1812 was one of those years. History has a habit of throwing them up every now and again, when numerous major events are condensed into a twelve month period. Understandably sneaking under the radar was the birth of Charles Dickens, whereas looming large was Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, the final and fatal extension of French Imperial might in Europe; elsewhere on the Continent, Bonaparte’s armies were taking a beating from the Duke of Wellington’s troops in the Peninsula War. It was also a year in which the USA declared war on its ex-colonial governor, Great Britain – another costly gamble by a delusional leader, in this case President James Madison. In the old Mother Country, there was constant constitutional uncertainty as the recurring illnesses of George III necessitated another Regency Bill, delegating limited powers to the unpopular Prince of Wales, including choosing the nation’s Prime Minister; economic crises caused by the Napoleonic Wars and Luddite opposition to industrialisation provoked civil unrest on the streets, a perennial problem that was usually dealt with by armed forces. Times were tense, to say the least.
Politics in 1812 were considerably more heated than they are today. For all the talk of enmity and rivalry between David Cameron and Boris Johnson, they had nothing on George Canning and Lord Castlereagh, two Government Ministers who were so at odds with each other that they’d fought a duel in 1809. Neither figured in the administration that governed the country in 1812 – partly as a result of this incident – which was headed by ex-Attorney General and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Spencer Perceval.
MP for Northampton, Spencer Perceval was highly-regarded by his peers in Parliament, and the barrister son of an Irish Earl had a rapid rise through the Westminster ranks after a relatively late entry into politics at the age of 33. He was invited to become Prime Minister in 1809, though his premiership wasn’t expected to last long due to warring factions within the Cabinet. However, Perceval represented the kind of steady hand the country required and he largely succeeded in keeping the ship afloat despite the problems piling up in his in-tray.
On 11 May 1812, Perceval entered the history books in the most unenviable manner when a disgruntled Liverpool merchant whose numerous grievances he’d decided were due to the Prime Minister approached Perceval in the lobby at the House of Commons and drew a pistol, shooting the PM in the chest at close range. Perceval died within minutes of the gun being fired and thus became the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated. His assassin, the unrepentant John Bellingham, was declared sane at his trial and was hanged just a week after Perceval’s death.
Reaction to the Prime Minister’s murder was one of shock and upset amongst the political classes, though those members of the public who were suffering economic hardship rejoiced at the assassination and treated John Bellingham as a folk hero; some even paid high prices for his clothes following his execution, the equivalent of bidding for them on eBay today. In great swathes of the country, politicians were despised as corrupt and crooked charlatans who were in it to line their own pockets, yet unlike some of his political rivals, Spencer Perceval was not a colossus personality; he was an understated character who still wore the regalia of the previous century, such as knee-breeches and a powdered wig. However, many on the outside associated him with the common perception that MPs were out-of-touch and remote figures who didn’t care about or relate to the experiences of the masses; at the time, this was emphasised by the process of how MPs were elected to Parliament, tainted as it was by the continuation of the Rotten Boroughs and the absence from that process of the common man (and woman).
If one argues that the cynicism and loathing meted out to politicians is a recent development, the public euphoria that greeted the assassination of Spencer Perceval suggests otherwise. It is true that the mistrust of the political class we are currently undergoing has intensified of late. In America, this mistrust can probably be traced back as far as Watergate and has perhaps reached its apex with the emergence of Donald Trump, whereas it’s possible that in this country one could cite the Profumo Affair as its beginnings – although that was as much about social class as the political one.
Whatever the initial source, both the expenses scandal and Hack-gate were watersheds in the tempestuous relationship between electorate and elected representatives, events that have served to push the public standing of politicians to an all-time low, albeit a low that has a habit of bracketing all Westminster residents, from greasy pole-climbing self-aggrandisers to unsung constituency MPs, in the same rotten barrel. The ones caught out deserve to be named and shamed, only having themselves to blame, and the right to name and shame them is essential within a democracy, as is the right to criticise; otherwise, we may as well be living in Turkey.
That the man who murdered Jo Cox decided to take the Andres Breivik route during his Magistrates Court appearance gives further ammunition to commentators who see his horrible act in a wider picture of out-and-out hatred of politicians that has certainly permeated the Referendum debate. I’m not entirely convinced of the connection, but as history so often teaches us, we have been here before.
© The Editor