Tuesday 19 January 2010

A Great Tactitian

Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, continues to be perceived in rather simplistic terms, as a good soldier and a political reactionary. But as always the picture is much more complex.

In many ways the political career of Wellington is not that different from the military: in both he sought to preserve the existing order of things from dissolution and chaos; but just as a good general knows when to advance and when to retreat, so too does a good politician.

In political terms he was a Tory, by both instinct and conviction, anxious to preserve the old order in both church and state, and deeply suspicious of all suggestions for radical reform. The political divisions in Lord Liverpool's cabinet between the admirers and opponents of George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, placed Wellington firmly on the anti-Canning right. Canning was in favour of Catholic Emancipation and Wellington was against it, because of the dangers this presented to the 'Protestant Ascendancy' in Ireland, of which the Iron Duke was a part. The contest between tradition and reform saw Wellington emerge as the champion of tradition, resigning when Canning emerged as Prime Minister in 1827. In the political confusion that followed Canning's early death Wellington himself became Prime Minister at the beginning of 1828.

Wellington now held all the keys; but unlike a true reactionary he sought to manage change, rather than resist it altogether. This became apparent when the issue of Catholic Emancipation could no longer be set to one side after Daniel O'Connell, a Catholic, won the County Clare by-election in July 1828. With British authority in Ireland in some doubt, the Duke brought an Emancipation Bill before Parliament, though he tried to mitigate the full effects of the measure by raising the property qualifications for voting. He likened the passage of the Emancipation Bill through Parliament to a military campaign, the political equivalent of the Battle of Waterloo. And for this operation none was better placed that the Duke. He persuaded George IV to accept the measure, and he drew on the Parliamentary support of the Whig opposition against the die-hard Tories who refused to fall into line. His notorious indifference to public opinion, usually harmful for any politician, was of distinct benefit; for he simply put the deluge of anti-Catholic petitions to one side.

Later, while in opposition, he was strongly opposed to Whig attempts to extend the franchise in the Reform Bill. But even here pragmatism came before principle. When Earl Grey, the Whig Prime Minister, threatened to push the disputed Bill through the House of Lords, where the Tories were in the majority, by obliging William IV to create a large number of new peers, Wellington withdrew his opposition, rather than have the King face this humiliation.

As the 1830s developed Wellington gave his full support to Robert Peel, now the Tory leader, in his attempts to give the party a more modern face. Peel's Tamworth Manifesto, which saw the beginnings of the modern Conservative party, would never have succeeded but for Wellington's assistance. In the Lords, moreover, Wellington continued to act as a restraining influence to his fellow Tory peers, who sought to oppose every item of Whig legislation, thus further assisting Peel in winning over moderate opinion in the country at large. Later, when Peel became Prime Minister, he was ably assisted by the Duke in the Lords, despite his advancing years. Both men sought to subordinate party interest to the interest of the country as a a whole. Wellington even went so far as to support Peel over the highly-contentious repeal of the Corn laws, though he was personally unconvinced by the economic arguments. It was only by Wellington's influence that the Corn Law Bill made it through the Upper House. He may not have been the greatest statesman in English history, but to the end of his life he preserved all of the qualities that made him a great tactician.


  1. I well recall his portrait on the old £10 notes.

    Here is the only known photograph of this marvellous duke: http://quackdoctor.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/duke_of_wellington_photo.jpg

  2. Yes, I've seen that one; thanks, Rehan