Here is a term paper on ‘Parliamentary Politics and the Second Reform Act’ especially written for school and college students.

By comparison with the previous and still more with the subsequent period, the years between 1850 and 1868 knew a weak party system. Not only were the main parties ill-disciplined and at times divided, but until 1859 there existed two additional parties, the Perlites and an independent Irish party.

This latter group broke away from alliance with the Liberals after Russell made his Protestant stand in 1850, and worked for land legislation giving more rights to tenants; it sometimes numbered 50 M.P.s. From 1851 to 1859 leadership of the Liberals was disputed between Russell and Palmerston, and from 1866 to 1868 the party was split over Parliamentary reform.

Disraeli was at no time during this period secure as deputy to Derby. The Governments of these years were all weak in Parliament. Four of them, Russell’s first and Derby’s three, had only minority support at best. Further, on only one occasion, in 1868, was a Ministry unequivocally brought down by a General Election.


In all other changes of government the House of Commons had a large part. The most resounding crash was that of the apparently powerful coalition of 1852-55, placed in a minority by more than 150. This was in time of war, and no attempt was made to consult the electorate in this case.

But it was striking how regularly M.Ps reacted against the verdict of Elections. In 1858 and 1866 Cabinets with a paper majority were turned out shortly after the electorate had increased their nominal strength.

In 1852 and 1859 the Conservatives, defeated in the Commons, but won seats at an Election, but not enough to give them a majority. It appeared that the independence of M.P.s was restored against both Ministers and voters, and in some cases the activity required of the monarch in the search for a substitute Government recalled the days of George III.

It would not be right, though, to suggest that the party system had broken down completely. The very persistence of the Perlites in keeping themselves separate from the major parties testifies to the value placed on political consistency. In the great division of 1859, which brought Palmerstone to power 637 out of 654 M.Ps took part, and there was little cross-voting.


Protectionists and Liberals, despite many attempts to detach individuals, always declined to collaborate with one another. Even those who made a point of calling themselves ‘Liberal-Conservative’, which was a title used by, others than Perlites, were seldom inconstant voters.

The true ‘non-party’ man is hard to find. Although there were some who rejoiced at the decline of party, the great majority of those who had to take the decisions acted in accordance with the conventions built up in the previous period. The Queen and the Prince maintained their constitutional resolves: she always first applied, after the resignation of a Government, to a leader of the largest Opposition party.

Loose and confused parties obviously go with weak Governments and little legislation. The historian would like to be able to decide which caused which, or what caused all. The following explanation seems at any rate plausible. At least before the days of strong national party organizations, strong enough to make it politically suicidal for an M.P. to be disloyal, party solidarity and a clear two-party division can only be maintained for long by widespread feeling on what are conceived to be vital issues.

The split of 1845-46 took place on such a question, but Protectionism was soon ‘dead and damned’. Nothing came to replace it, except matters of foreign policy, which were all ephemeral, unlike the wars of 1793-1815, which had fostered new party divisions of long standing. The number of contests at General Elections fell to a low point in 1859.


It is the change of mood of the late ‘forties which is decisive. The majority of the influential public, with the Church question and Free Trade both dormant issues, was interested only in small and tentative domestic changes, and concerned instead with the defence and promotion of British interests in the world at large. Some measure of Parliamentary order could be preserved, but no strong discipline, until the appearance of a new alignment of public feeling in 1868.

Palmerston was the beneficiary of this attitude. He did not in all respects embody it. He was a consistent advocate of the unpopular French alliance, which twice, in 1851 and 1858, enabled his Parliamentary enemies to humble him. He was a vigorous reformer in the field of Public Health, as he showed during his tenure of the Home Office from 1852-55.

But he was justly identified with the assertion of British interests abroad. After his eclipse in 1851-2, events worked in his favour. Russell had ostentatiously taken up the causes of Free Trade, Protestantism and Parliamentary reform. The first two were popular enough, but Russell soon lost any special property in them; the third attracted little support until 1866.

During the Aberdeen Ministry Russell was, officially, the more involved with foreign affairs: he was even for a short time Foreign Secretary. When Palmerston resigned at the end of 1853, it was ostensibly in opposition to Parliamentary reform.

But the impression was created that it was Palmerston who was the true advocate in the Cabinet of a strong line against Russia, and the man to win the Crimean War, while Russell, by fussing continually about his status in the Government, by abandoning it at the height of the war and by failing to obtain Austrian assistance on a mission to Vienna after the fall of Aberdeen, discredited himself with both the public and his colleagues.

During the negotiations which led to the formation of Palmerston’s Ministry in 1855 the Queen gave Russell the opportunity to try to form a Government, in order to show him how low his standing now was. Only Palmerston would serve under him. It was therefore natural that in 1859 Russell should take second place.

