Today is the 200th anniversary of the only assassination of a British Prime Minister. Spencer Perceval was shot dead by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval held mostly conservative views, although he had backed the abolition of the slave trade, and Britain was then at war with Napoleonic France.
If Churchill had been assassinated in 1942 or Lloyd George in 1917, then it would be seen as one of the most important events in British, if not world, history. Perceval died during a major war but if he is remembered it is for the manner of his death rather than for anything that he did during his life.
The Prime Minister then was first amongst equals in the cabinet rather than the more presidential style that has subsequently developed. The government declared war, financed the army and navy, appointed senior officers and made peace, but the slow communications of the day meant that it could interfere less in how generals and admirals fought their campaigns.
Perceval born on 1 November 1762 and was the second son of the second marriage of the Earl of Egmont. He worked as a barrister because he lacked private means, but he did have significant family connections, which boosted his career. He was elected an MP in 1796, proving to be an outstanding debater. His first government offices were legal ones such as Solicitor-General and Attorney-General, and his first purely political appoitment was as Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 1807. He retained this role when he became Prime Minister in October 1809.
Perceval was a conservative evangelical Christian and disapproved of gambling, drunkenness, hunting and adultery. He opposed parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation but supported the abolition of the slave trade and the regulation of child labour. He was a close supporter of William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister from 1781-1801 and 1804-6. Like Pitt, he was determined to continue the war with France, and he was an eloquent supporter of this view in the House of Commons.
It was feared that the assassination might be the start of a popular uprising, but this did not happen. It was accepted at the time and subsequently that Bellingham had a grudge against the government, which he blamed for the failure of his business, and acted alone. His plea of insanity was rejected and he was executed on 18 May.
A new book, Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die by Andro Linklater, argues that Perceval’s death was part of a conspiracy. It was only published yesterday so I cannot comment on it. Its description from Amazon.co.uk says that:
On 11 May 1812 Spencer Perceval, the British Prime Minister, was fatally shot at close range in the lobby of the House of Commons. In the confused aftermath, his assailant, John Bellingham, made no effort to escape. A week later, before his motives could be examined, he was tried and hanged. Here, for the first time, the historian Andro Linklater looks past the conventional image of Bellingham as a ‘deranged businessman’ and portrays him as an individual, driven by the anxieties of his family life, by his yearning for respectability and by the raw emotions that convulsed his home town of Liverpool. But as the evidence accumulates, a wider, darker picture emerges. The wildly unpopular Perceval dominated political life as both Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He, above all, was responsible for oppressing Luddite protestors, for Britain’s naval blockade of Napoleonic France, for risking war with the United States. And, almost single-handedly, he was crushing Liverpool’s illegal slave-trade. John Bellingham was not alone in hating the prime minister. But did he act alone when he shot Spencer Perceval? And if not, who aided him? Two hundred years later, Andro Linklater examines Bellingham’s personal records, his wife’s letters and the reports of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first detective agency, uncovering strange payments made to the murderer and an untouched historical trail. Catching the threads of conspiracy amid the fevered tone of an age of intense debate over slavery, security of the state and personal liberty, Linklater brilliantly deconstructs the assassination of Spencer Perceval – the only British Prime Minister ever to have suffered that fate – to offer a fresh perspective on Britain and the Western world at a critical moment in history.
A recent article by Bruce Anderson in the Daily Telegraph dismissed Linklater’s arguments on the basis that there was no evidence to support them. He went on to claim that Perceval had been poorly treated by history.
Anderson argues that Perceval was popular with everybody who knew him. Possibly Linklater’s claim that he was unpopular means with the general public. He held the government together and ensured that the war was financed without ruining the economy. He ignored criticism of the cost of the campaign and the lack of victories and backed Wellington. Perceval proved to be correct, but he was dead and Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister by the time that the campaign in Spain and Portugal and the war with France were won.