Tuesday, 29 May 2007

The Accidental PM – from Lincolnshire

(This extract is taken from: The Journal)

'Prosperity' Robinson was a moderniser who formed a government and became a father while in Downing Street… he was challenged by a prickly Cabinet and troubles in Ireland… and he was targeted by direct action demonstrations reminiscent of earlier unrest in France. There resembles end between any latter-day politician and Frederick ‘Prosperity’ Robinson. No landslide leader, he was more the Accidental Prime Minister. Yet he still remains the only Lincolnshire man ever to hold that post.

History has not been kind to Robinson. Go to Nocton today and the local booklet informs you he was perhaps the weakest Premier of all time and his nickname ‘Prosperity’ a mockery of his failings as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Visit Lincolnshire’s libraries or check their catalogues via the Internet and it seems that only one author has attempted a biography, and he was an American in 1966. It is true that some episodes in Robinson’s life seem like a script from TV’s Blackadder. His ‘all-but-crazy wife’ disrupted his career with many bouts of hypochondria but her good points included a hefty inheritance (including Nocton).

He had to buy his first seat in the Commons (Carlow near Dublin) but later supported electoral reform on the grounds that "it would be very advantageous to Birmingham to be represented in Parliament". And if his chaotic premiership did not win him enduring fame, it at least secured him a £3,000 pension and a peerage.

But it was a different story in the dark days of 1809 when the wars against Napoleon were not going well and the young Robinson, a Cambridge graduate and Lincoln’s Inn barrister, now MP for Ripon, earned a junior government post after staunch public support for the Duke of Wellington.

In 1812 Robinson began a rise through the Board of Trade which led him on to the Chancellorship of the Exchequer (1823-27). Here he cut back on more than 300 prohibitive tariffs, made the tax system more efficient, took tentative steps towards freer trade, and promoted Anglo-American co-operation (despite two wars in 40 years).

He helped turn post-war slump into pre-Victorian ‘prosperity’ through a natural optimism and a deep belief in the strength of what people were coming to understand as the ‘British economy’. Personally popular on all sides of the House, with a voice described as having a ‘singing’ quality and turns of phrase later on show as president of the Royal Literary Society, he must have made budget talks entertaining affairs.

For instance, a prediction of rapid economic growth to him was: ‘We have seen the opening of a brilliant dawn, and we may anticipate without hesitation the steady and glowing splendour of a meridian sky.’ Robinson could not have known it, but he was at his peak. Within months, an 1825 version of Black Wednesday plunged many banks and businesses into a credit crisis. His explanations of the inevitability of business cycles and the self-destructive effects of panic were in vain. Many found it easier to blame ‘Prosperity’ for the slump.

Then, as bad luck would have it, Robinson had the best opportunity of his career at the worst possible time. Amid family turmoil and cabinet calamity and still in the shadow of ‘recession’, was asked to form ghost of a government.

Robinson had been rocked by the death of a second child (both buried at Nocton) and the illness of his wife. He was talking of retiring when, in 1827, Prime Minister George canning died and crusty King George IV asked for an effort for the faction-ridden ministry going. For five months the new Premier’s persuasiveness kept a prickly cabinet in being.

The final wobble of the Cabinet was caused by the sinking of the Turkish fleet at Navarinoo Bay late in 1827. It is remembered as the key to Greek independence, but it was a shock to Robinson because the local British commander had gone beyond his brief. The one lighter moment of the premiership was the successful delivery of baby George Samuel at Downing Street on September 3rd 1827 (the baby’s middle name was a reference to the Bible’s Book of Samuel, which told of birth after hope had been abandoned).

If Robinson had been the nonentity portrayed to later generations, his political career would have been over in 1828. Yet for eight of the next 18 years he held further Cabinet posts, helping to modernise the political landscape of Britain.

He voted for Irish election reform (Catholic Emancipation) and was in the cabinets that delivered the Great Reform Act (ending ‘rotten borough’ seats), the abolition of slavery, and the end of the Corn Laws (‘the taxes on food’).

