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!

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links