William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, PC, FRS (15 March 1779 – 24 November 1848) was a British Whig statesman who served as Home Secretary (1830–1834) and Prime Minister (1834 and 1835–1841), and was a mentor of Queen Victoria.
He first came to general notice for reasons he would rather have avoided: his wife had a public affair with Lord Byron — she coined the famous characterisation of him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". The resulting scandal was the talk of Britain in 1812. Eventually the two reconciled and though they separated in 1825, her death (1828) affected him considerably.
Lamb's hallmark was finding the middle ground. Though a Whig, he accepted the post of Irish Secretary (1827) in the moderate Tory governments of George Canning and Lord Goderich. Upon the death of his father in 1828 and his becoming Viscount Melbourne, he moved to the House of Lords, but when the Whigs came to power under Lord Grey in November 1830 he became Home Secretary in the new government. One of his first acts was to insist on harsh punishments for the impoverished agricultural labourers involved in the machine-breaking Swing Riots. Sentences of hanging, transportation and imprisonment followed.
Compromise was the key to many of Melbourne's actions. He was opposed to the radical governmental reforms proposed by the Whigs, but rather than forcing a breach he worked from within the party to prevent passage of the Reform Act 1832. Although he was unsuccessful in this, when Lord Grey resigned (July 1834), Melbourne was widely seen as the most acceptable replacement among the Whig leaders, and became Prime Minister.
King William IV's opposition to the Whigs' reforming ways led him to dismiss Melbourne in November. He then gave the Tories under Robert Peel an opportunity to form a government. Peel's failure to win a House of Commons majority in the resulting general election (January 1835) made it impossible for him to govern, and the Whigs returned to power under Melbourne in April 1835. This was the last time a British monarch attempted to dismiss a prime minister.
The next year, Melbourne was once again involved in a sex scandal. This time he was the victim of attempted blackmail from the husband of a close friend, society beauty and author Caroline Norton. The husband demanded £1400, and when he was turned down he accused Melbourne of having an affair with his wife. In Victorian times even one sexual scandal (like the one two decades earlier involving Lord Byron) would be enough to finish off the career of most men, so it is a measure of the respect contemporaries had for his integrity that Melbourne's government did not fall. After Mr. Norton was unable to produce any evidence of an affair, the scandal died away.
Melbourne was Prime Minister when Queen Victoria came to the throne (June 1837). Barely eighteen, she was only just breaking free from the domineering influence of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her mother's advisor, John Conroy. Over the next four years Melbourne trained her in the art of politics and the two became friends: Victoria was quoted as saying she considered him like a father (her own had died when she was only eight months old), and Melbourne's grown son had died recently. Melbourne was given a private apartment at Windsor Castle, and unfounded rumours circulated for a time that Victoria would marry Melbourne, forty years her senior.
In May 1839 the Bedchamber Crisis occurred when Melbourne tried to resign and Victoria rejected the request of prospective Tory prime minister Robert Peel that she dismiss some of the wives and daughters of Whig MPs who made up her personal entourage. As monarch she was expected to avoid any hint of favouritism to a party out of power, so her action (which was supported by the Whigs) led to Peel's refusal to form a new government. Melbourne was eventually persuaded to stay on as Prime Minister. On 25 February 1841, he was admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Even after Melbourne resigned permanently in August 1841, Victoria continued writing to him. This too was forbidden, however, for the same reasons as before, and eventually the correspondence was forced to an end. Melbourne's role faded away as Victoria came to rely on her new husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg as well as on herself.
Melbourne left a considerable list of reforming legislation - not as long as that of Lord Grey, but worthy nonetheless. Among his administration's acts were a reduction in the number of capital offences, and reforms of local government. The reform of the Poor laws, however was a severely reactionary measure, restricting the terms on which the poor were allowed relief and establishing compulsory admission to workhouses for the impoverished poor.
Another lasting memorial is his favourite, and most famous, dictum in politics: "Why not leave it alone?", quoted by those who object to change for change's sake.