The Age of George III

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Assessments of Lord Liverpool: contemporary and subsequent

Mrs. Arbuthnot, the wife of one of the Duke of Wellington's friends, wrote this account of Lord Liverpool in 1821, when the PM was having problems with George IV. She did not like Lord Liverpool:

Lord Liverpool is in a great fuss, frightened to death lest his colleagues should desert, so that all his threats of resigning and desire to retire from office end in smoke. I never thought he meant to go; but it is quite childish, a man so repeatedly saying he wishes to go and then ending by sticking like a leach to his place...

Lord Liverpool has a disagreeable, cold manner and a most querulous, irritable temper, which render it a difficult and an unpleasant task to act in public life with him; but he is a most upright, honest, excellent man, conscientiously devoted to the service and to the real good of his country. [Francis Bamford and the Duke of Wellington, eds., Mrs. Arbuthnot's Journal, Vol. 1 (Macmillan, 1950) pp.117, 121]

Benjamin Disraeli's comments about Liverpool were made in the novel, Coningsby (1844)

The Arch-Mediocrity who presided, rather than ruled, over this Cabinet of Mediocrities ... had himself some glimmering traditions of political science... In a subordinate position his meagre diligence and his frigid method might not have been without value; but the qualities that he possessed were misplaced; nor can any character be conceived less invested with the happy properties of a leader. In the conduct of public affairs his disposition was exactly the reverse of that which is the characteristic of great men. He was peremptory in little questions, and great ones he left open.

Forty years after Liverpool's death, a biography of him appeared in which this assessment was given:

As a minister, Lord Liverpool may perhaps be admitted not to have been distinguished by any striking originality of views or rapid fertility of resource; but he possessed qualities, if less showy, more valuable and better calculated to carry a nation with wide and complicated interests in safety through periods of difficulty and peril... His natural acuteness was sharpened and strengthened by most extensive information on every subject which could affect the deliberations of an English Cabinet...

Even of his bitterest opponents none ever questioned his unsullied integrity, his undeviating freedom from jobbery of every kind, his rare scrupulousness in the distribution of his patronage, particularly of the ecclesiastical preferments in his gift; his perfect disinterestedness [was] displayed in the fact that he left office a poorer man than he had entered on it... [C.D. Yonge, Life of Lord Liverpool Vol. 3 ( Macmillan, 1868) pp.457-458.

More recently, Professor Briggs' assessment takes a more balanced view:

To his public life he brought qualities which, in aggregate, few prime ministers have equalled. In grasp of principles, mastery of detail, discernment of means, and judgement of individuals he was almost faultless. Cautious and unhurried in weighing a situation, he was prompt and decisive when the time came for action. In debate he was not only informed, lucid and objective, but conspicuously honest... He never dismissed a minister; he was never ungrateful or disloyal. Kind by temperament, he had an instinctive tact in dealing with others. His conciliatory manner smoothed away innumerable personal difficulties. He was a man whom it was almost impossible to dislike...

Liverpool was never a mere chairman presiding over a Cabinet of superior talents... It is clear that the guiding lines of policy were always firmly in Liverpool's hands, in consultation with an inner ring of ministers... Liverpool himself kept a close supervision of all the main departments, including the Foreign Office; and in matters of trade and finance was always the dominating figure...

Liverpool was a conservative statesman in the fundamental sense. He wished to avoid organic change by pursuing administrative reform. But he was neither a bigot nor a reactionary... The more the nineteenth century is put into perspective, the more significant does Liverpool's role appear. It was not merely that his political skill had kept an administration together so long or that his sheer professionalism as an administrator had enabled him to master all the diverse needs of government between 1812 and 1827. Even more important is that in the face of enormous practical difficulties he opened up the road along which early Victorian Britain was to travel with increasing certainty and profit in the next generation. [Asa Briggs, The Prime Ministers, vol.I. (H. van Thai (ed), Allen & Unwin, 1974) pp.287-296]

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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