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Lord Liverpool - British Prime Minister

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Robert Banks Jenkinson, formally known as Lord Liverpool, was born in London on 7 June, 1770. During the late 1780s, he studied at Christ Church College, Oxford and gained an MA. While there, he also learned to speak fluent French and Latin. Liverpool travelled around Europe and even witnessed the fall of the Bastille prison in Paris. Liverpool's eyewitness knowledge of the French revolution and the brutal treatment of the ruling classes almost certainly influenced his future political opinions.

Political Career Overview

Liverpool held a number of important positions throughout his 37 year political career. He is most famous for being Britain's longest-serving 19th Century Prime Minister, occupying the position for almost 15 years.

  • 18 June, 1790 - Liverpool elected to parliament as MP for Rye. Unfortunately for him, he was unable to take his seat until he was 21.

  • 1793-96 - Member of the Board of Control for India

  • 1799-1801 - Master of the Royal Mint

  • 1801-04 - Foreign Secretary

  • 1803 - Liverpool becomes leader of the Tory1 party in the House of Lords

  • 1804-06, 1807-09 - Home Secretary

  • 1808 - Jenkinson, currently called Lord Hawkesbury, inherits the title 'Lord Liverpool'

  • 1809-12 - Secretary for the War and the Colonies

  • 1812-27 - Prime Minister

British Prime Minister - 1812-27

After John Bellingham (a failed and very annoyed Liverpudlian2 businessman) assassinated Spencer Perceval in 1812, Lord Liverpool became Prime Minister. Lord Liverpool was not expected to survive in office very long, as at first his government seemed very insecure. Fortunately for Liverpool, Britain's successes in the war against France raised people's opinion of him and his administration. However, after the end of the war in 1815, Liverpool's government was faced with a number of problems.

Britain in the years following 1815 was a nation of widespread social unrest. At this time, Liverpool was presented with the task of trying to prevent social rebellion in Britain in addition to pleasing the rich nobility and landowners, who made up the 2% of the British population that was allowed to vote and stand to parliament. Unfortunately, political decisions made by Liverpool's government, such as the repeal of Income Tax and the creation of the Corn Laws3, tended to exacerbate the unrest in Britain. This legislation was received well by the landed classes, but it angered the majority of Britain's population, whose situation was worsened by the increased price of bread and the 'stealth' taxes on everyday items introduced to fill the deficit caused by the tax repeal.

Liverpool's methods of dealing with the inevitable unrest have been described as severe. Instead of trying to listen to the demands of the protestors, Liverpool introduced a series of harsh measures which aimed to suppress any dissenters. These included the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1817 and the Six Acts, which took away many civil liberties, in 1819. Although Liverpool's rather unfair tactics were effective in stopping a revolution similar to the one that he had witnessed in France, they did nothing to promote good feelings between people and government. Consequently, there were a number of protests and riots during this period. These included the famous Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and the Cato Street Conspiracy (1820), an attempt to assassinate the entire Tory cabinet.

The poor were not the only opposition that Liverpool faced. Industrialisation had recently caused some people to become very rich, and a middle class had begun to emerge. Despite their affluence, Britain's industrialists had virtually no political power. The only way they could influence the system was by using their wealth. The right to vote and to stand to parliament was still firmly held by the landed classes. The Tory government, led by Liverpool, was largely against any parliamentary reform which would increase the size of the electorate, as it was thought that the power of the aristocracy would be eroded. Liverpool's rejection of Parliamentary Reform, which would include reform of the corrupt 'pocket boroughs'4 and would allot political power to the nouveau riche, was an issue which rallied much opposition towards himself.

In parliament, the Whig5 party provided the opposition to Lord Liverpool. Broadly speaking, they were more moderate, or 'enlightened', than the Tories. For much of Liverpool's time in office, especially during and shortly after the Napoleonic wars, the Whig party presented no real opposition. Although the Whig party gained seats at the 1818 general election, adding 30 MPs to their 150 seat minority, the bonds between Whig MPs were still very weak. In many cases, personal allegiances were more important than loyalty to a central Whig cause. The fact that his opposition was weak certainly didn't give Liverpool a free reign to do whatever he liked, however. The mere presence of a more liberal group within the Commons, even though they lacked a single direction, was enough to influence his policy and limit the content of the bills that he attempted to pass. The moderate policy that Whigs generally favoured was often adopted by liberal Tories, blurring the line between both parties and undermining the power of Liverpool's government.

To his credit, Liverpool did make some more enlightened political decisions. Britain's return to the Gold Standard in 1819 stabilised the economy and gave rise to a period of economic prosperity. It could be argued that unpopularity and a reduction in freedoms for the general population were prices that Liverpool was willing, or even forced, to pay in order to keep a firm grip on power during the rocky post-war period. This idea is supported by the fact that in 1822, when things had calmed down, Liverpool overhauled the Tory cabinet by introducing young, more middle-class MPs such as Sir Robert Peel, Viscount Henry Palmerston and William Huskisson. One must also bear in mind that many of the events which caused widespread discontent were not entirely due to the actions of Liverpool's government. A series of bad harvests, a slump in the manufacturing industry, the aftermath of a war which Britain did not start and the rapid urbanisation of many towns were all factors beyond governmental control.

Through Liverpool's careful leadership, the Tory party managed to survive the problems of 1815-22 relatively intact. There was no revolution, and by the 1820s Liverpool had stabilised Britain, allowing for a number of 'enlightened' measures such as the reform of the Penal Code and Gaols by Peel and an amendment to the Corn Laws that set grain prices on a sliding scale. By the late 1820s, even a Catholic Emancipation bill managed to pass -- something that would have been unthinkable during the early part of Liverpool's office. Although Liverpool's political decisions were often made at the expense of Britain's lower class, he managed both to lead and to modernise the Tory party during a very difficult time. Liverpool wasn't a brilliant thinker, but he was an assertive and diplomatic leader who allowed his ministers enough independence to make their own decisions. Perhaps one of the most apparent testaments to the skill of this long-serving Prime Minister is the fact that, after his retirement, Britain had four leaders in four years. Obviously, no one was immediately capable of filling the hole in Britain's leadership that Liverpool's departure made. Liverpool left office in 1827 after suffering a stroke and died not long after on 4 December, 1828.

1The word 'Tory' in terms of early 19th Century politics is rather vague as political parties were still loosely organised. It is generally applied to politicians who supported the monarchy and Church, protected the interests of the land owners/aristocracy and were against liberal reforms. Their opponents were the Whigs.2Liverpudlian being the original name for someone who hailed from the town of Liverpool (later replaced by the more colloquial 'Scouse'), rather than a supporter of Lord Liverpool.3A number of laws keeping the price of British grain artificially high.4A pocket borough was a small constituency with an easily 'purchased' electorate. In some boroughs the number of eligible voters was tiny; Gatton in Surrey, for example, had an electorate of just six people. The distribution of MPs was also unfair - many large industrial cities had no MP, and England had the most members of parliament out of the four British countries.5The word 'Whig' comes from a Scottish word for horse thief. 'Tory' is an obsolete term for an Irish outlaw.

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