(Something I've been playing with. It's cheerier than recent posts, but unfinished and unpublishable, so more will come as I work on it. Just a bit of harmless tomfoolery...)
The History of PR Britain
part 1: Pitt the Younger to Palmerston
It has been speculated by several academics who play with the notions of Alternative History, that if the UK had not decided upon the use of Proportional Representation (PR) for elections in 1800, then some of our finest Labour Prime Ministers – Maxton, Wilson, Benn – might have never led the country. In fact, one rather fanciful such History I read recently postulated that under a voting method known as First Past The Post (briefly used in Australia during the 1950s) that Margaret Thatcher and the ideas of monetarism, rather than being a cursory political footnote, could in fact have changed the agenda of politics from the 1979 election onwards. We are not, however, interested in such Alternative potentialities here, so this essay shall not focus on the possible alternative timeline leaderships of John Major or a Tony Blair. Instead, we shall look at modern political history from 1800 onwards, and how our Proportional elections shaped our own history.
So lets look at the start, when all the combined kingdoms of the land came together.
1800 Pitt the Younger
Pitt the Younger had been Prime Minister since the mid 1780s when, through clever thinking and a way with the King, had usurped his rival, Fox, for the role. Of course, it wasn’t called Prime Minister back then, except in the satires of the day. With his diplomacy in Paris during the French Revolution, and keeping Napoleon at bay, Pitt was seen as the obvious choice in the 1800 election. His main opposition, Charles Fox, had drinking issues and other vices, which were held against him.
Pitt’s use of sinking funds to demolish the nation debt were widely praised, but unknown to the voters at large, his drinking was as serious as Fox’s, and having as bad an effect on his health. When Charles Fox died in 1805, the Whigs saw William Wilberforce supporting Lord Grenville’s bid to replace the fallen leader. Grenville’s oratory, regarded as one of the finest in an era of brilliant orators, soon cut through a rapidly ailing Pitt. After 23 years of Tory government, not even a late bid by Henry Addington to steal the Premiership could prevent a change of parties. The country said thank you, but goodnight, to Pitt the Younger. Not that he time to be bitter over his exit, for he died six weeks after the election.
A sizeable piece of luck for Pitt’s legacy is that the disaster of Austerlitz has been placed solely on the shoulders of Addington. With his failure at Amiens and Austerlitz, failed coup in December 1805 and his slapdash full-hearted support for some of the less savoury of the Canning Administration's policies, we can be thankful, perhaps, that Henry Addington remains a nearly man footnote in history, and not a leader, nor did he retain any real power after 1806. It might have been disastrous to the country.
1806 William Grenville
Grenville is today remembered for his role in the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom, if he is remembered at all. Sadly a forgotten figure in British history despite this historic role. This is what happens when history prefers to focus on one heroic underdog figure and not take in the whole cast of characters involved in a historic moment. For example, see all the other military leaders who fought Napoleon who weren’t named Wellington or Nelson.
For Wilberforce was an important figure in the abolition movement, but you need people to listen to those voices. Wildernesses, as the 20th century pointed out time and time again, aren’t the best places for political voices. They tend to be ignored as much as they echo.
Grenville had an extraordinary time of it while PM. He held the post for only one parliamentary term, and spent it besieged by opponents who refused to back down or even meet halfway. Grandiose plans for Catholic emancipation were blocked entirely. Grenville focused on the slave issue, and went to work like a man possessed, bringing it up in parliament time and again. Finally, at the decisive vote, a year and a half into his premiership, he made one of the longest speeches in parliament history, tearing into the trade, its supporters, and all of their reasons for supporting it.
“This trade was contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy. My only regret in ending it is that we had no done so many years ago.”
The vote was won by the margin of 1 vote, and Grenville and Wilberforce had their place in history by the slimmest of margins.
It has been argued that Grenville’s administration might have achieved far more were it not for the incredible circumstances of the time. They were, in fact, fighting a four front war. First they had the opposition benches, rarely moving from the spirit of opposing. Secondly, the Kings health had deteriorated quickly, causing a constitutional crisis. Thirdly, the Industrial Revolution had sprung forth thousands of Luddites, taken to violence across the country. And fourthly, there was still that pesky Napoleon, still intent on putting Britain out of the way after Addingtons bumbling of the Amiens treaty.
An economic depression in 1810 killed off all chances of Grenvilles re-election.
