Continuing our celebration of the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, November’s MP of the Month focuses on one of the most enigmatic figures in the reform crisis of 1866-67, the property-owning magnate and multi-millionaire Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, later the 1st Duke of Westminster.
Grosvenor is probably best known today as Britain’s richest Victorian, with a fortune of about £7 million. Far more fond of horse racing than politics, Grosvenor sat as Whig MP for the family seat of Chester from 1847 until 1869, when he succeeded his father as 3rd Marquess of Westminster. A rare presence in the Commons, and frequently abroad, when he turned up he usually backed the Whig-Liberal leadership in the voting lobbies, but hardly ever spoke before 1865.
His sudden appearance on the national political stage in 1866, as one of the leaders of the so-called ‘Adullamites’, and his pivotal role in bringing down the Liberal government over their reform bill, proposed by his friend and neighbour William Gladstone, were therefore unexpected, to say the least. Even more surprising was his willingness to help keep the Conservatives in office the following year, while they passed a measure of reform that was even more far-reaching in terms of the democratic tendencies that Grosvenor seemed to so vehemently oppose.
This apparently ‘contradictory behaviour’ – helping to defeat Gladstone’s Liberal reform bill because of its radical leanings, but then backing a Conservative ministry’s more extensive measure of reform the following year – has understandably been difficult to explain. A number of studies have concluded that in the highly complex negotiations surrounding both proposals, Grosvenor was simply out of his depth. He became an unwitting dupe for his more experienced parliamentary colleagues, lured first into the Adullamite ‘cave’ by their Whiggish rhetoric before being expertly strung along by the Conservatives. One historian (J. Winter) has even suggested that Grosvenor’s ‘naiveté’ was ‘one of Disraeli’s most valuable assets’ in securing the passage of the 1867 Reform Act.
Researching Grosvenor’s background as a constituency MP, however, has unearthed a rather more complex picture. His father’s politics as an MP had always been ambiguous, being ‘neither Whig nor Tory; reformer nor anti-reformer’, and when Grosvenor first stood for his father’s old seat at Chester in 1847, he made a point of refusing to state any political opinions or make any pledges. He ‘seems desirous of devoting his best attention to what may be called the social and moral questions of the day apart from party politics’ and ‘his politics will never be … identified with mere party Whiggism’, noted one observer.
Grosvenor’s constituency speeches over the course of the next four general elections revealed not only his genuine attachment to a ‘great extension of the franchise’ but also his horror at the growing influence of the Radicals on setting the reform agenda. In particular he believed that the radical focus on the representation of numbers, rather than ‘interests’, posed a genuine threat to the stability of the British constitution. As he explained in 1859:
If you go at once for manhood suffrage, you go by numbers and population only, by which means you take into the constituency numbers of men of the lowest orders, without property or money … who would follow any demagogue … I hold that the whole of the classes in the country should be represented, property, land, intelligence, wealth and numbers, and not numbers alone … And labour too … There is a large class of wage receiving working men who ought to be admitted to the franchise … I shall be prepared to see the franchise extended in counties and boroughs … and a fair redistribution of seats, without which any reform bill would be imperfect. (Cheshire Observer, 23 Apr. 1859)
This statement neatly captured Grosvenor’s increasing reservations about a scheme of reform that was not based upon a balanced representation of ‘interests’ and accompanied by a redistribution of seats. By 1865 he was also warning that the ‘advanced Liberals’ regarded any lowering of the franchise as a ‘first instalment’ on the road to universal suffrage. Urging the need for some form of ‘final settlement’ to prevent years of future agitation, he called for a cross-party solution and proposed the appointment of a cross-party committee to bring in a moderate measure of reform that would ‘conciliate all interests’.
It was these long-held beliefs, expressed on the hustings and at constituency meetings, rather than on the floor of the House of Commons, which propelled Grosvenor to act as he did in 1866 and help bring about the defeat of the Liberal reform bill. Gladstone’s proposals were objectionable on three grounds. Firstly, they appeared to take their cue from leading Radicals like John Bright, making a cross-party approach impossible. Secondly, his new franchises based on rental value were not ‘final’ and could easily be lowered; and thirdly, there was initially no accompanying plan of redistribution.
Significantly, when the Conservatives took office following the resignation of the Liberal ministry, they set about formulating an approach to reform that would attempt to address all three of these issues.
The full biography of Hugh Lupus Grosvenor will soon be available on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.
- D. Sheppard, ‘The Cave of Adullam, Household Suffrage, and the Passage of the Second Reform Act’, Parliamentary History (1995), xiv. 149-72.
- G. Huxley, Victorian Duke: The Life of Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster (1967).
- J. Winter, ‘The Cave of Adullam and Parliamentary Reform’, English Historical Review (1966), lxxxi. 38-55.