The Prime Minister from Bedfordshire

Part one of our special feature

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 25th December 2018, 8:00 am
Updated Thursday, 10th January 2019, 10:51 am

He was the chief architect of the Great Reform Act, which laid the foundations of modern democracy in this country.

He was twice Prime Minister, for two different parties, as well as a powerful Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary.

He championed liberty and social reform, was a founder of the Liberal Party – and even today his great-great-grandson holds a grand family tradition by being a Liberal Democrat politician.

He was Lord John Russell, he ended his final spell as leader of the Liberal Party 150 years ago this month – and this is his story.

Lord John was born in 1792 as the third son of the 6th Duke of Bedford. The Russells were one of the most powerful families in the country, one of a handful who dominated the Whig party which was one of the two main factions in British politics along with the Tories. His father had been Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars, while another ancestor had been both First Lord of the Admiralty and Lord Privy Seal.

In those days there was nothing like modern day democracy, and rich landowners controlled various seats in Parliament by telling a small number

of voters who to choose

as their MP.

The Dukes of Bedford controlled seats including Tavistock in Devon, so young John was elected to the House of Commons in 1813 at age 20, when he was still too young to even take his seat.

The young radical had entered Parliament by the usual rotten means. But he would soon help to shake the old system to its foundations.

From very early in his career Lord John was interested in reforming Parliament. He was no democrat, but he was perhaps the key figure in the passage of the Great Reform Act.

This act removed several seats which were known as ‘rotten boroughs’, and increased the number of voters from around 400,000 to 650,000. Most people still didn’t have the vote, no women had the vote, and some men even lost the vote. But historians see it as one of the crucial moments when Britain started to become a democracy.

A critical view might be that this was the apogee of Lord John’s career.

He was a restless politician, but the Whigs were increasingly split into those who believed they had delivered their most crucial reform, and those who saw much more work to be done - and he was very much in the second group.

Lord John was in favour of working with Catholics and the Irish, which was a divisive issue for the Whigs. He became Home Secretary in 1835 and abolished the death penalty for all crimes except murder and high treason. And he promoted the Education Act of 1839, which introduced state inspection of schools.

However Lord John was not popular with the king, and when he became leader of the Whigs in the House of Commons William IV removed them from government.

The Whigs spent the first half of the 1840s in opposition, but when Robert Peel’s Tory government fell in 1846 Lord John became Prime Minister for the first time.

Unfortunately he was not a success at Number 10. This was a volatile era. The Irish famine saw around a quarter of the Irish population die or emigrate; revolutions sprang up across Europe; the Whigs lacked a solid majority which made it difficult for Lord John to pass the reforms he was interested in; and he had a difficult relationship with his Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston.

There were some successes, such as limits on factory working hours, increased grants to schools, and the 1848 Public Health Act which forced local authorities to tackle sewerage and drainage. But the government struggled to manage its finances, and Lord John made a disastrous attack on the Pope which was a foreign and domestic debacle.

After six years in power Lord Palmerston brought the government down from the backbenches, as revenge for being sacked. Lord John was 59 years old, Palmerston was far more popular with both the party and the public, and it was not obvious what the future held.