British Parliamentary Reform in the 19th Century Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

British Parliamentary Reform in the 19th Century

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A Victorian hand voting

British Parliaments in the late 18th Century did not represent democracies in the way that we would expect a parliament to do today - indeed it is unlikely that many Parliamentarians would have wished for this sort of representation to occur. Regular elections were usually used as a confirmation of a ministry's power rather than an attempt to change it. Electors did not vote for parties in the modern sense and many elections were uncontested. Generally ministers were chosen by the King. This choice was based on a variety of factors including personal whim and whether they would support his preferred policies. Parliament did have power over the King, mostly invested in the bargaining that would result over payment of royal expenses and the Civil List. Government was also localised: it did not deal with economic management, health and education, for example. Parliaments and governments maintained a laissez faire attitude, encouraging limited control on the country other than through taxation and development of the laws of the land.

Parliamentary Reform and its Development as an Idea

The idea for reform was a slow process that took a lot of time to germinate, develop and become a political entity. In the mid-18th Century there were reformist ideas, but the idea of reform really began to gain prominence as a result of developments in France and America, and as a result of the 100-year anniversary of the Glorious Revolution in 1788. Groups were set up that discussed notions based on influential pamphlets and writings such as Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man. However, the discussion was neither widespread nor generally composed of those who held power at that time - namely the landed gentry and the aristocracy.

The reformers caused those in power some concern, however, and were repressed by a series of measures including a ban on political meetings without the presence of a magistrate, and laws preventing criticism of the monarchy and government. By 1799, aside from a few dedicated Whigs, reform was no longer on the agenda, partly because of these measures and partly due to war in France.

The Clamour for Reform

The end of the war (1815) did not produce prosperity. Continued heavy taxation and The Corn Laws (1815) accentuated the poverty of the common people particularly by pushing up the price of bread. The Corn Laws demonstrated that where the government had an interest, it was possible and permissible to interfere with the economy of the state. Many in the middling classes were expressing some dissent about these issues but they also felt undermined by radical protest in the provinces, and were scathing of such unlawfulness. The Peterloo Massacre, in which 11 were killed and many injured, was an example of the repression of demonstrations carried out . Many other demonstrations occurred in Birmingham, Manchester and other newly-industrialised towns.

By 1820 prosperity began to increase and immediate concern about Parliamentary reform was lessened throughout the mid-1820s. In 1828 Wellington introduced the Catholic Relief Act that proved unpopular among fellow Tories. The government was left weak and this, as well as an economic depression, led to his resignation. Reform again became an issue in the provinces.

The Development of the First Act

Grey was asked to form a coalition, which saw Whigs back in government for the first time since 1806. They began work on a Reform Bill1. By this stage, in the country at large, demand for reform was rife, with many suggesting the possibility of a revolution. The government planned to make enough concessions to enable such a threat to be largely reduced and to ensure that the Bill would be approved.

Grey appointed a committee including Lord Russell to make a measure 'large enough to satisfy public opinion, but maintaining the essential character of the constitution'. Russell introduced a Reform Bill to Commons in March 1831. The Bill planned to disenfranchise small boroughs. Some seats were to be redistributed to unrepresented boroughs, some to counties. The vote was to be given to those owning buildings worth £10 or more in boroughs.

The Whigs were careful not to concede more than necessary. The aim was to allow some middle classes the vote. Prosperity was the only yardstick of respectability and the ability to vote responsibly. There were objections by many, concentrating on radical aspects, who saw that this would mean a decline in the importance of the Lords. It was seen as the thin end of the wedge.

Political wrangles continued for over a year, reaching a crucial point in April 1831 when Grey appealed to the electorate, particularly looking at open boroughs or counties who appeared to support reform. The opposition continued to delay the Bill, which eventually got through the Commons, only to be thrown out of the Lords by 41 votes. An explosion of fury followed across the country with meetings held, riots and outrage from radical newspapers. Grey was left with two options, to ask King William IV to create more peers or to make changes to the Bill. He chose the latter.

The revised Bill was introduced in December 1831. It passed through the Commons and then returned to the Lords. A crisis ensued when the Tories tried to enforce further amendments. Grey would not stand for this and asked the King to create peers, which would allow the standing Commons to govern with an appropriate majority in both houses, if necessary. When the King refused, Grey resigned.

Wellington was invited to form an administration but could not so Grey was asked to return. The King eventually had to agree, in principle, to create peers. However, the threat of this happening was enough to push the Bill through and it finally received Royal Assent on 7 June, 1832. The Bill was finalised and has since been described as The Great Reform Act.

