Modern

On this Day: 22 November 1830: The Formation of Earl Grey's Government

Our fourth specially commissioned article for Parliament Week. To find out more, visit www.parliamentweek.org

On 22 November 1830 the 2nd Earl Grey, remembered today for his tea blend as well as his Whig politics, took office as prime minister. Best known for the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, Grey’s government is widely credited with setting Britain on the so-called ‘road to democracy’. There can be little doubt that the timing of this concession to popular feeling was pivotal in Britain’s political development. By extending the franchise and redistributing parliamentary seats, at a time of unprecedented social and economic unrest, Grey’s ministry was able to restore faith in the parliamentary system and re-legitimise the role and authority of the House of Commons. Mass political protests still took place, such as the campaign waged by the Chartists. But in striking contrast with most other European states, Britain avoided revolution and was able to develop its political institutions peacefully, much to the envy of many Continental observers.

This impressive legacy has understandably played a large part in shaping our modern view of both Lord Grey and his reforming coalition of 1830-34. At the time, however, things would have looked rather different. In some ways, Grey’s ministry was in fact almost the anti-thesis of the democratic heritage with which it has become associated.

Not only was it an extremely aristocratic government even by the standards of the time – one Tory famously denounced it as the ‘most aristocratic administration that ever was formed’ ­– but it was also incredibly nepotistic in its composition. All but one of the 13 cabinet members were either in the House of Lords or heirs to a peerage (for example, Grey's Chancellor and leader of the House of Commons was John Spencer, Viscount Althorp, who later became the 3rd Earl Spencer) while the lower ranks included vast numbers of Grey’s own family (for example. Grey's son Henry Grey, Viscount Howick was under-secretary of state for war and the colonies). Radical and reforming groups had long been demanding the abolition of tax-payer funded sinecures as part of their campaign against ‘Old Corruption’. The irony of Grey’s own relatives being appointed to lucrative posts collectively worth at least £20,000 a year was not lost on critics and cartoonists. One satirical print famously depicted Grey as a tom cat that had caught a fish (the premiership), with an enormous tail listing the government salaries of all his relatives.

The manner in which Grey achieved office was also far from democratic, at least in the modern sense. Like most governments of the period, Grey’s ministry did not assume power as the direct result of winning a popular mandate in a general election, but instead was formed on the back of factional manoeuvrings within Westminster. In 1829 the previous government led by the Duke of Wellington had controversially lifted the restrictions on Catholics holding public office, upsetting many Protestant Ultra Tories and making him reliant on moderate Whig support. It was Wellington’s ill-judged declaration against any parliamentary reform, some three months after the 1830 general election, which alienated this group and made it impossible for him to carry on.

Grey’s ministr