The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Struggle for Parliamentary Reform. The Reform Act of 1832

Category: 19th century

The Whig party seeing the disastrous consequences of the policies of open reaction pursued by the Tories began to advocate moderate measures of reform which appealed to the industrialists. The Whig leadership began to disassociate itself from the principles of the Vienna Congress which disregarded the national interests of the peoples of Europe. Both at home and abroad the Whig party began to carry out policies answering the interests of the industrial capitalists and the middle class. Hence, the Whig party was now developing as a liberal party of the bourgeoisie, and soon it began to be officially called so. The moderate Tory politicians such as Canning, Peel, Huskisson, Palmerston were soon to join this newly revived party, and under the slogans of bourgeois liberalism they carried out some reforms.

Peel was quite well aware of the odious measures of the Peterloo massacre and of the outcry of protest in the country. So he decided as home secretary to reform the police system. In 1829 he replaced the old ‘Bow Street runners’ with 1,000 new policemen dressed in tall hats and blue belted coats. They became known as the ‘bobbies’, ‘Bobby’ being another form of Peel’s first name, Robert. This new service was controlled by the home office at Whitehall.

Huskisson’s name as President of the Board of Trade was associated with important reforms in the field of trade. Finding that the British protective trade and navigation laws were causing other nations to build up similar trade walls which hurt British foreign commerce, he persuaded Parliament in 1823 to re-examine the Navigation Acts which had been adopted in the seventeenth century against Dutch rivalry. Parliament in 1823 passed a law which provided for reciprocity treaties with foreign countries. This meant that foreign vessels were admitted to British ports on condition that the country to which the ships belonged gave similar privileges to British ships in their ports.

Canning, as foreign secretary, supported the revolt of the South American colonies of Spain which had become independent during and after the Napoleonic wars. These newly-independent states opened opportunities for Britain to gain access to their markets. Hence, Britain recognized the independence of these states and undertook measures to prevent an armed intervention. Spain lost her colonies in the Western Hemisphere and Britain to the delight of her merchants and financiers secured important commercial gains in South America.

Similar were British motives concerning the question of Greek independence against Turkish yoke.

Independent Greece was considered to be an important outpost of British interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Canning was always hostile to democratic movements both at home and abroad. Therefore he diplomatically paid lip service to the Greek independence cause in 1823. In 1827 the combined forces of the English, Russian and French fleets defeated the Turks in the sea-battle in the bay of Navarino, which rendered possible the eventual liberation of Greece.

Meanwhile, the Irish struggle for independence was gaining momentum though in form it was religious. The Catholics in Ireland insisted on emancipation. They were still denied seats in the British parliament, even to represent Ireland, which was overwhelmingly Catholic in religion. To Daniel O’Connell, a wealthy landowner and prominent Irish political leader, who led the liberal wing of the Irish national movement, goes much of the credit for winning electoral representation in the British parliament. In 1823 he organized a Catholic association which headed the struggle. Faced with the option of civil war Parliament passed the Emancipation Act of 1829 giving the Catholics of Ireland election right. Under the pressure of the masses O’Connell also demanded the repeal of the 1801 Anglo-Irish Union.1 However, being a true representative of his class, he was hostile to social changes in his country and resorted only to constitutional means. He was against class struggle and this in its turn gave the British authorities opportunities to limit the scope of the movement and keep the situation in Ireland under firm control.!

In England itself the reforming Tories made concessions to the workers in order to defuse the growing social tension. \ In 1824 — 5 Combination Laws were passed by Parliament allowing wage workers to form trade unions to secure adequate wages and hours of labour. However, another Act was passed by Parliament threatening severe punishment for those who took industrial action against strike-breakers. Despite this limitation new trade unions began to emerge all throughout the country. The number of industrial workers was also growing: in 1820 the number of weavers operating mechanical looms was ten thousand, by 1844 the figure increased fifteen times.

In 1825 — 7 England faced a typical cyclical crisis of capitalism. It affected every branch of the economy, especially the textile industry. Thousands of workers became unemployed, and as a consequence social tension was growing in the country. Remarkable in this respect were the Swing riots in 1829 and 1830. The hired agricultural labourers, carpenters, smiths in the countryside united into brotherhoods of ‘swings’ in order to defend their lot.

