution, King and Country, whose temperament contained no qualities to question these- beliefs, who would not have dreamed of altering the inadequacies, – that Lord Liverpool bequeathed – these- supreme responsibilities in years of supreme tension.

Why Castlereagh was quite -so hated, is now a little difficult to appreciate. He was not Home Secretary, though he was Government- spokesman for civil matters in the House of Commons. – – And he was a worse orator than Sidmouth, with an even greater tendency to perform the contorting act of putting his foot in it every time he opened his mouth. Some of the virulence carried over from his embroilment in Irish affairs, the personification of the Anglo-Irishman, stamping on the Irish patriots, while some of it stemmed from his being Foreign Secretary at the Congress of Vienna, a settlement unpopular in Radical circles. On the handsome head of Viscount Castlereagh—as Talleyrand exclaimed at the Congress of Vienna, ‘Ma foi, c’est distingué‘ the venom was truly spewed. He came second only to Sidmouth in the infamy stakes. After Peterloo he was Shelley’s first target in The Masque of Anarchy:

I met murder on the way,

He had a mask like Castlereagh.

Liverpool, Sidmouth, Castlereagh and the rest of the administration believed to a lesser or greater degree that the country was on the brink of revolution. But the system with which they had to enforce law and order, to uphold their precious status quo, was far more outdated than their approach to the current circumstances. The pivot of the system was the magistrates. They were chosen by the Crown on the recommendation of the Lord Lieutenants of the various counties. The qualifications to be a magistrate were residence in the county, plus an income off 100 from freehold land, which narrowed the field to well established candidates. In addition to administering local justice, the magistrates possessed the vital powers of being able to call upon the regular army and local militia in ‘times of unrest’ and to read the Riot Act and order the dispersal of mobs in such periods. As-they were also responsible for keeping the central Government informed of what was going on in their areas it was they who defined ‘times of unrest’.

The way the system worked was that the magistrates kept their ears to the ground, or tried to, in the various areas. In the industrial districts they were, by virtue of their backgrounds, divorced from the populace, so they employed spies to inform them what was taking place in the factories, public houses and clubs. On the information thus supplied far too many magistrates placed far too much reliance. Having acquired this dubious information they then sat down and wrote their reports to the Home Office. At the receiving end Lord Sidmouth sat in the Home Office with his inadequate staff, reports flowing in from all over England, Scotland and Wales. If a legal question was raised, and in dealing with Radical speeches, mass meetings and strikes it frequently was, the matter had to be referred to the Solicitor or Attorney General’s office. Replies then had to be written and sent hundreds of miles over rotten roads by coach and horse. Anything could, and did, happen in the interim-between report and reply.

Lord Sidmouth possessed the ultimate responsibility for the maintenance of law and order, for the events such as Peterloo that happened in an interim period. It was he who counselled and advised the magistrates in their difficulties. But they possessed those vital powers of calling upon the military and reading the Riot Act in self-defined times of unrest. Once having done this they were ‘in control. It will thus be seen that the system was dependent on how industrious, able, intelligent and liable not to panic the local magistrates were.

Sidmouth’s greatest mistake in his relations with the magistrates, particularly those of Manchester, stemmed from his own character and beliefs. He had to over-rate, not so much their actual reports, as their general capabilities. He had to believe in their industry, intelligence and liability not to panic, for otherwise he could not have operated within the system. On their actual reports his reliance was less than implicit Thus by the limitations of the system he was temperamentally incapable of changing he too was forced to employ spies. To gain a clearer picture, to counterbalance such reports as common sense made him regard askance, he sent men to snoop around the manufacturing districts. Hence Cobbett’s pledge that in a reformed Parliament ‘There would be none of this disgraceful spy work’. The disgraceful business came to a head in 1817. Here it should be noted that the English love of the amateur cropped up. The men who were sent on their snooping missions were not trained – for the job. They were anybody who would volunteer and the result tended to be—no sedition, no pay. It was the imagination and acting ability of one man working along these lines that erupted in 1817.

If the system by which Liverpool’s Government hoped to maintain order throughout the disturbed country belonged to another era, the means of enforcing it were pitiably weak. The Government had no large standing army on which they could call to suppress the revolution they anticipated. ‘There was no central police force, in many, places no police force at all. They could not, and would not, greatly augment these means because traditional English liberty in which they believed (never mind how they acted) would not have allowed such measures. If the Government was to survive without disaster it was imperative that it remove the causes of unrest, and bring the system into line with the needs of the expanding towns and cities. But this it was emotionally and temperamentally incapable of doing. So it reacted, instead of acting, on the principle that what had been good enough for grandfather’s day would hopefully see us through today.

  1. Lady Bessborough told the story of a friend listening to Addington (as he then was) speaking in the House. ‘He woke from his sleep, and heard, “For as this is that which was said to …”, was quite satisfied and turned to sleep out the rest.