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Wellington's first ministry

By 1830 Wellington's government was slipping into an anti-reform position that left little room for manoeuvre:

  1. most of the Cabinet opposed reform, although Peel was aware of changing opinion.
  2. the Cabinet was dogged by immediate political necessities. They needed to win back the Ultras while at the same time opposing the Whigs' proposals to give the two Retford seats to Birmingham.
  3. Peel became a die-hard with open eyes because of the repercussions of Catholic Emancipation. He had to face sneers about his surrender over Catholic Emancipation and insinuations that he would rat over reform. His real problem was that he was a 'cotton man' mixing uneasily with the aristocracy.
  4. it was hard to take an eighteenth-century PM and Cabinet into the nineteenth century.

The new parliament met on 26 October 1830 although Wellington had struggled to pull a Cabinet together. He tried to bring in Palmerston, a Huskissonite, as a Secretary of State. The negotiations lasted five weeks because Palmerston was in no hurry to make a decision and did not intend to commit himself until parliament met and its complexion was clear. Then he refused to serve with Wellington. Wellington's offer to Palmerston appeared to confirm the rumour that he intended to concede reform, although he and Peel had no such intention. Wellington opposed reform on principle and Peel refused to repeat his reversal over Catholic Emancipation.

Coincidentally, an economic depression that had started in about 1827-8 worsened in 1829-30. This did nothing to help Wellington. Charles Greville, the Whig diarist, noted that

The country gentlemen are ... all of the same story as to the universally prevailing distress and the certainty of things becoming much worse; of the failure of rents all over England, and the necessity of some decisive measures or the prospect of general ruin... It really does appear, from many representations, that a notion prevails of the Duke of Wellington's indifference to the state of the country, and of his disposition to treat the remonstrances and petitions of the people, as well as their interests and feelings, with contempt, which I believe to be most false and unjust. He has an overweening opinion of his own all-sufficiency, and that is his besetting sin, and the one which, if anything does, will overturn his Government; for if he would be less dictatorial and opinionated, and would call to his assistance such talents and information as the crisis demands, he would be universally voted the best man alive to be at the head of the Government. [The Greville Memoirs]

The government believed that the fright caused by the French and Belgian revolutions would bring its supporters back to an anti-reform stance but resistance to reform, not concession, now aroused protest. Many Tories in the Commons felt that although concession to reform might have ill effects in the end, a die-hard line might bring immediate disaster. Wellington's speech on his attitude to reform was nothing short of political suicide. On 2 November 1830, Wellington told the Lords

He had never read or heard of any measure up to the present moment which could in any degree satisfy his mind that the state of the representation could be improved... He was fully convinced that the country possessed at the present moment a legislature which answered all the good purposes of legislation, and this to a greater degree than any legislature ever had answered in any country what ever. He would go further and say, that the legislature and the system of representation possessed the full and entire confidence of the country...

The representation of the people at present contained a large body of the property of the country, in which the landed interest had a preponderating influence. Under these circumstances,... he was not only not prepared to bring forward any measure [of parliamentary reform], but he would at once declare that as far as he was concerned, as long as he held any station in the government of the country, he should always feel it his duty to resist such measures when proposed by others. [Parliamentary Debates, 3rd Series, vol.I, (1830) cols.52-53]

As he sat down, Wellington whispered to Aberdeen, his Foreign Secretary,

"What can I have said which seems to have made so great a disturbance?" to which Aberdeen replied, "You have announced the fall of your government that is all."

Wellington did more for the cause of reform in three minutes than the Whigs had done in a year but he had had to make some sort of declaration. Many Tories would have found it difficult to follow him in a second reversal of policy. Wellington's speech united all reformers and gave the Political Unions the battle cry that they needed. He convinced the reformers that he had to leave office and that reform was likely to pass parliament.

Wellington spoke to the House of Lords and did not even consider his unseen audience. To Wellington, reform, radicalism and revolution were all the same thing. This was a blunder in 1830 when the feeling generally was in favour of reform: in less than two weeks, the Government had been defeated in the Commons and Wellington resigned.


The Swing riots appeared to be revolutionary, although they were not. Tenant farmers gave in to Swing demands and in turn demanded parliamentary reform to reduce taxation. This encouraged the Ultras to demand reform. Provincial merchants and manufacturers were now tired of the landocracy's selfishness and saw parliamentary reform as the demand for abstract rights bringing material benefits:

They were frustrated at the lack of legislation to help trade and industry.

In Britain, opinion for reform had been stimulated by the French and Belgian revolutions, and Wellington's ministry was already discredited among the High Tories because of Catholic Emancipation. When public opinion turned against him, his ministry could not last. On 6 November 1830 the Huskissonites joined the Whigs, and on l5 November 1830 Wellington's government was defeated on the Civil List motion. Wellington had little loyalty left to command in the Commons: Peel was delighted at the defeat: he wanted honourable release from his post as Home Secretary.

On l6 November 1830 Wellington resigned from office. The Edinburgh Review - a Whig periodical - gave its assessment of the events of 1830

The ambitious but short-sighted conduct of the Duke of Wellington ... was consummated by his dissolving the Parliament, and appealing to the country, in the forlorn state in which he and his colleagues had been exhibited during the last session. The results of the general election were fatal to whatever remained of strength in his Cabinet; and all men foresaw that a change must needs be made, either by his at length consenting to share his power with those in whom the country and the Parliament reposed confidence, or by his being driven entirely from office, with his adherents... But what no soothsayer could have foretold, was the extraordinary series of blunders by which the Duke's fall was precipitated. It may very safely be affirmed, that the whole history of administrations in ordinary times ... will be in vain ransacked for any parallel... [vol.52, 1831, p.531]

Earl Grey was asked by William IV to form a ministry. Grey's new government was pledged to parliamentary reform. It was a mainly Whig government but contained several Canningites and one Ultra.

Despite the adverse comments on Wellington's ministry, his friend Mrs Arbuthnot noted the positive events of the ministry:

During the three years of his Government he has relieved the Catholics and the Dissenters, he has cut down the estimates many millions, he has put every possible office down as they become vacant, he has taken off above three millions of taxes, he, in conjunction with Peel, has improved the police, simplified the laws; in short, in three years he has introduced great and substantial reforms and, because he will not play tricks with the Constitution and give more power to the democrats than they ought to have, he is hooted and abused and driven from the helm. [Francis Bamford and the Duke of Wellington (eds.) Mrs Arbuthnot's Diary, vol.2, Macmillan, 1950, p.403]

Reasons for the fall of Wellington's government

Peel's personal ascendancy in the Commons was unrivalled: he saved the Whig government in February 1831 by personal intervention.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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