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Spencer Perceval

Prime Minister 1809 - 1812

When the Duke of Portland's second administration collapsed in 1809, the dominant figure in Parliament was George Canning. But as so often happens, the most prominent politician did not become prime minister. Instead someone of much more mediocre talents was required, who was acceptable widely, and who could act as a figurehead of unity. In 1809 the right man for this job was judged to be Spencer Perceval.

Perceval, as the younger son of an aristocrat, did not inherit wealth, and after leaving Trinity College, Cambridge he trained as a lawyer. He was hard working, and religiously conservative in his views. An aristocratic background, and conventional opinions made Perceval attractive as a possible MP, and he was duly elected as member for Northampton in 1796. Perceval then took his place with many others in Parliament who believed in defeating France, maintaining the status quo, and opposing rights for catholics. His Christian beliefs allowed him to see the divide between rich and poor as divinely ordained, and attempts to ease conditions for the poor as little short of sacrilege. Perceval was a definitive establishment man, and on Portland's fall was seen as a safe stop gap to serve until someone more suitable came along. But this was to underestimate Spencer Perceval's qualities of tenacity and resilience. Remarkably as the months passed he hung on to power, even surviving the crisis of George III's final descent into madness.

Spencer Perceval made no attempt to ease the transition of Britain from a rural to an industrial urban society. 12,000 troops were used to put down Luddite riots when workers attempted to break the machinery they saw as threatening their livelihoods. Added to problems of adapting to this new way of life, war was causing economic difficulties. When Perceval came to office Britain had been at war with France for seventeen years, and trade was badly affected. But nothing was done to offer any kind of help to people suffering poverty as a result. This was a ruthless time when the strong had to survive and the weak had to fail. Later in the nineteenth century a distortion of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution would be used to justify such social attitudes. In the early nineteenth century it was Christianity which gave theoretical justification to social division. Some people were born rich, and many poor. Some people were born clever, and many stupid. This was God's scheme. Although kind and considerate in his immediate personal relationships, "to contemplate interfering by legislation in the way a man conducted his estate or factory, to consider upsetting the preordained natural structure of life, was both dangerous and sacrilegious" (Joyce Marlow The Prime Ministers P275). Perceval was a man of his time, never thinking beyond the narrow confines of his religion or of his era. In a sense this was his value as prime minister. He had been selected not for being brilliant or forward thinking, but for being typical. However, there was a sense in which Spencer Perceval did represent the future. He was in the words of Joyce Marlow: "a professional in the last full tide of the amateur, a man who got on with the job in a dedicated, earnest fashion when to be seen to be earnest or dedicated was regarded as un-English and un-gentlemanly" (The Prime Ministers P275). Perceval was then a mixture of old and new. It was the very earnestness with which he held to traditional values that gave him his new professionalism.

Perceval no doubt made many enemies with his hard line policies. But when his assassination came, the man who shot him was not a disgruntled radical, or dispossessed worker, but a deranged overseas trader. John Bellingham had been arrested and imprisoned while trading in Russia, and had convinced himself that the government owed him compensation for his sufferings. He got nowhere with appeals to various ministers. So on 11th May 1812 Bellingham placed himself in the House of Commons lobby with a concealed revolver. Perceval was shot as he walked through the lobby, and killed instantly.