A Guide to Nineteenth Century Parliamentary Reform

A Guide to Nineteenth Century Parliamentary Reform

The Background

Parliamentary systems in the 18th Century
Parliament in the late 18th Century was not a democracy in the way that we would perceive one to be today, indeed it is unlikely that many Parliamentarians would have claimed or wish for this to be so. Despite regular elections, these were usually used as a confirmation of a ministry's power rather than an attempt to change it. Electors did not vote for parties in the modern sense and many elections were uncontested. Generally ministers were chosen by the King, as a result of a variety of factors including personal whim and whether they would support his preferred policies. Parliament did have power over the King mostly invested in the bargaining that would result over payment of Royal expenses and the Civil List.
Government was also localised; it did not deal with Economy Management, Health, Education etc. They maintained a "laissez faire" attitude, with limited control encouraged on the country other than through taxation and development of the laws of the land.

Reform and its development as an idea
Reform was in the end a slow process that took a lot of time to germinate, develop and become a political entity. In the mid 18th Century there were reformist ideas, but the idea of reform began to gain prominence as a result of developments in France and America, and as a result of the hundred year anniversary of the Glorious Revolution in 1788. Groups were set up that discussed notions based on influential pamphlets and writings such as Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man" but this was not widespread or generally composed of those who held power at that time; namely the landed gentry and aristocracy.
The reformers caused those in power some concern however and were repressed by a series of measures including banning political meetings without the presence of a magistrate and laws preventing criticism of the monarchy and government. By 1799 aside from a few dedicated Whigs, reform was no longer on the agenda, partly because of these measures and partly due to the war in France.

The Clamour for Reform

The end of the War (1815) did not produce prosperity. Continued heavy taxation and The Corn Laws (1815) accentuated poverty and the depression of the people particularly by pushing up the price of bread. The Corn Laws showed that where the Government had an interest it was permissible to interfere with the economy of the state. Many in the middling classes were expressing some dissent about these issues, but they then felt undermined by radical protest in the provinces, and were scathing of such unlawfulness.The Peterloo Massacre; was an example of the demonstrations carried out where 11 were killed and many injured. Many other demonstrations occurred in Birmingham, Manchester and other newly industrialised towns.
By 1820 prosperity began to increase and immediate concern about such reform was lessened throughout the mid 1820's. In 1828 Wellington introduced the Catholic Relief Act that proved unpopular among fellow Tories. The Government was left weak and this as well as a depression led to his resignation. Reform again became an issue in the provinces.

The development of the first Act

Grey was asked to form a coalition, which saw Whigs back in Government for the first time since 1806. They began work on a Reform Bill. (It is important to note that most in this government were still aristocrats and not democrats in a modern sense, even more radical MPs generally still believed primarily in the landed interest.)
By this stage in the country at large demand for reform was rife with many suggesting the possibility of revolution. The government planned to make enough concessions to enable such a threat to be largely reduced and to ensure that the Bill would be agreed.
Grey appointed a committee including Lord Russell to make a measure "Large enough to satisfy public opinion, but maintaining the essential character of the constitution". Russell introduced a Reform Bill to Commons in March 1831. The Bill planned to disfranchise small boroughs. Some were seats to be redistributed to unrepresented boroughs, some to counties. The vote was to be given to those occupying buildings worth £10 or more in boroughs.
They were careful not to concede more than necessary. The aim was to allow some middle classes the vote. Prosperity was the only yardstick of respectability and the ability to vote responsibly.There were objections by many concentrating on the radical aspects who saw that this would mean a decline in the importance of the Lords. It was seen as the thin end of the wedge.
Political wrangles continued for over a year, reaching a crucial point in April 1831 when Grey appealed to the electorate, particularly looking at open boroughs/counties, who appeared to vote for reform.The opposition continued to delay the Bill, which eventually got through the Commons, only to be thrown out the Lords by 41 votes.
An explosion of fury followed across the country with meetings held, riots and outrage from radical newspapers. Grey was left with two options, to ask the King (William IV) to create more peers or to make changes to the bill, he chose the latter.
The revised Bill was introduced in Dec 1831. It passed through the Commons and then returned to Lords.
A crisis ensued when the Tories tried to enforce further amendments. Grey would not stand for this and asked the King to create peers if necessary, and when the King refused, Grey resigned.
Wellington was invited to form an administration but could not so Grey was asked to return. The King eventually had to agree in principle to create peers but the threat was enough to push the bill through, and it finally received Royal Assent on 7 June 1832. This has since been described as The Great Reform Act.

