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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