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Reform In Britain During The 1800s

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The call for reform in Britain during the 1800's was common with bill after bill addressing issues such as working conditions, education and religion each becoming a topic of debate. The most important of the reforms however were the legislative reform that began with the 1832 reform bill and was continued in 1867 and beyond. These first two bills however are the most significant of the legislation passed during the century. It was the 1832 Reform Act though that was the defining moment in British parliamentary History. It was the first major restructuring of the electoral system in over five hundred years, and as a result it is justified to call it a momentous event.

Whether or not the Reform Act of 1832 was 'great' as it has been labeled or is somewhat lesser in significance is a good question. It could be stated that reform acts that followed accomplished more and affected a wider sector of the population than the original bill. The Reform Act of 1867 fits in to this category, it reached out to more people than the original act and as Gertrude Himmelfarb says, it was the "…act that transformed England into a democracy." [1] 

However one reads that statement, there has to be a starting point and it is hard to imagine parliament making such wide-ranging changes like enfranchising the working class in 1867 if not for the middle class having already been enfranchised at some earlier time. Francis Herrick therefore, is a bit more accurate when he wrote that the "Reform Bill of 1867 is generally considered as the second step in the long process which peacefully transformed the British government into a functioning democracy." [2] 

Reform took nearly a century to complete, it didn't happen overnight. No one in 1832 thought that the progress they had made was going to be the end of the road. Ellis A. Wasson makes this clear by saying "...finality was not their intention," they went from using the census of 1820 to that of 1830 to allocate seats while they were revising the bill because they "tacitly admitted their's could only be a temporary measure." [3] Herrick makes a good point when he says that eighteenth century British reform is a "…story of the transfer of political power from an aristocracy to a middle class, and from the middle class to the people." [4] Therefore, the chronicle of reform in Britain is, and it's most important moment has to be, the act of 1832 when the first step was accomplished by transferring power to the middle class. The Reform Act, for that reason, is of great consequence not only for what it achieved but also because it set in motion.

Prior to the 1832 act, parliament was under the control of the nobility and the landed elite in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Those who sat there were representatives of the privileged along with being distinguished landowners. These men were also leaders in almost every aspect of British society. It can be argued that any kind of reform would be detrimental to the domination the land-owning aristocracy held and it would appear that these men would not vote for a bill that would reduce their power but, this "landed elite dominated the institutions which passed the parliamentary reform acts of 1832 and 1867." [5] 

One reason for their acknowledgment of reform was that they saw trouble looming in the horizon if there was not some sort of change wasn't made. Encouraged by what they saw as a successful revolution in France, the people of Britain became resolute in their want for a more representative government. The case could be made that outside parliamentary pressure to effect reform was inspired by the middle class along with a very convincing concern of a working class revolt. This outside pressure could come in many forms with the most popular being some type of demonstration. Therefore, it is hard to envision the Reform Act being passed on its own accord and the ministers only had to look at the Catholic Emancipation of 1829, which saw widespread disturbance prior to its passing. After the second reading of the Reform Bill was rejected there were riots that took place in Bristol as well as serious disturbances at Derby and Nottingham, and a rash of less alarming demonstrations in other places. [6] 

After two unsuccessfully attempts, the Reform Act was passed by the Commons and sent to the Lords on 26 March 1832 but not without another form of drama. The Whig cabinet threatened to walk out if the king did not show his support for reform by appointing fifty additional peers. When he didn't, Lord Grey resigned. Undeterred, the king made an effort to set up a Tory administration that advocated a more moderate reform by reappointing Wellington to create a new government. This experiment did not have the expected results and Wellington, realizing that he could not seat a Front Bench of supporters, ended his attempt to take office. Having no other alternative, the king sent for Grey who retook his post and quickly moved to introduce another bill. As soon as he was made aware that the King's had come to an agreement with Grey and his Whig demands, Lord Althorp was reported to have said: "It completes the revolution." [7] 

Again, the Reform Act was the starting point of this revolution but its impact on future reform cannot be understated. Speaking to the House of Commons on February 28, 1859, Benjamin Disraeli makes reference to its impact by saying that "If we judge of the Act of 1832 by its consequences ... it must be admitted that that policy was equal to the emergency it controlled and directed." [8] There was no great public call for reform in 1867 and what little there was had no real organization behind it. What little call for change there was out there was not concentrated on any single measure for political reform. [9] Furthermore, the issue of reform played little part in the election of 1865, which indicated a general satisfaction with the existing situation. [10] Seven years after Disraeli's speech on March 12, 1866, William Gladstone made similar reference to 1832 while introducing his bill when he said "It may be said, and said very truly that at the time there was a political heat and excitement, and a degree of apprehension which do not now exist…" [11] 

The basics of the Reform Act of 1832 were that it enfranchised the middle class. This meant that they could organize as a political force. Power had been passed from the small number of elite whose ancestors had entitled them to a more commercially minded, progressive base and broke the old landowners' hold on power. If Nelson's victory at Trafalgar saved Britain from French invasion and is considered a decisive event of the nineteenth century, then the reform act should be considered just as worthy since it saved Britain from violent revolution from within. Phillips and Wetherell repeat an article in a 1836 issue of the Westminster Review that sang the praise for the bill by saying "The passing of the Reform Bill was our taking of the Bastille; it was the first act of our great political change." [12] 

Phillips and Wetherell offer details to the effect the original bill. Prior to enactment of the bill, the people entitled to vote is hard to estimate because there was no form of registration "but the best-informed estimates suggest that immediately before the Reform Bill more than 400,000 Englishmen held a franchise of some sort." [13] This number comes out of a population in the England and Wales that was estimated to be just about fourteen million at the 1831 census. [14] The populace permitted to vote then, represents only 2.86 percent of the population in 1831.

