Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister: Lord Liverpool
by Martin Hutchinson
Out on 26/11/2020
How would you describe Lord Liverpool’s legacy in today’s economy?
Lord Liverpool remains the best exponent of economic polices that produce economic growth and prosperity – the foundation he put in lasted for the whole 19th century. He cut public spending far more than any current leader has managed, because he had to – the debt was so huge it would have overwhelmed the country’s tax capacity. You have to remember that governments could not gouge as much out of taxpayers back then as they can now, because a large percentage of the population was living close to subsistence level. His courage (and Vansittart’s) in 1815-19 again set the country up for a century of stability. Finally, his return to the Gold Standard assured savers of getting a decent return on their savings, with no inflation. Liverpool took savers’ needs very seriously, as he did property rights in general; those underlying principles could usefully be emphasised today. He had no Keynes to encourage deficits and low interest rates, of course, but Keynes’ ideas were around – politicians always like to get something for nothing and spend other people’s money!
Winning the war against Napoleon and putting in a peace settlement that actually worked should also add to his reputation; he wasn’t a one-trick pony. His foreign policy approach, in particular, could come in useful today.
How did Lord Liverpool come to be so overlooked in popular British history?
Mostly by a series of accidents; his side lost power within three years of his departure and changes were then made in the constitution that made them seem irrelevant. There was thus no reputation to be gained by historians in studying him. Much the same happened to King Charles II, whose cause was lost by the “Glorious Revolution” in 1688 three years after his death. The first favourable biography of Charles II was that written by Sir Arthur Bryant in 1931, 246 years after he died — the 18th century Whigs hated him, and the Victorians also disapproved of his love-life. Liverpool of course has the opposite problem with love-life; if he’d had Charles II’s, a saucily positive bio would have appeared about 1965!
But Liverpool’s unfashionability really is extraordinary; the school history “Charterhouse, Old and New” published in 1894 doesn’t even mention him, and he was then and is now that school’s only prime minister. Fame breeds fame, of course; if there are no best-selling biographies of Liverpool, nobody will try to write one. When I was first trying to market this book, a few years ago, I talked to one of the absolutely top literary agents, who said “There’s no market for a biography of Lord Liverpool.” I responded: “How do you know? There hasn’t been a full sized one since 1868!” Didn’t get me anywhere, of course.
What does your writing process consist of?
Over the last 20 years since I became a journalist, for articles it has become like a sausage-machine; you turn the handle and the words come out! The only difficulty comes when I’m trying to write an academic paper or the like; that kind of constipated prose is very difficult if it doesn’t come naturally.
Books are more interesting; you get a chance to develop a theme over a much larger canvas and say something that really has not been said before. In the early stages, you are designing the structure with one hand, absorbing all the really relevant reading (and finding new reading) with the other, and writing the first hesitant chapters with a third hand – very tricky if you only have two hands! As the structure comes together, the words come more quickly, and the last half of the book takes only a quarter as long as the first half. Then when you’ve finished you have to read again and re-read until you’re utterly bored with it, mostly to take out all the redundancy and decide whether the jokes and digressions are irrelevant, or worth explaining enough so readers will understand them (leaving them in there without explaining is NOT an option!)
The most fun part is when, often through attempts to measure and quantify (which many historians, being arts majors, don’t do) you find knowledge that’s completely new. My discovery that Britain had 40 times as much cash on hand as Napoleon at the time of Waterloo, for example, was enormous fun – nobody had bothered to run Napoleon’s franc number through a contemporary exchange rate and compare it with Liverpool and Vansittart’s sterling bond issue on June 14, 1815.
Being a mathematics graduate, the one thing I won’t try is fiction – don’t have the necessary skills; you can’t do everything!
To whom will Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister appeal most?
I think there are two groups of readers who will go “Aha!” when they read it. One is free-market economics types, gold standard buffs and the like, and followers of the “Austrian” school. Liverpool was in many respects an Austrian economist 50 years before Carl Menger’s first publication – he understood the business cycle, for example, even though he had seen very few of them. He is the clearest example of trying those economic principles in practice and seeing them work – his adoption of the Gold Standard in 1819 is the most successful move onto gold in history, for example. There are probably more of these potential readers in the U.S. than in Britain, and Liverpool is a better example than any American ones (McKinley and Coolidge are the best) of these principles in action, so even Americans who don’t read much post-Independence British history should find this book interesting.
The other quite separate group who will love it is British Tories, who always found Peel and Disraeli strangely unsatisfying as founders of their movement. By ending the pretence that the Whig Reform Bill changed everything, you have a genuine Tory hero, who achieved far more than Peel or Disraeli and set the country up for the next century.
These two groups of readers would find little to talk about if they met; they have quite different views on life in general (and mostly come from different countries). But they should both find the book appealing. Hopefully it will also appeal to general readers, less ideologically aligned, who like reading history, and enjoy a new slice of history they didn’t know much about, but that is both important and interesting.
What’s your next project?
I’ve started work on a book on the Industrial Revolution. Why did Britain get the Industrial Revolution, and not somewhere else? I believe the most important answer to that is that Britain had better policies then other countries – which obviously culminated in Lord Liverpool’s policies, but had been better at least since the mid-17th century. So I start by looking at the “runners” in 1600 – France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands and Britain – and seeing what advantages they had that might lead them to industrialize, and why they didn’t. Some countries, it’s obvious, and has lessons for us today – Philip II’s Spain (he died in 1598) was the richest and most powerful country in Europe, because of the New World silver shipments, but went bankrupt four times in his 42-year reign because he spent too much money. France was well-run in 1600, under the splendid Henri IV, but went off the rails later. The Holy Roman Empire had all sorts of inefficiencies – 32 customs toll houses on the Rhine and 30 on the Elbe – so even though it contained Germany, full of great engineers, no luck. The Netherlands discovered the power of windmills in the 17th century and used them for all kinds of industrial processes – but they don’t work too well when used to power a railway! And so on.
Long way to go before finishing the project – I’m still at the “needs three hands” stage – but it’s pretty interesting and I hope will have a very interesting result.
What are you currently reading?
Mostly I’m in the reading part of the new book – some fascinating, some less so. My best discovery so far is a new history of the Holy Roman Empire “Heart of Europe” by Peter H. Wilson (©Bellknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2020) which deals with the history thematically rather than chronologically – so you don’t spend the first 200 pages mired in the 9th century! Told me a lot I didn’t know and is very readable. The Empire was state-of-the-art after Maximilian’s reforms in 1495, but it didn’t keep up with the competition thereafter.
My home office is piled with books for the new project currently, so I’m not reading as much as I usually do outside it. But history’s my #1 reading choice anyway mostly, so that’s fine.