- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005


By William Anthony Hay

Palgrave Mcmillan, $65, 235 pages


When one thinks of the celebrated history of British politics, what comes to mind? The signing of the Magna Carta, certainly. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the consequent tradition of kingly dependence upon parliament, of course. Winston Churchill’s magnificent speech on the eve of the blitz, without a doubt. But these opulent highlights can obscure other rich times in British politics.

William Anthony Hay plugs one of these historical holes. In “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830,” Mr. Hay investigates the period between the breakdown of the short lived Whiggish government called the Ministry of All the Talents in 1807 and the Whig resurgence in 1830. He paints a thoroughly detailed, vivid portrait of often overlooked elections and cursorily understood people.

Like Thomas Jefferson and the American Republicans, many Whigs had enthusiastically greeted the French Revolution as a harbinger of political liberation. Charles James Fox, the Whig leader in 1789, called it “the greatest event that has happened in the history of the world, and how much the best.” That euphoria was a mistake, Whigs and Republicans discovered, when the rhetoric of the rights of mankind surrendered to the Reign of Terror. And when Napoleon threatened to subjugate Europe, Whig francophilia appeared even more misguided. A constitutional monarchy looked like the safer bet.

As Mr. Hay chronicles, the Tories didn’t let the Foxite Whigs forget their earlier exuberance over the French Revolution. With the exception of the Talents ministry in 1806-1807, Britain remained basically a one party state until the 1820s. “Nought’s permanent among the human race,” Byron jibed, “except the Whigs not getting into place.”

Relegated to semipermanent opposition status, the Whigs tried to fight their way out under the leadership of Henry Brougham. A fire-breathing Whig who challenged the government at every turn, Brougham scored isolated victories in the 1810s. Under his guidance, the Whigs mounted a successful challenge against the Orders in Council — unpopular legislation that restricted trade with French-occupied Europe and hampered commerce with America. After the end of the war, Brougham also successfully pressured the government to end the income tax.

These triumphs reflected the Whigs’ goals of liberalizing Britain, establishing religious freedom, lowering taxes and expanding their political base. But internal divisions and radical policies still kept them out of power. Brits remembered Brougham’s unqualified endorsement of the Spanish popular uprising against Napoleon, for example, and his hope that it would spark a similar movement in England. The Whigs had enthusiastically argued for actively aiding Spain against France, a position that drew an embarrassing contrast with earlier insistences on peace or a defensive posture. To much of Great Britain, Brougham and the Whigs looked not like high-minded liberals, but like opportunists, sacrificing principle on the altar of political expediency.

To make matters worse for the Whigs, Brougham faced plausible charges of Jacobinism throughout the early 1800s. During the Westmorland election of 1818, when Brougham lost a bitter contest to the Lowther brothers, Dorothy Wordsworth said that she “could have fancied him one of the French demagogues of the Tribunal of Terror at certain times, when he gathered a particular fierceness into his face.” During the 1818 election, Brougham even felt the direct sting of William Wordsworth’s pen. Wordsworth, a close friend of the Lowthers and an articulate British conservative, presented the election as a choice between the vanquishers of Napoleon and a foolish opposition “that earlier had lost power through its own errors and infatuation with the French Revolution.” Brougham, Wordsworth charged, was a demagogue who manipulated public sentiment for his own political gain.

As a sidenote, Mr. Hay’s richly detailed account of the acidic Westmorland election makes it clear that viciousness of modern elections is nothing new. Arriving in the town of Kendal to canvass, the Lowther brothers distributed ale to the populace. The Molotov cocktail of drink and Brougham partisans sparked a demonstration against the Lowthers that quickly turned violent. A mob hurled stones and dirt at the Lowthers’ carriage, forcing the brothers to gallop to safety. The rest of the election was marked by astonishing amounts of vitriol on both sides. An American historian might liken the ferocity to the contest between Adams and Jefferson in 1800.

But despite Brougham’s loss in 1818, Mr. Hay shows, Whig fortunes took a positive turn. The author traces the gradual change to the Peterloo incident in 1819, when government magistrates forcibly dispersed a public meeting, leaving four dead and 400 hurt. Almost overnight, fears of mobocracy melted into trepidation of tyrannical, arbitrary government. Newspapers condemned the affair, especially after the government imprudently conveyed its congratulations to the magistrates. Brougham and the Whigs seized the initiative, requesting an inquiry and portraying the rich classes as out of touch with British workers. The Whigs thus broadened their appeal and their coalition in 1819, absorbing liberal interests throughout the country.

The Peterloo affair triggered more Whig demands for liberalization. Brougham launched effective attacks on legal restrictions on public meetings, and on abridgments of the liberty of the press. The Whigs were able, in the 1820s, to sharpen their contrast with the Tories and to demonstrate their “commitment to liberty as an absolute good in itself.”Matters finally came to a head in 1827, when Lord Liverpool suffered a stroke. By 1830, after a three year struggle for power, the Whigs emerged on top. Within a decade, they had introduced innumerable political reforms, and had altered political discourse to such a degree that it “obscured the scale of their achievement.”

Mr. Hay’s book is a study in statesmanship, biography and political theory. He artfully combines a general overview of British politics in the early 1800s with a keen analysis of influential personalities and elections at the time. “The Whig Revival” is his first book, and hopefully there’s more to come.

Ethan Davis is a writer living in New York City.

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