The Prime Ministers: The Earl Grey

The Earl Grey, Prime Minister 1830-1834

The Earl Grey, was born Charles Grey on March 13th, 1764, in Northumberland. He was educated, as almost every Prime Minister seems to have been, at either Oxford or Cambridge, in his case the latter. His debating and oratorical skill won him renown, and he entered Parliament as MP for Northumberland in 1786, at the mere age of 22. He became a member of Charles Fox’s Whig group, and therefore spent his early career in opposition to William Pitt the Younger. His famous speaking skills helped him rise to the top of the Whig Party, and he also was an early supporter of Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary electoral reform. The latter would eventually become his main claim to fame as Prime Minister. Grey became First Lord of the Admiralty in Baron Grenville’s Ministry of All the Talents, and when Charles Fox died, also took over as Foreign Secretary. Fox’s death also made him the head of the Whigs. In 1807, Grey’s father died. He succeeded to the title as The Earl Grey, and was elevated to the House of Lords, spending the next 23 years of his life in opposition, the longest single stretch which eventually resulted in a Ministry in history. Grey’s chance finally came in 1830, when the Duke of Wellington’s Tory government resigned over the question of electoral reform. Grey was finally invited to form a government, which became notable for two main achievements. Britain’s electoral system had long been broken, with powerful nobles being able to totally dominate groups of constituencies. These were called  Rotten Boroughs, and aside from this, only the richest men with the most land could vote, to say nothing of the complete lack of non-white and female suffrage. To fix this system, the Earl Grey passed one of the single most important acts in British History: The Great Reform Act 1832. This pivotal act accomplished two things. First, it abolished many of the rotten boroughs, and instead gave seats to the growing cities. Second, it extended the franchise, greatly reducing property qualifications. This democratised British politics considerably, as the small group of the extremely rich lost their stranglehold over Parliament. Grey’s second great achievement was the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. Although the slave trade had been abolished in 1807, the practice itself had remained legal, until the passage of this act, which did as its title suggests and abolished slavery in all British possessions. Grey, who was old and tired after decades of political leadership, retired from public life in 1834, leaving the government to Viscount Melbourne. In his last decade, he privately fulminated against the Irish Nationalist Party and Daniel O’Connor, before dying on July 17th, 1845, at age 79.

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The Earl Grey’s is famous for two things: the Great Reform Act and the abolition of slavery. His ministry accomplished little else of importance, but these two achievements are of obvious immense significance. The Earl Grey has been, in my view, unjustifiably forgotten by history. Most associate his name with a type of tea, but his political accomplishments should afford him far more stature in history than he receives.

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