He urged Sir Robert Peel to bring back permanently an emergency wartime money-raiser called the Income Tax. His economic wisdom continued to be valued, as was his businesslike approach to ministerial tasks and his early use – now standard practice – of delegation.

Once again at the Board of Trade, he entrusted tasks to an eager ‘apprentice’ – William Ewart Gladstone. When not busy in Westminster or exercising political influence in lincolnshire from Nocton, Robinson spent time visiting relatives on the family’s Yorkshire estates (including Fountain’s Abbey) or taking the air at Brighton.

With his marriage in 1814, Robinson had acquired family ties that kept the gossips busy. Lady Sarah’s mother had been addicted to card game gambling (once mortgaging the Nocton estate to survive). Her father was the 3rd Earl of Buckinghamshire, a musician and opera conductor and, in his wilder days, father of an illegitimate son at the age of 17. Although he could not inherit, the son grew up on the family estates and in later life became, as Henry Ellis, MP for Boston and candidate for Lincoln. His sponsor was none other than ‘brother in law’ Robinson.

Lady Sarah herself often feared she was dying and was at times erratic in the care of her children. But, despite their problems, the Robinsons were a devoted couple. Nocton was a main family base. Their Downing Street son was educated there and he later continued to improve the Estate while pursuing a political career of his own.

The family’s efforts at Nocton are still very evident today, where their almshouses, school and cottage rows can still be seen. Disaster had struck in July 1834 when a 15-hour blaze destroyed the old hall, taking many of the Robinson papers with it. The village’s new fire engine was unable to save the building.

Robinson’s response was to plan a new hall and, over the next 10 years, an impressive replacement was created at a cost of £50,000. The Robinsons stayed at a remodelled Steard’s House on the estate while the work was going on. The grandest idea of all was a new church, but before he could start it Robinson died from a heart condition and influenza in 1859, aged 76.

Lady Sarah took over the project in his memory and there the church of All Saints stands today. Built from Ancaster stone in the medieval style, it features the couple’s tomb under a marble effigy of the ex-Premier, side-whiskered, in his parliamentary robes, and ‘lying peacefully as if asleep’.

The architect of the church was Sir George Gilbert Scott (whose first work has been St Nicholas’ in Newport, Lincoln). Links between Nocton and Ripon continued to grow. When a Cabinet reshuffle advanced him in the peerage once again in 1833, Robinson took the title of 1st Earl of Ripon.

His son inherited more estates there from his uncle, and a sister church to Nocton was built. Robinson’s son eventually became the 1st Marquess of Ripon. The family’s link with the Nocton estate ended with its sale in 1889. In later times parts of it became a military hospital and a nursing and residential home.

Why was ‘Prosperity’ Robinson’s career dealt with so harshly by history? It seems that, before becoming the Accidental Prime Minister he was already qualified to be the World’s Most Unlikeliest Politician. Part of his popularity among friends and opponents was his honesty in acknowledging both sides of an argument.

He displayed patience and persuasiveness to a fault. One critic said: ‘He tried honestly, but unavailingly, to let wrong die out without daring to call right into existence.’ His very discretion counted against him. Even without the hall fire there would probably have been no memoirs of letters justifying his decisions or rubbishing his rivals.

Another misfortune was to live in an age of political giants – a normal size seemed small by comparison. No political life would be complete without a whiff of scandal, which for Robinson came in1815 when his government post involving the Corn Laws made him a target of French Revolutionary-style public anger over food prices.

Blockading crowds were cleared away from Parliament by troops but some went on to the Robinson home nearby, failing to find him but wrecking windows and railings and terrorising staff. When the demonstrators returned the next day, armed servants and troops were inside, shots rang out and a midshipman and widow died. There were inquests and a trial, but no convictions.

What orders had Robinson given to his servants? Had he helped to arm them? Did he influence the outcome of the case? If Robinson’s circle knew the answers they weren’t saying. And if Robinson did leave any records, they would have been among the ashes of Nocton old hall.

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