As I’ve watched the resolution of the current political situation over the past few days, it has been impossible for me not to consider the events of nearly 200 years ago.
And I wonder, as I watch the current political juggling and horse-trading, if I am the only one musing on the fact that 198 years ago Britain was plunged into constitutional crisis by the assassination of the serving Prime Minister as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Spencer Perceval?
In 1812, despite the violence which had been endemic in continental Europe for twenty years, despite the overthrow of all the legitimate governments of the many German states, the Italian states, the Low Countries, Spain, Portugal, Malta, Egypt by France with Napoleon at its head, Britain alone had remained free from domestic strife and violent revolution. That alone is a fact which should astonish us and cause us to re-look at what Britain was doing right in the early years of the 19th century.
But then, a man, one with a history of commercial disasters in Russia including fraud, a bankrupt, and one possibly prone to hearing voices–certainly he suffered from some form of mental illness–John Bellingham by name, waited in the lobby of the House of Commons on the afternoon of the 11th May 1812.
And when the Prime Minister emerged from a debate on the conduct of the Peninsular Campaign, Bellingham shot him dead at point blank range.
It is, as I believe I have mentioned before, the sole example of a successful assassination of a Prime Minister in the whole of British history. Can you imagine that?
The Americans have suffered the assassinations of how many of their presidents? I’ve lost count, to be honest. Russia’s Tsar Paul had been assassinated just a few years earlier in a palace coup.
But in Britain, things like that just did not happen.
So on that afternoon in May 1812, the initial reaction of those who were at the scene was to suspect a coup and a conspiracy, probably arranged in Paris. And why would they not suspect that? It was what had happened across Europe, in state by state, city by city.
Hence the primary concern in the hours after Perceval died was stopping that threat.
Bellingham was in custody–he didn’t deny the crime. (Though he did have his facts a bit wrong already–further proof of his mental instability–he insisted that he hadn’t intended any harm to Sir Spencer but had only killed the Chancellor who had denied him justice.)
But the MPs and Cabinet members didn’t or perhaps couldn’t believe Bellingham was acting alone–it hardly seemed likely. Hence the Council enacted emergency measures to ensure the safety of the realm, and searched high and low for co-conspirators.
As it turned out over the next several days, there weren’t any–though they weren’t to know that at the time.
Still. Everyone was deeply shaken, mourning their friend and colleague, grieving and in shock. And because this sort of thing had never happened before, there wasn’t any kind of protocol either. So they carried on. Because they had to.
They were at war with Napoleon–and with Napoleon, it was a war of annihilation, a war based on the fundamental understand that he conquered, you paid.
And if you imagine that war wasn’t a massive thing to have on your doorstep, all I can compare it to is something like if Britain had been engaged militarily in WWII, but there were no German planes dropping bombs on the UK.
So, yes, the homefront was safe. Bellingham was tried on the 15th, found guilty, and hanged on the 18th May.
But, to lose your PM at time when you had some 50,000 troops committed in Europe, the navy at full stretch guarding Britain and its commercial interests (remember, it’s that commerce which keeps people eating…) is hardly an easy thing. It’s more along the lines of cataclysmic, I should have said.
And the fact that there wasn’t a conspiracy was hardly the end of their difficulties.
For as the remaining Cabinet members cast about for someone who could take over the dual post of PM and Chancellor, on 21 May 1812, an MP by the name of Wortley brought a motion of ‘no confidence’ in the Government before the House. Which was carried by a majority of four.
So: big crisis, no Government. (Sound familiar?)
The Prince Regent first asked Lord Wellington’s elder brother to form a Government. He asked his mate, George Canning, to join. And then things faltered, because Canning wasn’t really trusted or all that popular. At all. So Wellesley eventually told the Prince that he couldn’t do it. After that, Prinny applied to his old mate, Lord Moira (a Whig) to do the business. Again, that went nowhere.
It wasn’t until a month later, on 8 June 1812, that Lord Liverpool (he had been Minister for War and the Colonies under Perceval) accepted the job of forming a Government. And–this is the important part–he was able to do so by 16th June, with Lord Castlereagh resuming his position as Foreign Secretary and added to that, Leader of the House.
(And yes, Liverpool was 42 at the time; Castlereagh was just 43.)
And in those fraught intervening weeks, while nobody knew anything and there was no BBC to fill their hours with speculation–okay, yes, they did have the broadsheets and they were full of, ah, theories–the militia occupied the streets of London.
Just to make sure there was no conspiracy, and also in the event that the London mob got riled up. Which they often did. Though not so dangerous as the Paris mob during the Revolution, one didn’t like to take chances.
So there you have it. A terrible and quite dramatic crisis, occuring at the worst possible moment during a World War, which was compounded and then resolved. Peaceably.
Today, it’s hardly a footnote in many histories of the period. (Which is quite wrong.) Because above all, it bears testament, I believe, to Britain’s deep-seated and abiding affection for legitimacy. And that is a remarkable quality in a nation. Quite remarkable.