When the people spoke: the Great Reform Act

Antonia Fraser's latest book explores one of the key moments in Britain's electoral history: the Great Reform Act. Here, she spoke to Matt Elton about a crisis in which the populace's demands for greater representation almost triggered a revolution

The 1832 Reform Act made wide-ranging changes to the British electoral system, creating 67 new constituencies, disenfranchising 56 boroughs and reducing another 31 to a single MP.  (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article first appeared in the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

How far back can the roots of the Great Reform crisis be traced?

I think a crisis had long been looming, because the electoral system was really medieval and had hardly been touched properly – just tweaked a little in 1760.  No account had been paid to the industrial revolution: people today are genuinely surprised that places like Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester not only had no votes, but also sent no MPs to Westminster. And, of course, against that you get tiny places like Old Sarum, which sent two MPs.

Why did people’s demands for greater representation come to a head in the 1830s?

I think that, although Britain is an island, it is part of Europe and had just fought a European conflict – the Napoleonic Wars, which only ended 15 years earlier. People were still feeling the economic consequences, with soldiers back and unemployed. There was a tremendous amount of agricultural and economic distress, and that always produces popular anger and disruption.

Are there any characters from the crisis that particularly stand out?

I love Lord Althorp [leader of the Commons], because I think that he’s such a British hero. Despite the fact that people said that there was a better speaker in every vestry, he was the man who held the campaign for reform together. I also think that Thomas Attwood, who set up the Birmingham Political Union, was tremendously important because he endlessly said that the union was not going to be violent. He had strict rules, and a determination to be a proper force rather than ‘the mob’. I think what’s interesting is that all these people worked together.
I’ve tried to outline this delicate dance, in which Attwood said to the Whig government: we are not all violent but we demand change – there are some violent people below us and we cannot guarantee what will happen if you don’t give that change to us. So that threat of violence – without actually using it – was very interesting.

How important do you think public pressure was in effecting reform?

I think that it was an enormous factor, but it wasn’t the only factor. I think we also have to define ‘pressure’: is it rioters in, for instance, Bristol, or agricultural rioters who have no voice, or middle-class people organising marches? Or is it some combination of these things, of the marchers saying: “There are bad people behind us if you don’t listen to us”?
None of this works if you don’t have political leaders, of course.
I would say that a unique combination of these elements came together to bring about this hugely significant change in our electoral system.

How close did the crisis come to descending into revolution?

I quote Lord John Russell, the chief driving force behind the bill, who said that in his memory the only time that he felt that Britain ever came near revolution was in May 1832. I take his opinion seriously, and I certainly think that, if the House of Lords had rejected a bill passed persistently by the House of Commons, and the king had done nothing to support it, you would have had tremendous riots.
The question then would have been, what you did about them. Would you have sent in the troops? We have never had all that many troops, and you can’t be that sure, in a country like this, that they are actually going to fire on their brothers and sisters and mothers. ‘Revolution’ is a big word, but there were after all revolutions in France, Belgium and Holland. We have had civil wars, so I think that it would have been possible.
Don’t forget that a lot of the people’s suffering was economic. [The pro-reform pamphleteer] William Cobbett said: “I defy you to agitate a fellow with a full stomach,” which is profoundly true of all revolutions.
I think that if people were starving and thought that a machine had taken their job – or they saw their wives and children going hungry – they could have become extremely violent.

Was there anything in the course of your research that surprised you?

I was unaware of the drama of it. I somehow thought that somebody said, “let’s have a reform act”, and someone else said, “that’s a good idea.” But it was the very opposite. The Tories fought it to the very end. Even when they were supposed to be passing it, they fought it.

Do you think that the men in power who fought for, and against, reform were driven by idealism or pragmatism?

To me, what’s interesting about writing about politics is the mixture of idealism and ambition. Certainly, the Whigs were idealistic: they had an ideal of reform, which they’d had for a long time while they’d been out of office.
On the other hand, it’s stupid to pretend that they didn’t want to get back into office. I’m not saying that the Tories weren’t idealistic, either. We can see that they were backing the wrong horse: there was no way that the House of Commons was going to remain like that. It’s all very well for us to say “silly old fuddy-duddies”, but actually they believed that they were voting for stability, and that, in an age of revolution, established order had to be preserved. I disagree with them, but it’s a perfectly respectable point of view, and idealistic in a different way.

How significant was the Great Reform crisis in British history?

I believe that it was a watershed moment. I think that, when George IV died in 1830, there was no connection between voting representation and popular opinion. In June 1832 the bill was passed and popular opinion, among other things, had brought about a colossal change. Suddenly, it was seen that representation in parliament had a connection to the actual people who were voting.
Even though the laws would seem highly exclusive to you and me, at the time they were regarded as revolutionary. You don’t really get our present system until 1928, when all women get a vote. That’s only a few years before I was born, which is absolutely extraordinary.

In context: The 1832 Reform Act

By the start of the 19th century, there was increasing pressure to update the UK’s electoral system in order to better reflect the urbanised landscape that had resulted from the industrial revolution.  Organisations such as the Birmingham Political Union campaigned for reform, and the issue was debated  in parliament on a number of occasions. However, proposed changes  met with opposition both from the monarchy and some Tory MPs, notably prime minister Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. 

Even following the election of the pro-reform Whig party in 1830, progress was slow:  two bills failed to pass parliament, and it was not until 7 June 1832 that what became known as the Great Reform Act received royal assent in England and Wales (separate reform bills for Scotland and Ireland were passed in the same year).The act disenfranchised 56 boroughs, reduced another 31 to a single MP and created 67 new constituencies. Small landowners, shopkeepers and tenant farmers were also included in the franchise for the first time. 

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