British Prime Ministers: Earl Grey

D.H. Pennington on the man chiefly responsible for passing the Reform Act.

The crisis of 1831-32 in Britain was not quite a revolution. There was no sudden or violent replacement of one ruling class by another: indeed the House of Commons and the Cabinet in 1833 were, if anything, more exclusively composed of the gentry and the aristocracy than in the 1820’s. Nevertheless, the Reform Act marked a decisive stage in the achievement of the parliamentary democracy that in the next hundred years offered to more and more of the British people a share in choosing and influencing their rulers. During the struggle over Reform many of the typical phenomena of nineteenth-century revolutions appeared: urban riots and demonstrations, a brief resistance by the most privileged of the ruling class, and finally, the acceptance by the revolutionaries of a settlement that brought no benefits to them but conceded the demands of a broad middle section of the politically conscious. In France in 1830 and in Germany in 1848, the revolutions were perverted or defeated. The success, within its limits, of 1832 was shaped by two men—Francis Place the tailor, and Charles, second Earl Grey. Place was the organizer who took charge of a popular revolution and imposed on it a restricted political object; in Grey the Whigs had a leader who had been a Reformer in the days when Reform was a gentlemanly eccentricity and who achieved it now as a gentlemanly necessity.

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