Friday, 11 October 2019
There are detectable signs that towards the end of his life George Canning softened in his attitude towards his mother. At the same time his public conduct became fiercer, and his temper was described as 'volcanic'. This resulted in sharp confrontations in parliament, of which the most famous occurred in 1823.
Having begun his parliamentary career by abandoning his radical and reformist beliefs, Canning was always sensitive to charges of inconsistency (a sensitivity which affected his private as well as his public relationships). In 1823 his Whig opponents were angered by his support of the Government's continued blocking of Catholic emancipation. He had always supported the Catholic side, so why had he changed his mind? It was, said Henry Brougham, 'the most incredible specimen of monstrous truckling, for the purpose of obtaining office, that the whole history of political tergiversation could furnish'.
Canning sprang to his feet and committed the unpardonable Parliamentary offence of saying that what Brougham had said was false. There were calls for him to withdraw; he refused. It then took the intervention of several honourable members before the Speaker was able to find a formula that would resolve the dispute and save Canning, the Leader of the House, from being arrested by the Sergeant-at-Arms. Read on the page, the exchange seems like parliamentary theatricality, but at the time it was genuinely alarming. ‘Brougham was going on like a madman, but Canning was much worse in his rage,’ wrote an opposition MP. ‘Canning’s temper is playing the devil with him.’
A solution was eventually found by the Speaker: Brougham agreed that his words had not been intended in a personal sense, which enabled Canning to withdraw his claim that they were false. The two men are said to have met later and laughed heartily at the whole thing.
The incident will ring a bell with readers of The Pickwick Papers. In the first chapter Mr Pickwick alludes to a fellow member, Mr Blotton, in insulting terms, whereupon Mr Blotton calls Mr Pickwick a humbug. He refuses to withdraw the expression, and the Club is in uproar until the Chairman asks him if he had used the expression in its common sense. No, admits Mr Blotton, he only considered Mr Pickwick a humbug 'in a Pickwickian point of view'. This allows Mr Pickwick to admit that his remarks had merely been intended 'to bear a Pickwickian construction'.
For those who think politics should be about more than parliamentary theatre, there are still places available for Sunday's talk on Mary Ann and Mary Wollstonecraft.