No political reputation has fluctuated, and been disputed, more violently than that of ‘Lord Grey of the Reform Bill’. Soon after his retirement in 1834 the Courier pronounced that no other public man had ‘ever had so great a claim to the gratitude of his country’. Less than two years later an ex-colleague, John Cam Hobhouse, commented: ‘I am surprised how, by mere fluency of speech and arrogance of manner, this really inferior man has contrived to lead a great party, and to connect his name imperishably with the most splendid triumphs of British legislation.’ Seventy years ago the Northumbrian piety of G.M. Trevelyan’s Life evoked comments almost as sharp as Hobhouse’s. ‘When the Almighty wants anything really done,’ Augustine Birrell commented in the Nation, ‘he creates a man or woman foolish enough to believe that, if the thing were done, all would be right with the world.’ ‘Mr Trevelyan,’ said H.W.C. Davis, ‘sees this great whig through a golden haze which softens all asperities, and disguises whatever is irrational in a very complex, rather petulant, and too fastidious personality. Indeed the haze becomes a halo.’
Dr Smith does not deal in haloes. In this fine book he has dispersed the haze and added greatly to our knowledge. His researches establish that, in early life, ‘Grey became a whig by accident, and a reformer by miscalculation.’ Grey possessed no great powers of foresight or reflection. As late as February 1830 he was warning his eldest son not to take up Reform, ‘which will always be opposed by the crown, and on which you cannot rely on the support of the people’. In September 1837 he wrote to his brother-in-law about O’Connell: ‘If I had thought that the result of the Reform Bill was to be the raising of a new Rienzi, and to make his dictatorship and the democracy of the towns paramount to all the other interests of the state, I would have died before I would have proposed it.’
Though not quite so agreeable to read as Trevelyan, Dr Smith is much better at providing clues to the Grey enigma. He would have provided more still had he not bowed to today’s academic conventions whereby telling the whole tale takes second place to displaying scholarly achievement. ‘The story of the passage of the Great Reform Bills has often been told,’ we read, ‘and it is not the intention to repeat it in detail here.’ As a result, the most important episode in Grey’s career is the one which receives the least adequate treatment. The period between George IV’s death in 1830 and the passing of the Reform Act two years later occupies 24 of Dr Smith’s pages, by contrast with 133 of Trevelyan’s. No one could give an adequate account of the Reform struggle from the Prime Minister’s viewpoint within confines so narrow; and in this section Dr Smith exercises no great care. The sentence on Gascoyne’s amendment of April 1831 misstates both date and content. It was a proposal to maintain the numbers, not of the House as a whole, but of the English and Welsh Members. This explains why the Cabinet had to resist it: acceptance would have entailed either abandoning the additional members for Scotland and Ireland, or reversing their plans for reducing the total numbers, and actually sanctioning an increase. The reference to Grey’s second reading speech in October 1831 does not distinguish between opening speech and reply, and is rather misleading. Unlike the reply, the opening speech was not especially powerful, and it was the Government’s failure to dominate the debate which put them at risk of a much heavier defeat than expected.
The solution to the enigma lies in an obvious truth about political leaders: to achieve great success they must possess the particular record and bundle of qualities in demand in their party and country at the time in question. Grey’s credentials as a reformer were not in doubt: his advocacy of Parliamentary Reform stretched back nearly forty years. Yet his aristocratic bearing and attitude reassured those who feared reform: the premier who asked them to surrender their privileges was no leveller. As Harold Macmillan was wont to remark, those asking the diehards to accept change should, if possible, be wearing the Brigade of Guards tie. In Grey’s case, as in some others, one crucial point in his record was negative and fortuitous. He gained from not having joined Canning three years earlier, just as Churchill gained in 1940 from his exclusion from office during the pre-war decade. Both of these lucky exclusions were largely the result of misjudgment: Churchill had been unwise about India, Grey unfair to Canning. What a politician most dislikes at the time occasionally turns out to be an important asset. Grey complained bitterly when his father took a peerage; Lord Robert Cecil (as he then was) thought, when his elder brother’s death made him the heir to the marquessate, that his political career had been marred. Both hated leaving the Commons for the Lords; both benefited from the move. Salisbury would not have made a good Leader of the Commons. It was Grey’s determination to stand by ‘his order’ – an attitude more characteristic of the ‘Second Earl’ than of the holders of older peerages – which nerved the ‘waverer’ peers to vote for the Bill in April 1832.
A politician who foresaw the side-effects of a difficult reform might hesitate to embark on it. That is the truth behind the saying which Birrell cited. If Grey had known more about the Commons in 1831 he would have realised that the Reform Bill would not pass without a general election and many months of agitation. We can see parallels from our own day. The Government were no doubt right to abolish exchange controls in October 1979. Would they have made the move as promptly, however, had they foreseen the struggle for borrowers between banks and building societies, and the consequent spending spree, to which it led? What Chancellor of the Exchequer would have gone ahead had he anticipated that sequence?
Grey’s miscalculations about Reform in the 1790s turned out well in the long run. The same may be true of the 1980s. The young aspirants who have pinned their hopes to the SLD and electoral reform may include the Charles Grey of a great enactment in 2032. According to the polls, nearly half of Britain’s electors think the electoral system ‘unfair’. That was roughly how things stood in 1792 when the impetuous young Grey became a founder-member of the Friends of the People. He came to repent of the move: but in the very long run it was the most felicitous of his errors.