In this term paper we will discuss about the politics and reform in Britain during 1815-1832.
Some minor reforms, then, are largely attributable to the spontaneous sympathy of Ministers and other politicians, especially Tories, with the movement for a moral reformation and the reawakening of the Church of England. But full ‘Liberal Toryism’ is incomprehensible in these terms, the passage of the Reform Act even more so.
It is striking that the moral reformation movement itself, as well as exercising influence from within the governing class, found it worthwhile to perfect means for bringing pressure to bear from outside. It had replied to the London Corresponding Society and to Rights of Man with hundreds of Constitutional Clubs and antisedition tracts by the million. It now used popular organization and wide publicity in campaigning for reform.
The Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823, set a new pattern and standard of organization for pressure-groups. A large Central Committee kept in touch with affiliated societies, over a thousand of them eventually, in every part of the country; meetings were held; tracts and placards distributed; petitions to Parliament prepared, with tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of signatures.
The Parliamentary reform agitation used the same techniques on the same scale in 1831-32, as did the Catholic Association in Ireland before 1829. This was the most impressive kind of manifestation of opinion, with respectable leadership and mass support.
But the upper-class Press was also increasingly effective: articles in the quarterly reviews, the Tory Quarterly, the Whig Edinburgh and the Radical Westminster, or in the daily Times, were now based on full published reports of Parliamentary debates, fair knowledge of the way M.P.s voted, and moderately reliable facts and figures revealing abuses in Church, State and society.
It was fifty years since the proceedings of Parliament had ceased to be virtually private, but the repression of the war years had intervened. Politicians only now felt the force of the change. They reacted in different ways. To take Tory Ministers, Castlereagh found unpopularity ‘more convenient and gentlemanlike than popularity, while Canning took delight in courting ‘that mighty power of public opinion, embodied in a Free Press, which pervades, and checks, and, perhaps, in the last resort, nearly governs the whole constitution’. But, whether they liked it or not, M.P.s had to pay some attention to the new force.
In the first place, there were some weaknesses in the armour of the ‘Establishment’. As the Press discovered, the anomalies of the system could be exploited against it. Seats in the House of Commons could be literally bought, and some were purchased by men who had made their money in trade or manufactures.
One man who became an M.P. in this way was Sir Robert Peel, senior, father of the Prime Minister, a wealthy calico-printer of Bury, Lancashire. Only ability could ensure success at the Bar, and the first two Lord Chancellors of the period were the sons of a Newcastle coal-factor and an American painter.
Even under the unreformed constitution, there were some direct ways of bringing pressure to bear on the ‘Establishment’ from outside. The British electorate was a larger proportion of the population than had the vote anywhere in the Old World between 1815 and 1848, and there were many ‘open’ constituencies in which a broad electorate could return M.P.s pledged to support reform.
There was more prestige in winning a county seat or a seat for a large town than in entering Parliament by way of aristocratic nomination. In the General Election of 1830, and still more in 1831, representatives of great families found themselves threatened with defeat in constituencies normally considered being under their control: if they would not support Reform, they were told, they must retire.
It was an essential part of the background of the Reform Act that the county electorates pronounced for it, the lesser landowners and the tenantry expressing their resentment at the power which the great landlords derived from rotten boroughs, and demanding better representation for the landed interest as a whole (the agricultural labourers, of course, excluded).
The loss by the Government of one by-election could change policy, as the County Clare election of 1828 demonstrated. Finally, the threat of civil war and revolution could overbear the ‘Establishment’, as the passage of the Catholic Relief Act showed in 1829. Politicians habitually claimed that they would never bow to the mob, to violent expressions of opinion by the lower orders that it was only to the peaceful pressure of respectable opinion that they would listen.
But this claim is belied by the history of the period. Catholic emancipation apart, members of the ‘Establishment’ were certainly more ready to pay attention to the demands of the respectable for Parliamentary reform when they were reminded by the riots and working-class agitation of 1831-32 how dangerous it might be to alienate moderates altogether.
No other attitude was consistent with the refusal of the great majority of the ruling class to entertain the idea of keeping the country down by enrolling a large standing army. All but the most extreme conservatives justified suspensions of Habeas Corpus and restrictions on the right of public meeting only as temporary emergency measures. The worst of the Six Acts lapsed in 1825. In the last resort, the position of the ‘Establishment’ rested on consent, and it knew it.
