Were you ever to visit, you would find at the hub of Newcastle a column. At 41-metres, it is five metres short of Nelson-sized. But impressive just the same. At the top of said column you would find a 10 foot tall statue. That statue and the column it stands on are monuments to one of the city’s favourite sons. A man most people haven’t heard of, but whose name is heard all over the world every day. Charles Grey. Already I can sense some of you frowning at your computer screens and thinking “who?”. Charles Grey lived from 1764 until 1845 and is famous, even outside Newcastle, for two things. The first is an aromatic blend of bergamot oil and tea leaves named for him. Earl Grey tea is when the penny drops for most people. But this doesn’t get a mention on his column. No, what the column focuses on is the second and best of his achievements. The column’s dedication reads
THIS COLUMN WAS ERECTED IN 1838, TO COMMEMORATE THE SERVICES RENDERED TO HIS COUNTRY BY CHARLES EARL GREY K.G., WHO, DURING AN ACTIVE POLITICAL CAREER OF NEARLY HALF A CENTURY WAS THE CONSTANT ADVOCATE OF PEACE AND THE FEARLESS AND CONSISTENT CHAMPION OF CIVIL AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY. HE FIRST DIRECTED HIS EFFORTS TO THE AMENDMENT OF THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE IN 1792, AND WAS THE MINISTER BY WHOSE ADVICE, AND UNDER WHOSE GUIDANCE, THE GREAT MEASURE OF PARLIAMENTARY REFORM WAS, AFTER AN ARDUOUS AND PROTRACTED STRUGGLE, SAFELY AND TRIUMPHANTLY ACHIEVED IN THE YEAR 1832.
For it was Charles Grey who was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834. In that brief period, he campaigned for Catholic emancipation, Parliamentary reform, and ensured that slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. And he passed a bill called the Representation of The People Act 1832. Or what we now call the Great Reform Act. It was this Act, which Grey forced through Parliament, that got rid of famous rotten boroughs like Old Sarum and began the gradual increase in the franchise. It was this Act that established as fact the sovereignty of the people in this democracy. Works surely worthy of a monument. Not to mention the tea. Which is why I got annoyed when I saw a couple of days ago, that the press were comparing Nick Clegg to Earl Grey. I can accurately call Clegg a lot of things, but great reformer isn’t one of them.
Clegg gave a speech called the New Politics which he himself called
the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great reforms of the 19th Century’, indeed since the Great Reform Act of 1832.
playing up to the headlines comparing him to Grey. The speech may have been called the New Politics, but the reality is that there’s very little new about it. He managed to completely fail to mention that much of his programme is based on reforms that were already underway under the Labour government. He completely failed to mention devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He completely failed to mention the London Assembly and elected Mayors. He completely failed to mention the reform of the House of Lords which Labour began in 1997 and promised to complete in the last election manifesto. He completely failed to mention the plan to reduce the number of Members of Parliament by 10 per cent in a classic gerrymander. Even his big plan of AV, the highlight of his announcements, was a major climb-down from his earlier wish for full-blown PR. This isn’t the next great reform. This isn’t even new politics. Just the same old spin.
Clegg may be a legend in his own headspace, but he’s no Charles Grey. Grey is one of the greatest liberal reformers in British political history. Grey fought great fights and won great reforms. Grey maintained his principles throughout his political career. Clegg didn’t maintain his for more than a few days.