Palmerston’s nine years as Prime Minister, briefly interrupted, resemble Liverpool’s liberal phase. He preserved himself, generally, from defeat by the Lords or by the conservatives of all parties in the House of Commons, because he was clearly more conservative on Parliamentary reform than any likely alternative Liberal, perhaps (after 1859) than the official Conservatives.

He maintained Radical support generally, by allowing the passage of minor reforms, by permitting the extension of Free Trade and by liberalism in foreign policy. In spirit Palmerston was a Canningite to the end.

As with the death of Liverpool, the death of Palmerston broke up parties, and in the subsequent confusion proposals for fundamental reform were found attractive by public and politicians alike. As in the ‘thirties, a bout of major legislation was introduced by the passage of a, Parliamentary Reform Act. Historians have lately expended much effort in trying to explain this event.

The problem, of course, is of a different order from that of the causes of the First Reform Act. No doubt, in the very long run, given the continuing advance of industrialization and the development of mass-communications, Parliamentary reform, culminating in democracy, was certain to come in Britain.

But the first step had been exceedingly difficult to take. Once one Reform Act had been passed, however, it was bound to be followed up in the comparatively short rim, and with less travail. It was scarcely possible after 1832 to rebut the argument that the growth of new towns and the decay of old required further modifications to be made in the system of representation. The franchise qualifications remained too arbitrary to be easily defended.

In 1851 Russell became the first Front Bench politician to take up again the cause of Parliamentary reform, proposing a very modest enfranchisement. In raising the question he of course hoped for political advantage for the Liberals. But little accrued at first, the existing electorate and the existing Members were on the whole content with the privileges they had.

Only three years after the last grand Chartist demonstration, Reform aroused slight interest among the intended beneficiaries and the public at large. The issue became a plaything of Parliamentary politics, something which a Government could scarcely avoid bringing up, but which, once the House was confronted with it, produced a line-up of forces sufficient to defeat the proposal.

Of the first five ministerial Bills of the period, all very moderate, three were dropped in the face of opposition and apathy (1852, 1854, 1860), and two were defeated in the House (1859,1866). After 1851 the next landmark in the story was the conversion of the Conservatives to further Reform. But at their first attempt to legislate, in 1859, they failed to win enough Radical support to counterbalance the opposition of some Conservatives and Whigs.

Russell’s very moderate Bill of 1866 alienated the conservative Whigs, the ‘Adullamites’, led by Robert Lowe, a virulent and doctrinaire critic of any approach to democracy. There appeared, as usual, to be a majority in the Commons against Reform.

The Derby Administration, formed after Russell resigned, was composed of politicians who had helped to defeat the 1866 Bill, and was in a decided minority. Yet by August 1867 Disraeli had carried a much more Radical Bill than Russell’s, or than any of those so far proposed by Governments.

These were the main provisions of the Act and of the measures for Scotland and Ireland passed in 1868. The important enfranchisement was of all borough householders, whether owners or not, in England, Wales and Scotland, who paid their own rates. This provision largely explains why the Acts added nearly a million to the electorate, mostly in the large towns.

There was some lowering of qualifications in the counties, which increased their electorate by about 250,000 votes. As for the redistribution clauses, 52 seats were taken from English and Welsh boroughs, and one seat from the Scottish counties; 28 county seats were created, 22 borough seats, and 3 University seats.

A number of changes were made in constituency boundaries, with a view to separating urban from rural areas, as this was supposed to be to the advantage of the Conservatives. A clause which has aroused much interest provided that in three-member constituencies, of which there were 12 (7 counties and 5 boroughs), a voter might vote for only 2 candidates, and in the City of London, which had 4 Members, for only 3.

The intention was to give representation to the minority party. The Act for Ireland made almost no difference. A special Act passed in 1850 had somewhat extended the franchise there, but it was still after 1868 narrower than it had been before 1829.

At a high Parliamentary level the story of the 1867 Bill’s passage is excessively complex. These seem to be the decisive moments. First it had to be decided that the Conservatives should bring in a Bill at all.

Disraeli himself had doubts, but Derby and the Queen and most other politicians were clear that the question must be settled, or Parliament would discredit itself, the Conservatives be ruined and the people roused. Secondly, the nature of the Government’s Bill had to be determined. The Cabinet after long debate was prevailed upon to accept ‘household suffrage, coupled with plurality of voting.’

All the Reform Bills of this period embodied some sort of ‘plurality of voting’, giving more votes than one to persons with degrees or considerable shareholdings or sizable Savings Bank accounts. This kind of ‘safeguard’ against the ‘rule of numbers’ was very popular with the governing classes as well as with Radicals like J. S. Mill.