Already a significant if modest role in the relationship between the public and the ‘Establishment’ was played by the political parties. In 1815, and until after the passage of the Reform Act, there were no more than traces of party organization outside Parliament; but there was party feeling.
There were not many contested elections in this period: 100 seems to have been the average number at General Elections before 1832. But, when a contest took place, for whatever reason it took place, the names ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ were likely to be applied to the candidates; and there was a clear general distinction between the political attitudes associated with the two names.
While there were many issues which were not party issues, Whigs were on the whole friendly to Roman Catholics and Dissenters, less inclined to repressive measures, more inclined to fundamental reforms, and had tended to oppose the wars with France. Tories were friends of the Church of England and its privileges, more inclined to repressive measures and less inclined to fundamental reforms, and had been in power during the wars.
In the two Houses of Parliament, at the beginning of the period, the situation was less simple. One powerful group of political leaders with considerable backbench support opposed another, Whigs versus Tories, though Tories themselves were reluctant to acknowledge the name.
These parties were quite well- organized with recognized leaders, regular Whips and occasional full meetings. But in the Commons there were also perhaps as many as 100 uncommitted M.P.s, often, in, effect, apolitical or absentee; and there were some small groups composed of the followers of leaders who were not incorporated into the two main parties: principally, the supporters of Grenville and Canning. From about 1821 to 1827 the position was clearer.
The ‘independents’ excepted, the House of Commons was divided into only two groups. These parties did not vote solidly on all issues. But on matters like Parliamentary reform, and if the question was raised ‘which group of politicians shall form the government’, they could normally be relied on.
A further period of fragmentation from 1827 to 1830 was followed by the formation of Grey’s Ministry, which, though more than a party Ministry, restored the simple dual pattern, again excepting the ‘independents’.
Then, during the Reform Bill debates, ‘independence’, virtually disappeared, nearly all Members ranging themselves on one side or the other: this is the significance of the size of the divisions.
At the high political level the parties had further differences of attitude – they were divided on a great constitutional question, the role of the King. To a large extent it was old battles which the parties were fighting rather than battles which mattered to the public opinion of the 1820s.
The Whigs could claim a measure of continuity, both of personnel and attitudes, since the 1670s, and traditionally stood for the rule of the great aristocracy, put forward as the natural guardians of the people’s rights against the monarchy, and for the interpretation of the maxim ‘The King can do no wrong’ to mean that, whether he did right or wrong, some Minister must be responsible for the act, not the King himself.
The Tories, though longer pedigrees were and might be constructed for them, stemmed for practical purposes from those who in the 1760s had stood for the ‘independence’ of the King, his right to Ministers of his choice and to a say in policy.
It must be emphasized that the Parliamentary parties, though they cannot be imagined without sympathizers outside, were generated within the aristocratic ‘Establishment’ and within a more or less closed Parliament. On the one hand, political loyalties and attitudes were often handed down from father to son, and political memories were long and detailed.
On the other hand, as had happened with the Whigs under Walpole, the long tenure of office by the Tories, at a time of crisis, when the King was becoming progressively less able to act on his own account, strengthened the solidarity of the leaders as against the initiative of the King and also as against the Opposition, so that the Tories themselves whittled away royal power and that ‘crossing the floor of the House’ was not to be undertaken lightly.
In the early years of George Ill’s reign public opinion and party feelings were never strong and sometimes scarcely perceptible, and the King personally played an important part in the choice of Ministers, in holding Ministries together and in framing policy. His Court and the offices of his Household were of great political importance, and he had considerable influence over the disposal of patronage which would later have been regarded as the Administration’s rather than his.
‘Time’s worst statute’, the Septennial Act of 1716, which made it unnecessary to hold General Elections more often than once in seven years, had operated in fact so that every Parliament between that of 1715 and that of 1774, inclusive, lasted for at least six years. In any case, even when there was a General Election, it was rare for the electorate, let alone the people, to make much impact on the composition of the House of Commons.
In the 1760s George III had succeeded in establishing, without special reference to the electorate, that Governments could be formed and could survive without the support of the great Whig lords who had controlled affairs under his two predecessors.
In 1784, by which time party feeling had grown and public opinion was more active, the King, although his policy towards the American colonies had just failed disastrously, was able to maintain his choice of Ministers against the wishes of a majority of the House of Commons.
