Forgotten Liberal heroes: Earl Grey

Nick Robinson has returned to the radio for a second series of his short portraits of British Prime Ministers and in the list this time is Earl (Charles) Grey, one of the figures I’ve previously highlighted as a forgotten Liberal hero.

Robinson’s piece is history as light entertainment – so it starts off with the connection between Grey and the tea that we now know as Earl Grey and then moves on to his high profile affair before getting stuck into the more serious aspects of his record. But as a quick canter through his life in a style that is illuminating without being academic, it’s a good show.

Cup of teaGrey’s career has many modern echoes – leading his party after years in opposition into power, pushing through a radical political reform program and attacking the sort of personal patronage which he himself had benefited from. Yet he’s all but forgotten.

So if you too have not heard of him or know much about him, a fun way of passing 15 minutes is to listen to the 15 minute show on the iPlayer, which is available until January 1, 2099 (!).

One topic Nick Robinson touches on is how radical, or not, the Great Reform Act really was. This was also one of the subjects of a meeting that I spoke at earlier this year. Whilst I talked about how the current political reforms compare with 1832, the History of Parliament Trust’s Dr Philip Salmon looked at just how great 1832 was. You can listen to that meeting here.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I may point out a discrepency here. Earl Grey was, in fact, a Whig – whilst the Whigs became Liberals, they were NOT the same party. Furthurmore, The Great Reform Act was designed with the singular purpose of gaining more Whig votes, all other reforms being passed afftterwards being unintended by Lord Grey (who described the Act as “The Most Aristocratic Act ever passed by Parliament)

    Now, William Gladstone is a different matter….

  • Patrick Smith 29th Apr '11 - 8:43pm

    I see the motives of Earl Charles Grey were as a constitutional reformer first and as a Whig second but the work that he started in getting rid of the 2 MPs for Old Sarum and gaining MPs for Manchester and Birmingham where ther were none before 1832 surely amount as is stated by Nick Robinson as the `the first steps that made Democracy possible’?

    I suggest the difference between 150 wealthy aristocrat landoweners choosing 307 MPs and giving a vote to 300,000 male householders with £10 or over income was quite a leap forward in 1832..

    The prospect of abolition of slavery that sprang from Grey and funding new schools and bringing down child labour by later passage of Factory Acts must surely be seen as the mind of a Liberal Prime Minister?

  • Great reform act was a regressive measure appeasing electoral reform pressure by giving the vote to a tiny extra portion of the electorate. This was also the man who introduced the workhouse as he disliked the poor taking relief money.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jun '11 - 3:39pm

    There was also an element of rioting. The Duke of Wellington’s windows were broken.

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