Charles James Fox: what was his legacy?

At the spring 2006 Liberal Democrat conference I took part in a fringe meeting on Charles James Fox, a report of which appeared in the Journal of Liberal History Issue 52. Here are my speech notes.

As this meeting is happening the day after the Liberal Democrats have elected a new leader to replace Charles Kennedy, it is perhaps worth starting with some thoughts on what lessons there are to draw from Fox’s life for the present times.

First, let’s recap the position Charles was in. Leader of a party of 50 plus MPs, opposed to a controversial foreign war, standing up for civil liberties at home and dogged by accusations of being a dilettante and a man with a drinking problem.

As you can see, the situation Charles … James Fox was in was rather similar to modern times.

But what legacy did he leave behind either for liberalism or for the Whig party – particularly bearing in mind that the Whigs were such an essential ingredient in the later formation of the Liberal party?

To begin looking at his legacy with his death – Fox’s death, on 13 September 1806, occurred just a few months after he had taken up the office of Foreign Secretary. Now, it had been a quarter of a century prior to that that he had previously served in office. So truly tragic timing you would have thought – struggling to regain office for a quarter of a century, only to die a few short months after finally doing so.

Yet whilst other leading politicians’ deaths are regularly described as tragic, and trigger what-if hypothesising over the timing of their death, reactions to Fox’s death both then and since have been rather muted in that respect. Speculations over what-if he hadn’t died don’t make it into the hypothetical history publications and his death didn’t trigger the sort of public upsurge of emotion and statues that Peel’s demise did for example.

In part this muted response to Fox’s death was due to its timing and also the circumstances in which he had regained office.

He had only regained office because of another death – that shortly before his own of the Conservative Pitt the Younger, a man who regularly bettered Fox in their political duels, and who had served for many years as Prime Minister – a post Fox himself never achieved.

In addition, the government Fox was serving in at the time of his death was seen as a rather unlikely and broad coalition; its nickname – “the Ministry of All the Talents” was not a wholly positive description – and therefore had Fox not died, surely he would have been out of office again soon enough (as indeed that ministry was soon enough– and the Whigs amongst them were to see only the rarest flicker of hope of office for another twenty-odd years afterwards).

So it’s not as if Fox’s death cut him off from a long term of office or in the midst of a successful political prime.

Indeed, a negative picture of Fox’s career and legacy is easy to draw. Although the first acknowledged “leader of the opposition” when he squared up to Pitt, the Tory Prime Minister, in Parliament it was not much of an opposition most of the time.

Leading a rump of 50 or so MPs for many years may, in a three or four party system, be a respectable return but in a two party system (with a House of Commons roughly the same size as the current one) it is rather less so.

The Whigs themselves were in this period, from the 1780s through into the nineteenth century, frequently deeply factionalised, with some factions joining the Tories in supporting the government and it was not a united group by any means that ended up serving briefly in the Ministry of All Talents.

So not only did Fox not leave the Whigs in prosperous political shape, but it was not even as if – Neil Kinnock like – he had clearly put them on the road to political recovery for a successor to finish the job.

There had not been any particular sustained growth in the numbers of MPs under Fox’s leadership in those long lean years out of power. The numbers came and went as factional boundaries shifted and factions shifted around in their support, but one cannot see a picture of any united growing hard core of MPs building up under Fox’s leadership. And for many years after his death they were out of office – except for those who decided to join in supporting a Tory Prime Minister.

So if he didn’t leave a legacy of Whig political power and success, what about the man and his beliefs?

Fox was born into the political establishment to a mother who was the great-granddaughter of Charles II and a father who had served country’s first prime minister – Walpole – for many years. From an early age he mixed an aptitude for hard work with bouts of dissolute behaviour and extravagant gambling.

Despite being technically under-age when he stood for Parliament in 1768 (which is a polite way of saying he broke the law), he was elected and initially supported many conservative, even reactionary, causes, most notably opposing press freedom.

