Lord Grey and the 1832 Reform Act by Dr E.A. Smith

Summary: The description of Grey as a liberal is questioned. The basis ofGrey's ideas indicates his wish to limit the King's influence by electoral reform but earlier attempts in 1793 and 1797 were defeated. Appointed Prime Minister, and taking the opportunity of a new King and revived popular demand, Grey achieved his long cherished reform.

Interpretations of Charles, Earl Grey

The name of Charles, second Earl Grey (1764-1845), Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, has always been associated with the `Great Reform Act' which his government passed into law in 1832. Since the publication of his biography by G.M. Trevelyan in 1920 he has become known as `Lord Grey of the Reform Bill' and as the man who was largely responsible for taking the first step towards parliamentary democracy in Britain, which was finally achieved in the decade after Trevelyan's book appeared. More recently, however, a different view of Grey's political beliefs and actions has emerged. This modern interpretation appears in the present writer's biography, Lord Grey, 1764-1845, published in 1990, and in Charles Grey, Aristocratic Reformer by John Derry (1992). The modern view of Grey stresses above all his aristocratic conservatism rather than his supposed liberalism. The Greys were an old-established landowning family in Northumberland, who traced their lineage back 400 years, and though Grey's peerage was granted to his father only in 1801, they counted among the untitled aristocracy for centuries before that. Grey was elected to Parliament in 1786 as a young man of 22 and was expected to follow the Tory traditions of his family. What drew him away from those principles and into the Whig party of the day? The Meaning of Whig `Liberty' The answer lies in Grey's headstrong character and his ambition to make a name for himself by attacking the government of the Younger Pitt, together with his growing friendship and admiration for Charles James Fox, the leader of the opposition to Pitt, who was idolised by his friends as the champion of popular liberty against the supposed `tyranny' of King George III. Grey's political ideas were never deeply thought out. They were adopted from his friendships and developed as a result of his long years of opposition in the House of Commons against the alleged revival of the King's political power. The Whigs, as the opponents of George III had come to be called, blamed his influence for keeping them out of office and they were particularly resentful of his victory over their attempt to seize control of the government in 1784. Fox declared that the King's success was gained by the unscrupulous manipulation of parliamentary elections by means of royal patronage and corruption and it became the leading aim of his party to reduce that influence by whatever means they could find. When Fox spoke of `liberty' in this context, he meant not what we know as democracy, or equal political rights for all classes in society, but the restriction of the power of the Crown over Parliament. Parliament was not, however, to be accountable to the people as a whole, but it was still to be dominated by the upper classes, the aristocracy and gentry and the richer middle class. Fox and the Whigs looked not to a future of equality for all, but to the past struggles against the Stuart kings in the seventeenth century and their claim to rule without Parliament. They argued that the best safeguard for the liberties of the country was the existence of a powerful ‚lite of this nature, who were not dependent on the favour of the monarch but whose status derived from their independent wealth and property - their `stake in the country'. Their control of Parliament would check the power of the King.

Political Ideas in France and Britain

The difference between this attitude and the idea of democracy was brought into the open after 1789, the year of the outbreak of the French Revolution. At first, many Englishmen, and indeed many Whigs, thought that the French were seeking to establish in their country a political system modelled on Britain. Soon, however, the increasing violence which accompanied the Revolution and the extreme ideas which it promoted about democratic rights aroused alarm among the British governing class. The revolutionary cry of `Liberty, Equality, Fraternity' seemed at first to be an expression of Whig ideas; but when the full meaning of `equality' sank in a reaction began. It seemed to threaten the whole basis of British society and particularly the supremacy and control of the aristocracy. The `liberty' of Robespierre and Danton was not the `liberty' envisaged by the Whigs. Rather, it suggested the sweeping away of social distinctions, the confiscation of private property and the abolition of titles and privilege. When these doctrines appeared in Britain, in the famous pamphlet by Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, all those who had something to lose by their application banded together to put down those `Radicals' who adopted Paine's views. Among those who reacted against the ideas of the French Revolution none was more determined than the members of the Whig party. Within five years, the leading Whig aristocrats had deserted to Pitt and joined his government to uphold the present system. Fox, however, could not bring himself to bury his personal hatred of Pitt and George III, and he became increasingly bitter at what he thought was their attempt to exploit the panic against the possible spread of the revolution to Britain in order to divide his party and strengthen royal power. Grey allowed his admiration for Fox to carry him along with this view and he supported Fox in continuing opposition in Parliament against the war with France, which broke out in 1793, and the measures which Pitt took to intimidate and defeat the Radicals in Britain.