At the last moment the Cabinet reversed its decision, and so a weak Bill was outlined to the Commons late in February 1867. It aroused such objections that Derby reverted to the bolder plan, although it cost three resignations from the Cabinet. A ‘comprehensive’ measure was introduced in mid-March.

Thirdly, over the next four months the Bill was drastically altered in the House of Commons, so that the safeguards against household suffrage nearly disappeared. The greatest single change was Hodgkinson’s amendment, unexpectedly accepted by Disraeli on 18 May, enfranchising many of the ‘compound householders’, tenants whose rates had been paid by their landlords, by the bizarre device of abolishing the practice.

Many of the other details were also concessions made on the spur of the moment to varying Parliamentary combinations. The division in the Liberal party produced by Russell’s Bill lasted long enough to allow the Radicals to vote as they pleased, and Disraeli’s performance was a uniquely brilliant example of Parliamentary skill in an extraordinary situation.

But certain generalizations can be made about the aims of the principal actors and the state of politics, which largely account for the passage of the Act of 1867. It was not a mere succession of accidents. Derby and Disraeli, and many of their followers, cared more that their party should pass some great measure, and therefore, in the context, a Parliamentary Reform Bill, than they cared about its precise terms.

The Conservative Ministers, who resigned, seeing the issues as matters of life and death to the party and the State, were untypical. Experience of the working of the Constitution since the passage of the First Reform Act had shown that extension of the franchise and redistribution of seats need not seriously affect the dominance of the aristocracy and the land.

The Conservatives had never had a Parliamentary majority since 1846. They could hardly be worse off under a new electoral dispensation. If they were in charge of carrying a Reform Bill, they might hope to make it more advantageous to their party than a Liberal measure would be. There was much uncertainty about the effects of many of the changes discussed.

In this sense the Act was, as Derby called it, ‘a leap in the dark’. But in one or two ways the Conservatives had good reason to think it might help them in future Elections. It provided for a larger increase in the number of county seats than the 1866 Bill, and most counties were Conservative strongholds.

Again as compared with Russell’s Bill, it probably also preserved or created more borough seats likely to return a Conservative. On the other hand, the further extension of the borough franchise could hardly make the larger towns much more Liberal in tendency.

Throughout his career, except, oddly enough, in 1866, Disraeli was a consistent Parliamentary reformer. But he was a party man before he was a Parliamentary reformer. Insofar as his claim is justified that he had educated his followers in this field, it was not because he had instilled into them devotion to Tory Democracy.

Rather, he had seized opportunities to identify the party’s obvious interest in office and vote-winning with support for Parliamentary reform, as a matter of expediency. The break with Peel had so far brought no good to the Conservatives. Perhaps a new electoral regime would restore their fortunes, and vindicate Disraeli.

Gladstone’s and the Liberals’ attitudes present a different problem. Even while Palmerston lived, Gladstone had moved into what by Parliamentary standards was an advanced position on Reform. In 1864 he said, though he told his affronted Prime Minister he did not mean, that ‘every man not presumably incapacitated. . . . is morally entitled to come within the pale of the constitution’, that is, be admitted to the franchise.

The way in which he arrived at this view is instructive. Gladstone was like no one else, but it was his combination of attitudes, not the attitudes themselves, which was distinctive. In the ‘thirties he had opposed the First Reform Act, Liberal foreign policy and concessions to Nonconformists. His experience at the Board of Trade under Peel made him a fanatical Free Trader.

The defection of Newman from the Church of England began a process whereby Gladstone, while himself remaining a High Churchman, came to value liberty for all denominations, an outlook utterly opposed to that of his book of 1838.

A visit to Naples late in 1850 turned this critic of Palmerston’s handling of the Don Pacifico affair into a moralizing enemy of reactionary absolutism, who in 1859-60 supported the cause of Italian liberty more strenuously than any of his Cabinet colleagues except Palmerston and Russell.

During this Ministry Gladstone worked with Cobden and Bright, Parliamentary reformers, in the cause of Free Trade. He worked with Russell, Parliamentary reformer, on foreign policy. He found himself progressively more sympathetic with working-class and Nonconformist deputations and audiences.

He was impressed, during the American Civil War, both by the refusal of Lancashire cotton-workers, despite the hardships the war brought them, to support the Southern States on which they depended for their raw material, and by the fact that the spokesmen of the working class had been right, whereas he had been wrong, about the outcome of the conflict.

This was ‘a great lesson to us all, to teach us that in those little tutored but reflective minds. . . .opinions and sentiments gradually form themselves. . . .which are found to be deep-seated, mature and ineradicable.’ He was overwhelmed by the reception he was given when he spoke to large provincial audiences. ‘God knows I have not courted them. . . . It is, however, impossible not to love the people from whom such manifestations come, as meet me in every quarter.’