The Great Reform Act (1832)

The Act abolished many rotten or 'pocket' boroughs - their seats being redistributed to form constituencies in new towns. Some large towns such as Manchester and Birmingham had not been represented until this point. The franchise was extended to all householders at £10 or over and to those £50 leaseholders. However, the situation for voting in the counties remained as before.

Some historians debate whether the threat of revolution was real or imagined, and how much this threat influenced overall decisions.

In the aftermath, the House of Commons remained largely aristocratic in composition. Fourty four percent of members were landed gentry or aristocrats in 1865. This was due to many factors, including the expense of elections together with an increased cost in buying votes. Violence was also increasingly common in elections. An unseen by-product of the Bill was that political parties were stronger than before and the party could usually impose ministers on the monarch (because this encouraged a stronger feeling that elections were a symbol of the will of the people).


This was a movement for political reform formed to advocate the People's Charter of 1838 - an internationally acknowledged statement of working-class political 'rights' which was conceived in London. The movement formulated proposals calling for universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, payment of MPs, vote by ballot and abolition of property qualifications for MPs.

A national convention met in 1839 and a petition, ultimately rejected, was produced at the Commons by radical MP Attwood. The movement showed signs of splits in its intentions but in 1842 it established a further petition that was also rejected. 1848 saw agitation all over Europe and many Chartist demonstrations. After a huge demonstration in London a third petition was produced in 1848. This was again rejected and the movement foundered because of poor leadership and mixed views over aims.

Public perceptions altered when it was discovered that the last of these petitions contained many false names. However, the Chartist movement generally was important in establishing ideas that were later essential to the process of Parliamentary Reform.

The Move for Further Reform

The Repeal of the Corn Laws by Peel was seen as important to reform as he rejected going to the electorate over the issue, thus demonstrating his belief that Parliament had supremacy over policy, even though this split his party. This established for many the idea that there was a need for further reform, while reinforcing for others the need to confirm the status quo.

In 1858, MPs removed the property qualifications required for members to stand as these were largely irrelevant and often circumvented. Further reform was barely mentioned in the early 1850s with the exception of proposals by a few committed radicals and, in particular, by Lord Russell. Russell attempted to introduce reform bills in 1851 and 1854 but these were rejected.

In 1858 Disraeli suggested that reform could be an answer to help reviving Conservative fortunes. He pointed out that the 1832 Act had actually served their interests, leading to the conclusion that a further act may actually increase their popularity. As a result Derby and Disraeli introduced a reform Bill in 1858 but with additional Russell motions, the Bill failed and they resigned.

The Palmerston-Russell ministry which followed in 1859 was dependent on Radical members. A Bill was introduced in 1860 which proposed a £6 rental voting qualification in boroughs and £10 in counties. Most objected to it - including some radicals - who found it too mild.

No further attempts to reform Parliament were made until 1866. The Radical leader, Bright, attempted to agitate in the early 1860s. Opinion appeared muted and this continued until ideas were revived following events in America (The US Civil War) and Italy (emerging as a nation state with parliamentary democracy). This renewed enthusiasm for greater democracy.

In 1864, Gladstone positioned himself as a reformer2 and it became clear that should the opportunity arise, the Liberals would compel Gladstone to react. The National Reform Union (allied to the Liberals) was formed in that year, establishing branches throughout the country. Ideas proposed included triennial parliament, ballots, redistribution of seats and ratepayer franchise. It avoided universal male suffrage partly to appease the middle classes. The National Reform League was also formed - this was more radical and did seek universal male suffrage. Both movements agitated for reform.

In 1865 the Liberals were returned to office and on 18 October Palmerston died and Russell became Prime Minister. Radical elements were introduced to Cabinet because of the lack of support for the ministry from right-wing Liberals. Radicals forced Russell to introduce a Reform Bill3. The Bill proposed suffrage based on a £7 rental qualification. Most Liberals rejected this. The Conservatives acted in order to force the government out and, in July, Derby and Disraeli took office and took over the Bill.

New crises emerged with further demonstrations and agitation, including the Hyde Park Riots which cause widespread consternation.

