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Charles Grey, proud architect of the Great Reform Act 1832

Posted in Historical articles, History, Institutions, Politics, Royalty on Wednesday, 13 March 2013

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This edited article about British prime ministers originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 191 published on 11 September 1965.

Reform Act, picture, image, illustration

Londoners demonstrated against the Lords’ voting down the Reform Act by C L Doughty

If it can be said of any man that he devoted his life to a single great cause – then it can be said of Charles Grey.

And if ever there was a man who saw his life’s work bear fruit in an atmosphere of high temper – high drama, even – then Charles Grey is that man.

What was this cause for which Charles Grey fought for forty-five years? Nothing less than the reform of Parliament.

The parliamentary situation, at the end of the eighteenth century was such as to make a mockery of democratic procedures. Many of the seats were controlled by the Government. Others could be bought for substantial sums of money. Also, great new centres of population had grown up with the swell of the industrial revolution, but these were not, in the main, represented by Members of Parliament.

Charles Grey set himself to redress these obvious injustices. But, as he began his battle, he had little idea how hard it would be, how long it would take, and in what desperate circumstances it was to reach its climax.

Charles Grey became an M.P. in 1786, when he was only twenty-two, but in spite of this early success, few people would have given a halfpenny for his chances of ever becoming Prime Minister. Tall and good-looking, his eloquence, it was said, excited greater admiration than his judgement or command of temper.

In 1797 Grey put forward his Parliamentary Reform Bill, but it was defeated. Discouraged, he withdrew to the country and for a time paid only infrequent visits to Westminster. Indeed, he seriously considered giving up his political career altogether.

“I feel more and more convinced,” he wrote in 1804, “of my unfitness for a pursuit which I detest, and which I only sigh for an opportunity of abandoning decidedly and forever.”

However, two years later came a change in his fortunes. He was offered and accepted a post in Grenville’s government.

For twelve months, Grey was First Lord of the Admiralty. Then the government collapsed, and the next job that he was to be offered – more than twenty years later – was that of Prime Minister.

It happened in 1830. Wellington’s government was defeated on November 15, and the next day King William sent for Grey, who, by dint of his long service and the elimination of other candidates, was now leader of the Whigs.

Grey took office. He was now sixty-six, an elderly man surrounded by younger faces. His experience of office was small, and in order to bolster himself he brought members of his own family into the government.

As soon as he had taken office, he began to prepare a bill for the reform of Parliament. On Monday, March 21, 1831, it came before the House of Commons for its second reading.

By this time, feelings over the bill were running high. An extreme Tory, Sir Robert Inglis, had that morning raised a privilege issue over a Times article which referred to the bill’s opponents as “the hired lackeys of public delinquents standing up as advocates of the disgraceful service they have embarked on.”

Many M.P.s had publicly pledged either their support or opposition to the bill. In particular, this controversial piece of legislation had already aroused much bitterness among the traditionally-minded Tories.

By now all the arguments for and against the bill had been heard many times. Nevertheless, that first day’s debate continued until 4 a.m. on the Tuesday morning, when M.P.s started shouting for a decision. They crowded into the lobbies, pushing and jostling.

And interest was just as intense outside the Houses of Parliament, where a crowd was waiting, despite the hour. How would the vote go?

In favour of the bill: 302.

And now, how many against?

Suddenly there was an excited shout from an M.P. named Charles Wood: “There’s only 301 against.”

At that hats were flung into the air. M.P.s stamped their feet. There was wild cheering, bursts of clapping. The bill was carried by one vote!

But the drama was not yet over. One vote was not sufficient to get the bill through all its stages. And although the Tories now knew that eventually Grey must succeed, they were still not going to give in until they had to.

The House of Lords threw the bill out when it reached the upper chamber, and this was a signal for rioting to break out all over the country. The people were infuriated. They wanted a properly constructed system of election. They had seen the House of Commons pass the bill – and were in no mood to be thwarted by the House of Lords.

Grey went to the Palace and advised King William that the best course of action would be to dissolve Parliament. The king, who supported Grey in his reform policies, agreed to do so at once.

His flustered servants told him: “But Your Majesty, your carriages are not ready.”

“Then I’ll drive to Westminster in a Hackney carriage, if I have to,” replied the king.

Eventually, in 1832, the new parliament passed the bill, and two years later Grey retired. His career had not, as he had once feared, been entirely in vain.

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