The Struggle for the Great Reform Act

On 7 June 1832, the first Representation of the People Act passed, laying the foundations for the growth of representative democracy in Britain – it was a partial victory won by centuries of agitation.

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In 1791, the writer and revolutionary Thomas Paine commented in his pamphlet The Rights of Man that ‘the town of Old Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upwards of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any.’ This was an extreme example of a situation replicated across Britain in the centuries before the Representation of the People Act 1832.

In a large number of so-called ‘rotten’ and ‘pocket’ boroughs, a handful of property-owning men returned two members to the Commons, usually under the instruction of the local landowner. In contrast to these tiny, sparsely populated boroughs, newer cities such as Manchester, Leeds, and Newcastle—which had expanded and industrialised in the eighteenth century—were entitled only to the two MPs allotted to counties.

The right to vote depended not only on where a person lived, but also on a number of other restrictive criteria: owning property, paying certain taxes, or in some cases, owning a house with a fireplace large enough to boil a pot could all be qualifications for the franchise.

Non-conformists such as the Levellers had taken up the cause of parliamentary reform during the Civil War, and plans for universal male suffrage were proposed, and rejected, at the Putney Debates in 1647. Even for the more radical republican elements of the Parliamentarians, the enfranchisement of all men above the age of majority was seen as a step towards anarchy, though Oliver Cromwell did begin redistributing seats in the Commons to populous counties such as Yorkshire.

These moderate reforms did not outlive Cromwell, however, and were reversed by the Council of State after his death in 1658. Prime Minister William Pitt reintroduced the topic of parliamentary reform in the 1760s, though his proposals to marginally increase county representation while retaining the rotten boroughs found little favour in either house and were eventually abandoned by his son, William Pitt the Younger.

The unreformed system came under further criticism in the periods of political unrest in Europe and North America in the 1780s and ’90s. Several political groups began agitating for political reform in Great Britain, ranging from the elite group of MPs and peers known as the Society of Friends of the People, to the broader membership of labourers, craftsmen, and merchants in the London Corresponding Society.

Despite broad support for some sort of parliamentary reform, in the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions the Pitt administration cracked down on radicals and dissenters. Between 1792 and 1794, the government attempted to prosecute radical writers and reform agitators including Thomas Paine (convicted in his absence) and Thomas Spence (eventually acquitted of treason). In 1795, the government passed the so-called ‘Gagging Acts’, which criminalised criticism of the government and required the licencing of political meetings.

Despite popular support for change, the political climate of the wars against French revolutionaries and Napoleon’s forces precluded the serious discussion of electoral reform in the Commons. However, in 1819, during a severe economic downturn after the end of the Napoleonic wars, two large rallies were held by pro-reform groups in Birmingham and in Manchester. Both of these cities had expanded dramatically during the industrial revolution, but no new seats in Parliament had been allotted to either, meaning that they were essentially unrepresented. In response to this situation, the attendees moved to elect their own ‘legislatorial representatives’.

In Manchester, the meeting was addressed by prominent radicals such as Henry Hunt at St Peter’s Field, and when the crowd were ordered to disperse by the authorities, they were charged by the local cavalry. The attack, which left 18 dead and hundreds injured, is remembered now as the Peterloo Massacre and was a major flashpoint in government attempts to suppress mass meetings and protests.

The reformers proceeded quietly and moderately in the 1820s, content with advocating the reassignment of rotten borough seats to industrial cities, with only some success. By 1830, however, the popular clamour for reform could no longer be ignored, particularly in the context of the Catholic Relief Act, which removed barriers for Roman Catholics to serve in Parliament. Certain factions of the Duke of Wellington’s Tory party feared that this would lead to Parliament being flooded with Catholic landowners and argued for the enfranchisement of Northern industrial cities, who could be expected to return either Anglican or Nonconforming MPs, diluting the potential power of Catholic politicians.

In 1830, the political atmosphere in Parliament itself had shifted in favour of some sort of reform, and the aging Duke of Wellington’s staunch opposition to any changes led to members of his own party toppling his ministry in November of that year. A reform bill introduced the following year under Charles Grey’s government aimed to eliminate many rotten boroughs and expand the franchise. It narrowly passed the first reading in the Commons, but the bill proved unpopular, and was eventually abandoned.

Grey resigned after the failure of a second draft in the Lords, but the Duke of Wellington’s new government proved incredibly unpopular and public unrest was widespread, including a run on the Bank of England which threatened to cut off government funds. Under immense public pressure, William IV was forced to recall Grey as Prime Minister, who threated to fill the Lords with new Whig peers unless the third draft of the bill was passed.

In 1832, enough peers abstained to allow the Representation of the People Act to be passed, laying the foundations for the slow growth of representative democracy and universal suffrage in Britain. The franchise was expanded, but still excluded most labourers by including a property qualification of £10 – about £675 today. Ironically, the Act was also the first to specifically prohibit women from voting. In many ways, the limitations of the Act were the cause of many of the political tensions of the nineteenth century, including the rise of the Chartist movement – but through public pressure and protest, the rollback of unrepresentative government had begun in earnest.