He had the House of Lords on his side, and, using his power of dissolution creatively, to remove a Parliament only four years old, he also won the support of the electorate. In 1807 he executed a somewhat similar manoeuvre, dissolving a Parliament less than a year old and thereby increasing the majority for a Ministry opposed to Catholic emancipation.
In 1811, when his son became Regent, it was generally supposed that, if he had so wished, he could have changed to Whig Ministers and made good his choice at a General Election.
However, the King had never been absolutely unfettered in his choice of Ministers. There were limits to what the most servile Parliaments would tolerate. And by the 1820s his choice was much more circumscribed than in the 1760s. At the beginning of George Ill’s reign there had been perhaps 250 M.P.s who were ‘placemen’, that is, who held government offices of some sort.
In George IV’s reign Opposition spokesmen often claimed that this ‘influence of the Crown’ was increasing, and thus accounted for the acquiescence of the House of Commons in Tory rule. But in fact the number of ‘placemen’ M.P.s had been falling ever since George Ill’s accession, and in 1822, looking high and low, the most reformers could find was 89, fewer than in a modern House of Commons.
To bring about this change, the pressure of opinion and of the Opposition had acted on the government, but so had a desire for ‘purity’, economy and efficiency on the part of George III and his Ministers themselves.
Further, the King’s personal influence over appointments, even Household appointments, had been much reduced, largely as a result of the greater solidarity of Cabinets; and whereas George III had at least been generally popular and respected, George IV’s prestige was minimal, especially after the Queen’s trial.
Again, the King and his Ministers now had many fewer seats at their disposal at elections. So in Parliament Ministers depended for a secure majority on party feeling, and at elections they depended on the combination of some popular support and some favourable aristocratic patronage.
Now, the House of Lords had a large Tory majority. While the size of the House had remained almost constant between 1719 and 1784, thereafter George III had used his prerogative of making peers as purposefully as his prerogative of dissolution. The membership of the Lords had been almost doubled by 1815, and those ennobled were often ‘borough mongers’ and generally reactionaries.
So, if the King decided to change to Whig Ministers, he had to be prepared to coerce the House of Lords by appealing to the people against them, and perhaps by a massive creation of peers—not a course to be embarked upon unless he positively desired to bring about a revolutionary situation.
In any case, George IV inherited from his father one political principle, opposition to Catholic emancipation; and he also wished to maintain as much as possible of his ‘independence’ as King. In 1811 and for most of the period the Whigs were determined not to take office unless they were allowed to bring forward Catholic emancipation; they were pledged to restrict the independence of the monarch; and they would not join a Ministry except as a party.
So, it would have been unnatural for George to choose a Whig Ministry. But, even among the Tories, he was left with no choice of importance so long as Liverpool led the broad- based Government which in 1819-21 had taken in the followers of Grenville and Canning. Only after Liverpool’s stroke did new opportunities arise.
Even the public, at least the respectable public, would not necessarily have assisted the King if he had opted for the Whigs before 1830. The Tories of the ‘twenties, relaxed repression, proved themselves administrative reformers, Church reformers, reformers of the law, Free Traders, and pursued a liberal foreign policy—all, probably, generally popular.
It was claimed in 1826 that, while His Majesty’s Government filled the offices of state, ‘His Majesty’s Opposition’ (the first use of the phrase) was formulating ministerial policy. But this was not true for the greatest issues of the day, and the Whigs remained suspect on various grounds.
They had seemed less than whole-heartedly patriotic during the war. They were rigid defenders of property rights, and much more inclined than the Tories to justify aristocratic patronage in the public service. It was in fact considered a Tory characteristic to recognize the claims of talent and competence even when they were not recommended by a long pedigree. Grey’s Cabinet was more aristocratic than Liverpool’s.
It was Grey who thought Canning disqualified from becoming Prime Minister because his mother was an actress. Many of the prominent Tories of the ‘twenties were of comparatively humble origin: as well as Canning and Peel, Sidmouth was the son of a physician and Huskisson the son of a very small landowner. Further, Catholic emancipation, to which the Whigs were committed, was unpopular outside Ireland: the General Election of 1826 registered the anti-Catholic feeling of England, strengthening the Tories.
Attwood, founder of the Birmingham Political Union, saw himself as a Tory, like Cobbett. No doubt, to large sections of the public, both the old aristocratic parties seemed equally unattractive, and their disputes anachronistic; and the handful of Radicals elected to the House of Commons appeared the only acceptable politicians.
