Tom Shakespeare

London may have Nelson, but Newcastle has Earl Grey, towering  135 feet above our lovely Georgian streets on the top of his Monument, the column that was erected to him by local citizens to thank him for his long struggle to achieve parliamentary reform.  But today, Earl Grey is more likely to be remembered in terms of the tea named in his honour than the Great Reform Act of 1832, the crowning achievement of his political career.

Why should we care?   Because electoral reform is back on the agenda, and the British constitution is poised on the brink of another period of modernisation.

In 1832, there had been no major political reform since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  Only 600,000 people out of a population of 13.8 million had the vote, in fact they each cast two votes, because every English county sent two MPs, regardless of its size.  So Lancashire, for example  had a population of 1,337,000 people but only 2 MPs, the same number as Rutland, with just 19,000 inhabitants.  In 1831, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield had not a single MP between them.  Meanwhile places like Dunwich, most of which had been eroded by the North Sea, and Old Sarum, a derelict ruin, each returned two members to parliament representing a handful of individuals.    Many boroughs did not even bother holding elections, because they were effectively the property of the great landowners.  In others, the electors were bribed to support the right candidate.  In the era of the “Rotten Borough”, roughly half of Westminster’s MPs were there because a patron had put them there.   In the wake of the French revolution, the people of Britain were desperate for a greater say in their political affairs.

Turning to 2010, we have had no major electoral reform since 1948 when the university constituencies were abolished and 1969, when the voting age was lowered to 18.    Rather than Rotten Boroughs, we have had the recent parliamentary expenses scandal.  The Executive has come to dominate at the cost of our Legislature.  The House of Lords has been partly, but not fully, reformed.  We have a first-past-the post voting system in which sometimes only a small number of votes actually contribute to the final result. Just as in 1832, many of the public seem to hold the political elite in disrepute.  Perhaps it’s time to revive the memory of Charles, Earl Grey.

Born in 1764, Charles Grey came from a family of Northumberland aristocrats.  After a brilliant career at Eton and Cambridge, he entered Parliament at the age of 22.  , A flamboyant figure, tall, slim and strikingly handsome, he was also a great orator, described by the historian Macaulay as having a “lofty and animated eloquence”.

The Grey family seat was at Howick in Northumberland, where he began a long and happy marriage to Mary Ponsonby in 1794.  Earl Grey tea was apparently blended with bergamot to suit the water from the Howick well, which had  a taint of lime.   In modern times, no doubt they would have patented the mixture and made a fortune,

The Greys had fifteen children, meaning that Mary was almost permanently pregnant.  Conducting his political work in London, Charles Grey  had a string of affairs, the most notorious being with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, whom he pursued relentlessly until she succumbed to his charms.  Charles Grey was headstrong and impetuous, but he was also nothing if not persistent.

This persistence also explains the ultimate success of his political career.   As you can read in golden letters on his monument in Newcastle, “during an active career of nearly half a century he was the constant adocate of peace and the fearless and constant champion of civil and religious liberty”.  In 1792, he helped found the Society of the Friends of the People, which presented a petition to the House of Commons demanding change.  But in the context of the French revolution, the establishment rejected the call for change.

Charles Grey  continued pressing for reform, becoming foreign secretary and then leader of his faction of the Whigs.   He continually introduced bills for parliamentary reform, which were repeatedly defeated.  Ranged against Grey were the House of Lords, who feared extending the franchise and losing their control of parliament, the Tories, and their leader, the Duke of Wellington.   Another obstacle was the King, George IV who vetoed all attempts to introduce change.    In the streets, people were pressing for action.  Slogans such as “Equal Representation or Death” turned to reality after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

With the accession of William IV in 1830, royal opposition  was removed, and public demand for reform revived.  When the Duke of Wellington continued to resist he lost a vote of confidence, and Earl Grey became Prime Minister for the Whigs.  His 1831 reform bill passed in the Commons, only to be defeated in the Lords.  After a new general election increased the Whig majority, the second reform bill was again defeated in the Lords.   The Duke of Wellington’s windows were all smashed by an angry mob, and there was rioting in the streets of Bristol, Derby, Nottingham and many other towns. Another attempt in 1832 was again defeated. Protestors refused to pay their taxes, and encouraged a run on the Banks.  It was a revolutionary moment in England.

