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The laziest prime minister of all time?

LORD MELBOURNE by L G Mitchell, Oxford University Press pounds 25
"Things have come to a pretty pass," Lord Melbourne once declared, "when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life." The remark, in all its Whiggish and sceptical urbanity, encapsulates the tone of Melbourne as he used to be regarded: the nonchalant amateur, the almost foppish dilettante of Lord David Cecil's classic biography, sophisticated, world-weary, an enemy of earnestness and enthusiasm. In a similar spirit he told the young Queen Victoria: "I do not know why there is all this fuss about education. None of the Paget family can read or write and they do very well."

Twenty years ago, Philip Ziegler, one of our most distinguished and prolific biographers, decided to have a go at the traditional view of Melbourne. Far from being "so insouciant, detached and free from ambition", Ziegler argued that in public life Melbourne had been "ambitious, cynical and almost wholly without political principle". Furthermore, Melbourne was not a proper Whig at all, "not even tenuously related" to the great Whig dukes, but a man to whom "purists might even have denied ... the title of gentleman". Ziegler was also less impressed than Cecil by Melbourne's charm, perhaps because he had discovered that one of his subject's rare enthusiasms was flagellation.

In this elegant, scholarly and readable study (marred by a parsimonious print size, which suggests that OUP is promoting the revival of the magnifying glass), Leslie Mitchell emblazons his dissension from Ziegler's views in his first three chapter headings: "A Whig Inheritance", "The Whig Context" and "A Whig Education". Displaying unusual academic restraint, he makes no debating points and does not even refer to his predecessor's work. But as the biographer of Melbourne's mentor, Charles James Fox, he is well placed to present the case for his subject's essential Whiggishness. Even though he wasn't a Cavendish or a Russell, even though he was temperamentally opposed to political reform, even though he later repudiated Fox's views on the French Revolution, Melbourne was still a member - and behaved as such - of the Whig "cousinhood", that clannish elite united since the 17th century by opposition to religious excess and abuse of monarchical power. In the best Whig traditions, he deplored any form of zeal and intolerance: "Tolerance is the only good and just principle and toleration for every opinion that can possibly be formed."

As Prime Minister, Melbourne was a man quite out of sympathy with his time, a lonely survivor of the Regency, or perhaps of an even earlier age. He disliked industrialists, Chartists, the middle classes and railway enthusiasts; he was depressed by young people growing "mad about religion" and thought it "quite refreshing" that his nephew should become a rake. But he had no nostalgia for the threatened Arcadia of the shires. Nature, he thought, was greatly over-rated: the countryside was tedious, a garden was "a dull thing", and the gentry (especially in his own county, Derbyshire) were stupid and boring.

In 1806, at the age of 26, Melbourne (known as William Lamb until his father's death in 1829) became an MP, yet the efforts of three major biographers have failed to reveal any positive reason for his entry into politics. He was seldom interested in issues, he was a terrible parliamentary speaker, and he didn't like facing Parliament because it was "a bore to be badgered". In fact, the whole thing often seemed just a "damned bore". "Nobody should be troublesome," he told Queen Victoria. "They should be made to realise that it is the worst thing there is." Yet politicians, especially his allies, were nearly always troublesome. The only good thing about the Colonies was that he could send out some of his most tiresome colleagues to administer them.

In the event, Melbourne's political rise was delayed for more than 20 years by his frightful marriage to the eccentric and unstable Lady Caroline Ponsonby. His meekness throughout this relationship was unintelligible to the rest of the world, for he remained loyal even as she hurled crockery at his head, impaled his favourite picture on a ladder and embarked on a series of ostentatious affairs which she subsequently wrote up in novels. Melbourne's humiliation was completed by the discovery that his mother was competing sexually with his wife for the favours of Lord Byron and later of Michael Bruce. No wonder that Dr Mitchell calls this marriage "the determining, and possibly deforming, experience of Melbourne's life". And no wonder the poor man never dared commit himself to another woman.

In 1825 Melbourne finally detached himself from his wife (who died shortly afterwards) and two years later took office, first as Chief Secretary to Ireland and then, from 1830 to 1834, as Home Secretary. Contemporary criticism that in the second post he combined indolence with harshness is dismissed by his biographers as unfair. With few resources to deal with rural rioting, his refusal to over-react to rick-burning by hungry people indicated good sense rather than laziness. Later he was demonised for his treatment of the "Tolpuddle Martyrs", but in fact few martyrs have suffered less. Pardoned two years after their sentence of transportation, they returned home to rapture and immortality.

In 1834 and again in 1835 Melbourne became Prime Minister because Lord Grey did not want the post and because his lack of political weight did not make his colleagues jealous. As premier he retained his reputation for idleness, provoking Disraeli's demand that he "cease to saunter over the destinies of a nation, and lounge away an empire". Certainly he gave the impression of being almost permanently comatose, sleeping (and snoring) his way through sermons, City dinners, gatherings of the Privy Council, Cabinet meetings (when he wasn't reading the newspapers) and debates in the House of Lords.

The indolence, as Ziegler rightly pointed out, was largely a pose. When he said it would be a "damned bore" to be Prime Minister, he didn't really mean it. And in fact he worked hard in the post to keep his administration together, struggling with remarkable success to prevent his troublesome ministers from quarrelling and resigning. He was, as Mitchell says, "a brilliant facilitator of politics, creating the circumstances in which others could act". For nearly seven years he remained in the job, sustained by a party system in which the moderates of both sides co-operated to exclude their own extremes: Wellington and Peel helped him stay in power because they did not want to bring the Tory Ultras into government.

Political ambition did not keep Melbourne in politics. Until 1837 he seems to have stuck to the game chiefly as a means of combating boredom, one of the things he most dreaded. But Queen Victoria's accession in that year changed his whole outlook, giving him a sense of purpose, charging him with a mission to act as guide and mentor to the 18-year-old sovereign. Lord Aberdeen observed that he enjoyed more power over a monarch than anyone since Protector Somerset, but Melbourne was motivated far less by power than by love. His main reason for staying in office was the excuse it gave him to see a great deal of the Queen, the first woman he had really loved since Caroline. For some years he was even able to live mainly at Windsor and St James's Palace.

Their relationship of course had to disintegrate. Melbourne lost office and grew old; Victoria married and entered her adult life. He brooded; she tried to forget, or at any rate to distance herself from the father- figure who had steered her so benignly through the first years of her reign. Unfortunately, she even forgot his birthday, causing the old statesman an intense anguish, only marginally attenuated by her remorse. Poor Melbourne, how dismal and inappropriate it was for this wise old Pooh to find himself at the end relegated to the role of Eeyore!