I wrote this book review of Lord Brougham and the Whig Party by Arthur Aspinall for the Journal of Liberal History, Issue 55. The book was first published in 1927 and republished in the edition reviewed in 2005.
Lawyer, orator, politician and prolific writer of letters, articles, history and even a three volume romance, Henry Brougham was a prominent advocate of Parliamentary reform, a leading opponent of slavery (at least after his early years), helped found London University and was a successful promoter of widespread education.
Brougham’s political career saw him serve as one of the leading Whig politicians in the long years of opposition before 1830, before briefly climaxing in a very high-profile election victory in 1830 in Yorkshire and then a short period as Lord Chancellor before he was retired off. Scornful and outspoken, he was one of the leading political publicists of his day but also frequently untrusted by colleagues.
Understanding the importance and impact of Henry Brougham poses the same problems for historians as London Mayor Ken Livingstone is likely to pose in the future. Both had political careers that contained many years in opposition, their years in power were in relatively peripheral posts and yet their hold on the public imagination and political debate was wholly disproportionate to an otherwise rather limited tally of actual policy achievement.
The detailed treatment of his life in Aspinall’s extensive (480 pages) helps explain the lack of trust Brougham generated as the author frequently recounts Brougham’s switches and flirtations with erstwhile opponents. As Aspinall summaries, “His unwillingness to support all Whig policy unquestioningly, and his occasional support of Tory and Radical policies, led to conflict with his fellow Whigs and was, perhaps, the principal reason he failed to reach even higher political office.”
In his early years he had more Tory than Whig sympathies and toyed with such illiberal causes as support for slavery – even urging cooperation with the French to support slavery – and Aspinall makes a convincing case that had the Tories tried to harness his talents, he might have ended up a Tory. This flirtation with the Tories hindered his desire to be an MP for it meant many Whigs were reluctant to help find him a seat, an important consideration at a time when relatively few seats were open to genuine election and competition.
Even when not flirting with Tories, his favour moved back and forth between traditional Whigs and more radical reformers, leading Ricardo to say of him, “A man who wishes to obtain a lasting name should not be a vacillating statesman, too eager for immediate applause.”
His eloquence and hard-work, and his skill at attacking the Tories in public debate, earned him over the years more support from his fellow Whigs, though often it was only granted grudgingly and it was frequently undermined by over-zealous and self-defeating attacks on poorly chosen opponents in his speeches.
Without these lapses in judgement, “Blundering Brougham” – as he was sometimes known – might well have become the leader of the Whigs in the House of Commons, and as a result had a more senior role in the 1830 Grey Whig government. As it was, when power came he was out-manoeuvred into a Cabinet backwater – being made Lord Chancellor, so that his mercurial talents could not be deployed against the government, but without him gaining much power. He used his time in post to introduce some important legal reforms, but his political career fizzled out and when he lost the post a few years latter he then had a long period in retirement.
Given the date of Aspinall’s book it is no surprise that it follows the tradition picture of Brougham as a highly talented and somewhat mercurial person whose contribution to the Whigs, whilst positive, was limited by the lack of trust and teamwork. In this (and really only this) respect the book has dated somewhat, with the more recent The Whig Revival (2005) by William Hay emphasising his positive contribution in building the party around the country. Aspinall touches on Brougham’s belief in the importance of extra-Parliamentary pressure, but does not give his achievements in this area anywhere near the same weight as Hay.
Although Aspinall explicitly decries any notion of his book being a biography of Brougham, writing instead that it is an account of his career as a politician, Brougham the person – the bombastic, outspoken, self-confident Brougham – comes through clearly in what is a clearly written and enjoyable read.
And for book lovers, the good news is that the book itself has traditional good production qualities, with a decent spine, good paper, meaningful index and, if not footnotes on each page, at least chapter endnotes.
If you like this, you might also be interested in The Wicked Lord Lyttelton.
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