Following the resignation of Liz Truss after 44 days in office, attention has turned to some of the previous figures to hold short tenures as Prime Minister. In 1782 William Petty, 2nd earl of Shelburne, became Premier and oversaw a shaky 266 days at the top, as Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project explores…
Lord Shelburne is not much remembered now as a Prime Minister, even though Benjamin Disraeli had thought him ‘the ablest and most accomplished minister’ of the period. Although a Member of the House of Lords and apparently well-connected, William Petty, 2nd earl of Shelburne, always thought of himself as an outsider. This may in part have been because of his Irishness, but he was also very conscious of his comparatively little formal education (even though he had spent time at Oxford). He did, though, have military experience and was one of few 18th-century premiers to have seen active service in the army.
Shelburne had been returned as an MP before inheriting the peerage but had no time to take his seat before his father’s death. He entered the Lords, thus, without having spent a day in the Commons, which was to present him with some difficulties. He had a tendency to be aloof from Members of the lower chamber, treating them in a way that those who had spent time there may have been less inclined to do. There were other ways in which he revealed less attractive traits. Like many at the time he held deep prejudices against the Scots, once observing to a friend that:
That nation is compos’d of such a sad set of innate, cold-hearted, impudent rogues that I sometimes think it a comfort when you and I shall be able to walk together in the next world… we cannot possibly then have any of them sticking to our skirts…Price Letters, cited in Langford, 328
Two years after inheriting the peerage Shelburne was given his first government job as a member of the Admiralty board and in 1766 he was made one of the secretaries of state in Pitt the Elder’s administration. He remained closely attached to the earl of Chatham, as Pitt became, and was fired by Grafton when he took over in 1768. Shelburne was then confined to opposition for the next 14 years.
On the fall of Lord North in 1782, George III offered Shelburne the premiership, but he turned it down, preferring to take a senior role under Rockingham as secretary of state for home and colonial affairs. Indeed, John Brooke referred to the administration as the ‘Rockingham-Shelburne ministry’. This brought Shelburne into bitter conflict with his political rival, Charles James Fox, the foreign secretary. The two loathed one another: ‘The Fox and Shelburne families… were as hostile and suspicious of each other as only cousins can be’. Both were involved with the negotiations for ending the American war – Fox responsible for overseeing talks with the French, Shelburne with the Americans. Each sent an agent to Paris and the consequent counter-briefings left the whole negotiation in a mess.
Rockingham’s death that summer precipitated a schism between the Whig factions. As Rockingham lay dying the king and Shelburne settled down to discuss a successor administration led by Shelburne. Indeed, the grounds for Fox’s distrust had been a conviction throughout that Shelburne had the king’s ear while the Rockinghamites were excluded. This seemed borne out when, immediately on Rockingham’s death, Shelburne was appointed Prime Minister in his place. This prompted Fox to walk out of the cabinet, taking several of his supporters with him. Although Shelburne did manage to attract support largely made up of the old Chathamites in alliance with Court supporters, the result was, as John Brooke put it, ‘a hotch-potch ministry’. Shelburne lacked weight in the Commons, where he had to rely on the (still very young) Younger Pitt to compete with Fox, North, Edmund Burke and a host of other famous orators. Meanwhile, Shelburne was himself not much liked. Even George III, who had just appointed him ‘never understood him… and never liked him’.
Just how bad things were for Shelburne at the beginning of his ministry was indicated in a speech given by Burke on 9 July – just a week after he had taken office. Burke insisted:
There was no confidence to be put in the Lord at the head of the Treasury: that a perfidy had mingled itself with his Majesty’s councils that must prove fatal to this country, that the interests of the nation were relinquished, that the public was foully, most foully betrayed…Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, iv. 153
Despite all of this, Shelburne’s 8-month tenure as Prime Minister (just 266 days in all) was not without its successes. The American war was concluded, though disputes over details of the peace treaty ultimately brought the government down. Shelburne’s biggest problem, though, was himself. He was terrible at working with other people and in the course of a few months managed to alienate important members of the cabinet. John Cannon suggested that he was over-reliant on his ‘think-tank’ convened at his seat of Bowood House, where he would surround himself with prominent philosophes. To many, Shelburne was simply untrustworthy and he was characterized in contemporary satires as ‘the Jesuit of Berkeley Square’.
By the beginning of 1783 Shelburne’s position had become untenable. In February Fox and North united to bring down Shelburne and restrain the power of the king: ‘The King ought to be treated with all sort of respect and attention… but the appearance of power is all that a King of this country can have’. On 18 February the opposition defeated the government in a division on the peace by 224 votes to 208. The government was defeated again on the 22nd and on the 24th Shelburne resigned.
The king at first refused to accept Fox-North in Shelburne’s place. He offered the premiership to Pitt the Younger, Shelburne’s chancellor of the exchequer, but Pitt turned it down. Negotiations were then opened with Fox and North but the king was so distressed by their terms that he seriously considered abdication rather than see them in government. On 12 March, however, he bowed to the inevitable and invited them to form an administration.
Shelburne never held office again. When Pitt the Younger took over from the much-derided Fox-North coalition in December 1783 there was no place for Shelburne. Instead, he was promoted in the peerage as marquess of Lansdowne. Out of office, he continued to convene meetings at Bowood and Lansdowne House in London, where ideas were bounced around, never to be implemented into policy. He died in the same year as Trafalgar.
Nigel Aston and Clarissa Campbell Orr, eds, An Enlightenment Statesman in Whig Britain: Lord Shelburne in Context, 1737-1805 (Woodbridge, 2011)
John Brooke, George III (London, 1972)
LG Mitchell, Charles James Fox (Oxford, 1992)
The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke: vol. iv, Party, Parliament, and the Dividing of the Whigs 1780-1794, ed. P.J. Marshall and Donald C. Bryant (Oxford, 2015)