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The Age of Revolutions

The British Reform Act
of 1832

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Although England had been in the process of the industrial revolution since the latter half of the 18th century, its parliamentary system had remained basically the same for more than a century. Although her constituencies theoretically represented the whole of Britain, and each sent in two representatives, yet representation stood in fact for a mere few hundred thousand voters.

Many constituencies, the so-called `rotten boroughs', had only a handful of voters while some of the largest cities had no representation at all. Furthermore, the elections were public and so were open to bribery and intimidation. Generally, parliament was controlled by the aristocracy.

By 1830 the House of Lords totalled four hundred members and consisted entirely of the Upper Clergy and the Upper Aristocracy whose titles (and therefore whose seats) were hereditary. Their interest lay mainly with the aristocracy and not with the industrial cities.

The background to the Reform Act is very important if one is to arrive at a balanced picture. England was unsettled, to say the least. Together with widespread poverty, there were demands for currency changes, free trade and factory acts.

There was a spirit of bitterness towards the government, since parliamentary reform was needed before any other reforms could be brought about. Add to this the news of the 1830 revolutions in France, Belgium and other parts of Europe, together with the sudden death of their own King and the subsequent general election, and we have a very strong likelihood of revolution in England.

With such a background to the Reform Act, one would expect the Act to be radical yet, although the reforms were acclaimed by many as far more sweeping than ever imagined, it was really no more than a compromise: produce enough reform to turn the threat of revolution.

One has to admit that the `Great Charter' was revolutionary simply because nothing like this had happened for centuries, but then it had to be or else violent revolution might have produced something far more drastic.

The Reform Act produced something which was essential rather than radical. It destroyed the `rotten boroughs' and gave representation to the larger cities. It produced a uniform franchise which increased the number of voters by a few hundred thousand.

But this merely gave the vote to the wealthier middle class, and removed it from some of the working class who had had it prior to 1832. Only one man in five now had the vote and it was still mainly the aristocratic and agrarian elements which dominated.

Rather than being radical, the Reform Act was in fact very conservative. It removed the more glaring abuses and succeeded in giving the common people more representation yet it did not make parliament much more democratic. It also did not for one moment destroy the power of the King or of the House of Lords.

The radical and revolutionary picture of this Reform Act has been projected in subsequent history books more because of its uniqueness than by the actual reforms. It also did in one action what should have been done gradually in the decades before 1830. Once the suddenness of the Reform Act has been put aside, however, one must admit that it did nothing radical.

The significance of the Act must be seen in a different light. Its immediate consequence, the actual reform it produced, was not very great and the bulk of the population, especially the working classes, were left out and many rightly felt that they had been cheated. But could it have done more?

If a more substantial Act had been passed, then many of those sitting in Parliament would immediately have lost their seats. Such people would have opposed more sweeping reforms. Another opposition lay in the House of Lords which was self-interested and had little concern for the affairs of the common people. They could (and would) block any change in the constitution which appeared in any way radical.

When the Reform Act was introduced, this House of Lords presented an almost insurmountable obstacle, and they nearly defeated the Bill. The wording had to be modified to get it past its second reading.

Finally, it was only under threat that more peers would be created and so reduce the power of the Upper House, that this group finally consented to pass even the modified version of the Act. Anything more radical would certainly not have been passed by them and could only have been brought about by a revolution.

The Reform Act was, however, more far-reaching in its wider significance. It was the first instalment of further reforms. It opened the way for the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, as well as making possible the Factory Acts and the Abolition of Slavery Act, both of which were soon to follow.

The process of the Reform Act through Parliament is also of significance. If the House of Lords had blocked it further, revolution might have taken place. It became obvious, therefore, that this House could not be allowed to hold back a law for too long.

Since that day no further serious attempt has been made by the House of Lords to resist the popular will further than just such a period that would enable the House of Commons to reconsider its former decision. The House of Lords has therefore come to be seen as a delaying mechanism rather than one with veto rights.

The Reform Act was also interesting in its revelation of the power of the King. The King had found himself in an embarrassing situation because he had failed to follow the advice of his ministers. The Act of 1832 forced the King to reinstate the Whig Ministry just after he had accepted their resignation.

The returned ministry was then able to force the King to guarantee an increase in the number of peers in the House of Lords, an action which he had earlier refused to do.

Moreover, the Act had removed the so-called `nomination boroughs' and in this way further removed power from the King, who had until now been able to nominate members to the House of Commons. This became very clear in 1834 to 1835 when Peel failed to form a ministry.

It was very slowly realised that it no longer rested with the King as to what the ministry would be, but with the electorate. Furthermore, the Act gave an independence to the Cabinet and to the Prime Minister which had never previously existed.

It would seem then, in the last resort, that the Reform Act was of great significance because of the fact that it opened the way to further changes in the future of British politics.

The future could therefore be more radical without having to face the stormy passage through Parliament which had been the case with the 1832 Act. But for all that, the actual reforms brought about by the Act were neither radical nor, indeed, sweeping.

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