Viscount Melbourne: a man with the thankless task of leading factions

I recently updated my earlier biography of Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne for a new edition of Liberal Leaders: Leaders of the Liberal Party from 1828 to 1899, and here it is.

Right from his London birth on 15 March 1779, at Melbourne House in Piccadilly, William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne, was at the centre of Whig social circles. The second son of Peniston Lamb, first Viscount Melbourne, he followed a normal early life for sons of Whig magnates – Eton, Cambridge University, and education for a legal profession. Politics came naturally into his life, but was not his only interest. As Cecil put it in his biography, ‘he had learnt to play the political game with practised skill; but like a grown-up person playing hide-and-seek with children, he never entered completely into the spirit of the thing. His thought moved from a different centre and on different lines.’

He married Lady Caroline Ponsonby in 1805, and the following year was elected MP for Leominster. Although an MP for many years, he regularly moved constituency, sitting at various times for Portarlington, Northampton, Hertfordshire and Newport (Isle of Wight). His political views also moved around in these early years, from strong opposition to the war with France to keen support for war and a strong interest in the campaigns in Spain and Portugal. A moderate Whig, he supported some repressive domestic measures, such as the Six Acts, but was also willing to argue for Catholic emancipation.

He became increasingly close to Canning and on the latter’s ascension to Prime Minister in 1827 became Irish Secretary. Though popular, he made little impact in the post. He, along with the other Canningites, continued in office under Lord Goderich and then Wellington. However, they resigned en masse over the East Retford Bill (1828), believing the government was not willing to go far enough in tacking excessive electoral corruption. Although he personally had supported the Bill, he felt that loyalty to his colleagues was sufficiently important to override this, and resigned with them.

Both his wife, from whom he had separated in 1825, and his father had died earlier that year. His father’s death meant that he became Lord Melbourne, with a seat in the House of Lords. Although his wife’s death ended such public scandals as her relationship with Byron, his private life continued to draw public attention, though somewhat unfairly. He twice appeared as the co-respondent in divorce cases, in 1829 and 1836. In 1829 the case was not continued – there was little evidence against Melbourne other than that he had sent a woman some grapes and pineapples – and in 1836 the verdict exonerated him.

Under Charles Grey’s premiership, Melbourne became Home Secretary in 1830 despite his own lukewarm views on electoral reform. Deeply unenthusiastic about it, he concerned himself with using his personal influence to help keep the arguing factions within the government together rather than worrying himself about the legislative details over which they were disagreeing.

During this time he came under much attack from radicals for his firm line against both trade unionists and protesters, even those supporting electoral reform; in his eyes, the government’s own support for such reform was not sufficient to redeem the rowdy protesters. However, he did not insist on introducing any special measures, preferring to stick to the normal rule of law. His desire to do what was necessary, but no more, was also reflected in his views on electoral reform – willing to support it, as something that was inevitable, but not keen for it to be far-reaching. Likewise, over Ireland, he took the firm line he saw as necessary, but he was also willing to try to strike a deal with the Irish radicals led by O’Connell. His success in ensuring that neither Irish issues nor unrest in England spiralled out of control allowed the rest of the government to stick to its main task of passing electoral reform.

On Grey’s resignation in 1834, Melbourne succeeded him as Prime Minister in a fashion somewhat similar to that of John Major in 1990: as Lord Durham said at the time, Melbourne became Prime Minister because he ‘is the only one of whom none of us would be jealous’. His personal popularity with the King also helped at a time when the monarchy still had some power in the political process.

With the government disintegrating over personality conflicts, disagreements over Ireland and tensions between reformers and more conservative supporters, the King overlooked that friendship and took the opportunity later in the year to sack his ministers. The Tories now had a brief chance in power. Starting in a minority, they made some gains in the 1834 general election, but not enough. They were soon defeated, and Melbourne returned as Prime Minister.

His administration limped on for several years, split over many issues, frequently in conflict with the House of Lords and facing a hostile King. Its only consistent policy was a series of moderate reforms to the Church of England, on which a working relationship was struck with Peel. A few other items of major reform were also passed, most notably to local government, with the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and to birth, marriage and death arrangements, with the Marriage Act 1836 (which introduced civil marriage and permitted Nonconformists and Roman Catholics to preside over marriages) and the Civil Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths Act 1837. These measures, however, were the exception. As with many later Liberal governments, trouble in Ireland consumed much time and passion, and engendered many splits.

William IV’s death brought the young Victoria to the throne and Melbourne successfully acted as her political adviser and counsellor, bringing her into her political role. In 1839 she ensured that Melbourne stayed in power when, after defeats over Ireland forced his resignation, she refused to meet Peel’s demands and stopped him from forming an administration. Queen Victoria’s friendship and support could only, however, delay the fall of Melbourne from power. By 1841, however, nothing could save a government that was running out of steam and, after a defeat on taxation triggered a no-confidence vote lost by one, the subsequent general election saw Peel sweep to power.

A paralysis attack the following year meant that Melbourne spent much of the rest of his life out of politics, though he was surprised at not being offered office when the Tories fell in 1846. He died two years later, on 24 November 1848. He only had one child, a mentally handicapped son, who died in 1836.

As Prime Minister, Melbourne oversaw a government which moved on from the Parliamentary reform crisis of 1830–32 to introduce modest reforms across a range of other areas of public life. The government and opposition Conservatives combined on several occasions to rebuff attempts at more radical political reform, such as the secret ballot for Parliamentary elections. Indeed, a little-noticed impact of the Municipal Corporations Act was its removal of the secret ballot from the few local corporations which had used it.

The limited nature of his legislative achievements needs to be judged in context, however. Melbourne had a thankless task, leading a collection of factions during a period of Tory revival. That his period in office lasted so long, and that he successfully brought Queen Victoria into public life, were important redeeming achievements.

The standard biography for many years has been D. Cecil, The Young Melbourne[/amazon] (1939) and Lord Melbourne (1954). Also useful is P. Ziegler, Melbourne (Collins, 1976). A more recent biography is L. G. Mitchell, Lord Melbourne 1779–1848 (OUP, 1997); arguably this book, with its comprehensive coverage of many of the aspects of Melbourne’s life, is now the standard work.

Liberal Leaders: Leaders of the Liberal Party from 1828 to 1899 is available for £5 (payable to ‘Liberal Democrat History Group’) from LDHG, 38 Salford Road, London, SW2 4BQ

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