Charles Grey, second Earl Grey, Viscount Howick and Baron Grey, was the Prime Minister who oversaw the Great Reform Act of 1832, which overhauled the country’s parliamentary electoral system and was the culmination of two years of intense political crisis.
Born on 13 March 1764, at Fallodon in Northumberland, his youth was spent in a manner similar to that of many other members of Whig families of the time: education at Eton, followed by university (Cambridge, but no degree) and extensive travels in France, Italy and Germany.
He became an MP in 1786, in a by-election for Northumberland. Though many believed he would be a supporter of William Pitt the Younger’s government, his first speech in Parliament was an attack on the government for its commercial treaty with France. He soon made his mark as a supporter of Charles Fox and the Foxite Whig opposition. His faithful support of Fox’s increasingly radical views led him to break with the political outlook of the rest of his family.
In 1792 an affair with Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, saw the birth of an illegitimate daughter who was eventually passed to his parents to bring up. He married two years later, with Mary Elizabeth, daughter of William Brabazon Ponsonby, becoming his wife. He thereby was brought into the Irish liberal establishment. This strengthened his opposition to the draconian domestic law and order measures introduced during the 1790s as a result of fears of revolution in Britain. Unlike some colleagues, including Fox, he was ready to criticise the leaders of the French Revolution when he saw them as too extreme, but he also gave prominent support to demands for reform such as annual elections and cuts in the monarchy’s civil list. As with many later liberals, he saw failures of government in the 1790s, often military failings in the war with France as necessitating administrative and economic reforms.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century he faded out from national politics, spending increasing amounts of time in Northumberland and realising that his House of Commons career was limited by his father’s acceptance of a peerage. The smallness of the minority that supported his views on measures such as electoral reform and the divisions between more conservative and more radical colleagues also encouraged this distance from politics even though, after Fox’s death, he was the widely supported leader of his party.
In 1806-07 he was briefly First Lord of the Admiralty and then Foreign Secretary in the short-lived ministry of all the talents. It was during this ministry that he successfully moved the motion for the second reading of a bill to abolish the slave trade in the House of Commons, following the bill’s passage through the House of Lords. Shortly afterwards it became law. It was an issue he was to return to as Prime Minister, with the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833.
However, during this earlier period of his life he willingly spent much of his time on other pursuits, and in 1807 wrote of the forthcoming parliamentary session: ‘We shall have the satisfaction of making what are called good divisions, when the more important business of Fox-hunting, etc., does not prevent.’
Events sometimes thrust him back into the political limelight, as when Grey led the opposition to the government’s highly repressive Six Acts following the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. He was also instrumental in skilfully marshalling the opposition to the attempt to legislate for a divorce for George IV from Queen Caroline in 1820. Though the measure got through the Lords (where Grey had sat since his father’s death in 1807), it only did so by 123 to 95 despite the large number of government ministers in the Lords. As a result of this and the level of popular protest, the government dropped the legislation rather than attempt to push it through the Commons.
In the late 1820s Grey drifted back into national politics, with increasing talk of him possibly joining the government. He returned to prominence by opposing Wellington’s administration in 1830, and following the election of that year was the natural leader of the opposition. His track record of radicalism in his younger days, with a relatively quiet more recent past, made him acceptable to a wide spectrum of Whigs and assorted radicals. The fall of Wellington brought him in as Prime Minister, forty-four years after he was first elected an MP – a period which had seen him only briefly in office, during the ministry of all the talents of 1806-07, and had also seen him repeatedly rebuffed in his attempts to introduce electoral reform. Becoming Prime Minister with a mandate to introduce reform was a dramatic break with that barren stretch.
He combined the priority of electoral reform with a tough line against domestic unrest, organised by Melbourne. During the parliamentary struggles over reform, he showed a willingness to do what was necessary to get measures through, including compromising in some areas, but also taking a tough line with opponents when necessary. He saw the middle classes as massing behind demands for some measure of reform and believed that, one way or another, their power would force change, particularly given the economic difficulties then existing and the possible inspiration offered by successful revolutions in France and Belgium. His job was to manage the process in as moderate and safe a way as possible. This meant limited reform but it also meant forcing some form of reform through, and measures that were radical enough to settle the issue.
When the first Reform Bill fell, he did not resign but instead persuaded the King to call an election, won it by a landslide and then brought in a second bill. Only when this was defeated in the Lords, and the King refused to create sufficient extra peers to see it through did he resign. Although the King attempted to find an alternative Prime Minister, the widespread support for some measure of reform, both inside and outside Parliament, made this impossible. Grey returned to office with the King finally agreeing to create any peers necessary. Faced with this threat, the House of Lords backed down, and electoral reform was achieved. The Great Reform Act, as it came to be known, was a major watershed in the political history of Britain, overhauling much of the Parliamentary electoral system. The electoral franchise was simplified and widened, many small old constituencies abolished and seats granted for the first time to the new industrial areas such as Birmingham.
The next two years, until 1834, showed a rather mixed record as the government suffered from splits and personality conflicts, and a lack of a clear programme to drive its actions forward. Grey happily took the opportunity offered by defeats over Irish policy in 1834 to retire from politics. The last eleven years of his life passed quietly; he died at his Northumberland seat, Howick Hall, on 17 July 1845. He is generally believed to have had ten sons and seven daughters (though some accounts give him eleven sons and four daughters); his title passed to his fifth son.
Many radicals were disappointed by his time as Prime Minister, particularly as his first Cabinet was largely composed of relatives and peers. Rather than being a radical, he steered a middle course enough reform to keep the country together and government functioning, but still a long way short of full democracy. As he said in 1831, he was ‘reforming to preserve and not to overthrow’ because ‘the principle of my reform is to prevent the necessity for revolution’. The reforms ushered in by his ministry helped to place the country on a much longer road of gradual and largely peaceful change, which did eventually lead to democracy, though he would not have welcomed this culmination of events.
For biographies, see E. A. Smith, Lord Grey, 1764-1845 (Clarendon, 1990) and J. W. Derry, Charles, Earl Grey: Aristocratic Reformer (Blackwell, 1992).
Mark Pack worked in the Liberal Democrats’ campaigns and elections department. In 1995 he completed a PhD at the University of York on the nineteenth-century English electoral system.