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George Canning

Prime Minister 1827

George Canning's early childhood was difficult. Born 11th April 1770, his father was to die the following year, leaving his mother earning a precarious living as an actress. George was rescued by his uncle, Stratford Canning, who organised an education at Eton, and Christ Church College, Oxford. George, knowing his good fortune in having these opportunities, worked very hard. He was a model pupil, determined to succeed. His uncle, a prominent politician, introduced George to Westminster, and the young man's future in politics was set. Canning entered Parliament in January 1794.

 

Although Canning started his career as a Whig, like his Uncle Stratford, he was to develop into a Tory in a similar mould to the twentieth century prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The sympathies of both lay with the merchant middle classes. Entering into an alliance with like-minded economist Henry Huskisson, Canning called for free trade and modification of the Corn Laws, to remove protective tariffs and allow cheaper bread. Canning despised "proud combinations of aristocrats" and "our agricultural grandees". Like Mrs Thatcher, Canning believed in free trade, free enterprise and self reliance. Neither of them had time for privilege, which they saw as weakening the ideal of self reliance, and interfering with the capitalist energy of society. Revealingly there was no fondness for royalty in these two politicians. Although denied in her autobiography, Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have had a cool relationship with Elizabeth II. Canning did not get on with George IV. Both Thatcher and Canning were radical Tories, both set against aristocratic privilege, and both willing to use firm measures against popular unrest. In August 1819 hundreds of people were killed by mounted soldiers at a protest meeting calling for parliamentary reform, at St Peter's Field, Manchester. Canning believed in sending in the soldiers at St Peter's Field, just as Margaret Thatcher didn't shy away from sending in riot police against striking miners.

Canning, once again like Margaret Thatcher, was unashamedly patriotic, which played well with the public. Canning was foreign secretary in the Duke of Portland's government, with Lord Castlereagh at the War Office. Canning's combative instincts were turned against Napoleon, but also against his colleagues. A demand for the removal of Castlereagh led to a famous duel on Putney Heath in which Canning was slightly injured. Shortly afterwards Portland died, and Canning manoeuvered to become prime minister. George III, however, called Spencer Perceval instead, under whom Canning bided his time. In 1812 Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons, and Lord Liverpool took over as prime minister. This marked another quiet period for Canning. Thinking that Lord Liverpool wouldn't last long, he turned down the job of foreign secretary, only to find that Liverpool was able to construct an enduring government. There was also the dislike between Canning and George IV, who came to the throne in 1820. This lack of royal approval damaged Canning's prospects. But then in August 1822 came the highly unexpected suicide of Castlereagh, and the decision that Canning had to be Castlereagh's replacement as foreign secretary. Canning was then a dominant figure in the second part of Liverpool's term, taking Britain out of a complex web of European alliance, and banging the drum for British trading interests in South America.

In February 1827 Lord Liverpool suffered a stroke. A group of Tories tried to persuade George IV to call the Duke of Wellington as the new prime minister. But Canning now managed to win over his old enemy the king. He portrayed the Tory group as trying to manipulate a proud and independent monarch, and appealed to the king's pride in opposing this. The ruse worked, and George IV chose Canning over Wellington. Canning immediately set to work with a vigorous foreign policy, ordering the sinking of the Turkish fleet which was threatening Greece. The new prime minister, however, was already ill, and his term in office was only to last one hundred days, 12th April to 8th August 1827. He died in the Duke of Devonshire's villa in Chiswick, before his ministry could get going. It was perhaps left to Margaret Thatcher one hundred and sixty years later to show how a Canning ministry might have played out.

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