Only in the imagination of the authors of 1066 and All That was there ever a custom of executing public men 'for being left over from the last reign'. Had such a custom prevailed - and Queen Victoria for one might have wished at times that it had - Henry Brougham would surely have been an obvious candidate. In respect of high office at least, the 'public career' with which Robert Stewart's book is concerned ended in the reign of William IV: but Brougham - who, if he had indeed been decapitated, would surely have walked and above all talked for long enough after the event - lived on until Victoria had reigned for over thirty years. When he died at last in 1868, the Daily Telegraph sounded a Last Post for 'the old drum-major of the army of liberty'; and if there were other less generous memories, time had no doubt softened the bitterness which his by then distant political activities had so frequently generated. As with the white cobra in Kipling's 'The King's Ankus', the fangs had long been harmless, the poison-sacs dried up. Yet Brougham had been a terror and a torment in his time. To Lord Sefton he was 'the Archfiend'; Lady Grey, in a shrewder assessment, identified him with Dryden's Achitophel. No one, it is true, had ever been able to deny his extraordinary abilities, or the almost frenetic energy with which he applied them to the innumerable objects he had in contemplation at any given time. Yet the game was played out, for all practical political purposes, when, in November 1834, he unceremoniously handed back the Great Seal to the King's secretary in a bag, 'as a fishmonger might have sent a salmon for the king's dinner'. Brougham never held public office again.
LRB 20 March 1986 | PDF Download