The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Reform Bill

Category: 19th century

By 1830 Britain had been struck by a severe eco­nomic crisis. Factories were closing down, unemploy­ment increased rapidly, and the wages of workers fell. The revolution which took place in Paris in July and in Belgium in August helped to increase the tensions of the atmosphere.

Economic distress quickly led to a demand for Parliamentary Reform. The agitation for Reform was more widespread and dangerous than ever before, though Reform meant quite different things to differ­ent classes.

The character of Parliament, the classes which dominated it, the methods by which elections were carried out, its unrepresentative nature and the ac­companying system of sinecures and jobbery in the first decades of the 19th century differed in no funda­mental respect from that prevailing a century before. A few sinecures had been abolished and corruption was forced by the growth of criticism to be a little more discreet, but these gains were more than out­weighed by two changes for the worse.

The growth of population since 1760, and the changed distribution of that population, had made the members of Parliament even less representative. Great new towns had sprung up which returned no mem­bers: these included Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield. Many of the old boroughs had remained small or had even declined in population.

The members did not represent the bulk of the inhabitants of the places for which they sat. At the same time the industrial areas were almost disfran­chised as compared with the rural areas and small but old market towns dominated by local gentry. And, sec­ond, the class of 40 shilling freeholders in whom the county franchise was vested had been almost swept out of existence by the enclosures. The class of yeo­men disappeared, the electors were mainly the land­owners.

The Reform Bill had really two sides. One regu­larized the franchise, giving the vote to tenant farm­ers in the counties (and thereby increasing the influ­ence of the landowners in these constituencies) and to the town middle class. In a number of boroughs the right to vote was actually taken from a large number of people who previously exercised it. About this side of the Bill the working class was naturally unenthusi-astic, but it was carefully kept in the background while a furious campaign was worked up against the rotten boroughs.

The most popular part of the Bill was that which swept away the rotten boroughs and transferred their members to the industrial towns and the counties. Fif­ty-six boroughs lost both their members and thirty more lost one. Forty-two new constituencies were cre­ated in London and other large towns and sixty-five new members were given to the counties.

Most of the workers believed that once the old system of graft and borough-mongering was swept away they could count on an immediate improvement in their conditions. Hence the enthusiasm aroused by the Reform Bill and hence their speedy and complete disillusionment afterwards.

The Bill passed into law on June 7th, 1832. It in­creased the electorate only from 220,000 to 670,000 in a population of 14,000,000, but its other consequences can hardly be exaggerated.

First, by placing political power in the hands of the industrial capitalists and their middle class follow­ers it created a mass basis for the Liberal Party which dominated politics throughout the middle of the 19th century. From this time some of the towns of the industrial North began to send Radical members to Par­liament, and a definite political group began to form to the left of the liberals, sometimes cooperating with them, but frequently taking an independent political line. There was always a group of members which sup­ported the demands of the Chartists in the House of Commons.

In the fifty-five years between 1830 and 1885 there were nine Whig and Liberal governments that held office for a total of roughly forty-one years: in the same period six Tory governments had only fourteen years of office.

Second, the Reform Bill altered the political bal­ance between the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Crown. The Commons gained at the expense of the Lords because they were now able to claim to be the representatives of the people against a clique of aristocrats. The abolition of the rotten bor­oughs also robbed the peers of much of their power to control the composition of the Lower House. For the same reason the Crown lost the last of its means of direct interference in Parliamentary politics. From this time the influence of the Crown, though often consid­erable, had to be exercised secretly, through its pri­vate contacts with politicians.

The third consequence of passing of the Reform Bill was unintended and indirect. The workers who had done most of the fighting soon realized that they had been excluded from all the benefits, and the Poor Law Act of 1834 convinced them that the Government was indifferent to their needs. It is not accidental that the years immediately after 1832 were marked by a disgust­ed turning away of the masses from parliamentary politics to revolutionary Trade Unionism, or that they proceeded to build up in the Chartist Movement the first independent political party of the working class.

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