Robert Banks Jenkinson, aka the second Earl of Liverpool, saw, made, and went through a lot of history in his crowded time. As prime minister of Great Britain from 1812 to 1827, his tenure saw wars against Napoleon's France, the agitation promoted by his country's radicals, demands for the emancipation of Britain's Roman Catholics, and constant calls for the reform of the British parliamentary system.
I am much indebted to Allan Massie for his review of Lord Liverpool: A Political Life by William Anthony Hay in the Aug. 6 edition of the Wall Street Journal, which paints a portrait of Liverpool as a true conservative, willing to change in order to conserve.
Liverpool was at the very center of his country's government before becoming prime minister. Yet he always resisted the temptation to do something, preferring to just stand there. Which takes a kind of courage. The great and always eloquent Disraeli would dismiss him as "the Arch-Mediocrity who presided, rather than ruled, over this Cabinet of Mediocrities," proving only that even Disraeli could make an occasional misjudgment.
Though he had a childless marriage, Liverpool busied himself with politics from his early 20s to a ripe old age. He served through Napoleonic wars, radical agitation, demands for the emancipation of British Roman Catholics and the usual and understandable demands for parliamentary reform, which he tended to oppose, having a strong interest in the existing system. Throughout, he consistently served king and country, knowing better than to advocate any policy his sovereign might reject. Such is the price of political engagement.
It is an art, doing nothing and doing it well. Much as an American president named Eisenhower did, ignoring rather than inviting crises. What a happy contrast with the leadership style, or lack of it, of the country's chief executive at the moment.
Liverpool was born into such a life, and was made a peer as a reward for his unstinting service. He knew how the game was played and played it superbly. In his time, political parties were held together not by ideology or geography or shared programs, but by personal friendships and shared sympathies. Governments fell with some regularity and had to be re-assembled, and it took a master craftsman to do all the legwork involved.
Still, it was the prospect of war with France that dominated every political conversation in Liverpool's time. As a young man of 19, he'd seen how politics worked in France, and hadn't liked what he saw. He'd witnessed the storming of the Bastille, and shared with his prudent father the prescient observation that the French revolutionaries "would find it easier to destroy an old government than to form a new one."
Watching the mob in violent action taught him how brittle the social order could be, and to value it all the more. He well understood how insatiable King Mob's appetite for upheaval could be. And he passed the lesson on to the wise and sober willing to absorb that lesson with him.
So when his chance came to make policy foreign and domestic, he proved a vigorous opponent of any compromise with the forces of reaction disguised as reform. He was willing to make adjustments, he recognized that the British constitution balanced "monarchial, aristocratic elements" and so "secured ordered liberty while avoiding the extremes of absolutism or radical democracy." But it was necessary, Liverpool recognized, to correct its failings and abuses so others would not use them as grounds for much more radical change.
Or as a character in Lampedusa's novel The Leopard puts it, "For things to remain the same, everything must change."
Paul Greenberg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 08/12/2018
Print Headline: Rewards of inaction