Parliaments 1820-1832

Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform

At the beginning of this period Lord Liverpool’s Tory ministry, in place since 1812, faced and survived the popular and parliamentary campaign on behalf of George IV’s estranged wife Caroline (1820-1). Meanwhile the Whig opposition ‘Mountain’ made strenuous attempts to secure economies, retrenchment and reduced taxation (1821-2), backed, in a display of truculence, by some of the government’s traditional country gentlemen supporters seeking a remedy for intensified agricultural distress. But by 1826 the dominant political issue had become that of Catholic emancipation (an open question in an often fractious cabinet), in support of which the Irish Catholic barrister Daniel O’Connell’s revamped Catholic Association provided an organizational infrastructure.

Liverpool’s incapacitating stroke in February 1827 was followed by seven weeks of wrangling, from which the pro-Catholic foreign secretary George Canning emerged as prime minister. His rival Robert Peel, home secretary and leader of the Commons ‘Protestants’, refused to serve under him, as did five other members of the old cabinet and over 30 junior office-holders. Canning was forced to form a coalition ministry with leading conservative Whigs. Canning died in harness in early August 1827: when his feeble successor Goderich, undermined by the squabbles and intrigues of some of his colleagues, lost his nerve and resigned in January 1828, without meeting Parliament  the king turned to the duke of Wellington and Robert Peel who responded to the frightening implications of O’Connell’s victory in the county Clare by-election of June 1828 by announcing their decision to concede emancipation. (Peel’s first instinct was to resign, but the duke persuaded him to stay in and face the music.)

The Catholic emancipation bill split the Tories, many of whom saw it as an act of betrayal.  About three dozen, the Ultras, were permanently alienated from the ministry, and some of them espoused the cause of moderate parliamentary reform, which was back on the political agenda by 1830.

Wellington’s declaration in the Lords in November 1830, against any degree of parliamentary reform, and the government’s defeat in the Commons later that month prompted Wellington and his colleagues to resign immediately rather than risk defeat on a planned opposition motion for reform the following day. The new King, William IV, sent for Lord Grey, who formed an essentially Whig ministry which sponsored parliamentary reform proposals. Presented to an astonished House on 1 Mar. 1831, they were carried at second reading by one vote on 22 Mar., but defeated by eight votes on a Tory wrecking amendment on 19 Apr. 1831.

The king agreed to a dissolution, and the ensuing general election gave the government an overwhelming majority in favour of its reform bills. The reintroduced English bill was steered through the Commons during the summer, but its rejection by the Tory majority in the Lords on 7 Oct. 1831 provoked riots in London, Derby, Nottingham and Bristol. Tory ‘Waverer’ peers negotiated with Grey and Palmerston in an attempt to secure a compromise, and in December Russell introduced a considerably modified English reform bill only for it to be defeated again in committee in the Lords on 13 Apr. 1832.

Grey had previously extracted a promise from the king to create enough Whig peers to force the bill through the Upper House, but William IV now reneged on this: Grey and his colleagues resigned. Wellington agreed to try to form an administration to carry an amended reform bill, but Peel refused to have anything to do with the venture.

With popular revolution in the air in the ‘days of May’, Grey and company were reinstated, and the king agreed to create the necessary peers. To prevent their House from being swamped, the opposition there, at Wellington’s behest, abandoned their resistance, and the Reform bill was passed.