Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Nigel Aston ‘Out of retirement: Lord Lansdowne and opposition politics in the 1790s’

At our last ‘parliaments, politics and people’ seminar, Dr Nigel Aston (University of Leicester) spoke on William Petty, Lord Lansdowne and his role as an opposition politician in the 1790s. He surveyed Lansdowne’s years after his term as Prime Minister (1782-3), which are often glossed over in accounts of his life. Instead of disappearing into the shadows, Dr Aston argued, during these years Lansdowne was a major and active figure in the opposition.

Dr Aston began his paper with a reminder that in the 1780s and early 1790s no-one knew that Pitt the younger would be in office for such a long period; there was a real possibility of Lansdowne regaining office should Pitt’s ministry have fallen. Throughout this period Lansdowne remained dedicated to the principles he tried to establish during his premiership – promoting peace, the continuation of good trading relations and a dislike of party politics.

Whilst Lansdowne kept up a strong network of political contacts and spoke regularly and forcefully in the Lords against the government and the war with France, his ability to oppose Pitt’s government was hampered in several ways. Firstly, he lacked a following in the Commons to speak in his interest. He had a difficult relationship with his eldest son, John Henry Petty, Earl of Wycombe, which meant that his son was often unwilling to act on his father’s behalf. His younger, favoured, son Lord Henry Petty was too young to stand for election. Other supporters also had difficulties: his protégé Sir John Jervis left the commons to further his naval career; his close friend Sir Francis Baring was unable to vocally criticise the government due to his position in the East India Company.

Secondly, the opposition itself was split between the Portland Whigs and the more liberal Foxite Whigs. When the Portland Whigs joined Pitt’s government in 1794 Lansdowne’s position became even more difficult. Lansdowne himself was not fully reconciled with Charles James Fox, despite the best intentions of prominent Whig politicians such as Charles Grey to bring these two Whig grandees together. Finally, as the revolution in France became increasingly violent, arguments against the war came to be seen as increasingly ‘unpatriotic’. Lansdowne finally retired in 1802, when his second son Henry Petty became MP for Calne, Wiltshire. Nonetheless, Aston argued, his career after his term as Prime Minister was ‘exceptionally prominent and important’.

In discussion afterwards, Aston further explored Lansdowne’s politics, including his views on war, the King and religion. A number of questions tried to explore how Lansdowne could have regained office; whether he would have been more likely to have done so if he was in the Commons, if he was more adept at building party support, or even if had lost his ‘bizarre’ affection for the French.

At our next seminar, tonight, Dr David Magliocco (Queen Mary) will give a paper on Samuel Pepys. Do join us if you are in London, but of course our blog will follow…


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