A Political Life
William Anthony Hay
Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2018
Hardcover. xxviii+338 pp. ISBN 978-1783272822. £30
Reviewed by Emily Jones
University of Cambridge
What counts as ‘political’ in a ‘political life’? This was my first thought upon reading the title of William Hay’s new biography of Lord Liverpool (1770-1828), Tory Prime Minister for a fifteen-year period between 1812 and 1827 – no mean feat. Such a question is especially pertinent in a context of longstanding debates about the nature of political history and – most recently – conversations in the United States about whether we, as historians, still teach ‘political history’.(1) Much of this debate hangs on the question of what counts as politics, and what it means to practise it: is ‘politics’ defined as elections, parties, leadership, diplomacy? Or does it encompass broader worlds: political culture, languages, and groups that have been historically excluded from the above, especially women.
Hay has written a compelling narrative of late-Georgian politics, in a fashion that may be seen as unashamedly ‘high political’ in its approach. This is not a book concerned with addressing what some have called the ‘New Political History’, with its increasing stress on cultures, localities, languages, or – whisper it – a redefinition of power, inspired by Foucault and known as ‘governmentality’: that is, a conception of power that (in a British context) is not solely focused on Westminster. But it would be unfair to say this was in any way a narrow-minded political life focused on cynical political manoeuvring: Liverpool is presented throughout by Hay as a politician with his own ideas and approaches that went beyond a mechanistic, House of Cards-esq, saga.
Hence Liverpool was not, in Hay’s account, an especially social man whose personality veered from loving husband to awkward priggishness. Yet he was also, as Hay argues, well-read and held firm, sincere Tory principles grounded in an eighteenth-century ‘Tory tradition’ that was, in part, inherited from his father, the first Earl of Liverpool, whose beliefs had developed in opposition to the political monopoly held by Robert Walpole. At the heart of this was a belief in the established church and loyalty to George III, which developed into a broader sense of the need to preserve national (i.e. non-‘factional’) institutions. Hay therefore succeeds in portraying Liverpool as a principled defender of the British Constitution as he interpreted it, including attempts to adapt those institutions to address grievances as the world changed around him. This provides yet more evidence that the notion of ‘reform to preserve’ was a symptom of a broad constitutional language and by no means the sole intellectual property of Whigs such as Edmund Burke and Thomas Babington Macaulay.
In this sense the book takes much more from the conservative and Peterhouse historian Maurice Cowling than it does from Lewis Namier, whose distaste for principled politics transformed eighteenth-century figures like Burke from philosophical politician to suspect adventurer. Cowling himself recognised the importance, not merely of leaders and elite politicians, but of ‘back-bench opinion, party feeling, the decisions of civil servants, the preferences of electors, the opinions of newspapers and the objective movements of social power all contribute to understanding’.(2) Cowling also saw beyond Westminster: ‘The interaction [between public opinion and Parliament] took the form of dialogue: the dialogue was a real one. The interaction reached its most fruitful peak in Parliament’.(3) Both of these statements are applicable to Hay’s account of Liverpool: he is alive to the role of outside pressure on events – most obviously during moments of crisis such as the Queen Caroline Affair – as well as the need to balance the opinions contained within the party, especially on issues of finance and Catholic emancipation. The point is to place more emphasis on the pre-1832 period not simply as an ancien régime of ‘Old Corruption’, but to stress the transitional nature of the period and Liverpool’s quiet but firm hand in guiding it.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with ‘high politics’, or political biography. The question is really to what extent we can get a satisfying sense of the person without some of the essential context and nuance other approaches to writing political (and intellectual and cultural) history provide.
It is only on p. 169, for example, that we learn that Liverpool was a committed patron of the arts. His close, evidently mutually supportive relationship with his wife, Louisa, “the pillar of his success”  merits comment throughout, but nothing approaching analysis: she lacked the “talents” to host a political salon, but, as Hay evidences, she was still a letter-writer and a host during dinners at home. We are also presented with multiple, and very enjoyable, satirical prints, but given very little insight into what Tory newspapers were reporting, despite frequent mentions of, for example, their loud denunciations against Whig opposition [187, 189] and the increasing importance of public opinion and pressure . The same could be said for the clergy and laity who supported Liverpool’s plans for church-building: very rarely does a non-politician get mentioned by name. Here the reader is instructed rather than persuaded. There is a significant value in printed text that Hay overlooks. While it is of undeniable importance that we are given blow-by-blow accounts of major domestic and foreign policy events at the apex of political life, from the progress of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and the international diplomacy that followed, to commercial and financial policies, including the Corn Laws, and the civil unrest that challenged the social and political order, there remains a query as to whether this produces a fully satisfying account of Liverpool’s life in politics.
Overall, this is a well-written and thoroughly researched piece of scholarship which would be especially useful for those seeking an account of the major issues of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century politics, as well as the importance of constitutional principles, property, and ordered freedom to senior Tory politicians, in this case Liverpool and his peers. It is also worth noting that the book includes notes on personal names and a timeline setting Liverpool’s life in context which students or readers unfamiliar with both Liverpool and the period will find helpful.
(1) See, for example, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, ‘Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?’, New York Times, 29 August 2016, and Sarah Fenton, ‘Are we teaching political history?’, American Historical Association Blog, March 2017.
(2) Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Labour (1971), p. 11, quoted in David Craig, ‘‘“High politics” and the “new political history”’, Historical Journal, 53 (2010) : 453-475.
(3) Maurice Cowling, 1867 : Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution (1967), p. 3, quoted ibid.
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