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British Democratic Politics, 1815 -1850; Parliamentary Reformers, Free Traders, Chartists- Part I

British Democratic Politics 1815-1850 – Parliamentary Reformers, Free Traders, Chartists- Part I

Parliamentary Reform In Britain

  • Throughout 18th century, due to sustained economic growth, industrial revolution and expansion of population, England, Scotland and Wales were getting rapidly urbanized and witnessing new social order dominated by the middle and working class in place of the old clergy, landowners and agricultural workers.
  • Acceptance of hierarchical differences were now on decline.
  • In political scene:
    • growth of informed public opinion,
    • the growing number of newspapers,
    • the rise of numerous associations and pressure groups dedicated to various public causes including electoral reforms, fiscal discipline, the abolition of slavery etc.
  • The arrogance of King George III (ruled from 1760 to 1820), the fight for liberal rights led during his reign by leaders such as Wilkes and the issues raised by the liberation of British colonies in America after 1776 further stoked discontent.
  • Britain had tradition of liberal thought such as John Locke, in latter half of 18th century, had espoused a new theory of state bound to safeguard persons and property. He called attention towards shortcoming of Parliament.
  • In 1780, Charles Fox pleaded uniformity in franchise and voting by ballot.
  • The formation of the Society of the Defence of Bill of Rights in 1769 and the Society for Constitutional Information in 1780 gave organised shape to struggle for civic rights in Britain.

Early failed attempts of reform:

  • The issue of parliamentary reform revived in the 1760s by the Whig Prime Minister “Pitt the Elder”, who called borough representation “the rotten part of our Constitution” (hence the term “rotten borough”). Nevertheless, he did not advocate an immediate disfranchisement of rotten boroughs.
  • In 1783, William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister but was still unable to achieve reform. In 1786, the Prime Minister proposed a reform bill, but the House of Commons rejected it.
  • Support for parliamentary reform plummeted after the launch of the French Revolution in 1789.
    • Reacting to the excesses of the revolution, many English politicians became steadfastly opposed to any major political change.
    • Despite this reaction, several Radical Movement groups were established to agitate for reform.
  • Despite setbacks, popular pressure for reform remained strong.
    • In 1819, a large pro-reform rally was held in Birmingham. Although the city was not entitled to any seats in the Commons, those gathered decided to elect Birmingham’s “legislatorial representative”.
    • Following their example, reformers in Manchester held a similar meeting and election. Manchester meeting was suppressed by force.
  • In response, the government passed Acts designed to quell further political agitation. In particular, the Seditious Meetings Act prohibited groups of more than 50 people from assembling to discuss any political subject without prior permission.

Reform during the 1820s:

  • After 1820, some shift in attitude of the state. A band of new ministers, including Canning, Robert Peel now started a series of reforms in state finances, tariffs, police, courts etc.
  • Support for reform came from an unexpected source—a faction of the Tory Party—in 1829.
    • The Tory government under Arthur Wellesley responding to the danger of civil strife in largely Roman Catholic Ireland, drew up the Catholic Relief Act 1829.
      • This legislation repealed various laws that imposed political disabilities on Roman Catholics, in particular laws that prevented them from becoming members of Parliament.
      • Catholic Emancipation allowed Catholics to become MPs and other positions and they supported further Parliamentary reform.
    • In response, disenchanted Tories who perceived a danger to the established religion came to favour parliamentary reform, in particular the enfranchisement of Manchester, Leeds, and other cities.
  • 1829-1830: slump in economy, poor harvests – caused higher bread prices, unemployment and distress for working classes:
    • Parliamentary reform movement revived.
    • 1829 – A pressure group called ‘General Political Union between the Lower and Middle Classes of the People’ (BPU).
      • Unions saw massive co-operation between the middle and working classes.
      • The class alliance which the Tories feared seemed to be coming about.
    • Reform movement continued to gain support with July 1830 revolution in France.
  • The Reform Act of 1832 was passed as the climax to a two-year period of high political tension and excitement both within parliament and outside.
  • Many MPs believe that, unless a measure of parliamentary reform were passed no later than the spring of 1832, a violent revolution would sweep away all established institutions. Chaos and bloodshed, such as the French had experienced forty years earlier during French Revolution would befall Britain.

