On 11 May 1812 a man in a green coat with brass buttons called John Bellingham stood, full of anger at the government, in the lobby of the House of Commons. He had lost substantial sums on trade with Russia. He felt strongly that the government should have offered compensation.
Approaching him was no less a person than the Tory Prime Minister. Spencer Perceval was having all manner of problems, trying to keep his administration together against a background of resignations by senior politicians. Others refused to serve. He had to be his own Chancellor of the Exchequer following six rejections from Parliamentarians he had approached.
Perceval had persisted with the Peninsular War despite all its complications, reversals and costs, against Parliamentary criticism. He was to be vindicated by the eventual victory. He responded to Napoleonâ€™s â€œcontinental systemâ€, blocking British trade with the continent, with Orders in Council restricting trade in retaliation. These measures were unpopular with merchants and bankers, and were, to some, part of the cause of the economic depression that had hit manufacturing employment and sparked Luddite protests. On that fateful day the Prime Minister was walking to a debate on those very Orders in Council, thinking, no doubt, about the arguments he would need to marshall to deal with his critics.
John Bellingham produced a gun and shot the Prime Minister through the heart. He then gave himself up to the officers. He was duly tried and executed.
I am glad to say that no other Prime Minister has ever been murdered, though there have been threats to some of their lives. It was a tragedy that Spencer Perceval was killed in this way, his life cut short at a time when Britainâ€™s fortunes were about to improve, thanks to the progress of our armies in the Napoleonic War. The Prime Minister had successfully put in place the Regency legislation to handle the problem of the Kingâ€™s madness.
About John Redwood
John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.
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