Lord Liverpool and the Alternatives to 'Repression' in Regency England

By Plowright, John | History Review, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Lord Liverpool and the Alternatives to 'Repression' in Regency England


Plowright, John, History Review


In the Preface to his book The Making of the English Working Class (1963) E.P. Thompson addressed himself to a species of history written by the 'winners' which inhibited a proper understanding of early nineteenth-century Britain. this was the 'Pilgrim's Progress orthodoxy, in which the period is ransacked for forerunners-pioneers of the Welfare State, progenitors of the Socialist Commonwealth, or (more recently) early exemplars of rational industrial relations'. Such a view of the past, according to Thompson, 'reads history in the light of subsequent preoccupations, and not as in fact it occurred', with the result that 'Only the successful (in the sense of those whose aspirations anticipated subsequent evolution) are remembered. The blind alleys, the lost causes and the losers themselves are forgotten.'

Thompson thus expressed his own task as 'seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not.'

Of course, Thompson went on to succeed brilliantly in investing life in his chosen band of 'losers', but arguably he succeeded too well insofar as we are now in danger of losing our sense of perspective regarding the contemporary 'winners'.

No doubt one can make out a case that the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and even the Levellers were 'losers' who were eventual 'winners', in as much as they can be represented as trailblazers of paths which were subsequently followed. But there is surely something rather perverse in the fact that Luddism, which has become a byword for a species of blinkered resistance to change, has attracted more historical attention than the far-sighted prime minister who successfully led Britain during these times of 'acute social disturbance'.

The relative historiographical neglect of Lord Liverpool is indicated by the fact that Professor Norman Gash's Lord Liverpool (1984) was the first modern biography for thirty years and Gash himself admitted that his book was intended to represent and a stop-gap, albeit an erudite and elegant one, until the life of Lord Liverpool is 'written as it deserves to be, on the basis of the massive archival material now available and on a scale that will require more than a single volume'. Moreover, it is difficult not to see Gash's interest in Liverpool as arising out of his definitive two-volume life of Peel: seeing Liverpool as the political patron of Mr Secretary Peel in the 1810s and 1820s, and as the progenitor of those ideas calculated to appeal to the middle classes with which Sir Robert Peel was associated in the 1830s and 1840s. Thus even here the shadowy figure of Liverpool is seen only in reflection.

What follows, like the author's Regency England (1996), is thus a modest attempt to give Liverpool his due. Specifically, what follows in an attempt to argue that in his dealings with Thompson's 'losers' Liverpool acted with commendable restraint, however 'foolhardy' their insurrectionary conspiracies may now appear, particularly if one appreciates the limited options available to him and his government.

The charges

It is commonly alleged the Liverpool's government pursued repressive policies between 1815 and 1820. That is to say, the government acted in an unnecessarily harsh manner in crushing popular protest by, for example, suspending Habeas Corpus, passing the Seditious Meetings Act and breaking up the march of the Blanketeers in 1817, massacring those at 'Peterloo' and passing the Six Acts in 1819. However, it will be shown in what follows that Liverpool's government acted with commendable restraint, so that it is misleading to label its maintenance of law and order as 'repressive', and that the government had no practicable alternatives to the policies which it pursued. …

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