Reform Act 1832

  • The Representation of the People Act 1832 (or 1832 Reform Act, or Great Reform Act or First Reform Act) was an Act of Parliament which introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of Britain.
  • The Reform Act of 1832 was inevitable:
    • The rapid industrialization in Britain had led to urbanisation with new social order dominated by the middle class and working class in place of clergy and landlords. But they had much lesser political power.
    • The new towns had no right to send any member to the Parliament while some depopulated places were represented.
    • Elections were controlled by the landlords and franchise was limited.
    • All these led to demand for the Parliamentary reform from the middle class and working class.
  • The unreformed House of Commons
    • Composition:
      • The unreformed House of Commons was composed of 658 members, of whom 513 represented England and Wales.
      • There were two types of constituencies: counties and boroughs.
        • County members were supposed to represent landholders.
        • Borough members were supposed to represent the mercantile and trading interests of the kingdom.
      • In Wales each county elected one member of Parliament, while in England each county elected two members (Yorkshire’s representation was four).
      • Early boroughs were substantial settlements at the time of their original enfranchisement, but later went into decline, and by the early 19th century some only had a few electors, but still elected two MPs; they were often known as “rotten boroughs“.
      • The reigning monarch decided which settlements to enfranchise, often with little regard for the merits of the place they were enfranchising.
        • After Newark was enfranchised in 1661, no additional boroughs were enfranchised, and the unfair system remained unchanged until the Reform Act of 1832.
      • In new towns that had sprung up as a result of Industrial Revolution had no right to send any member to Parliament whereas some depopulated areas were represented.
    • Franchise:
      • Number of voters was very small. Many middle class businessmen and industrialists were deprived of right of voting.
      • Counties:
        • There were standardised property qualifications for county voters. All (male) owners of freehold property or land worth at least forty shillings were entitled to vote in that county.
        • The vast majority of people were not entitled to vote.
        • Furthermore, the sizes of the individual county constituencies varied significantly. The smallest counties had fewer than 1,000 voters each.
        • Those who owned property in multiple constituencies could vote multiple times.
      • Boroughs:
        • In boroughs the franchise was far more varied. Most boroughs had special rules and exceptions so many boroughs had a form of franchise that was unique to themselves.
        • The largest borough, Westminster, had about 12,000 voters, while many of the smallest, usually known as “rotten boroughs” had fewer than 100 each.
    • Electoral Corruption:
      • Political corruption was endemic in election campaigns prior to the Great Reform Act.
      • Many constituencies, especially those with small electorates, were under the control of rich landowners, and were known as nomination boroughs or pocket boroughs, because they were said to be in the pockets of their patrons.
      • Most patrons were noblemen or landed gentry who could use their local influence, prestige, and wealth to sway the voters.
      • Some noblemen even controlled multiple constituencies. A member who represented a pocket borough was expected to vote in the parliament as his patron ordered, or else lose his seat at the next election.
      • Voters in some constituencies resisted outright domination by powerful landlords, but were still often open to corruption.
        • Electors were bribed in some boroughs.
        • Especially notorious for their corruption were the “nabobs“, or individuals who had amassed fortunes in the British colonies in Asia and the West Indies.
        • The nabobs, in some cases, even managed to wrest control of boroughs from the nobility and the gentry.
      • There was no secret ballot so landlords threatened voters to vote in their favour.
  • Classes favoring Reform:
    • Industrial and Commercial Middle Classes:
      • Parliament failed to represent their interests, and that it enabled an aristocratic parliament and government to get away with mismanaging the nation’s affairs.
      • There was resentment at the exclusion of many middle-class from the borough franchise and at the non-representation of industrial towns such as Birmingham and Manchester, and with them of important economic interests such as cotton manufacture.
      • Middle-class hostility to the unreformed system was reinforced by Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of Utilitarianism.
      • Alongside their discontents and hopes existed fear.
        • Businessmen, industrialists and professionals were generally men of substance, men with much to lose. The last thing they wanted was a violent revolution, with all the destruction that would accompany it.
      • The middle classes wanted the enfranchisement of men like themselves, ‘responsible citizens’ who owned property and thus had an economic stake in the country.
    • The Working Class:
      • They had many grievances, including poverty, insecurity and poor working and living conditions.
      • As a result, they were beginning to become conscious of themselves as an exploited class and so were becoming increasingly politically aware.
      • Working class support was due mostly to the idea that from the reform of parliament would arise much-needed social and economic improvements.
    • Protestants outside the established Church of England:
      • Their numbers were increasing rapidly.
      • In 1820 – 30% of population and in some towns they were in majority.
      • They were denied full civil rights, being excluded from corporations, universities and some state offices, while in addition they – like everyone else – were taxed to support the Established Church.
      • For them, Parliamentary reform = better representation, chance to remove disabilities.
      • It was later stated in parliament that they had been ‘the life of the agitation’ for the Reform Bill.
    • Women:
      • The claim for the women’s vote appears to have been first made by Jeremy Bentham in 1817 when he published his Plan of Parliamentary Reform and was taken up by William Thompson in 1825, when he published, with Anna Wheeler, An Appeal of One Half the Human Race.
      • The passing of the Act in 1832 enfranchising “male persons” was, however, a more significant event; it was the inclusion of the word “male”, thus providing the first explicit statutory bar to women voting, which provided a source of resentment from which, the women’s suffrage movement grew.

