Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die
Today marks the two hundredth anniversary of a unique event in British history: the assassination of a prime minister. At a quarter past five in the afternoon on 11 May 1812, Spencer Perceval, First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, was shot from close range by John Bellingham, a spurned and ruined merchant, in the lobby of the House of Commons.
Four brassy rivets in St Stephen’s Hall mark the spot where Perceval fell, an aptly understated commemoration for one of the most unassuming and decent holders of the nation’s highest political office. Spencer Perceval has since passed largely unnoticed into history, despite having been, according to a new book by Andro Linklater published this week, central to “the war with Napoleon, the fight against the slave trade, the arrival of industrialism and the emergence of a trading pattern driven by market forces.” And few before or since have held such unchallenged sway at the centre of British politics.
Spencer Perceval was “a man whose personal qualities gave offence to no one – whose private life was an example to all – and who, however firm and unbending his principles, yet conducted political conflicts in a way that robbed them of their characteristic bitterness” – so wrote John Stoddard in his Times editorial.
Yet the plot of Andro Linklater’s new book, Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister, centres on the fact that though there may not have been any visible bitterness to Perceval the man, there was a great deal of bitterness felt towards his government. As the public figurehead of that government and embodiment of its policies – especially the abolition of slavery – Perceval took the brunt of that resentment. He did not die merely at the hands of a deranged killer; rather, so we are led to believe, he died at the hands of a cause.
Linklater draws the reader into an imagined criminal investigation, taking them this way and that, dropping clues and hints, inviting guesswork, before revealing the crux of the crime. Inventive history-telling it certainly is, but inventive too is the author’s hypothesis. Far too much of Linklater’s story is based on scarcely substantiated guesswork. For instance, the notion that the lobby hack and government spy Vincent Dowling had passed incriminating information about Bellingham to the Home Office prior to Perceval’s assassination, which had been secreted away and not acted upon. Linklater can offer nothing more tangible than suggesting that “the possibility existed”. The “less innocent” explanations about the Tory MP General Isaac Gascoyne’s peripheral part in the crime are similarly speculative.
The assassination of Spencer Perceval, we are expected to believe, was not the act of a disregarded and deranged individual, but the result of a web of antipathy from merchants – above all from Liverpool, as well as the United States – towards the man whose government had driven them to ruin by outlawing the slave trade. The consequent collapse in Atlantic trade, compounded by the shipping embargoes of the Napoleonic Wars, meant Perceval’s zealous policies, writes Linklater, “were creating the conditions for the first worldwide economic depression of the industrial era”. And Spencer Perceval was held personally to blame.
A tantalising trail of ‘evidence’ is conjured to suggest to the reader that something akin to a Scouse slave trading mafia contributed to the assassination of a British prime minister, and Linklater’s prose certainly creates atmosphere and suspense to boot. But just as you expect him to unveil that killer blow – that exciting cache of undiscovered documents – Linklater lapses repeatedly into historical hearsay. Even the author concedes, when contemplating the identity of John Bellingham’s financial sponsor, that it “is impossible to know”.
Linklater does provide a colourful and detailed account of late Regency politics and the burgeoning business of international trade, while the report of Bellingham’s trial at the Old Bailey is vivid and rousing. This is a lively, if not rollicking, read and hard to put down.
Nonetheless, the title suggests some great and shocking revelation is in the offing; mere speculation, however intelligent and eloquently presented, is conspiracy rather than history. And on the conspiracy theory spectrum, Andro Linklater’s account is more Da Vinci Code than Rosetta Stone. Advantageously timed to coincide with the two hundredth anniversary of Spencer Perceval’s assassination and armed with the publishing arsenal of Bloomsbury, the book will surely do well. So it ought, because it is an enjoyable read. On that level, Linklater’s book is hardly undeserving of praise; and in reminding us of a good man’s life cruelly curtailed, it does British political history, and Spencer Perceval’s memory, something of a service. I just hope that its more meagre conjecture does not become the received understanding of, or the last word on, this beguiling and desperately sad story.