Monday 25 September 2017

Review: Biography: Castlereagh: From Enlightenment To Tyranny by John Bew

Quercus, £25

Best remembered these days for the Belfast barracks named after him, Lord Castlereagh was the most famous -- and most hated -- British statesman of the 19th century.

The son of the Marquis of Londonderry, he was born in 1769. His career took him from the brutal suppression of a bloody rebellion in Ireland to the splendour of Vienna and Paris. He imprisoned his former friends, abolished the Irish parliament, created the biggest British army in history, and redrew the map of Europe. This new biography by John Bew is a wonderful book, in its scope, its scholarship and the magisterial sweep of the narrative. More than simply a biography of Castlereagh, it is a fascinating review of the war against Napoleon and an authoritative assessment of the personalities involved in the Congress of Vienna and the issues they wrestled with in remoulding the face of Europe.

A contemporary obituary of Castlereagh suggested that in order to do justice to the subject, any future biographer would have to interweave the history of Europe for the previous two decades. This John Bew does with style and authority.

Drawing on family correspondence, as well as contemporary writers like Maria Edgeworth, Charles Lever and Lady Morgan, as well as memoirs, archival resources, and a vast range of academic research and comment, he manages to rescue Castlereagh from academic amnesia, and to re-assess his contribution to British and European governance and the evolution of British diplomacy.

In doing so, he manages to humanise a character who has been an ogre to generations of English Radicals and demonised as a monster in the Irish folk-memory.

In rescuing Castlereagh from the vituperation of Shelley, Byron and Thomas Moore, and the contempt of those who dismissed him as illiterate, inarticulate and unfeeling, Bew explores his cultural and intellectual hinterland in New Light thinking and the Scottish Enlightenment.

He virtually re-creates Castlereagh's library, and charts his early association with the radical Presbyterians he later put down, his early commitment to Enlightenment values (never entirely lost) and the sobering effect of direct exposure to The Terror.

Many Irish readers will think that Bew is too kind to his subject, too ready to find excuses for Castlereagh's handling of the threat posed by Tone and the United Irishmen, and the crude brutality with which the rebellion was suppressed. He does not minimise the brutality, but manages to transfer most of the blame to Camden and the military.

What he does make clear is Castlereagh's lifelong commitment to Catholic Emancipation, as a matter of policy, it may be, rather than principle, and his belief that it was a necessary accompaniment to the Act of Union.

The Union, too, is presented as a curb on the oppressive and discriminatory tendencies of the Irish Establishment -- a point made many years ago by Frank MacDermott in his study of Tone. Bew does wipe the false gloss off the romantic nationalist view of the so-called patriot parliament.

Two-thirds of the book concerns Castlereagh's political career in England, his early accession to office, the rivalry with Canning, the animosity of the Whigs, his army reforms and his support for Wellington, his role in the Congress of Vienna and his emergence as the great mediator and fixer of post-war Europe.

Bew's defence of Castlereagh's lack of a coherent political philosophy, that he was too long continually in office, is well taken. Politicians tend to do their thinking when in opposition, in government they have too much to do.

What Bew dos not quite manage to explain is Castlereagh's extreme unpopularity with his contemporaries, which has persisted, but in presenting this re-assessment he has established his own reputation as an academic historian.

This is a book which offers insights not only into its subject, but the nature and practice of diplomacy, statecraft, nationalism and internationalism.

Maurice Hayes

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