In better times, might have been a better Premiership, like as we say with Baldwin. Still, times make the man. Better yet, some men are men for all seasons. Some are a man for one season. In the abolition of the slave trade, Grenville was that man, and better we had him than not.
1812 George Canning
In another life, Lord Liverpool might have taken the role of Prime Minister. Canning had four strokes of luck eliminating his rivals. The first was a stroke, taking Lord Liverpool, an ardent drinker, out of the picture. The second was a terrible speech by Henry Addington, who had tried to sound statesman like but had instead sounded like an East End bawdy comic. The third was the increasing worrying qualities of his biggest rival in personal times, Castlereagh, not yet to end in his suicide, but enough to worry enough people away from giving him the leadership. And fourth, but of the most tragic nature, the able minded Spencer Perceval was murdered in the halls of Westminster by a mad man who thought him Napoleon, before the final decision on who was to be First Lord of the Treasury.
Perhaps Perceval could have been PM, perhaps he could have deal with the madness of King George better. But George Canning, the ablest and, more importantly, shrewdest man of his generation, was left a clear ascension to the title. By hook or by crook, he held it for the next eighteen years until his death, and it is his reign which is the first epoch creating one in modern British history.
Your view on its success depends on your definition of Habeas Corpus. Ah well, Habeas Corpus, who needed it anyway? Apart from those who did.
Canning’s career as PM got off to two unfortunate starts. First, owing to the health of the King, he had to wait to be asked to take office for some time. Second, he was three days into his office when a mad man shot him. He survived this, barely, while the press spoke of the eerie parallels with Perceval three months earlier. The incident certainly couldn’t have helped the man’s paranoia, which historians have analysed for nigh on two centuries, and was to shape the things that followed.
His legacy is hard to explain. On the one hand, he takes responsibility for the end of Napoleon’s threat, as he was in charge when it happened. He also, in his late leadership U-turn, emancipated the Catholics. On the other hand, he responded to the Luddite problem by having them shot, instituted the Corn Laws, allowed the troops to fire on innocent civilians and suspended the Habeas Corpus. Rumours still persist that the death of Castlereagh was a little bit too convenient, and that his sudden suicide after years of recovered mental health was a useful way of stopping his charge to the leadership around 1820. However, without a smoking gun which seems unlikely to ever be found, that must been taken as whimsical speculation.
What can’t be denied is his ability to survive. Earl Grey’s early shot in the 1818 election, on a righteous fury over the Corn Laws, was narrowly beaten by a 2% margin, the first time since 1800 that a party had retained office in an election. And certainly few tears were shed when Henry Addington lost his seat. Earl Grey’s second shot at winning in 1824 went to a recount in several key seats, and Canning needed three recounts to be sure of his own seat, but with a majority of 3 he limped onwards. A relationship with his chancellor, Vansittart, which modern scholars have suggested mirror our current day Brown/Blair conundrum, threatened to tear the Tory party apart from Castlereagh’s death onwards. The funereal atmosphere of the final two years of the Canning administration didn’t help matters, as the public mourned the passing between 1828 and 1830 of Lord Grenville, William Wilberforce, the invalided Lord Liverpool, and even Henry Addington, whose position was reappraised by contemporary politicians wary of Canning.
Then in October 1828, the King himself died, having outlived the Prince Regent, and the throne moving to William IV. Finally, in January 1829, Canning collapsed, diagnosed with a severe stroke. He would live another decade, though was of substantially diminished prospects. Despite this, and an inability to travel to the Commons, Canning refused to resign in favour of his only successor, Vansittart, and so held onto power. Maybe he believed it was better for the party to be defeated than for the party to go on without him as leader? No one put their foot down soon enough, however, and on this third go, the Earl Grey was PM.
Did I say only successor? Well, there was one man waiting in the wings, but we’ll get to him.
1830 Earl Grey
Earl Grey's ministry included the first great reform act, and the first liberalization of laws, yet today many people only remember him as a tea.
Not that it was easy. His chief opponent for the first few years in Office was a legit war hero. The Duke of Wellington was perhaps too unstable to be Prime Minister – his duels over Catholic emancipation were legendary – but he added colour to the Commons proceedings. Wellington was not beyond listening to a four hour speech and replying it with a succinct: “rubbish!” Grey's administration was also not helped by the fact the House of Commons itself burned to the ground in 1834.
