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To What Extent Does the Reform Act of 1832 Deserve Its Title “Great”?

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  • Category: Democracy

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The title, “great” is reserved for a select few characters and documents in history. Alfred earned his through establishing stable change, peace and improvement. So too the Magna Carta, which brought about greater justice and freedom for the common man and limited royal influence. In the same ways, the reform act of 1832 warranted the title. It was by no means a revolutionary measure, nor “the final solution of a great constitutional question” as Russell had put it, but both symbolically and physically, it spelt change for Britain. This in itself showed its greatness – despite Pitt having attempted reform in the 1780s, and the issue having repeatedly returned to parliament, no reform had been achieved.

The fact that finally after so much time and so much fight, a reform measure had been brought in, it did not so much matter what was contained in the act, or if it benefited anyone. The symbolic victory and relief that ‘reform had begun’ was enough for most people to perceive it as “great”. The symbolic victory would not have been enough for long though; for the reform act to be considered “great”, it would have to be a step towards a fairer, more democratic government. In addition to this, it would have been imperative for it not to worsen the common man’s situation. Some historians have argued that reform was brought in by the Whigs purely as a political move to secure more seats; if this was the primary motivation it would detract from the “greatness” of the act. In essence, the reform act was “great”.

In the short term, it avoided bloody revolution, strengthened and stabilised the current social and political situation and granted a fairer and more democratic system. In the long term, it did open Peel’s feared “door” of reform that the Tories were unable to close (reform continued and advanced), but it did so in a measured, safe and gradual way so as to preserve tradition, maintain peace, and ensure the continued development of a secure, fair and benevolent government.

The greatness of the reform act was more about its context that its contents. The arduous fight for reform, against Wellington, the Tories, the king and the lords intensified Britons’ relief and joy at the reform act. The early 1820s seemed hopeless for reform; while the Tories were secure and unified against it, the Whigs were divided for it. Lambton and Russell’s 1821 and 1822 reform bills (for parliament every three years and disenfranchising 100 small boroughs, respectively) both failed, although the vote for Russell’s bill (164-269) was the largest for a reform bill yet. It was clear that there was support for reform, but the time was not right. Despite the lack of reform petitions between 1824 and 1829, the desire for reform was not dead.

The break-up of the Tory party period (1827-30) changed the issue of reform from being a partially necessary luxury for many people to being imperative in order to avert revolution. It is easy to underestimate the ineptitude of Wellington as Prime Minister. His rigid stance against reform increased public desperation for it. He governed with such unwavering closed-mindedness that it bordered on complete insensitivity to the people of Britain. He largely ignored the ‘Swing Riots’, which began in August 1830, despite their seriousness: agricultural labourers were usually the most peaceful and contented group in Britain – now they were burning haystacks and running riot; if these men were rioting, what would the more traditionally radical men do? Despite this obvious alarm bell, Wellington would not budge from his anti-reform stance.

Even after the Tory disaster of the 1830 election, with the swing riots continuing and mass public agitation of cotton spinners and miners in industrial areas, Wellington refused to acknowledge a problem. He made a speech in parliament, stating his unbending attitude to reform. With this, public frustration and agitation reached a new high, and Wellington’s government fell within weeks. The fight did not end with Grey’s assumption of power, and economic difficulty intensified public ardency for reform. Getting bills past the commons was no longer a difficulty: the second reform bill passed by 140 votes.

The lords, however, declined the second bill by a majority of 41. On the very same day, rioting began in Derby and Nottingham and spread throughout England over the following days. Britain had never been so close to revolution in October 1831: with no police force (other than a minor presence in London), the army too small and too poorly trained to cope and rioting across the country, all the signs were in place for a rebellion in frustration of lack of reform. Nottingham castle was burnt down, Bristol Bishop’s Palace was attacked, killing 12 and injuring 400, prisoners in Nottingham were set free, the church was specifically targeted (as 21 of 26 Bishops had voted against reform) and there were widespread disturbances and mass demonstrations.

The situation was far more serious than the 1790s or 1819; the repressive legislation that had worked then would not here. Reform was necessary to avert revolution. Similar activities continued after the failure of the third reform bill; although slightly less frenzied, activities such as withdrawing savings from banks to precipitate an economic crisis were just as damaging. Finally (after Peel refused to serve under Wellington, so the government remained with Grey), the reform act was passed.

As soon as news of this spread, civil disruption quietened. The reform act was great for many reasons, one of the most important was that it was a victory for the common people of Britain after such a long war against the government. The relief, satisfaction and joy that followed, in itself made the act deserving of its title. The fact that the reform act averted revolution and mass bloodshed heightened its greatness. It was a victory, an achievement, and one that ensured stability and peace for Britain and its people. For this reason alone, it deserved its title.

Although initially a symbolic victory was enough, the reform act had to have enough scale of change for the better – essentially an increase in representation and a step towards democracy – for it to be considered “great”. The first obvious change came about during, not as a result of, the reform act. It was the shift of power from being largely equal between the two houses of parliament, to the commons overtaking the lords.

This came about during the passing of the reform bill – from the three rejections by the lords, it was obvious that they were opposed on principle to it, but Grey was able to force them to pass it, using the influence of the commons. The lords would never have passed a reform bill without Grey’s coercion. The first step towards a fairer government was the slight decline in the lords’ influence: the decline in political aristocratic power (although this landed influence still staunchly remained in the cabinet for many years).

