It happened today - May 11, 2016
Remember Spencer Perceval? He died on May 11. In 1812. In this he is not alone. But what is unusual about him is that he’s the only person to have been either solicitor general or attorney general of the UK and subsequently Prime Minister. Oh yeah, and the only British Prime Minister ever assassinated.
One of his successors, Benjamin Disraeli, famously said “Assassination has never changed the history of the world.”. And if it had, the assassination of Spencer Perceval wouldn’t be the key exception. Indeed, even if you sit there during games of Trivial Pursuit thinking “Let it be British Prime Ministers… Let it be British Prime Ministers…” you may not be quite as up on Perceval as on, say, Churchill, Disraeli, Thatcher or one of the Pitts.
Perceval was in fact a follower of William Pitt, though in those happier days of loose party discipline he always called himself a “friend of Mr Pitt” rather than a Tory. And he was PM for the better part of three years.
They were fairly tough years. But it doesn’t mean he was a bad PM. He entered politics late. But he rose quickly, holding the solicitor-general and attorney-general posts in the Addington Ministry and Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons in the Portland Ministry (speaking of PMs you never heard of and neither did I). He ran into considerable trouble with fairly weak parliamentary backing, including the king being bonkers, the economy being a mess and Luddites going about smashing machinery. But he managed to wage war against Napoleon effectively in Spain, and was rallying politically when a disgruntled businessman shot him dead in the lobby of the Commons.
It’s hard to miss a man who you never noticed. But evidently Perceval opposed hunting, gambling and adultery, at least one of which would still be thought admirable today. He also supported abolishing the slave trade. But he opposed Parliamentary reform, something hard to explain today.
Mind you, he had twelve children so I guess he had some hobbies that have retained their popularity. But what’s odd isn’t that somebody murdered a British Prime Minister, given lax security and the amount of violence that has attended other powerful posts there throughout history, including its kings. The odd thing is that Perceval is the only one to suffer such a fate.
It’s also odd by the standards of political assassination that the man who shot him, John Bellingham, seems to have had a thoroughly rational grievance against the government and even against Perceval himself, not one that justifies assassination of course but not something deranged even in the sense of being driven by political fanaticism. It concerned his own arguably shabby treatment by the British government.
It’s a very good thing that Britain has been otherwise free of assassinations of Prime Ministers. As is Canada being so mercifully free of political assassination of any sort that the cases of D’Arcy McGee and Pierre Laporte stand out in our memories.
So it’s hard luck on Perceval that he should have been the exception and not even have become a famous piece of trivia in consequence. But it’s good news for Britain that he was the exception.