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Monday, 23 April 2012

Spencer Perceval


People are always saying “ It was never has bad as this when I was young” to which I often reply “ no, it was probably worse”. I’m always dipping into history and the more I do this the more I understand that nothing has changed over the centurys, only the names and faces are different.

Take for instant the story of Spencer Perceval. The name is unlikely to ring a bell, perhaps the only time the name comes up these days is during a pub quiz when the question is ‘Who was the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated whilst in office? I came across this story recently and even though it took place 200 years ago it wouldn’t be out of place during these life and times.

It was May 1812. Parliament was involved in pushing through sanctions against France as a result of the Napoleonic wars that was damaging British trade with Europe. At the same time the luddite movement was causing riots because workers were unhappy that new machinery was putting skilled workers out of a job. The prime minister was in a hurry to get to a meeting when he was confronted in the lobby by a well built and well dressed man who raised a pistol to his chest and at point blank range shot him through the heart. Perceval was dead in minutes and this swiftly led to panic has it was thought that this murder could have been the start of a general onslaught on Parliament.

Such a response was hardly surprising. Not only was Britain at war, but the Conservative government had also been coming under pressure from two domestic movements. First, A revived radicalism had brought talk of corruption in high places centered around the wealthy and radical MP, Sir Francis Burdett and his calls for political reform and secondly by the Luddism movement, which had spread from Nottingham in 1811 to many other parts of the country. Less than two weeks before Perceval’s death, Luddites had murdered a mill owner in West Yorkshire and public unrest was spreading rapidly.

However Perceval’s Assassin gave himself up with out a struggle and it was soon discovered when questioned that the act of murder was due to a totally separate grievance with the government over an arrest in Russia and wrongful imprisonment and that the government had failed to compensate him properly.

During the trial he denied insanity and was found guilty of murder and executed just 6 days later. The public mistaking the murder as a political act actually gathered to boo the soldiers who took the Assassin away and the Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge later came across some men in a pub drinking a toast to the assassin. Evidence of celebrations after the news of Perceval’s death came from far and wide, at Nottingham the church bells were rung, at Leicester there was a super and song and at Sheffield there were sheep roasted whole.

Six years later it was only luck and his habit of bounding up stairs that saved Palmerston from an attempted assassination by another disappointed petitioner. There are so many recognisable similarities to our present time which is why I have used it. Unpopular government and rumours of corruption in high places and  mass unemplyment and that this is why I chose it as an example

History teaches us that the same problems and conflicts keep repeating themselves and only the names and faces change. Because it is built into our nature to be competitive there will always be conflicts and battles, whether those battles are light hearted such as the ones held last weekend on the the TV programme ‘The Voice' or whether they are fought between rival groups of supporters on the football terraces or  religions, policies or Countries who just don’t see eye to eye, they will always be there. 

No one age is better than another, just the winning sides change. Today is St Georges day and I rejoice in the Knowledge that so far during my life time I have not known conflict on the scale of my fathers and his fathers, my personal feeling about this is that this is due to the courage of the men and women of the first half of last century, I can also rejoice that during my life we have had a settled Monachy in this country and although we often take this for granted I believe the work undertaken by our Queen has made a considerable impact on our stability. I’m glad to be English and I’m glad to serve our Queen and I can but hope that we will come through this present upheaval to make Britain Great once again.

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