Sunday, 13 August 2017

"Delusion" and "sound Conservative feeling" were absolutely convertible terms.

Last Sunday's post came about because Theresa Reviss was rumoured to be the daughter of Charles Buller, whose birthday was on 6th August 1806. (I am on a mailing list of ODNB which sends out a biography of the day, extracted from its database.) Reviss seems to be a Cornish name, and Buller had Cornish connections - he was in turn MP for West Looe, succeeding his father, and, after a break, for Liskeard - so the allegation is plausible. Buller settled money on the infant Theresa and his parents took responsibility for her after his death in 1848, but it could also have been that Buller's brother Arthur was the father.

Buller was an early parliamentary liberal, though in those pre-Gladstonian days he would have been classed as a radical Whig. Indeed, he was one of the first members to use the term "liberal" approvingly in the House of Commons in a speech from which my heading is taken.

"In their hour of victory the Whigs had no motive for changing their name, but a new name had come into existence to denote those members of the party who favoured more radical reforms than the general body. As early as 1816 Southey had written, 'These are the personages for whose sake the continuance of the Alien bill has been opposed by the British Liberales', and in 1826 Scott's Journal referred to 'Canning, Huskisson and a mitigated party of Liberaux'. The Spanish Liberales were a group of reformers at the beginning of the nineteenth century who were in power from 1820 to 1823 and roused general abhorrence by the violence of their opinions and actions. There was a group of French Libéraux with similar aims held in like detestation by men of traditional views. In the second decade of the century the term Liberal cameto be applied by opponents to the advanced section of the Whigs, often in the Spanish or French form, and no doubt with the implication that their views and conduct were un-English; but as the name  was already used in a good sense, those advanced Whigs were not averse from accepting the designation. Like Whig and Tory, the word Liberal* was a term of abuse derived from outside England and intended to be offensive, and like Whig and Tory it was accepted with pride; but unlike Whig and Tory, it had the advantage for those designated by it of bearing a good natural meaning [...]" (Bulmer-Thomas, The Growth of the British Party System)

I was disappointed to find only one name-check for Charles Buller in Bulmer-Thomas's 1965 work, but as the ODNB biographer points out, Buller's ready wit cast him as a lightweight, a reputation which persisted. (One can think of several modern politicians whose work has been undervalued for the same reason.) He had deliberately honed a thespian style in the Commons, one of the first to do so. In addition to his far-sighted liberal views, not all of which were popular in his lifetime, Buller made many contributions as chair and/or report-writer of committees dealing with significant matters such as the storage of public records (eventually leading to the establishment of the Public Record Office), the development of Canada and also of the colonies and the drafting of a constitution for New South Wales (he was of course opposed to transportation). He drafted the charter of the New Zealand Company and acted as their agent and representative in the difficult negotiations with the Colonial Office after 1840. A river and gorge were named after him in the South Island of New Zealand, and his memory was also perpetuated in Australia at Mount Buller in Victoria.

Charles Buller was someone I would have liked to have known, and not just as a fellow-asthmatic. I shall probably be mining his speeches and publications for bons mots from now on.

* Perhaps the fact that the term still is used abusively by conservatives in the USA is because there was never a serious Liberal party in that country.

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