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By Martin Parsons.
200 years ago, just after 5pm on 11th May, Prime Minister Spencer Percival was assassinated in the House of Commons. He was a Tory Prime Minister, little heard of today. Yet there are important lessons from his life that are highly relevant today in a similar age of austerity.
Life and career
Born in 1762 the younger son of a peer, he had to make his own way in life and pursued a career at the bar rather than politics due to the need to support his young family. He finally became MP for Northampton in 1796 when his cousin the incumbent succeeded to an earldom. He seems to have been viewed as something of a protégé by Pitt, who had earlier offered him the post of Secretary for Ireland and saw him as a future leader of the house and reportedly even as a future Prime Minister. However, Percival’s early ministerial ambitions seem to have been restricted to becoming Solicitor General, then Attorney General, offices which allowed him to continue to support his family by means of his private practice at the bar.
A year after Pitt’s 1806 death, ‘Pitt’s friends’ were able to gain power again. Percival was offered the exchequer and after initial hesitancy due to the need to support his family, was finally persuaded to accept it. It was from this point on that he really began to shine and was described by one cabinet contemporary as ‘the ablest man in the House’. The cabinet itself was one of enormous talent – including Canning and Castlereagh, who shortly afterwards quite literally come to blows in a duel. However, it lacked the strong leadership that Pitt had given. Consequently, it stumbled on under the weak and ineffective leadership of the Duke of Portland, lacking any clear sense of direction until Percival became Prime Minister in 1809. Interestingly, Percival, does not appear to have seriously put himself forward as a Prime Ministerial candidate. However, when it became clear that neither Canning nor Castlereagh would serve under the other, Percival became the preferred candidate of the rest of the cabinet. He served as Prime Minister until his assassination in 1812.
Spencer Percival is little known today, although David Cameron did briefly refer to him when he appeared before the 1922 Committee after last year’s local election results. Yet there are important lessons to be learnt from his life, not least because some of the crises he faced bear remarkable similarities to the issues we face today:
Percival led what was in practice a much looser coalition than the present government. There was a core of Pitt’s friends, although this was insufficient to gain a Commons majority and he had to reply on drawing in the votes of other members. The weakness of this position was made worse by the Whig opposition being favoured by the Prince Regent who was granted royal power in 1810 owing to the King’s mental health deteriorating. The difficulties of forming an administration were such that after no less than five individuals had refused the offer of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, Percival had to continue in the post himself alongside his duties as Prime Minister.
Dealing with the debt
Between 1792 and 1806 government expenditure rose from 17.5 million to 68.5 million, largely as a result of war expenditure. Consequently the national debt trebled in the same period. The previous Whig dominated administration, known as the 'Government of all the Talents' which had followed Pitt’s administration in 1806 (in emulation of which one may presume Gordon Brown declared he wanted a ‘government of all the talents’) had financed this increasing government expenditure by borrowing even more money to pay interest on existing loans. This was a policy Percival clearly saw the folly of, declaring that ‘if we want to borrow money, we or our posterity must in some measure pay for it’. To this extent at least, he was what would now be called a fiscal Conservative.
Financing a war
Faced with this financial crisis there were strong calls in the country to open negotiations with Napoleon to end the war or at the very least to cut expenditure on the war. Percival opposed moves towards negotiation, not believing that they would bring lasting peace. He did contemplate significant cuts to military spending, but pulled back from these believing that it was essential that one way or other the war had to financed. In doing so he led, rather than followed public opinion in a lengthy war that had become increasingly unpopular. His actions imply that he saw defence of the realm as the first duty of government and one that had to be prioritised over other areas of government expenditure. His greatest, though perhaps most unsung achievement was that he managed to finance a lengthy war against a very real threat to our country’s freedom, laying the foundations for final victory in 1815.
Percival’s solution to growing government debt was first of all to exert control over departmental spending to an extent that had not been done before, cutting the budgets of government departments. He even managed to rein in the expenditure of the royal family, which was a major achievement at a time when the Prince Regent unconstitutionally took the view that parliament should underwrite his rather substantial personal debts! Secondly, Percival managed to get the Bank of England interest rate reduced, which saved a further £60,000 or more a year.
However, perhaps the most far sighted aspect of Percival’s stewardship of the nation’s finances was that he reformed the tax system, something that today again has enormous relevance, the last Labour government having massively increased its complexity. Percival replaced nearly a hundred measures for collecting stamp duty with a single measure, thereby saving £200,000 in the cost of tax collection, while other tax reforms saved a further £125,000. Whilst the war taxes had to continue, it was by means of measures such as these that Percival was able, one way or another, to finance the war.