Provisions of 1832 Reform Act

  • The Reform Act of 1832 granted seats in the House of Commons to cities that had sprung up during the Industrial Revolution and removed seats from the “Rotten Boroughs”—those with very small electorates and usually dominated by a wealthy patron. The act, apart from creating new seats in England and Wales, also was instrumental in extension of the franchise to vote.
  • Abolition of seats:
    • The Reform Act’s chief objective was the reduction of the number of nomination boroughs (or pocket boroughs).
    • There were 203 boroughs in England.
      • 65 Boroughs, whose population was less than 2000, lost the right of sending representatives thereby vacating 111 seats.
      • 30 Boroughs whose population was less than 4000 were to send only one representatives in stead of 2.
      • One borough was asked to send two representatives instead of 4.
      • Thus in total the Act abolished 143 borough seats in England .
  • Creation of new seats:
    • In their place the Act created 130 new seats in England and Wales.
    • 65 new county seats and 65 new borough seats were created in England and Wales.
    • The total number of English members fell by 17 and the number in Wales increased by four.
    • The boundaries of the new divisions and parliamentary boroughs were defined in a separate Act, the Parliamentary Boundaries Act 1832.
  • Extension of the franchise:
    • In county constituencies,
      • in addition to forty-shilling freeholders, franchise rights were extended to
        • owners of land worth £10 and
        • to tenants-at-will paying an annual rent of £50.
    • In borough constituencies,
      • all male householders living in properties worth at least £10 a year were given the right to vote – a measure which introduced to all boroughs a standardised form of franchise for the first time.
      • They were to be resident in the boroughs in which they were electors.
    • The Reform Act itself did not affect constituencies in Scotland or Ireland.
      • However, reforms there were carried out by the Scottish Reform Act and the Irish Reform Act.
      • While no constituencies were disfranchised in either of those countries, voter qualifications were standardized and the size of the electorate was expanded in both.
  • The Act introduced
    • a system of voter registration and
    • a system of special courts to review disputes relating to voter qualifications.
  • The Act
    • authorised the use of multiple polling places within the same constituency, and
    • limited the duration of polling to two days. (Formerly, polls could remain open for up to forty days.)

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