Grey Supports Parliamentary Reform

It was during this period that Grey began his association with the cause of parliamentary reform. In 1792 he took the lead in setting up a club called the Society of the Friends of the People, which in the following spring published a Report on the State of the Representation. This highlighted in detail the abuses, corruption and general inadequacy of the parliamentary electoral system. It showed how the House of Commons was elected by small groups or individual patrons and not by the people at large, and therefore how much reform was needed. Grey was the Parliamentary spokesman of the Society and in 1793 and 1797 he spoke in the House in favour of reform - on both occasions being inevitably defeated by large majorities. Why did Grey take this step, if, as has been argued, his ideas and instincts were derived from his aristocratic background and beliefs?

Why Grey Supported Parliamentary Reform

Two explanations may be offered. One, put forward by Grey himself, was that it was an attempt to restrain the potential violence of a popular uprising for reform, and to channel popular enthusiasm into support for a moderate scheme which was designed, not to put power into the hands of the people, but to destroy the electoral influence of the Crown and the government and so to strengthen the existing constitutional safeguards against royal tyranny. The power of the Crown was still the real target; by reducing royal influence over elections and electoral patrons, reform would make Parliament more representative, and so would restore the proper, traditional balance of the constitution between Crown and Parliament. Grey thus presented reform as a means to restore the old constitution, not to create a new, democratic one. However, there is an alternative, more realistic explanation. The reforms proposed by the Friends of the People would certainly involve more people in parliamentary elections, but they would not set those people free from the influence which their employers, landlords and social superiors in general wielded over them. The eighteenth century was an age in which the `lower orders' or ordinary people were expected to accept the authority of the upper classes. By destroying the influence of the Crown over elections to Parliament, reform would correspondingly increase the influence of these upper classes over the electorate and thus, their power over the government. Grey's reformist doctrines can thus be seen, not as an attempt to set out on the road to democracy, but as a means to strengthen the power of his own class, the aristocracy. In this sense, he was an aristocratic, not a democratic, reformer. As the Whig party was an aristocratic party, reform would also give it a better chance of controlling the House of Commons and therefore the government.

Grey Deposed as Reform Leader

Grey's schemes came to nothing in the immediate future. Reform was too tainted with the fear of a revolution to be acceptable in Britain as long as France remained the national enemy. By the time of the Peace of Amiens, 1802, the reform movement had died or gone underground and become more radical - too radical for Grey himself. He knew that the new leaders of the movement did not share his aim of maintaining aristocratic dominance and he saw them as rivals rather than as allies, threatening his self-appointed leadership of reform. In 1806 Fox died and Grey succeeded him as leader of the Whig party, but during the next 30 years the party repeatedly failed to win power and they were still unable to gain the favour of the King, whether George III or George IV. At the same time, Grey became more hostile to the Radical leaders: `Was there one of them', he asked `with whom you would trust yourself in the dark?' By the late 1820s, Grey was no longer regarded as the liberal statesman of the future, but as a political failure from the past.

The Opportunity to Introduce Reform

Why then was Grey able to pilot the Great Reform Bill through Parliament in 1831-2? His reasons were still the same, but the opportunity which arose in 1830 was new. Public enthusiasm for reform suddenly arose again at the end of the 1820s, partly because the increasingly wealthy and prosperous middle classes were ready to demand a greater share of political influence, partly because the growth of industrial and commercial towns, such as Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham which were not represented by their own members in Parliament, made the existing representative system seem out of date, and partly because another, less extreme, revolution in Paris in 1830 stirred liberal enthusiasm for reform in England. The Tory government, now headed by the Duke of Wellington, however, refused to respond. In November 1830 Wellington even declared in the House of Lords that there was no need for reform because the existing system could not possibly be improved upon. A few days later his government was defeated in the House of Commons and resigned. The new King, William IV, was not hostile towards Grey as his predecessor George IV had been, and he appointed him Prime Minister. Grey, now 66 years of age, accepted the position subject to the condition that he would bring in a Reform Bill. There can be little doubt that Grey was still motivated by the same reasons as in the 1790s in taking this opportunity to achieve reform. As before, he hoped to keep the demand for reform within limits, and not fundamentally to disturb the existing power-structure in society. He recognised, however, that the public demand, now coming from the respectable middle classes as well as from the `lower orders', must be satisfied if revolution was to be avoided. His task, therefore, was to produce a scheme that would satisfy the majority of the reformers, while leaving as much as possible of the old constitution intact.

