Parliaments, 1790-1820

Parliament in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

In 1790 George III had reigned for 30 years and had apparently fully recovered from the bout of insanity which, only a year before, had precipitated a political crisis over the question of a Regency. His prime minister, William Pitt, was in his seventh year of office and at the zenith of his political career following his triumph over opposition, who, under the leadership in the Commons of Charles James Fox, had espoused the ‘reversionary interest’ of the Prince of Wales during the regency debates. Pitt was contriving to maintain the pacific policy required by his financial strategy for the country. He was not disposed to treat the French Revolution as a threat and at first ignored it: and while the revolution was destined to split the opposition and cause a political realignment, as late as 1792 they were united in attempting to avert war with Russia when the drift of Pitt’s policy threatened it, and too party-minded to acquiesce in a coalition with the government.

The French revolutionary threat to monarchical Europe and the alliance of Britain with the latter in the war that began in 1793 brought about an ineluctable rapprochement between the conservative-minded Whigs in opposition and Pitt’s regime; a ‘third party’, promoted by William Windham, acted as a ginger group to achieve it until the Duke of Portland, nominal leader of the Whig party, overcame his reluctance to part company with Fox and in 1794 formed a conjunction with Pitt. Fox was left as unchallenged leader of a Whig rump which, while it no longer presented a serious threat to the ministry, acted as a focus for criticism of the war and of the curtailment of domestic liberty required by government. In 1797, when financial crisis and naval mutiny beset Pitt and a fresh coalition was mooted by a lobby of politicians styled the ‘armed neutrality’, Fox found that George III’s hostility to him still prevented him from offering an alternative government, and resorted to secession from Parliament, with a plea for parliamentary reform.

Pitt’s administration foundered in 1801 on the royal veto on Catholic relief, stipulated by the minister as a corollary to the Act of Union with Ireland which was precipitated for security reasons by the Irish rebellion of 1798. One hundred Irish Members had just joined the House, which was ill adapted to take a total of 658 Members. George III chose the Speaker Henry Addington as Pitt’s successor: he proved a broken reed. Neither Pitt’s support nor Fox’s blessing, when he concluded the peace treaty of Amiens, could prevent him from being ridiculed by Pitt’s most articulate disciples and confronted with a ‘new opposition’ to a humiliating armistice led by Pitt’s former lieutenants, Lord Grenville and William Windham. Nor could Pitt or Fox acquiesce in Addington’s vacillations on the resumption of hostilities with Napoleonic France in 1803 when invasion was threatened, and in the following spring Addington was overthrown on questions of defence by a junction of Grenvillites, Foxites, friends of the Prince of Wales and Pittites. A comprehensive administration under Pitt was frustrated by the royal veto on Fox, which provided Lord Grenville with his reason for refusing to serve under his cousin. Pitt decided to go on alone, but despite a temporary reconciliation with Addington, found it too great a strain: the impeachment of his alter ego Lord Melville on grounds of malversation showed him that he could not command a majority in the House. The failure of his continental allies to match the naval victory of Trafalgar by success against Buonaparte on land was the last straw. He died before capitulating to the onslaught of the Fox-Grenville coalition.

The latter formed the basis of the ministry of ‘All the Talents’ on Pitt’s death: it was joined by Addington (whom Pitt had created Lord Sidmouth) and received the Prince of Wales’s blessing: but Pitt’s friends now tasted exclusion and the King’s acquiescence was never more than sullen. Lord Grenville was premier and Fox Foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons: their adherents squabbled for preference. While making an unsuccessful bid for peace with France Fox died, bequeathing his party to Charles Grey, Viscount Howick. The ministry foundered on the Catholic question in 1807 when George III recalled Pitt’s friends under the nominal lead of the Duke of Portland. Opposition were weakened by the succession of Howick to his father’s title, by the makeshift leadership of his Irish successor George Ponsonby and by the growth of a radical ‘Mountain’ in their ranks; and the ministry itself was prey to a battle for power in the cabinet due to Portland’s debility. Although George Canning and Viscount Castlereagh were the chief contenders, it was Spencer Perceval who won this battle and in 1809 succeeded Portland as premier. The struggle left the ministry weak, and military disasters, the radical threat to the House’s authority posed by Sir Francis Burdett and the King’s final relapse into insanity in 1810 (which ensured a Regency) made it more vulnerable; but Perceval weathered the storm, secured the vacillating Prince Regent’s acquiescence and was still resisting sharp fire from opposition when he was shot dead by an unhinged assailant in 1812.

The formation of a ministry to succeed Perceval’s proved the trickiest exercise in cabinet making in this period. In the event, the caretaker government led by Lord Liverpool, at first denied confidence by the House, proved less unacceptable than any other possibilities. Neither Canning and the Marquess Wellesley, nor the opposition led by Lords Grey and Grenville, nor the Prince’s friends, could form a viable alternative. It was Lord Liverpool, an experienced administrator, who, eschewing any commitment on the controversial Catholic question, was able to win over the political freebooters Lord Sidmouth, Castlereagh as leader of the House, and eventually Canning and his ‘little senate’. The success of Wellington in the Peninsular war and the overthrow of Bonaparte reinforced the ministry’s position. Adjustment to the aftermath of war proved less easy and opposition hopes revived in 1816; but the ineffectiveness of Ponsonby’s leadership, the difficulty of finding a successor on his death in 1817 until, a year later, George Tierney was requisitioned to lead the opposition, and the rifts within the party, prevented them from coming to anything. The Grenvillites were by 1818 engineering their third party, as a bridge to joining the government. The Whigs were not hopeful of achieving office while George III lived and had to discount the reversionary interest because of the desertion of the Prince Regent and the death of his daughter Princess Charlotte. Ministerial alarmism about sedition out of doors in 1819 and the coercive legislation that followed did not meet with their unanimous disapproval: but they mustered to call the government to account for it, and were numerically nearly three times as strong as the remnant that clung to Fox in his stand for constitutional liberty in the 1790s.