The Great Reform Act (1832)

This abolished many rotten/pocket boroughs, seats were redistributed to form constituencies in new towns. Towns such as Manchester and Birmingham were not represented until this point. The franchise was extended to all householders at £10 or over and to those £50 leaseholders. However the situation for voting in the counties remained as before.
Some historians debate whether the threat of revolution was real or imagined, and what factor this played on the overall decisions.

The House of Commons remained aristocratic in composition. 44% of members were landed or aristocratic in 1865. This was due to many factors, including the expense of elections together with an increased cost in buying votes. Violence was also increasingly common in elections. An unseen by-product of the bill was that political parties were stronger than before, and meant that the party could usually impose ministers on the monarch (because there was a stronger feeling that that elections were a symbol of the will of the people).


This was a movement for political reform formed to advocate the People's Charter of 1838. They formulated proposals calling for universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, payment of MP's, vote by ballot and abolition of property qualification for MP's.
A national Convention met in 1839 & petition was produced at the Commons by radical MP Attwood, this was rejected. The movement showed signs of splits in its conventions but in 1842 it established a further petition that was also rejected. 1848 saw agitation all over Europe and many Chartist demonstrations, after a huge demonstration in London a third petition was produced in 1848. This was rejected and the movement foundered because of poor leadership and mixed views over aims.
Public perception altered when it was discovered that the petition contained many false names. However the movement was important in establishing ideas that were later essential to Parliamentary Reform.

The move for further reform

The Repeal of the Corn Laws by Peel was seen as important to reform, as he rejected going to the electorate over the issue, thus demonstrating his belief that Parliament had supremacy over policy (even though this split his party). This established for many the fact that there was a need for further reform, whilst reinforcing for others they felt that there was a need to confirm the status quo.
In 1858 MP's removed the property qualifications for members to stand, as these were largely irrelevant and often circumvented. Further reform was barely mentioned in the early 1850's, with the exception of proposals by a few committed radicals and in particular by Lord Russell. Russell attempted to introduce reform bills in 1851 and 1854 but these were rejected.
In 1858 Disraeli suggested that reform could be an answer to help reviving Conservative fortunes and pointed out that the 1832 Act had actually served their interest leading to the conclusion that a further act may increase their popularity. As a result Derby & Disraeli introduced a reform Bill in 1858 but with additional Russell motions the Bill failed and they resigned.
The new Palmerston-Russell ministry (1859) was dependent on Radical members. A Bill was introduced in 1860 which proposed £6 rental qualification in boroughs and £10 in counties. Most objected to it including radicals who found it too mild.
No further attempts to reform were made until 1866. The Radical leader Bright attempted to agitate in the early 1860's but opinion appeared muted, and this continued until ideas were revived following events in America (The US Civil War) and Italy (emerging as a nation state with parliamentary democracy), and this renewed enthusiasm for further democracy.
Gladstone in 1864 positioned himself as a reformer (despite many objections he had to it) and it became clear that should the opportunity arise the Liberals would impel Gladstone to react. In 1864 the National Reform Union (allied to the Liberals) was formed, establishing branches throughout the country. Ideas proposed included triennial parliament, ballots, distribution of seats and ratepayer franchise. It avoided universal male suffrage partly to appease the middle classes. The National Reform League was also formed – this was more radical, did ask for male suffrage. Both agitated for reform.
In 1865 the Liberals were returned to office, on the 18 October Palmerston died and Russell became Prime Minister. Radicals were introduced to Cabinet because of the lack of support from right-wing Liberals. Radicals forced Russell to introduce Bill (He originally wanted to set up Commission of Inquiry). The bill proposed suffrage based on £7 rental qualification. This was rejected by most Liberals, the Conservatives acted in order to force the Government out, and in July Derby/Disraeli took office, and took over the Bill.
New crises emerged as there were further demonstrations and agitation including the Hyde Park Riots which cause widespread consternation.
The Derby/Disraeli administration saw the introduction of reform not only to placate demonstrators but also for expediency to keep the administration going and crack the Liberals. In Nov 1866 they persuaded Cabinet to agree on this. Due to various political manoeuvrings including Disraeli's desire to undermine Gladstone and his own ideas on the need for reform the Bill was introduced. It underwent many amendments, and although some senior Conservatives objected to it as an attempt to destroy the landed interest it gained Royal Assent in August 1867. This was known as the Second Reform Act.