While Gladstone condescended, a deputation of the workmen of York deferred:

We have marked your manifestations of sympathy with the down-trodden and oppressed of every clime. You have advanced the cause of freedom in foreign lands by the power and courage with which you have assailed and exposed the misdeeds and cruelties of continental tyrants.

To the provident operative you have by your Post Office Savings Bank Bill given security for his small savings. . . These acts, together with your speeches. . . on the Borough Franchise Bill, make up a life that commands our lasting gratitude.

Gladstone was becoming a superior demagogue, and already the essence of Gladstonian Liberalism was present in his attitudes: the moralist appeal to a General Will, believed to be, when speaking ex cathedra, infallible.

During the course of 1867, however, Gladstone was often to the Right of Disraeli on Parliamentary reform. He took much more seriously than the Conservative leader the details of the measure, especially the restrictions on household suffrage in the original drafts.

Further, he was trying to restore the unity of a party, which counted Lowe among its members. Yet the Liberals in general and Gladstone in particular, retained the support of the Reform movement outside Parliament. The Reform Act was taken, and on the whole rightly, to be a concession to the Opposition, albeit to different elements at different moments, rather than a Conservative initiative.

Historians have been especially interested in seeking an answer to the question: what part was played in the passage of the Act by public pressure? In the middle of the ‘sixties Parliamentary reform had suddenly again become a popular cause. Part of the explanation, no doubt, was comparatively high food prices in 1866-67.

But the dear corn of 1853-54 had evoked a demand for war with Russia. It was the changed situation at Westminster, and a new shift of mood in the country, away from complacent interest in foreign affairs, which made the essential difference. Lowe’s extreme denunciations in 1866 of the poorer voters and non-voters contributed to the revival of the demand for Reform, just as Wellington’s diehard stand in 1830 had brought the Grey coalition together.

Bright now mounted a successful campaign in the provinces for household suffrage. The Reform League, founded in 1865 to work for manhood suffrage, asserted: ‘Let us once be able to maintain by the force of intellect and truth our rights as workmen in that House, and depend upon it we shall rise in the social scale.’ There was a more moderate Reform Union, whose aims were more in line with Gladstone’s and Bright’s.

These organizations were, in part, attempts to transfer to the national scene the spirit of class co-operation already carefully cultivated in some of the great towns, especially in Birmingham, where in the Elections of the ‘fifties and in that of 1865 non-voters were taken into consideration by the Liberal leaders. From this point of view also, Gladstonian Liberalism existed before the Second Reform Act and helped to pass it.

Even the origins of the National Liberal Federation may be traced back to the Birmingham Liberal organization of these, years. Broadly, the cities were Liberal, Nonconformist and individualist. Their articulate inhabitants were interested in winning political rights rather than social reforms. In general, without the growth of the provincial Press, the consolidation of the skilled workers’ unions and the Nonconformist revival, it would hardly be possible to explain the movement for Parliamentary reform.

The 1867 Reform Bill was the only one since 1832 to be debated at a time when there was great public interest in the question, and it was the only one that was passed. This is not a mere coincidence. But it is not a simple matter to say precisely how opinion influenced Parliament.

Some historians have laid much stress on the so-called Hyde Park riots of July 1866 and May 1867, monster meetings of the Reform League which got slightly out of hand. It is plainly true that the Derby Government lost face by its failure to enforce its prohibitions of the meetings in question.

It is more important, though, that a steady pressure was kept up on Parliament by orderly provincial meetings throughout the autumn and winter of 1866 and the spring and summer of 1867. The Government did not meet the protesters’ demands in full, but the agitation, though much less violent than that of 1831-32, had somewhat the same effect.

Ministers and M.P.s in general, felt themselves compelled to pass some measure, which had to be broad enough to be plausibly described as a settlement of the question, with a view to placating respectable reformers and detaching them from the extremists. Without pressure from the public, Disraeli would not have retained control of his party as he allowed the Bill to become radical.

As soon as the Bill had been passed, the Liberals were in a position to reunite. At least as important as the story of the session of 1867, but much less studied, is that of the session of 1867-68, during which Gladstone again took command of his party and fashioned it into a new progressive instrument. He cultivated Nonconformity, carrying the abolition of compulsory church rates against the Government.

He took up the question of the disestablishment of the Irish Church, thus attracting Irish support and involving himself in elaborate autobiographical explanations of his change of front. Through the Whips he collaborated with the Unions and the Reform League, the latter supplying electoral information in return for a subvention from party funds.

In the General Election he made Irish disestablishment the programme of his party, submitting a clear issue to the voters for the first time since 1831. In the result he was able to form a Government with a majority in the Commons of over a hundred, committed to legislative action on a large scale. This, too, was something unknown since the early ‘thirties.

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