Public sector reform
Percival saw that imposing cuts on departmental spending was the only way to finance the war without imposing massive tax increases. However, he was also responsible for other public sector reforms. A major reorganisation of the Treasury had begun in 1805 whereby it was split into divisions dealing with different departments, thereby allowing the staff to gain specialist departmental knowledge. A new Assistant Secretary, George Harrison was appointed, whose terms of office forbade him from entering parliament, a precedent which effectively led to the creation of the modern permanent higher civil service. Percival continued and extended these reforms. One of his most important measures was to introduce a probationary period for Treasury staff in order to combat the idleness and abuse that was a hallmark of staff appointed by patronage. In this respect at least, he was can be credited with helping begin the process of professionalising the civil service.
The principles that underpinned Percival’s government were in many respects a desire to continue those of Pitt. In particular, these included a commitment to pursue the war against Napoleon in the face of defeatism at home and to maintain the balance of the constitution in the face of radical attempts to change it. However, he was also very much a social conservative. In an age of fashionable vices he was, along with others such as Wilberforce, an advocate of moral restraint and upholding of the importance of traditional marriage. His Tory principles can be summed in what later became traditional Conservative values of ‘faith, flag and family’.
Tory social concern in many respects originates in a group of MPs at this time of which William Wilberforce was the most prominent. Percival was loosely aligned with this group and like Wilberforce was motivated by his evangelical convictions to see the lot of ordinary people improved. Percival was not only a staunch supporter of slave trade abolition, which was finally achieved in 1807, but also promoted a number of other social welfare measures including the regulation of child labour, a cause which was much later to be successfully taken up by another Tory politician with similar evangelical convictions – Lord Shaftesbury.
Percival had great political skills, particularly in the chamber of the House of Commons, where he had the ability to place any subject being discussed in the best possible light, a skill that was essential in leading a loose coalition where he had no assured majority. A few months before becoming Prime Minister he made what Wellesley described as ‘the best speech I ever heard in Parliament.’ While a year before Percival’s assassination, Lord Liverpool compared him to Pitt saying: ‘his character is completely established in the House of Commons; he has acquired an authority there beyond any minister there in my recollection except Mr Pitt’.
Conviction politician rather than opportunist
Above all Spencer Percival was a conviction politician, rather than an opportunist. His convictions were motivated by a combination of Tory principles inherited from Pitt and his evangelical Christian beliefs. He refused to take part in the plotting and intrigue of cabinet politics, particularly that between Canning and Castlereagh. Unlike many of his contemporaries he refused to rely on sinecures – the nineteenth century equivalent of non jobs with large salaries – despite his own pressing need to support a large family. Similarly, he refused to give offices to friends for political advantage, although he did help promising young men, including Palmerston and Peel get a start in political life.
Palmerston observed about Percival that, ‘it is a great thing when even the bitterest opponents of a minister dare not impeach his integrity and honour.’ While George the Third described him as the most straightforward man he had almost ever known. Even as Prime Minister he worked on the principle of doing the right thing, because it was the right thing, rather than to gain political advantage. One striking illustration of this was that due to financial austerity, not only did he take a lower prime ministerial salary than Pitt, but he also refused to take any salary at all for simultaneously being Chancellor of the Exchequer–and – most challenging of all for a politician, did so quietly without making any public announcement.
It is in this respect that Percival presents the most serious challenge to us today. At a time of great austerity, when ordinary people were struggling, he was recognised both as a man who was honest, who himself lived relatively simply and who was genuinely concerned to do what was right both for the country as a whole and for ordinary people. In a telling comment made just before Percival was assassinated, one of his contemporaries observed that ‘If the Regent changes the government, he must turn out the most popular man in England, which Percival undoubtedly is.’
As Percival entered the lobby of the Commons just after 5 o’clock on 11th May, he was shot at point blank range by John Bellingham. Bellingham, who was an ancestor of North West Norfolk Conservative MP Henry Bellingham, had been imprisoned for five years while representing his firm in Russia and was possibly mentally ill. He appears to have shot Percival because he blamed the British government for his troubles.
Percival’s untimely death three years before the final victory against Napoleon not only robbed Britain of a great Prime Minister, it also meant that Percival did not achieve the distinction of history that he would otherwise have achieved. Indeed, his colleague Lord Liverpool who succeeded him remained Prime Minister until 1827. Instead Percival has gone down in history as the only Prime Minister ever to be assassinated in parliament. Yet there is much in his character, in his personal and political principles that we could do well to learn from today in a similar age of austerity.