Grey's views were revolutionary for the time (although, it has to be said, contemporary historians slam him, perhaps unfairly, for not ending the Corn Laws). When it came to political reform, he had no equal. By 1832, PR was a system the country was begrudgingly getting used to. Only, it was PR in name only as we’d know it today. The rotten boroughs of pre-1800 still existed, and one man could still have ten thousand votes, his votes (usually for the same candidate) would merely be counted proportionately. The big industrial cities lacked MPs. Only 10% of the population could actually vote. Strangely, this involved women: female land owners could vote.
Grey's Reform Act, which he managed to pass by promising it would be the Reform Act to end all reforms (a neat promise to make when you don’t need to keep it, such is the succession of office). It begrudgingly, like most political reform, was passed by the odd vote in the commons. It introduced MPs to Manchester, axed the rotten boroughs (pity, I could have stood in one) and increased the electorate by a staggering 80% up on what it was previously.
It also disenfranchised women once and for all, for which leading female writers of the time like Mary Shelley attacked the government. “In doing this, we have been set back a hundred years.” She wrote. She was pessimistic, it only set them back ninety...
Not a man who particularly enjoyed the trappings of office, Earl Grey often offered to resign and sod back to Trinity College every chance he got. His party refused him, but at the first time of asking, the public granted his request, as the Tory party won the subsequent election in a landslide. Tory votes were particularly strong in the newly franchised industrial cities, where the new PM, Sir Robert Peel, had great popularity.
There might be something ironic in Grey being undone by his own reforms. But then again, it might be like rain on your wedding day...
Grey’s place in history all the stranger for his failings. Three lost elections out of four, and his flaws were attacked then as they are now. Yet, for all the problems that arose out of the Reform Act, it paved the way to greater enfranchisement, and indeed, the PR system as we know it to work today.
And he also did tea.
1836 Sir Robert Peel
1836 was famous for many things. Benjamin Disraeli published his first novel, The Melbourne Papers, a savage satire and an instant best seller. (He would of course go onto become the man synonymous with Victorian literature, before a twist of fate sent him HoC bound.) Charles Dickens, the great social reformer, won his parliamentary seat in Portsmouth. William IV died on May 25th, a day after his niece Victoria turned eighteen, meaning she could take over the throne and not have it fall to her mother’s schemes. Charles Darwin went on his trip with the Beagle. And, in a November election, Robert Peel became Prime Minister. It was an office, not that he knew it at the time, that he would hold for the next sixteen years.
Robert Peel had been previously known as a liberal Home Secretary, where he halved the number of capital offences, and introduced a police force to mainland Britain. His reign as Prime Minister, by hook or by crook, lasted seventeen years and saw the transfer into the Victorian era. Despite a slump mid way when his government seemed destined to fall in an argument about the Corn Laws, he is still seen as one of the more progressive PMs of the 19th Century.
Part of his success for survival came from his art of compromise, or more specifically, the art of making every man in a compromise feel like they came out with the best stake. He established his status quickly, reducing the number of capital offences in the country. He also caused a bit of a stir, appointing Charles Dickens, the baby of the house, into the Home Office after less than two years in parliament. This unexpected move turned out to be a master stroke, as the speeches Dickens wrote against compulsory workhouses – a poor law proposal left over from the previous government – were vital in killing it off in parliament. Dickens had seen his family placed in debtors prison for his fathers debts when he was a child, it was an event that seemed to galvanise his efforts.
The Peel/Dickens partnership went onwards. The newly created police force, established while Peel himself was Home Secretary in the dying days of Canning's government, was expanded rapidly. They restricted the hours children would be allowed to work, and passed another law preventing them going down mines. An economic recession in 1840 was seen off at the pass. And, in a move I am particularly grateful for, opened Samuel Clegg’s propulsion energy rail network in 1839. Now, it would be foolish to say the green energy craze started then, but it certainly helped matters.
What Peel did have was a streak of recklessness. He damn near lost his office over the Corn Laws, which he was determined to be rid of. Trouble was, his party wasn’t. In the end, the Chief Whip, William Huskisson (a loud man in his early 70s with an inexplicable phobia of trains) warned Peel that the government could well fall if the Corn Laws went. Peel’s response has gone done in legend:
“Let it fall then.”
In the subsequent election, however, Peel beat Lord Russell, and held onto power. (It has been argued, with some justification, that Peel had some fondness for Ireland, having spent so much time there growing up, hence his furious fighting for Corn Law repeal.)
