A New Parliament met on October 26, 1830.
The opening debate was as usual on the Address in reply to the Speech from the Throne, and it proved to be a debate of the greatest importance. The Government were challenged by Lord Grey and others to make known their views on the subject of Parliamentary Reform; and the Government, through the mouth of the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, did make known their views with a vengeance. All that the Duke of Wellington could accord to any proposal for Parliamentary Reform was, if we may adopt certain famous words then still ringing in the ears of Europe, "La mort sans phrase".
The Duke declared himself utterly opposed to any and every measure which called for an alteration in the existing parliamentary system. He declared that he had never read or even heard of any scheme which satisfied his mind that the parliamentary system could be rendered any better than it was at the moment. The country, he declared, was happy enough to possess a legislature which answered all the good purposes of legislation, and that to a degree never before known in any other country. The whole system of representation and of voting possessed, he insisted, the absolute confidence of the public. He flung into the face of Lord Grey the announcement that he did not intend to propose any scheme which involved any alteration of the constitution. But he was not even content with that proclamation; he went a little further and announced that so long as he held a position in any Government he should always feel it his duty to resist any such proposal when brought forward by others.
The delivery of such a speech clearly settled the question as to the Duke's possessing any faculty of statesmanship, supposing such a question possible. Almost anybody else in such a position as this would have thought it enough to say that he himself did not believe the existing constitution could be improved upon, and that he therefore did not propose to bring forward any measure for its improvement. But it would not be like the Duke to content himself with such a reply. He felt himself bound to go much further, and to declare that it was absolutely beyond the wit of man to devise or suggest any possible improvement, and that therefore he should feel it his bounden duty to oppose any proposition brought forward by no matter whom, which began with the daring and impious suggestion that there could be any room for improvement in the constitution which the wisdom of our ancestors had bequeathed to us. The Duke's speech certainly did not sound the death-knell of Reform; but it did sound the death-knell of the Wellington Administration. The country had quite outgrown the time when it could take the doctrine from any one, that no improvement could ever again be made in our best of all possible constitutions. The Duke's colleagues saw already that the end of their time had come.
The country blazed into a fury of passion when the words of the Duke of Wellington were known; and the Ministry became more unpopular probably than even a Tory Ministry ever was before or since in England. On the other hand, the popularity of the King went up at this crisis. There was a general idea abroad that William was not likely to encourage or stand by such declarations as that of the Duke of Wellington. He had been popular at one time, chiefly by contrast with the more recent policy of his predecessor, and there was a general hope that the Patriot King, as he was called, would turn back to the path of his former popularity. It is not, perhaps, quite easy to understand just now why such high expectations were formed of William IV.; but at all events, those who believed that he would not press his general likings and dislikings to the verge of revolution had reason afterwards to congratulate themselves on their optimism. The question with most of the Ministers was now not how to keep in office, but how to get decently out of office. Every one, with perhaps the single exception of the Duke of Wellington, must have seen that the public feeling against the Tory Government was too strong to be long resisted; and the Duke of Wellington, to do him justice, did not care whether he was in office or out of office so long as he believed that he had done what he considered his duty. The end came about by what might almost be called a matter of accident. Sir Henry Parnell brought forward a motion in the House of Commons asking for the appointment of a Select Committee to take into consideration the estimates and amounts proposed by his Majesty regarding the Civil List.
Sir Henry Parnell, who afterwards became Lord Congleton, was one of the family of the poet who was popular in the days of Swift and Addison, and was an ancestor of the Charles Stewart Parnell whose name was afterwards famous in the debates of the House of Commons. Sir Henry Parnell's motion was carried by a majority of twenty-nine, although the Government had thrown all the strength they had into opposing it. The motion was in itself hardly one of first-class importance. A Ministry anxious to cling to office might easily have taken the sting out of it by promising some sort of concession, or might have allowed it to pass without any further notice, as is done with so many a resolution brought forward by a private member, and not directly concerning any Ministerial scheme actually before the House. But the circumstances were peculiar, and the Government thought it best to accept the passing of the resolution as a vote of censure; they took advantage of the opportunity, fearing that if they were to hold to office they might be defeated a little later on some subject more serious and critical in the eyes of the country. It is quite possible, too, that they may have thought it a good stroke of policy to accept defeat in a controversy which left to them the appearance of having forfeited office while defending the prerogative of the Sovereign against Whigs, Radicals, and Revolutionists. Whatever the deciding reason their course was promptly taken. Next morning they tendered their resignation to the King, and the resignation was promptly accepted. Later that same day the House of Commons was informed that the Duke of Wellington's Administration had ceased to exist, and the conviction was borne in upon every mind, that Lord Grey, with his Reform scheme, must become the head of the next Government. The anticipation was, of course, fulfilled; Lord Grey was at once sent for by the King and invited to form an administration.