However, he opposed press freedom on the basis of protecting Parliament’s supremacy – its power and status, and this could cut both ways. He believed Parliament should be both dominant and free. Early in his political career that led him into reactionary positions – opposing press freedoms. But latter in his career, in different circumstances, his emphasis was much more liberal, it being about protecting Parliament from other forces – such as the King’s power.

Fox was radicalised by both the Royal Marriage Bill and the American War of Independence. On the former he first came into conflict with the monarchy, believing it wrong to legislate to restrict the right of the King’s children to marry. On the latter, his belief in Parliament’s supremacy brought him into further conflict with the King and increasingly to believe in the need for radical reform to trim monarchical power whilst strengthening and invigorating Parliament.

By the late 1770s he was persistently one of the most radical Whigs, holding beliefs a modern liberal would recognise – that power stems from the people, that government could be improved by large-scale reform and an optimistic belief in reform producing progress.

During the 1780s Fox served in government, including a spell as Foreign Secretary under Rockingham, and a notorious coalition with his former adversary but fellow opponent of the monarch, Lord North. This was not a success – they were out-manoeuvred by the King and his young new favourite, Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minster and turned a minority administration into one commanding a comfortable majority. There then followed the long decades out of office for Fox.

In those years, war and civil liberties were important political issues. The revolution in France occurred at this time and quickly moved to extreme violence, producing very polarised responses in Britain. There were those who had opposed the revolution from the start. Then there were those who, whilst initially welcoming the overthrow of a despotic monarchy, were scared off by the subsequent violence and extremism and they too became increasingly opposed to any sniff of reform in Britain. Only a small group of Parliamentarians (albeit arguably with rather more support amongst the country as a whole) were willing to argue for reform – such as reductions in the King’s power and electoral reform to give more people the vote – even in the face of what had happened in France.

Fox was one such person and he regularly led the Parliamentary opposition to the government’s repressive measures, brought in in the name of securing the country against violence. Sound familiar?

The alleged threats at the time were those of revolutionary plotters, perhaps with French backing or aid. The evidence as to how numerous or how much of a danger the plotters every really were is unclear, and has been a source of much debate amongst historians. In public, Fox and his supporters flirted with support some of the radicals. Unclear is quite what the links were between Fox, his supporters and some of the more extreme people. The deliberate destruction of some key private papers of his supporters certainly hints at some connections it was latter decided it was best to draw a veil over.

Prime Minister Pitt himself had no doubt about the threats of revolution and took a hard line, frequently curbing civil liberties. One such occasion was April 1794 when his government moved to suspend Habeas Corpus, effectively permitting imprisonment without trial.

During the debate in Parliament he claimed there were groups plotting a “whole system of insurrection … under which the weak and ignorant, who are most susceptible of impression from such barren abstract positions, were attempted to be seduced to overturn government, law, property, security, religion, order, and every thing value in this country.”

Fox made one of his most famous speeches in opposition to the proposal. He was one of the leading orators of his generation – which is part of the answer to his contemporary prominence despite the issues over his legacy I have mentioned so far. As an orator the force of his speeches was based more on clear arguments and nimble debate rather than original thought, great eloquence or rhetoric. The impact of his speeches made him a significant figure in Parliament at a time when it highly valued the quality of speeches, but his style means he left behind few oratorical flights to catch future imaginations.

But this should not understate the importance of his stance at the time – that is, his willingness and ability to find the phrases and formulations to eloquently make the case for civil liberties and to argue that measures proposed in the name of protecting liberty and the British constitution in fact threatened both.

This belief of Fox’s in liberty being in itself something to be valued and that encroachment on it ran grave risks of encouraging yet further, even more damaging, encroachments is – as we know – a persistent feature of liberal thought. It was moreover one of the few beliefs that kept a changing cast of opposition politicians together during this period.

