Wednesday, 25 September 2019
George Canning and Boris Johnson
People are drawing comparisons between George Canning and Boris Johnson, partly because of the possibility that Johnson will displace Canning as the country's shortest serving prime minister. (See for example the front page of today's Daily Mirror.) There are other points of similarity. Both made a name for themselves as schoolboys at Eton, for example. In parliament Canning was highly controversial and divisive, ferociously ambitious, an outsider who disrupted his own party. A dissimilarity is that Canning was extremely hard-working, which is sometimes said not to be Mr Johnson's forté.
Perhaps the strongest similarity is their knack of giving offence. Canning's most egregious example was in 1818 when he was defending the oppressive government of which he was a member against a charge of mistreating an elderly political prisoner called William Ogden, who alleged that due to rough handling he had suffered a rupture. Canning replied that Ogden had long suffered from a hernia, and should be grateful for having a truss fitted at public expense. This defence might have done the government some good if Canning had managed to resist the temptation to raise an easy laugh by referring to 'the revered and ruptured Ogden'.
This jibe, described by Hazlitt as 'profligate alliteration', was deeply resented by the radicals, providing ammunition for Canning's enemies for the rest of his career. So far as I know he never apologised; indeed he challenged one of Ogden's supporters to a duel.
Mary Ann seldom raised political issues in her correspondence with George. When she did it was usually to express interest or concern over his career. She was, for example, worried by press reports of his challenge following the Ogden speech. When she went further and alluded to policy issues it is clear that she was more sympathetic than George towards the poor and discontented, and closer to the radical beliefs that he himself had espoused as a young man. She would describe scenes of hunger, and raise the problem of hoarding by farmers and merchants, and he would reply with bland assurances that a good harvest would set everything right, and that the discontent was being whipped up by unscrupulous agitators. She believed he was biding his time, and that eventually he would fulfil his destiny, solve all the intractable problems of the day and emerge as the saviour of his country. It could never have happened quite like that, but Canning died before he had a chance to prove himself in power.