But, though it was possible for Radicals to act directly on the Government or Parliament to secure particular reforms, for many purposes it was necessary to work through one or the other of the parties, and it was certainly out of the question, short of a revolution, that a Radical Government should be formed.
‘Liberal Toryism’ of the 1820s, it will be apparent, was the resultant of many forces whose stability was precarious. The preferences of the King and the House of Lords, and probably the electorate, were for the Tories as against the Whigs. But the major common ground they shared for this preference was Protestant feeling.
The leaders of the Tories were much more liberal than most of their Parliamentary supporters, and also much more aware of public opinion. The King’s wishes overtly, and party and public feeling implicitly, kept Catholic emancipation an open question within the Cabinet; though most ‘Liberal Tories’ supported it, they could not remain Ministers, and so could not carry out other reforms, unless they acquiesced in this situation—until 1829.
Moreover, the King and the House of Lords were firm against ‘fundamental’ reform. By comparison with what had gone before, the measures of the Administration between 1822 and 1827 seem notably liberal and reformist. By comparison with what followed, they seem merely trivial tinkering.
The only offences for which the death penalty was abolished were those for which no one had been executed for decades. The law could be ‘consolidated’, but not reformed. Nothing serious could be done about the Church. Slavery could not be abolished.
It is significant that it was in foreign policy that liberalism seemed most pronounced. It is significant also that even here there was a greater change of style than of substance. But the respectable public was temporarily satisfied that reform could proceed without constitutional change.
The break-up of the Tory Administration in 1827, followed by Canning’s death, made more rapid change unavoidable. The first put an end to the coalition between anti-reformers and moderate reformers; the second made a Government of the centre hopeless. The reactionary Ministry, Wellington’s, was duly formed and, with a narrower basis of Parliamentary support, was found more, not less, amenable to popular pressure.
The concession of Catholic emancipation could not have been avoided by any Government unless it was prepared for civil war; however, it was easier for a Tory Government to get the measure past the King and through Parliament. This accomplished, together with the modification of the Corn Law, domestic politics were transformed. The King’s one principle had been overborne.
The Tories were further divided: Wellington was now opposed by agricultural and Protestant ‘Ultra’ Tories as well as by Liberal Tories. He and Peel had aroused bitter feelings in their own party by going against their professions and undertaking to put through Catholic emancipation. They had also thereby removed the main cause of Whig unpopularity.
One of the reasons for Wellington’s emphatic rejection of Parliamentary reform in 1830 was his and Peel’s unwillingness to betray again their party’s principles: in the last resort there had to be some relationship between men and measures. His pronouncement brought together all the forces outside the ‘Establishment’ in a new conviction that constitutional reform was essential.
The change of monarch made the Whigs’ path to power easier, since William IV was more or less an ‘Ultra’ Tory Reformer. The French Revolution of 1830 helped too: it had the double effect of arousing Liberal opinion in Britain and of encouraging those who believed that change was possible without extremism.
It now at last became evident that the refusal of the strict Whigs to compromise with Toryism, even at the risk of ostracism during the war and despite exclusion from office for decades, was worthwhile in the long term both from their own point of view and from that of the whole ‘Establishment’, as well as for the nation.
They were available to reform the ‘Establishment’, drastically yet from within, when at last the balance of forces was overwhelmingly in favour of change.
The Reform Act of 1832:
Their Bill was far more radical than any proposal hitherto made from either Front Bench. It seemed revolutionary to M.P.s, for whom the question of redistributing the handful of seats taken from the boroughs of Grampound, Penryn and East Retford (after their elections had been proved ‘corrupt’) had been a major issue in the ‘twenties. It did not fully satisfy the political societies, but it marked such an advance that they gave it their blessing.
The essence of the Whig case for their sweeping measure was this:
The object of an extension of the Elective franchise. . . must be to give satisfaction to the people. . . ; and it is conceived that this may be done by extending the Elective Franchise to those classes, who possess property and knowledge. Much more is demanded by many, but it is hoped that it is not yet too late to make a change. . ., the limit of which shall be the possession of property and intelligence; but any plan must be objectionable which, by keeping the Franchise very. . . exclusive, fails to give satisfaction to the middle and respectable ranks of society, and drives them to a union founded on dissatisfaction, with the lower orders. It is of the utmost importance to associate the middle with the higher orders of society in the love and support of the institutions and government of the country.