For the previous twenty years and more the condition of the agricultural labourers, especially in the southern counties, had deteriorated. Unemployed workers were mobilized by the parish authorities into gangs to work on the roads like common criminals; in some villages men and women were harnessed to the parish cart. The riots began in Kent on August 29, 1830. 400 labourers destroyed some thrashing machines and set on fire the property of a much hated landowner. Rapidly similar action spread to other areas of the countryside. The organization of the movement was poor and the methods primitive. The object in most places was to obtain an improvement of the wages. Inevitably some actions of the Swing rioters, such as arson, were best conducted in secret, with blackened faces and at night. The movement scared the authorities out of their wits. The retribution which followed the Swing riots was harsh in the extreme. Nearly 2000 prisoners were brought to trial in 1830—1. Of these 252 were sentenced to death; 481 were transported to penal colonies in Australia and the rest imprisoned, whipped and fined. To press home the lessons of English justice for the poor, the convicted prisoners were compelled to watch the execution of their comrades.

Despite the ruthless suppression of the rioters opposition and dissent continued in the country. However, it was mainly concentrated on parliamentary reform. A Birmingham banker, Thomas Attwood, founded a society to present a petition. In London Francis Place, a retired tailor, did the same, as well as many radicals in other towns. In 1831 William Lovett, a cabinet-maker and brilliant organizer, formed the National Union of the Working Classes for ‘the protection of working men/ the free disposal of the produce of labour, an effectual reform of the Commons’ House of Parliament, the repeal of all bad laws, the enactment of a wise and comprehensive code of laws’. Their programme in general was universal suffrage, secret ballot and annual parliaments.

Francis Place and other radicals used the organization of the working class as a scarecrow against the ruling oligarchy to press for parliamentary reform.

The election system certainly needed reform. By means of bribery, corruption and the exertion of ‘influence’, rich men were able to control the election of members to parliament. This, when combined with a system of patronage, formed the basis of the eighteenth-century practice of government. In the counties everyone who owned freehold land to the value of 40 shillings a year was entitled to vote, and only one man in every ten of the population had that income. In the boroughs, the situation was different, with each borough having its own rules. The borough of Westminster had 17,000 electors, but in the rotten boroughs there were very few. The most famous rotten borough was ‘Old Sarum’ near Salisbury, which was nothing more than a green hill, and yet it returned two members to parliament. While rotten boroughs such as this had MPs, some of the industrial towns like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham with thousands of citizens were not represented in the House of Commons at Westminster.

In 1830 the July revolution took place in France and it gave a powerful fillip to the movement for parliamentary reform in England. The common people demonstrated their feelings in the reform riots of 1831 at Nottingham (where the castle was burned down), Derby, Worcester, Bath and (most severely) Bristol.

The Whigs and the radicals now united in the emerging Liberal party saw the gravity of the political situation in the country and were keen on having -parliamentary reform introduced.

However, the Whig reformers under Lord Grey did not intend to give the vote to everybody. The Bill which they intended to introduce gave the vote only to men paying rates on their property.I It was still property rather than people, they said, which should be represented in parliament.

A month before the French July revolution George IV died and William IV (1830 — 7) was crowned as king. The reformers made use of the situation and handed in petitions to reform the electoral system.; However, <this modest Bill failed to pass the House of Commons on the first occasion. Soon there was a general election. The Whigs were returned with a majority of 136.

When the Tory majority in the Lords threw out the Beform Bill for a second time, Lord Grey asked the king to make some more Whig peers. The Tories were thus threatened. When the Bill came up again to the upper house, the latter surrendered and did not vote against it. Hence in 1832 the Beform Bill was passed, and became law.

After the passing of the Bill it became apparent that the industrial bourgeoisie was the greatest winner and practically nothing was gained by the working class. Britain was developing from an oligarchy government dominated by the aristocracy and commercial and financial bourgeoisie to a bourgeois-democratic system dominated by the capitalists in alliance with the aristocracy.

The Reform Act took 143 parliamentary seats away from the pocket and rotten boroughs. Representation was given to the new large towns like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. It increased the number of voters from 435,000 to 670,000. However, this was a small number of electors in a population of 14 million. Most Englishmen, especially the working class, and all English women, were still without the vote, and were to remain so until much later. In fact, only about one person out of forty could vote. In the counties the forty-shilling freeholders continued to vote, but to them were added tenant farmers who paid at least 50 pounds a year in rent. The right to vote was extended to any householder who paid a yearly rental of ten pounds in boroughs or who owned such a place.

However, not all the conditions of suffrage that had been insisted on were accepted. There was no secret ballot, no payment of deputies. Nevertheless, the rotten boroughs had been abolished and together with them the notorious practices which were carried out openly. Now the big industrial centres received representation and this gave precedent for the working class to carry on its fight for economic and social rights.

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