As a result of that success, and in one of the more surprising political appointments in history, the Duke of Wellington, the Iron Duke himself, became the first Education Secretary. Let it not be said Peel didn’t have a sense of humour. Coaxing the Duke with tales of how great his legacy would be, Wellingtons short run in office (this was near the end of his life after all) had one lasting monument to him. Yes, Wellington beat Napoleon, dueled for the Catholics, and in political office, became the first man to pay teachers. He soon after retired from public office, but was often heard making caustic remarks in the pauses of speeches till his death in 1852.
The great Tory Chief Whip Huskisson died in 1849. It was a peculiar event. I’ve mentioned his phobia of trains before. He claimed to have had recurring dreams of being run over by a train since a grand fete opening of a line was canceled at short notice in 1830. On the first of May, 1849, William Huskisson had been up in Manchester on party business, when he found he had to be in London that evening for a division. Tiring – he was seventy-nine years old, and had already told Peel of his intention to retire completely during that years summer recess – he boarded the 17.45 Manchester express to London. And somewhere near Crewe, promptly collapsed and died of a heart attack.
Maybe those trains were out to get him after all.
The fall of Peel was a near literal one. He was thrown from his horse riding at Hyde Park Corner in July 1850, and though he was not killed, he was badly injured and never fully recovered.
The young William Gladstone, a man swiftly rising in the House, stepped in to replace Peel while his injuries made him unable to attend Parliament. An eye was kept on the situation in the Crimea, which threatened to break into war, and various attempts were made to keep it from becoming full scale war, a war the UK would certainly have been dragged into. As one of the last throws of the dice, the aging Wellington traveled to Caen to meet Napoleon III, Nicholas I and Iskender Pasha for the last moment talks. The need for other nations to access the Danube was a matter of economics as well as national pride. Many Alternate Histories have been written about how the Russians were steadfast at these talks, and as a result, the Crimea exploded into war. A countless many lives would have been lost, undoubtedly, making it a murky thing to look into. The result, as we all know, was much happier: the Russians conceded, and war was avoided.
The ramifications of that are difficult to comprehend even now. A leading historian, Trevelyan, notes that had the Russians fallen into this war against three empires, then the inevitable defeat may have lead to the end of serfdom itself within the Victorian era, and that, coupled with a growing popularity of the socialist writings of Dostoyevsky, may even have led to the fall of the Tsar entirely. Given how important an ally Tsar Nicholas III has been to the UK in the latter half of the 20th Century, that may have changed history entirely.
1852 Lord Palmerston
Palmerston's victory was stunning on face value, but the tiring of Peel played a large role in his victory.
His reign was almost entirely forgetful, had it not been during his reign that the British had obtained India.
The battle over who was to succeed Robert Peel (who died in 1853) raged on for a full year. Gladstone himself thought he was the prime choice to take over, given how he had been de facto leader for the last two years of the premiership. Unfortunately for him, this gave him the immediate blame for losing the election in the eyes of two many prominent party members. Charles Pelham Villiers put his name in the hat to test his luck. Yet the winner was the man who had been Home Secretary from 1838 to 1852, Charles Dickens. Despite press misgivings at his wife, Florence (nee Nightingale, who had studied under Mary Seacole, and towards the end of a long life, was to win one of the first Nobel Prizes in 1903) whose views were challenging to the politic elite of the day, Dickens won the leadership.
And helped by party issues, won the next election.
Party issues? Well, it turns out that the Whig party were fed up being in opposition, but self-destructed soon after entering under Palmerston. The Tory party itself was held together by Peel and Wellington, and their demise split the party in two, with Peelites absorbing into the Whig party, and Whigs splitting off from their party and finding common ground with the Tories. Which is how we came to know the modern Conservative party under the Earl of Derby, and how Palmerston became the first PM undone between elections. For Dickens wound up elected leader of the Whigs themselves.
Confused? Imagine how people who lived through these times felt. This was a rare complete realignment of British politics, and many Tory historians placed the blame solely on Sir Peel, which is why he never shows up in the Tory histories despite being, to all intents and purposes, the first proper Tory PM.
As for Palmerston? He was 74 when he was unseated by these party shenanigans, and losing interest in front row politics. He retired to the House of Lords, stirring infrequently to attempt a call to arms in some foreign war or other. He died in 1865.
to be continued.