This argument, written in specific reference to Scotland, had general application. The Whigs believed that the popular demand was so great, supported by such responsible persons, and so well- justified by social changes, that it must be met, but met in such a way as to strengthen the ‘Establishment’ and weaken the ‘mob’, by detaching from the latter and attaching to the former ‘the middle classes’—in other words, the Bill was not a mere concession, it was intended also as a cure.
Many claimed that the ‘balance of the constitution’ had been tilted against the popular element in the last two reigns, and saw the Bill as a restoration. In more detail, it was hoped to eradicate or mitigate the following abuses: the nomination of M.P.s by private individuals and their election by ‘close’ corporations; gross corruption among the lower class of voters; the expense of elections; the inadequate representation of the larger manufacturing and commercial towns; ‘the unequal and inequitable distribution of voting power between the lower and middle classes’; and the under-representation, in terms of population, of the counties.
The following aims were explicitly disavowed: to remove all anomalies; to equalize constituencies on the basis of population; to give votes to ‘mere numbers’; to assimilate borough and county constituencies; to ‘take away that [legitimate] influence [of landlords] over the vote which preserves the representative system . . . from being of too democratic a character’; and to expose Parliament to more frequent General Elections.
So, the repeal of the Septennial Act and the introduction of the ‘ballot’, that is, secret voting, were not proposed. With exceptions, as long as an existing borough had a population of 2,000, it was to retain one of its M.P.s; if it had 4,000, both.
A theory of the representation of ‘interests’, deriving in its fullest form from Burke, was used to justify the inclusion of some and the exclusion of other possible constituencies: From received its M.P. as the representative borough of the West Country cloth industry; and enfranchisement was accorded to the ‘petty interests of the keepers of circulating libraries and vendors of oranges and lemonade at Cheltenham and Brighton’; but only a few of the populous metropolitan boroughs were given separate representation.
These various aims, adjusted by compromise and modified by less elevated political considerations, determined the shape of the Reform Act as it emerged from months of Parliamentary debate. The detailed provisions were as follows. In the Act for England and Wales 56 boroughs, were wholly disfranchised, 31 partly.
The resulting 143 seats were redistributed as follows. In England and Wales 22 new two-member boroughs (including Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds) and 21 one-member boroughs were created, and 65 seats were given to counties, many of which were now divided for electoral purposes. Eight of the residue went to Scotland, the other five to Ireland. Many old boroughs were much enlarged in area.
The result, if total population be taken as the true criterion, was to reduce, but not to remove, the over-representation of the South as compared with the North of England, the over-representation of borough electors as compared with county electors, the over-representation of rural as compared with genuinely urban areas and the over-representation of England by comparison with Scotland and Ireland. Anomaly survived well enough – of the boroughs left after 1832 there were a few which could not muster 200 voters for two M.P.s, while on the other hand a few had more than 7,000.
Changes in the franchise were as follows, the more minute complications ignored. A man now had first to be registered before he could exercise the franchise. In the English and Welsh counties the 40 shilling freehold remained the basic qualification for the vote. To this were added in England and Wales what may in shorthand be called £ 10 ‘copyholders’, £ 10 long leaseholders, £ 50 short leaseholders and £ 50 occupiers.
These were also approximately the new qualifications for voting in the Scottish counties, where a 40 shilling freehold did not suffice either before or after the Act. In Ireland £ 10 freeholders were joined by £ 10 leaseholders. In the boroughs the basic qualification over the whole United Kingdom became the £ 10 occupation or household franchise, but certain ancient rights were preserved.
A man could not qualify to vote in a county by virtue of a property which provided the qualification to vote in a borough, a provision which, with the ‘Chandos clause’ enfranchising £ 50 tenants, represents the direct impact on the Act of the ‘Ultra’ Tories. In general, the effect was to increase considerably what contemporaries thought of as middle-class representation, and slightly to reduce such working-class representation as there had been by removing anomalies in certain boroughs.
In total the electorate of the United Kingdom was increased from under 500,000 to over 800,000, that is 1 in 30 of the whole population, or 1 in 7 of adult males in that youthful society.
The greatest proportional increase was in Scotland, from under 4,500 to over 60,000. The entire Irish electorate was under 100,000 after 1832, only 1 in 80 of the population and 1 in 20 of adult males, less than half the size of the electorate before 1829, but even so probably more than twice the size of the electorate between 1829 and 1832.