Grey's Statesmanship and Political Acumen

It was here that Grey showed his talent and his statesmanship. He realised that too sweeping a measure would stand little chance of passing a House of Commons whose members had a vested interest in maintaining the system which had elected them, while too feeble a Bill would not avert the threatened danger of popular revolution. The scheme which emerged steered skilfully between the rocks which threatened his government on either side. The nature of the proposals - that the boroughs with the smallest populations should lose their separate representation, that a uniform qualification for the vote in the borough constituencies should replace the old, haphazard and unequal rights to vote, and that seats should be redistributed to a mixture of the larger manufacturing towns and the larger counties - seemed to offer a more equitable system. They also, as Grey's opponents pointed out, favoured the Whigs and disadvantaged the Tories, who were more strongly represented among the constituencies that lost their members and less strongly supported by the commercial and manufacturing middle classes in the new towns. In this respect, the accusation that the Reform Bill was a scheme to increase the power of the Whigs at the expense of the Tories has some substance, and it is in line with what has been said of Grey's objectives in the 1790s.

Grey and the Passing of the Act

Yet that is not the whole story. In the first place, a more extensive reform would not have passed through Parliament. As it was, the first Reform Bill passed in the House of Commons by only one vote, and a general election had to be held to ensure its passage. Even then, the House of Lords resisted the Bill until, ultimately, Grey was able to persuade a reluctant king to agree to increase the number of Whig peers in order to outvote the Tory opposition. Grey's handling of the King was not the least important contribution he made to the success of the Bill. Secondly, although the Reform Act did not achieve all that the reformers wanted, it satisfied moderate men and it stabilised the political situation for 30 years. Grey himself stressed that his major objective had been to reduce social and political tension and to restore confidence in the government and constitution of the country. In this respect it succeeded beyond all expectation.

How Grey's Reputation Stands Now

The cynical view, that his only motive was to win power for himself and his party, goes too far. As a reformer, Grey had his deficiencies. He was never a democrat and he resisted the idea of popular government. He later remarked that if he had envisaged that the Act would give power to such men as Daniel O'Connell he would never have introduced it. He sought to maintain aristocratic power and to keep the new forces in society which resulted from the industrial revolution under control. Above all, he sought to ensure that change and reform would be granted when they became necessary, willingly and without bloodshed and violence. Opinions differ as to whether failure to pass reform in 1832 would have led to revolution, but it is certain that Grey's success in achieving reform in 1832 restored the stability of the country and set a precedent for peaceful change rather than revolutionary upheaval during the troubled times of the nineteenth century. That Britain was almost the only European country not to suffer revolution after 1832 owes much to Charles, Earl Grey.

Words and concepts to note

acumen: soundness of judgement.

aristocracy: a ruling group defined by birth or social rank, usually hereditary.

conservatism: a political attitude marked by attachment to old or existing institutions or ideas.

constitution: legal framework defining nature and powers of government.

democracy: government founded on popular elections.

institution: an organisation, governed by rules, to undertake part of government.

liberalism: political attitude distinguished by willingness to adopt reform to increase political rights or reform abuses.

patronage: power to make appointments in government, Church, etc.

Radicals: early nineteenth century political group wishing for democratic reform.

revolution: overthrow of government by use of violence.

Questions to consider

How, and how far, did the French Revolution help or hinder electoral reform in Britain?

How far was electoral reform a necessary consequence of economic change and its associated social effects?

How important was the King, William IV, for the achievement of reform in 1832?

Further Reading: M. Brock, The Great Reform Act, Oxford, 1973;

J. Cannon, Parliamentary Reform, 1640-1832, Cambridge, 1973;

J. Derry, Charles Grey, Aristocratic Reformer, Blackwell, 1992;

N. Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel, Longman, 1953;

E.A. Smith, Lord Grey, 1764-1845, Oxford, 1990;

E.A.Smith, Reform or Revolution? A Diary of Reform, 1830-2, Sutton, 1992.

Dr E.A. Smith retired as Reader in History, University of Reading, in 1990.

Apart from the two books cited above, his works include Whig Principles and Party Politics, Manchester, 1975, and A Queen on Trial: the Affair of Queen Caroline, Sutton, 1993.

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