Finally, by threatening to ask King William to flood the House of Lords with a large number of new Whig Peers, Earl Grey managed to get his Bill passed.  The logjam was broken.    The rotten boroughs were abolished, the new cities got better representation, and the franchise was extended.    The Great Reform Act was  soon followed by further liberal measures, such as the 1833 Factory Act and the abolition of slavery in the same year.  Earl Grey had become the crucial figure in ending what had become known as “Old Corruption”.

I take the issue of electoral reform personally. Since my grandfather was first elected as a Liberal in 1922, six members of my extended family have sat in the House of Commons, representing the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Labour Party, the SDP and even one Ulster Unionist.  During the last decade, my cousin Mark Fisher MP chaired an all-party group called Parliament First, which campaigned for reform of our legislature.  Drawing on this liberal heritage, I want to highlight the problems  that I think we currently face in 2010, and which make me believe that now is the right time to emulate Earl Grey.

Parliament fails to hold governments in check.   Both main parties have contributed to the creation of an over-mighty Executive, dominated by an all-powerful prime minister.    Prime Minister’s Questions represents entertaining political theatre, not effective scrutiny. The government decides on parliamentary timetables and thus controls who talks about what and for how long.   Bills are not properly discussed.  Select Committees, which are meant to scrutinise the executive,  are chaired by people chosen by the very government they are meant to hold to account, lack the power to demand that ministers and officials appear before them, and produce reports which have little impact.   It is the media, not Parliament, who now holds government to account.

The House of Lords is a compromise born of an anachronism.  Most of the old hereditary peers have gone, but we are now ruled by a combination of retired politicians and trades unionists, and a sprinkling of so-called people’s peers, who may be more popular, but are appointed in just the same undemocratic fashion as the rest.

The people are excluded from scrutiny of legislation or from involvement in the process of government.  I am currently working in Switzerland, where citizen initiatives are a vital part of political culture.  Almost every month, there is a referendum on a popular proposal.  Back in UK, despite the good work of They Work For, and other citizens’ initiatives, most people have little or no say  in the way their country is run.

We have an unfair voting system.  Following the 2010 election, two thirds of MPs lack the majority support of voters in their constituency, the highest figure in British politicial history. If  you are a Conservative voter in a safe Labour seat such as most North East constituencies your vote will be pointless.  If you are a Labour voter in many Southern constituencies, the same applies.  And if you are a Lib Dem voter almost anywhere except the margins of the United Kingdom, your vote will again be wasted.  At the last election, Labour needed 24,000 votes for each MP,  Conservatives needed 34,000 votes for each MP and the Liberal Democrats needed 120,000 votes for each MP   We may have one person one vote, but not all votes count the same.

There is confusion about the respective roles of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies and the European Union, as compared to the United Kingdom Parliament.  Who does what, how can powers be properly balanced, and how can we ensure an effective and accountable democratic process?  We need to overhaul our internal mechanisms to take into account these major changes in sovereignty and decision-making.

Most of these problems are remarkably similar to the situation which faced Grey in the 1830s.

It is because of these failings that I think we can talk about a crisis of governance which has led to widespread cynicism and a crisis of legitimacy.   Hence the popularity of TV programmes such as The Thick of It.   Voter turnout has fallen, particularly among the young.  The last election may have been closely fought, but still a third of the electorate did not bother voting and we have three and a half million unregistered voters.

As an example of the lack of accountability, just look at the system of public appointments.  Do the people have any say in who becomes a Bishop in the  Church of England?  Can we decide who becomes a judge, or a member of the House of Lords, or is awarded an honour, or becomes a member of the Arts Council or the trustee of a national museum?  No we cannot.   The system of perogative powers means that the Queen decides, which means the Prime Minister or his Ministers decide, which means that we have no direct say  in the matter.   It’s a system which King Henry VIII would probably have been comfortable with.

I suspect that citizens of Britain in 2010 are as eager for reform as the people of cities like Newcastle, Bristol and Birmingham were in 1832.  We may not have rioted in the streets for a few years, but we are nevertheless deeply unimpressed with our governing class.  We need a government which is held to account by our elected representatives. We need a Parliament which is once again the centre of national debate on the great issues of the date, rather than one which leaves such issues to the media.  We need a voting system which fairly represents the will of the people.  We need a House of Lords in which the majority are elected, not appointed.   Citizens need to have their voices heard, for example by submitting Petitions to Parliament in the knowledge that they might contribute to policy, as happens with the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament.

