Putting the House in Order

The Spectator, May 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Putting the House in Order


Jane Ridley describes the human as well as political, drama of the 1830s, when Britain was on the verge of revolution

Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 by Antonia Fraser Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 318, ISBN 9780297864301 There are times when a major drama in the House of Commons really does change the course of British history. The period 1974-79, dramatised in the play This House, was one such. The crisis over the Great Reform Bill was another. Not so long ago, every schoolboy knew that the 1832 Reform Act gave the vote to the middle classes. Nowadays, thanks to the collapse of history teaching, very few schoolboys or girls know anything about it at all. Antonia Fraser has written a compelling and timely book on this almost forgotten political battle.

The story begins with the election of 1830, which was called because of the accession of King William IV. The Tories, who had been in power for virtually 60 years, scraped in with a flaky majority. The Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, declared in the House of Lords that he was utterly opposed to any reform of parliament.

Wellington, as Fraser writes, suffered from 'the isolation which haunts the very grand'. He was a poor speaker, and he badly misjudged the public mood, which strongly supported reform. His government fell.

The mob took to the streets, and Wellington ordered armed men to defend the windows of Apsley House. The Whigs, who had been out of power for so long that they seemed condemned to permanent opposition, took office. Lord Grey formed a minority government, pledged to the reform of parliament.

Academic historians have analysed the comp lex it ies of the unreformed voting system, with its rotten boroughs and medieval franchises. Fraser wastes no time going down rotten burrows (as 1066 and All That described them), but cuts straight to the chase of the parliamentary drama. And what a drama it was.

The hero of this book is the Whig Prime Minister Lord Grey - who is usually portrayed (at least in middle age, after his scandalous affair with Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire) as rather an old stick. Fraser brings him to life as no one has done before.

A lifelong advocate of the reform of parliament, Grey was a tall, elegant 66-yearold with a splendidly domed bald forehead.

He groaned when he was forced to uproot himself from his beloved Howick in Northumberland and trundle down to London by coach. But this was a pretence; he knew that Wellington's fall gave him the chance he was waiting for. Like an old war horse scenting battle, he was energised by the crisis.

His government was one of the most aristocratic and nepotistic ever formed.

Grey gave office to one son, three sons-inlaw and two brothers-in-law, not to mention numerous cousins. But these Whig toffs proved to be unexpectedly effective reformers.

One son-in-law, 'Radical Jack' Lambton, Earl of Durham, was put in charge of the committee of four which drafted the Reform Bill. Spectacularly handsome but emotionally volatile, Durham was a spoilt, coal-rich posh boy. During the crisis his beautiful 13-year-old son - immortalised by Sir Thomas Lawrence in the painting of 'The Red Boy' - was slowly dying from consumption, and this made Durham mad with grief, and even more foul-tempered than usual. But, as Fraser says, his title 'Radical Jack' was well-earned, as it was his sulking and goading in Cabinet which kept Grey on course for reform. …

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