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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Biographies

Lord Liverpool: The Life and Political Career of Robert Banks Jenkinson Second Earl of Liverpool 1770 - 1828

By Norman Gash

Gash, Norman. Lord Liverpool: The Life and Political Career of Robert Banks Jenkinson Second Earl of Liverpool 1770 - 1828. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984. 265 pages. ISBN# 0297784536. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1985. ISBN# 0674539109. $40.00. Hardcover. (May be out of print.)

Lord Liverpool cover

For a man at the centre and very pinnacle of British, and therefore, given the period, of global politics for thirty odd years, then 250 odd pages isn't much to tell his story. But then Robert Jenkinson/ Lord Hawkesbury / Lord Liverpool hasn't had much written about him at all. This is surprising given that his tenure in high office ranks up there with the likes of William Pitt the Younger (Liverpool like Pitt owed his young elevation into high office to an illustrious father), Robert Peel, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. In fact this neglect seems to rank alongside that other long-standing Prime Minister, Lord North, whose period in office ended in ignominious failure and disaster. If the obvious conclusion were to be drawn then we would expect that Liverpool's career to be similarly attached to failure, but it is not according to Gash. With the benefit of the distance of time, it is hard to disagree with Gash in this.

In fact, Liverpool came into high office as Foreign Secretary at Britain's darkest hour during the long Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars. He was Prime Minister in time to lead Britain in the years of victory and, unlike many others in the aftermath of a long and exhausting struggle, was able to hold onto office continuously for another dozen years (in contrast to Churchill, for example). Not only did he retain power but these years also ushered in an era of unheralded economic and national triumph. So why has Liverpool been so underrated?

Gash really sets out to set the record straight. His book is too brief to shed much light on the great events of the period but he explains the role of the man and the pivotal part played by Liverpool in shaping politics and politicians. Perhaps those with great knowledge of the great men of the time (e.g. George Canning, Pitt, Henry Addington, Duke of Wellington, Richard Wellesley, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Grenville, etc.) could protest that Gash has made too much of Liverpool's influence. Was he really central to affairs as early as 1801 when Addington succeeded Pitt? Perhaps he was, perhaps not; the proof awaits a comprehensive 1000 or so pages in a two-volume life and as such might never be answered. (Professor Gash in fact has authored just such a biography of one of Liverpool's protégés and successors: Sir Robert Peel.)

What Gash does show is that Liverpool was two things, the archconservative and the great chairman, both of which account for his small place in historiography. By archconservative I mean that he steadfastly held to sound principles and defended them against the forces of both change and of reaction for 30 years. This held true on the question of catholic emancipation, on political reform, and in the broader fields of international relations and economic policy (where Liverpool believed in the free market albeit one mitigated by pragmatism). This must surely account for his neglect and poor image. The years immediately after his passing saw unprecedented change in all these fields, often with a liberal counter reaction to the conservatism of the Liverpool years. With so much of history written from the perspective of reform with a decided liberal angle it is little wonder Liverpool is treated with disdain. Perhaps Liverpool did resist the tide of reform and his own changes and innovations were minor and expedient. However who is to say that it wasn't refusal to bow to pressures for protectionism after the war that brought about the economic boom of the 19th century, or that it wasn't a good idea to resist as long as possible the innovation of true party politics in parliament.

As for being a great chairman, this accounts for the descriptions of him as a mediocrity. Few men can have held such a grip on power but have been less forceful in imposing their own will on the course of events. Liverpool was a conservative but he cannot be labeled as reactionary, as Wellington so often was and for whom the liberals reserved their true pillorying. All the more ironic that it was the Tory, Disraeli, who was the most cutting, describing Liverpool as, "the arch mediocrity..." What underlies this was the fact that Liverpool didn't force through anything. Perhaps Castlereagh, his foreign secretary, had his ideas about the Europe but the vision was never fulfilled and the Liverpool years didn't change the shape of anything.

However you don't need to turn the rudder if the ship is already on course! The great qualities that come out in Gash's work are the authoritative voice in parliament, the ability to work with and guide all manner of men and the steadfastness of purpose and of high principles. Liverpool's career included countless trials, struggles and almost always triumphs. So Gash's purpose is to recount how Liverpool handles each one. What emerges is not a comprehensive account of the events but a tale of relationships, and the life of although perhaps not a man or iron, at least a man with a backbone of iron.

Reviewed by Robert Markley