The history of this country is of long periods of establishment stasis, followed by bursts of reform.  This is exactly the situation which faced Charles Grey.  Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which ushered in the modern constitutional monarchy, there followed a long period without reform, with growing pressure for change culminating in the 1832 Great Reform Act.  In modern Britain, the last major act of electoral reform was nearly half a century ago. I believe that the next period of reform is long overdue.

But what are we likely to get?   Let us just focus on electoral reform, most relevant to my argument about Charles Grey.  After the last election, the Tories, remaining keen on first past the post, promised the Liberal Democrats, ultimate descendents of Earl Grey’s Whigs, a referendum as the price of forming the Coalition government.  Labour are also committed to supporting introduction of the Alternative Vote system.   Well, they should be, as they just used exactly this method to elect Ed Miliband.

Alternative Vote will mean that all MPs have majority support, it will keep out extremist organizations  such as the BNP or the Workers Revolutionary party, and it will ensure that MPs retain the link to their constituencies.  But it will do nothing for voters who live in safe constituencies, and hence whose votes are basically wasted.   It is the system which rewards the least unpopular candidate.  No wonder that before the election it was called “a miserable little compromise” by none other than Nick Clegg.

The movement for political reform has been understandably overshadowed by the global economic crisis and the Coalition’s actions to reduce the deficit by savage cuts to public expenditure.    We are promised proposals on House of Lords reform next month, but there seems to be less progress in other areas.  There may have been a bonfire of unelected quangos, but otherwise, this government seems to be doing business much like its predecessor, despite talk of the Big Society.

But before you get too depressed, let me remind you, one last time, about Charles Grey.  Despite the golden letters on the Monument here in Newcastle heralding “this great measure of parliamentary reform”, in fact, as many have pointed out, the Great Reform Act was actually not very revolutionary.  It may have increased those eligible to vote by 60%, but this still meant that only one in six adult men had the franchise and even fewer women than before, i.e. none.  The working classes were still out in the cold, which is why the Chartists campaigned for the next decade for the franchise to be extended to all men over 21, for the secret ballot, for payment for MPs and for other measures which we take for granted.  None of these reforms were achieved for thirty years after the Great Reform Act.  It took nearly a century before all adult women won the right to vote.

So the May 2011 referendum, whatever happens, is unlikely to be the last of the current wave of reform.  It represents a beginning, rather than an end.   Like the 1832 Reform Act, Alternative Vote is a minor change to an existing unfair system, but by establishing the principle of change, it would perhaps make further reform more acceptable.    Earl Grey was himself a rather conservative reformer, committed to the principle of gradual change, as he said in his last great public speech, “according to the increased intelligence of the people and the necessities of the times”.

What would Earl Grey think of today’s political life?   He would lament the lack of oratory in Parliament.  He would disdain the activities of the media – he said “The only way with newspaper attacks is… to keep never minding”.   He would be amazed at how the Whig and Tory factions of the early  nineteenth century  day had coalesced into the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Parties of ours, and from his aristocratic vantage point, he would probably find the idea of the Labour Party rather disturbing.  But I hope he would agree with me and the thousands of others who feel it is time for another wave of reform.

I believe we need reform to the House of Commons, to restore it to the heart of our national debate, and to ensure that the people can contribute to its deliberations, and that it can keep our government in check.  I believe we need reform to the House of Lords.  At a previous Free Thinking Festival, I proposed that it should include ordinary citizens, chosen at random from the electoral role, much as happens with jury service.  A mix of elected, appointed, and randomly selected peers would improve its democracy, ensure a good measure of experience, but also include the voice of ordinary citizens.

Reform is coming, but I fear it will be less widespread than we need.  And so, it seems to me, in our typical muddled, top down and cautious way, British society will totter and struggle from one minor measure of democratization to another.   It may not be your cup of tea, but Earl Grey, high on his pedestal above the good citizens of Newcastle, reminds us of the key lesson of history: patience and perseverance generally win out in the end.