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Lord Liverpool

Prime Minister 1812 - 27

As the power of British monarchy waned through the nineteenth century it would seem obvious that prime ministerial power would step into its place. In a very real sense, however, prime ministers worked in a very similar way to a monarch, acting as a unifying figurehead, while others got on with the business of government. This pattern is seen time and again in the history of British prime ministers, and is certainly true of Lord Liverpool. Robert Banks Jenkinson was born 7th June 1770, educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church College, Oxford, and entered Parliament as MP for Appleby in 1790. He then worked as a conscientious and unspectacular politician, as foreign secretary 1801 - 03, home secretary 1804 - 06, and secretary of war and the colonies 1809 - 12. Disraeli was to call Liverpool a mediocrity, which even given the distortions of political rivalry, does seem to describe Liverpool accurately. Somehow Liverpool's ordinariness allowed him to rise above the bruising day to day conflicts of government. Norman Gash points out in The Prime Ministers that the savage caricatures of the period seized on ministers such as Castlereagh, Addington and Eldon, but hardly ever on Liverpool himself. There seemed to be no out of the ordianry characteristics to pick on. Liverpool had a long period in office, from 1812 - 27, and the nature of the different periods in this administration came from certain energetic ministers rather than from Liverpool himself. The first 'reactionary' period was dominated by Castlereagh, Eldon and Vansittant. The second period, after the ministerial changes of 1821 - 22, considered more 'liberal', was dominated by Canning, Peel, Huskisson and Robinson.

But just as seemingly powerless monarchs have more influence than is at first apparent, the same could be said of Liverpool. The changes that came with the restructuring of 1821 - 22 were led just as much by Liverpool as by other prominent figures in his government. Liverpool wanted to change emphasis away from protectionism to free trade, where consumer interests were considered along with those of the producer. There was certainly no abandonment of traditional views of social division - Liverpool did not believe in welfare or relief. What Liverpool did hope for was a general economic recovery benefiting all. This was the main thrust of his policy, trying to create conditions that would benefit producer and consumer alike. Robert Peel, more famously was to take up these measures fifteen years later. But it was Liverpool who initiated them. So overall Liverpool was an effective parliamentary monarch, keeping his more abrasive and brilliant colleagues together, while exerting quiet influence himself. Liverpool is often dismissed as a figurehead nonentity, as are real monarchs, but he illustrates the continuing value for such a role. Judgments are always arbitrary in history, since as Tolstoy pointed out we do not know where history is going, and what the criteria for judgment will be. If history is an ever circling soap opera where leaders don't have to actually lead us anywhere specific, then the monarch prime minister Lord Liverpool had a good reign.

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