In its final form however, the Great Reform Act "expanded the total electorate in excess of 650, 000," which is an accurate total "because of the imposition of a national system of registration." [15] The increase of 250,000 new constituency members seems small out of the total population but represented a 62.5 percent increase in the number of voters. Without doubt, the Reform Act of 1867 permitted more voters. The 1861 census shows just over twenty million people lived in England and Wales which is an increase of four million people in thirty years. The Reform Act passed six years later "added 938,427 new voters to the roll, more than four times the number enfranchised in 1832." [16] It is hard to accept as true that parliament in 1867 would have been in favor of a bill that enfranchised the middle class and the working class at the same time which would have been the case if there was no 1832 Act. Without it, there would have been an increase of over one and a half million new voters in a single act of parliament. Whatever the increase in voters was, it was the number of seats in the government that should be considered important and here is where the Act of 1832 made a bigger impact.

Prior to 1832, the landed aristocracy controlled Parliament, along with "rotten boroughs," parliamentary communities that had decreased in size but still elected members to the House of Commons. The reform bill did away with those rotten boroughs as "right-wingers in Parliament advocated the elimination of decayed constituencies and the transfer of their seats to the more healthy county constituencies." [17] It caused fifty-six boroughs to be completely disfranchised. It also included thirty-one additional boroughs that had less than four-thousand inhabitants ended up losing one of their two M.P.s. [18] The total number of seats affected in 1832 then, was 143, a considerable amount more than in 1867 where the number was fifty-two boroughs.

This shift in seats in 1832 effectively ended the aristocratic monopoly on government and if one wanted to maintain it, he would have to depend on the support of the middle class. The Act of 1867 did nothing to alter this as the representation ratio remained virtually the same as it had been with the 1832 act. Herrick considers this position and comes up with an effective way of thinking by saying "In other words, the boroughs, where the new electors were most numerous, were given a somewhat smaller share of the representation in parliament, and the counties, where a much smaller number were enfranchised, received a larger share. [19] 

The Reform Act of 1832 enfranchised householders who paid a yearly rent of at least ten pounds. That meant that approximately half of the middle class and all of the working class spite of everything were still without a vote. This was acceptable to the Whigs, who felt that those entitled to vote should be expected to use that privilege in an informed and responsible way. [20] 

Seen from a current point of view, 1832 can be seen as an imperative gateway to a full representative parliamentary democracy. Subsequent reform was to follow and it would expand the vote to adult male householders in 1867 and produced blue-collar majorities in a lot of urban communities. The Third Reform Act of 1884 extended the franchise even further handing the vote to miners and many farm laborers. Wasson explains that "although it has been argued that the 1832 act had no necessary aftermath," one can see "clearly the importance of the impact of reform on the relationship between members of Parliament and their constituents." [21] He goes on to explain how "The decisive moment in aristocratic surrender came with the first bill and not with the second." There is no doubt that future measures were bound to happen and there can be no question that their success be would come as a result of the first Act.

Neither the Acts of 1832 or 1867 were perfect, there were issues with both, while the 1832 act was a beginning, 1867 was supposed to fix the issues left by the earlier act. The 1867 Reform Act contained unfair features of its own. The real effect of this inequality is apparent when the re-distribution clauses are considered. [22] The inadequate redistribution of seats in 1867 in spite of everything left citizens in the midlands, London and areas of the north without enough power to speak for them in Parliament. The unequal allocation of seats still favored the landowning classes who were able to manipulate the representation of the smaller borough seats.

The years before and after the Great Reform Act of 1832 were critical moments in the progression of Britain achieving social equality. This change was started with the movement to institute the rights of religious minorities. Soon, however, governmental reform took on a life of its own and led to a fundamental break down in the constitutional order of Britain. However, such radical measures as undertaken by parliament at the time, were able to remedy most of the problems and electoral corruption would be eliminated and purity and virtue restored to the entire electoral process. [23] 

The Reform Act of 1832 deserves to be classified as great for a handful reasons. The main aim of its aristocratic creators was to rid the representative system of indefensible features, and to produce a better representation in the House of Commons of the property and intelligence of the nation. [24] With this accomplished, it reduced of the number of nomination boroughs bringing about a new basis of order in politics. The reform reshaped the political landscape unintentionally; it introduced a new political system by accidentally altering the relationship between elections, voters, and the parliamentary parties. [25] 

The Reform Act may be seen as the end of the old order. However, its greatness is in the fact that it was done with future reform in mind and it was done rather peacefully. The dominant aristocracy, still in control of the State, had acted, in some respects against its own sectional interests, to reform the Constitution by Act of Parliament, without revolution or civil war. [26] The bill did not end aristocracy but it was "the first and most important step in the aristocracy's displacement." [27] Future reform including the Act of 1867 was important but there is no doubt that "The decisive moment in aristocratic surrender came with the first bill and not with the second. Subsequent measures may not have been inevitable, but they were made possible." [28] 

While not all inclusive, the Great Reform Act started Britain on the road to a better form of government. The first step of recognizing that representation was flawed and coming to the belief that the middle class deserved a voice in their government was the most important factor that guided subsequent reform. By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was ahead of her European neighbors when it came to democratic representation due to the novel 1832 leap in the dark.


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