Dead King Watch: William IV
William IV died on 20 June 1837, which makes today the 169th anniversary of his death. The current leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, is a distant relative of William IV, so it might be worth looking at the life of William IV to see if it sheds any light on what sort of man Cameron is...
William was born on 21 August 1765 at Buckingham House, the son of King George III and Queen Charlotte. He had two elder brothers (Prince George, Prince of Wales and Prince Frederick, Duke of York), and so was not expected to inherit the Crown. At the age of thirteen, he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, and aged 15 was present at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent against the Spanish in 1780. He served in New York during the American War of Independence, trying to retain the colony for the British. While the prince was there, George Washington approved a plot to kidnap the prince, writing to congratulate the cunning behind it. "The spirit of enterprise so conspicuous in your plan for surprising in their quarters and bringing off the Prince William Henry and Admiral Digby merits applause, and you have my authority to make the attempt in any manner, and at such a time, as your judgment may direct." The plot sadly did not come to fruition; the British heard of it and doubled the prince's guard.
William became a Lieutenant aged 20 in 1785 and a Captain the following year. In 1786, he was stationed in the West Indies. Horatio Nelson wrote of William, "In his professional line, he is superior to two-thirds, I am sure, of the [Naval] list; and in attention to orders, and respect to his superior officer, I hardly know his equal." What a grovelling sycophant Nelson was. What were the Royal Navy doing in the West Indies at this time, one might be prompted to enquire? Ah yes, overseeing a slave system that saw millions toil and labour to death in order that rich British merchants might profit from the production of sugar.
Duke of Clarence.
Yet while life on the sea was all very well, William did think life would be more comfortable if he could become a Duke and sit around doing nothing back in England. Accordingly, in 1790 he ceased active service in the Navy and became Duke of Clarence. He was promoted to 'Rear-Admiral' upon retirement - presumably because title befitted someone whose preferred position during battles was to sit very far behind the lines of the actual conflict while the poor seamen did all the actual fighting and dying. Yet when the French Revolution developed into a mass popular uprising against privilege, symbolised by the regicide of Louis XVI in January 1793, William's anger against this new dangerous 'democracy' boiled over. When England declared war on revolutionary France in 1793, William was anxious to do his bit for those fighting to restore monarchy and privilege. Yet, despite his position as 'Rear-Admiral' during this war, William decided his military 'talents' - remember Nelson's words 'in his professional line William was superior to two thirds' - could be best employed in the, er, House of Lords. There William Duke of Clarence defended the exorbitant spending of his greedy brother, the Prince of Wales, who had applied to Parliament for a grant for relief of his debts. In Parliament he also spoke in favour of slavery, a system which the English at the time were desperately involved in trying to extend through military force to former French colonies like San Domingo whose slaves had risen up against their oppressors. In 1811, having clearly proved himself worthy of the job through such clearly vital work in Parliament William was appointed Admiral of the Fleet. In 1827 he became Lord High Admiral where he commissioned the first steam warship.
In 1830, aged 64, he became King when George IV died without surviving legitimate issue, and so was the oldest man ever to assume the throne. Unlike his extravagant brother, William was unassuming, discouraging pomp and ceremony. In contrast to George IV, who tended to spend most of his time in Windsor Castle, William was known, especially early in his reign, to walk, unaccompanied, through London or Brighton. He was initially apparently quite popular, probably because those he succeeded had been so bad.
Yet once more, Revolution was in the air in England following a political revolution in France and the English ruling class were in trouble. Parliament at that time very clearly represented only property, not the people at all. One third of MPs represented tiny constituencies of a few rich aristocrats, and one little village in Suffolk had two MPs while some huge growing Northern industrial cities had no political representation at all. In 1832, the rich Whigs realised unless they carried out a reform of this system there would be revolution - which as EP Thompson has shown, there very nearly was. Yet the 'Great' Reform Act of 1832 only gave the vote to men (not women of course) and only if they were rich - so only one in seven adult males got the vote. Nor were the constituencies now of an equal size. Whereas 35 constituencies had less than 300 electors, Liverpool still had a constituency of over 11,000. Yet William never quite got the idea of 'democracy' - and in 1834 when he didn't like the Prime Minister Melbourne he simply got rid of him and replaced him with Sir Robert Peel.
Yet something had changed as a result of the Act - the principle that the people should have some political power had been reaffirmed - even if in practise it was still to be denied. The resulting reduction in the influence of the Crown was clearly indicated by the events of William's reign, especially his dismissal of the Melbourne ministry. During the reign of George III, the King could have dismissed one ministry, appointed another, dissolved Parliament, and expected the people to vote in favour of the new administration. Such was the result of a dissolution in 1784, after the dismissal of the Coalition Ministry; such was the result of a dissolution in 1807, after the dismissal of William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville. But when William IV dismissed the Melbourne ministry, the Tories under Sir Robert Peel were not able to win the ensuing elections. Thus, the King's ability to influence the opinion of the people, and therefore generally dictate national policy, had been reduced. None of William's successors has attempted to remove a ministry and appoint another against the wishes of the people. Then again, the Labour Party have always been so craven in the face of authority and hereditary rule that the rich have never felt their power threatened enough to feel it necessary to use the monarchy in this way.
One nice postscript is that a long arc of heroic slave revolts across the Caribbean following the Haitian Revolution and going on up to 1831 in Jamaica finally succeeded in overthrowing colonial slavery in the 1830s - which hopefully provided such a shock to William IV that it led to his death through cardiac failure in 1837.
Overall, William's life was spent defending the interests of the privileged and looking out for the interests of the British Empire. So quite, quite different from David Cameron's 'modern, compassionate conservatism' then...