For Fox, the correct response to trouble was toleration and liberalism rather than repression and crackdowns. He believed the latter were more likely to trigger revolution than the former. In addition, he believed in was important to restrain the power of the monarchy, not just because of any monarch’s potentially despotic tendencies but also because financial waste and corruption could too easily follow.

In his speech on suspending Habeas Corpus, Fox warned of the “despotism of monarchy” and that “we were to be put under the dominion of wild passion, and when our pretended alarms were to be made the pretexts for destroying the first principles of the very system which we affected to revere.”

Fox lost the vote at the end of the debate by 183 votes to 33 – a crushing but not unusual defeat in those years.

His defences of civil liberties were frequently based on a desire to protect the British constitution, including the supremacy of Parliament. This also meant he was not an enthusiast for democracy in the modern meaning of the term and he opposed more radical democracy notions such as those in Tom Paine’s Rights of Man – believing they would weaken Parliament by giving too much power to the public.

As a result, other radicals of the time like Cobbett were often suspicious of Fox, even though Tories tended to try to pigeonhole him and the radicals all together as untrustworthy and unsound.

His major contributions in these disputes were not an original thinker, but as a leader and an orator. His success as a leader is highly debatable – he never became Prime Minister, his band of followers in the Commons was frequently very small and he did not have any sustained success in uniting the various Whig factions – but he did ensure that the case to defend civil liberties, support moderate reform and restrict the monarchy’s powers was consistently argued.

His attacks on alleged misuse of public money, demands for cuts in the Civil List and support for reforms such as annual Parliament also brought him a popular following outside Parliament from time to time. This was though never central to Fox’s career as he saw Parliament as the dominant political stage.

Indeed, politics itself was only ever part of his life. He enjoyed the good life hugely too – gambling and drinking to wild excess frequently. He was not an outsider to the ruling class, even if he only rarely held political office and was a flamboyant playboy. There is a trace in his character of that instinctive contrariness – the desire to be different just for the sake of being different – the instinctive seeking for the opposite view to that held by the incumbent majority – sometimes for principled reasons, sometimes just for the fun and the hell of it – that was and is a feature of so many Liberal politicians and activists through this years. If you think of a liberal as someone who, finding themselves in a minority of one, is not put off but rather rubs their hands with glee and thinks “what fun”, then he was one of those.

Though his gambling made him a somewhat disreputable figure in the eyes of many, he was also a loveable character and indeed principled, standing by his views rather than desperately seeking power and the money that could come with it, even when his large gambling debts would have tempted many others into going for the money.

Even the apparent utterly cynical power-seeking coalition with North earlier in his career was motivated largely by a shared hostility to the monarch.

He left the Whigs with a clear legacy in favour of civil liberties. This was to become a defining feature of the Liberal Party when it emerged latter in the nineteenth century.

Indeed, increasingly during his life Fox became associated with views that modern liberals would recognise – belief in power stemming from the people, desire for wide-ranging reform, strong preference for peace rather than war and an optimistic belief in progress through appropriate policies.

On two other matters he had an impact. His eloquent arguing of the case against slavery almost certainly had a significant impact in helping to reduce its extent and impact. And given the huge amount of human misery slavery brought, one should not under-estimate the total real day-to-day impact of even small victories in the fight against slavery.

The other matter – perhaps one dear to any leaflet writers in the rooms – is libel. He secured the passage of the Libel Act, which restore significant powers to juries to determine what was or was not libelous.

So what in summary can one say? He was greatly liked as a human being by many of his political contemporaries. He was charming, lively, quick witted, funny, good company (if one didn’t worry about being corrupted in drunkenness or gambling).

He argued causes which were latter to be seen as progressive and correct – even if he secured only limited support at the time for many of them. In the end, he ended up a champion of press freedom, a supporter of Parliamentary freedoms, a supporter of religious freedom, an opponent of despotic regal powers and an advocate of personal liberty. Great causes – though not ones he had huge success in espousing in his lifetime.

But then, liberals frequently know all about arguing valiant causes and being in the minority when the votes are counted.

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