The Reform act had largely been an alliance between the upper/ landed classes and the middle classes, against the working class. Grey’s alliance between land and industry alienated the working class, but avoided political revolution: much of Western Europe underwent revolution due to middle class leadership. It was a clever move on Grey’s part, not least because although the middle class had far more political power after 1832, they generally chose not to use it in parliament. Thus revolution was avoided, and an even stronger government (with greatly increased middle class support) was established. The reform act was admirable in this way, but what made it great (in terms of a step-up for democracy), was the increase in middle class power outside of parliament.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 gave rise to the formation of local council authorities. Seats to these were elected, and fought over by the middle class; it became a local, middle class led parliament. These council authorities dealt with affairs like health, sanitation and education in their areas and had substantial power: the national government did little in terms of local matters.

In fact, most middle classes would have been happy after 1832 even without council seats: most were very conservative and content with the current situation; their fight for reform had more been a psychological battle to secure recognition rather than power. This truly makes the reform act great: it was an obvious step up for democracy, it avoided a middle class-led revolution and it gave the middle classes a great deal of power that could coexist with aristocratic power with no rivalry.

The 1832 reform act increased the number of voters and the number of open constituencies in Britain. This began the gradual move towards full democracy, but did it in such a subtle manner that it encountered only a few major points of resistance along the way, and incurred little more bloodshed for political means or prospect of revolution. Of adult males, before 1832, one in 8 had the vote in England; this increased to one in 1 in 5 after the act, while Scotland, Wales and Ireland had proportionally similar increases. The electorate continued to rise as result of the £10 borough franchise remaining, while inflation and prosperity increased. Although gradual, the increase was significant: English and Welsh electorate was 650,000 in 1833, and it increased to 1 million by 1866 or 18% to 20% of the adult male population.

Although a 2% increase seems small, the significance is the fact that it is an obvious increase – the figure would continue to grow. Even after the reform bill was repeatedly modified, 52.5% seats were now contested, compared to 30% before 1832. With a modern view on this, the idea that almost half of parliamentary seats were won by bribery, corruption and local dictatorship would be obscene, but at the time, having over half of seats actually contested was a huge breakthrough for a fairer, more representative system. It also meant that general elections began to be meaningful. In previous years, a general election very rarely caused a change in the current government as so few seats were contested – instead it confirmed the strength or weakness of the government, rather than strongly influencing that strength or weakness.

Now, with over half the seats contested, general elections became far more significant. This meant that in seats where there were higher proportions of lower classes, the MPs who won began to have to represent their interests, rather than just his own. This was an obvious step forward for democracy, and one that would continue to be of growing significance. The greatness of the act does not rest in these initial modest increases in representation, it is the fact that these small increases foretold of much larger ones in the future, that would eventually bring about a fairer, more democratic government.

There were certainly aspects of the reform act that could not be considered as “great”. Lord Russell wrote that the government “had never put the measure of reform on a footing of such perfect symmetry and regularity… anomalies they found and anomalies, though not such glaring ones they meant to leave.” Russell was saying that the government knew that the reform bill was not perfect, that it was unjust, and that they were happy with this. This was intentional: some aspects of reform that had been brought up since the idea had begun would damage their positions and reduce their power so quickly and to such an extent that they could not pass them in the reform bill. In itself this does not sound like a “great” bill – one that is severely limited by its architects for their own ends.

One anomaly that does not inspire admiration is the refusal to introduce secret ballot. This, in short, ensured rigged elections to any seat which the rigger had enough money to bribe a majority of its electorate – it continued the practice of bribery as a political tool and in kept aristocrats in control of things. Even the contested seats were not free of corruption. The Chandos amendment, which enfranchised tenants in county seats, was another device to maintain landed support: landlords could force tenants to vote with them by threatening them with eviction (the lack of secret ballot also enabled them to do this); landlords could also increase the rent to qualify more people for the £10 franchise to increase electorate.

In reality, landlord influence did not significantly increase aristocratic support – their tenants usually held the same political persuasion as their landlords, so little was altered. It is significant, though, how the lords felt this amendment was necessary to maintain their grip on British politics. The nobility probably did not need to be so cautious – still only around half of the seats were contested, and many rotten and pocket boroughs remained – little provision was taken to remove all but the very worst of these. Although in many ways an alliance with the middle classes, they were generally kept out of parliament; this was generally their own choice, but some of the reforms forced this.

Firstly the £10 borough franchise was too high for some middle class men, especially in poorer areas like Wales: they were kept out of government or even representation as result. The longer parliamentary sessions, with MPs still not being paid discriminated against middle classes, who had to work most of the time to live – they could not fit work around the almost full time occupation of being an MP, so stayed out of parliament. These negative points about the reform act detract from it, but not so much as to remove its title. These “anomalies” were present as an insurance policy for the aristocrats, generally through fear of what might happen with the passing of the act. These issues would decline in importance over time. The anomalies more tell us about the mood of fear at the time among the nobility rather than souring our view of the reform act.

The reform act of 1832 was not revolutionary, as it did not introduce new ideas; it instead brought old ideas into practice. Some historians argue that the Whigs brought in reform for political motivation – to win seats; I regard this view as wrong – the reform act benefitted the Tories more than the Whigs. Even if it was correct, the motivation is not particularly important – an act was brought in that began the long road to democracy and slow but steady improvement of people’s lives.

The act was more introduced as result of “force or fear, not conviction or affection” and as result, its architects were timid – it show real greatness then, that they still introduced measures that would have direct impact in the short term as well as long term. Most of the negatives in the reform act were insurance policies to maintain the social and political hierarchy. Although objectively not “great” motivation, it was through fear. Much of the greatness resides in the fact that finally, parliament overcame their fear of reform in order to do what was best for their country. As result they averted a long and bloody revolution, maintained tradition and social structure that defined Britain and was so important to it, and began a long road to gradual, subtle, yet effectual change, that would culminate in democracy. It is entirely correct, therefore, to honour the reform act of 1832’s title, “great”.

Evans, Eric J. The Great Reform Act of 1832
Pearce, Edward. Reform!

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