The Derby/Disraeli administration saw the sponsorship of reform not only as a placatory gesture to demonstrators, but also as an expedient gesture to keep the administration going and crack the Liberals. In November 1866 they persuaded Cabinet to agree on this. Due to various political manoeuvrings, including Disraeli's desire to undermine Gladstone and his own ideas on the need for reform, the Bill was introduced. It underwent many amendments and although some senior Conservatives objected to it as an attempt to destroy the political effectiveness of the landed interest, it gained Royal Assent in August 1867. This was known as the Second Reform Act.

The Second Reform Act (1867)

Suffrage was extended to all borough householders with 12 months' residency and to £10 lodgers. In the counties it was extended to £5 property owners and £12 occupiers. Seats were re-allocated again, many to the new towns. In all, the Act added 1,120,000 voters to the previous 1,400,000. This meant that one in three men could vote, 47% in the boroughs.

In the aftermath there was a realisation that the party system needed reform to cater for working men. The National Union of Conservatives was founded in 1867. This did not mean, however, that individual associations would take account of working men and their opinions except where doing so helped to gain their votes. This presaged the party system as it is known today. The National Liberal Foundation was formed in 1877 by Chamberlain to form caucuses and push forward radicalism.

It has been suggested by some historians that the Act also had a resounding - although indirect - impact on social policy. The Education Act of 1870 is noted as a direct consequence of the increased enfranchisement following the Second Reform Act, as Parliaments generally wished to ensure that all voters were educated.

Further Reforms

In 1872 there was a move to stop electoral corruption by introducing The Ballot Act, which allowed secret ballot. This did not mean that corruption was wiped out. Corrupt practices were eventually stopped largely following the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883, which was established as a result of public outcry from the findings of a Royal Commission. The Act, among other points, imposed penalties for bribery and set maximums levels to be spent on electoral campaigns.

It was still apparent, however, that the electoral system was unfairly weighted against the counties. Many radicals were still striving for manhood suffrage but this was not widely popular. Gladstone saw reform in the mid-1880s as a way of propping up his ailing government, particularly to swing the rural vote. A Franchise Bill was introduced in 1884. Although the bill got through the Commons, the Lords blocked it as they felt that the necessary distribution of seats that would come about as a result of this (due to large amounts of electors suddenly voting in constituencies), would need to be incorporated in a Bill at the same time.

Chamberlain attempted to stir up further feeling for reform but largely failed. A committee was established to look at principles and, at the end of September, Gladstone met with party leaders from the Conservatives to finalise the deal. This was known as the 'Arlington Street Compact'. The amended Bill was passed by Parliament.

Third Reform Act (1884) and Redistribution of Seats Act (1885)

The Third Reform Act gave votes to householders and lodgers in counties who had been resident for 12 months. This gave the vote to some 2,000,000 agricultural labourers, increasing the electorate to 5,000,000. Two in three men were now entitled to vote. The Redistribution of Seats Act, which followed, aimed to redistribute voters more equally in the wake of the changes to electoral franchise. This meant that the North of England, for example, was more fairly represented and many two-member constituencies4 were abolished.

The aftermath of these two Acts more than ever increased the influence of the party as a political force and the party system of government became more prominent. Government was able to run from the Commons, proclaiming that they had the will of the people, thus diminishing the influence of the House of Lords. This meant that collisions such as that which happened in 1910 - 11 over the 'People's Budget' - became more likely. However, not all gained the vote. The female suffrage movement was in its infancy and one- third of all men still did not qualify to vote at all. This included soldiers in barracks, policemen and domestic servants. These men did not get the vote until 1918 and the vote was not extended to all until 1928.


From today's point of view there seems to be a process of inevitability to the Parliamentary Reforms of the 19th Century, with the idea that good-thinking Victorians developed these reforms as a natural conclusion to reasoned arguments of male suffrage. The reality was somewhat different. The path to reform was slow with many dead ends, and often had unintentional by-products. Many reforms were carried out for political expediency or manoeuvring rather than for reform's sake. Indeed many - including those doing the reforming - objected to such reforms and did not feel they were appropriate or necessary.

However, it is true to say that reform continued to be on the agenda - due to the efforts of many - until all were eventually able to vote. By and large the systems adopted by 1885 are still used today. The process of reform also often unintentionally precipitated other social reforms and allowed for the establishment of a party and governmental structure more recognisably similar to that of today.

1It is important to note that most men in this government were still aristocrats and were not democrats in a modern sense. Even the more radical MPs still primarily supported landed interests.2Despite the many objections he had to reform.3He had originally wanted to set up a Commission of Inquiry into Parliamentary reform.4Not all, as many - including Gladstone - liked them.

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