22 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 25

Death in the Lobby

Denis Gray. (Man-

WHAT Prime Minister looked like Robespierre, predicted that the world would end in 1926, and wished to make adultery a criminal offence? The question would, one hopes, flummox even Macaulay's schoolboy. Ask instead who was the Only Prime Minister of England to be shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons, and everyone knows the answer. The Hon. Spencer Perceval is chiefly remembered for his deplorable fate. Otherwise .popular opinion would set him in that dim gallery of mediocrities peopled by such forgotten figures as Addington, Grenville, Portland, Goderich and Aberdeen. The verdict is unfair. Although no one would claim Perceval to be a great statesman, he was a more interest- ing character and played a more important part in history than is usually admitted.

Mr. Denis Gray, a former pupil of Sir Lewis Namier, has written a most learned and scholarly biography which goes far towards rehabilitating Perceval. It is based on the family papers and a host of other collections and it is the first study of the subject to be written since the official biography by his grandson, Sir Spencer Walpole, appeared in 1874. A book of nearly 500 pages which devotes 400 to the elucidation of five years of political history is bound to seem formidable, and Mr. Gray's habit of writing in paragraphs of immense length does not ease the reader's task. But the effort is well worth while, for the author has made a most valuable contribution to the history of the great game' during this complicated period.

Perceval, born in 1762, was the seventh son of the second Earl of Egmont. His father pro- cured for the infant Spencer at the age of one the second reversion after his elder brother, Lord Arden, to the valuable sinecure of Registrar to the Court of Admiralty. But he was never to inherit this plum and had to make his own way financially—an arduous task for a man with twelve children. After Harrow, Trinity and— strangely out of character—'a romantic elope- ment, he settled down to a successful career al the Bar, hampered only by his reluctance as a Pious evangelical to see clients on Sundays. He entered the House in 1796. Two years later Pitt, 011 his way to fight a duel with Tierney, told his second that `Mr. Perceval was the most com- petent person' to succeed him if the duel went wrong.

This was• a remarkable judgment. Perceval must have possessed that quality which of all political qualities is most evanescent and difficult for the historian to assess, the knack of corn-

manding the respect of the House of Commons. He also had the advantage of a spotless private life. It is a mistake to think that this only mattered to the Victorians. George Ill's morals were as regular as his granddaughter's. It was as good a thing to be respectable in 1807 as in 1877, although it must be conceded that .a roué would get away with a degree of flagrant profligacy impossible later. Perceval made a curious contrast with some of his colleagues; for instance, the Marquess Wellesley, whose neglect of the Foreign Office for other activities caused even his own brother, Wellington, to con- fess, so Mr. Gray tells us: `I wish that Wellesley was castrated; or that he would, like other people, attend to his business and perform too.'

Before entering the Cabinet in 1807, Perceval was first Solicitor, then Attorney General, the only Prime Minister to have held both these posts. Lawyers, though often successful in poli- tics, seldom climb quite to the top of the greasy pole. Perhaps they are too slippery. But this could never be said of Perceval, whose honesty and integrity were beyond serious challenge. In one respect he had an important advantage over almost every Tory leader since his death (for we must call him Tory, although he never thus de- scribed himself). He was not only a genuine con- servative who believed in conserving everything --or nearly everything--but he was in power when this happened for a short while to be a practical policy. Normally it is a luxury which can only be afforded by those who do not have final responsibility--a Disraeli or .a Salisbury in their. back-bench dayS. Once such men are in office the facts of a changing world compel those pragmatic compromises which in their turn arouse the cry of 'betrayal' from another genera- tion of the right.

But when-. Perceval was Prime Minister England was lighting a major war against the forces that had overturned the European social order- and was, moreover, for the last time in her history able to do so without disrupting her own in the process. And so this diminutive pale- faced figure dressed in black—'little P,' as Lord

Eldon called him--came to embody alike the conservative and the patriotic cause against a factious and seemingly disloyal opposition. When he was murdered by the lunatic Bellingham, Par- liament, in consternation,'voted his widow £2,000 a year for life and his family a grant of £50,000; while radical mobs lit bonfires and danced with glee.

Perceval had as difficult a time as any poll-

tician of his day. As Chancellor of the Ex- chequer and Leader of the House from 1807. he was the mainstay of that chaotic ministry of Pitt's Friends over which the ailing and silent Duke of Portland presided. In 1809 the Duke's health collapsed, and his ministry along with it, in a blaze of recrimination which culminated in the famous duel between Castlereagh and Canning. Mr. Gray threads his way with judicious skill through the story of that complicated im- broglio, the moral of which is that in politics, as in other walks of life, it seldom pays to con- ceal the truth even for the best motives from someone you intend to oust.

Public life during the struggle for national existence was enlivened by a series of scandals which put the events of 1963 well into the shade. There was the Delicate Investigation in 1806 when Perceval, then in opposition, defended the Princess of Wales against the Prince's charge that she had had an illegitimate baby. This was cer- tainly unfounded, but the Princess's mode of life was revealed as highly disreputable.

Then came the Old King's final insanity with all the complications of the Regency Act. For a whole year Perceval, whom the Prince not surprisingly found uncongenial, governed under the perpetual threat of dismissal not the less trying because in the end it never came Yet, in spite of these. difficulties, he struggled on with courage and determination. By the summer of 1812 the tide of war was at last beginning to turn. But for a madman's bullet. Percev.11 would almost certainly have been in power at Waterloo, and perhaps posterity would have seen in him rather than Pitt the pilot who weathered the storm.