The Second Reform Act (1867)

Suffrage was extended to all borough householders with 12 months residency and to £10 lodgers. In the counties it was extended to £5 property owners, £12 occupiers. Seats were reallocated again, many in the new towns. In all the Act added 1,120,000 voters to previous 1,400,000. This meant that 1 in 3 men could vote, 47% in the boroughs.

There was a realisation that the party system needed reform to cater for working men. The National Union of Conservatives was founded in 1867. However this did not mean that individual associations would take account of working men and their opinions except where it helped to gain their votes. This presaged the party system.
The National Liberal Foundation was formed in 1877 by Chamberlain to form caucuses and push forward radicalism.
It has been suggested by some historians that the Act had a deliberate impact on social policy, in particular the Education Act (1870), as they wished to ensure that voters were educated.

Further reforms

In 1872 there was a move to stop corruption by introducing The Ballot Act, this allowed secret ballot. This did not have mean that corruption was wiped out. Corrupt practices were largely stopped following the Corrupt Practices Act (1883) which was established as a result of public outcry from the findings of a Royal Commission. The Act among other points imposed penalties for bribery and set maximums levels to be spent on campaigns.
It was still apparent that the electoral system was unfairly weighted against the counties. Many radicals were still striving for manhood suffrage but this was not widely popular.
Gladstone saw reform in the mid 1880's as a way of propping up his ailing government, particular to swing that country vote. A Franchise Bill was introduced in 1884, but although it got through the Commons, the Lords blocked it as they felt that the necessary distribution of seats that would come about as a result of this, (due to large amounts of electors suddenly voting in constituencies) would need to be incorporated in a bill at the same time.
Chamberlain attempted to stir up feeling for even further reform but largely failed.A committee was established to look at the principles and at the end of September Gladstone met with party leaders from the Conservatives to finalise the deal. This was known as the 'Arlington Street Compact'. The amended bill was passed by parliament.

Third Reform Act (1884) and Redistribution of Seats Act (1885)

The Third Reform Act gave votes to householders & lodgers in counties who had been resident for 12 months. This gave the vote to some 2,000,000 agricultural labourers increasing the electorate to 5,000,000. 2 in 3 men were now entitled to vote.
The Redistribution of Seats Act aimed to redistribute voters more equally. This meant that the North for example was more fairly represented and many two-member constituencies (not all as many including Gladstone liked them) were abolished.

More than ever this increased the influence of the party. This system became more prominent. Government was able to run from the Commons, proclaiming that they have the will of the people, thus diminishing the influence of the House of Lords. This meant that collisions such as that which happened in 1910-11 over the 'Peoples Budget' were more likely to happen.
However not all gained the vote, the female suffrage movement was in its infancy and still one third of all men did not qualify. This included soldiers in barracks, policemen and domestic servants. These men did not get the vote until 1918, and the vote was not equalised for all until 1928.


From today's point of view there seems to be a process of inevitability to this reform with the idea that good thinking Victorians developed these reforms as a natural conclusion to reasoned arguments of male suffrage.
The reality was somewhat different. The path to reform was slow with many dead-ends, and often had unintentional by-products. Many reforms were carried out for political expediency or manoeuvring rather than reforms sake. Indeed many (including those reforming) objected to such reforms and did not feel they were appropriate or needed.
However it is true to say that reform continued to be on the agenda due to the efforts of many until all were eventually able to vote. By and large the systems adopted by 1885 are still used today.
The process of reform also often unintentionally precipitated other social reforms and allowed for the establishment of a party and governmental structure more recognisably similar to that of today.


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Gareth Young

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