There's nothing new in celebrating the death of a Prime Minister. It just hasn't be done for a while...
Not speaking ill of the dead is so old an idea that it may have been about freedom from haunting, rather than good manners. That’s not showing respect, it’s hedging your bets. But the outrage generated by those celebrating Margaret Thatcher’s death might lead you to believe it’s an unprecedented phenomenon. That Thatcher’s children are a new and vile species, insensitive to a grieving family innocently trying to enjoy Radio 1′s Chart Show on a Sunday evening. But, no, there’s nothing new under sun. And hatred of politicians is about as old as, well, politicians.
Perhaps the last time the British public cheered the death of a Prime Minister was 201 years ago, when the PM not only died, he was murdered. Spencer Perceval became the only Prime Minister to be assassinated when a gunman strode into the Houses of Parliament and shot him at close range.As the news spread, a huge crowd gathered in Westminster. Some were in tears, but most were hostile to their rulers in the Palace of Westminster. They hadn’t come to mourn the leader of His Majesty’s Government; they had come to cheer a hero. And their hero was the assassin, John Bellingham. As the mob became more unruly, the City Militia, Horse Guards and Life Guards were sent out to keep order across London. When officers prepared a Hackney coach to take their prisoner to Newgate, they were overwhelmed by people climbing aboard trying to free him. Life Guards beat back the crowd and the attempt at transporting him was abandoned. It was midnight before the crowd died down enough for Bellingham to be moved, escorted by the Dragoon Guards, to Newgate where another crowd had gathered to offer their support for the killer.
One man was arrested for exclaiming: “I will fire my gun tomorrow. I did not think there was an Englishmen left had such a heart. He could not have shot a greater rascal.” OK, it’s not exactly Fuck Da Police, but it’s the sentiment, not the language that’s shocking. While patriotic public meetings were hastily convened to show support for the Perceval family and Prince Regent at what was considered ‘the most atrocious act’ to have disgraced British history, the ‘lower orders’ reaction was quite different. In Nottingham, they celebrated with music, “repeated shouts, the firing of guns, and every species of exaltation,” until the military were called out kick some peasant ass. Posters sprung up around the capital proclaiming “Rescue Bellingham or Die!” The Establishment shat itself and posted 5000 troops to Lambeth as a precaution. Bellingham maintained that his protest was not against Perceval, but against the office of Prime Minister. However, it still widowed a wife and left their 12 children fatherless. Bellingham had reached the end of his tether trying to get a satisfactory response to a series of complaints against the government. In exasperation, he felt his action justified. “I have been guilty on no offence, having only done an act of public justice,” he said. The court did not agree and set his execution for just six days after the murder. In all probability, he was quite insane.
So why was Perceval, a man so revered and admired by all who knew him, so loathed by ordinary people? Basically, they were starving amid economic depression and mass unemployment and blamed his policies for their hardship. Perceval, like Thatcher, was not perceived as sympathetic to the poor. The Industrial Revolution had just kicked off and machines were doing the work of twenty men in the cotton industry. Perceval brought in a law that made frame-breaking (an industrial sabotage of equipment used to make stockings) a capital offence. Children as young as 12 were hanged for that crime. How do you respect authority when you’ve seen a child executed? We were isolated in Europe (sounds familiar). International trade had nosedived as the government refused to deal with anyone who traded with France – including America – costing more jobs. Luddite riots erupted in the North and Midlands and were brutally suppressed by troops. And then there was the unpopular Peninsula War. Lord Byron complained in the House of Lords that we could afford to send thousands of men to aid Portugal but would do nothing to relieve our own starving poor. Men were grabbed off the street and press-ganged to join the Navy. And you thought the 70s were grim.
So, yes, the government was hugely unpopular. An act, even one so brutal as murder, was cheered in some quarters as if at last a blow had been struck for the long suffering peasant. And while Perceval was well thought of by those who knew him as a kind, devout soul and a good father, it was a lunatic assassin who was more highly regarded by the populace. Perceval’s family asked Parliament if they could avoid pageantry and have a quiet family funeral in South-east London, but so many were determined to pay their respects, their request fell on deaf ears. Carriages gathered at Downing Street before eight o’clock. It’s thought the early hour was an attempt to avoid unpleasant scenes with bawdy protestors. The hearse was drawn by six horses, as were the five mourning coaches. Twenty-one private carriages joined them as they proceeded across Westminster Bridge towards the Elephant & Castle and on to St Luke’s Church in Charlton Village, where he was buried. Shops en route closed as a mark of respect and his last journey was lined with shocked, respectful mourners. At Bellingham’s execution, heavy rain kept the crowds down. Carriages were banned, which meant pie and booze sellers were unable to make their customary fortune. Hundreds of special constables gathered around Newgate to ensure order. Most executions were rowdy affairs, but after a few ‘God bless you’s, the crowd fell quiet. “When Bellingham sunk, the most perfect and awful silence prevailed, not even the slightest attempt at a huzza or noise of any kind was made,” said one witness.
Perceval became one of our forgotten Prime Ministers, though he was instrumental in the abolition of slavery and repelling Napoleon (who he thought was foretold in the Bible!). Who knows whether Thatcher will be remembered in 200 years time and if so, for what? What the right considers her achievements, the left considers her vandalism. The Falklands is a mere skirmish in our island’s long history of war. They both came to power at difficult times for the country and both clamped down hard on dissent. Thatcher will at least be remembered for the one achievement no one can argue with – she was our first female Prime Minister, as Perceval was the first to be assassinated. The only difference is we hope Perceval will be our last, regardless of how we felt about Margaret Hilda Thatcher.