Gascoyne's Wrecking Amendment, 1831

On 22 March 1831 the second reading of the Grey ministry’s parliamentary reform bill for England and Wales was carried by the narrowest of margins, 302-301. However, the following month the leading figures in the Tory opposition, which had hitherto been in a state of disarray, agreed to unite behind an amendment which targeted a weak point in the reform bill’s provisions. This was to precipitate a general election.

The government had proposed that, as part of its overall scheme of reform, Ireland and Scotland should be given additional representation at the expense of England and Wales. General Isaac Gascoyne, the veteran, Ultra Tory Member for Liverpool, therefore moved an amendment to the motion for the reform bill to enter into committee, instructing it that there should be no reduction in the number of English and Welsh seats.

In the subsequent debate, which lasted for two nights, critics of the bill not only attacked the principle of reform, but they raised the spectre of a greatly augmented phalanx of Catholic Irish Members, who would join Daniel O’Connell in his mission to destroy Protestant religious establishments and repeal the Act of Union. Such unashamedly anti-Irish, ‘No Popery’ sentiments helped carry the day, and Gascoyne was victorious by 299-291, in a division that actually took place at 4.30 a.m. on 20 April.

Lord Grey responded by requesting a dissolution of Parliament, and at the ensuing general election the reformers were triumphant: Gascoyne himself lost his seat, and of the 34 English county Members who had voted for his amendment, only six survived.

Author: Terry Jenkins