The Peel Web
I am happy that you are using this web site and hope that you found it useful. Unfortunately, the cost of making this material freely available is increasing, so if you have found the site useful and would like to contribute towards its continuation, I would greatly appreciate it. Click the button to go to Paypal and make a donation.
Our principle is ... to give to the nation contentment, and to all future governments the support of the respectability, the wealth, and the intelligence of the country. (Grey, House of Lords, 3 October 1831)
The Reform Bill is a trick - it's nothing but swearing in special constables to keep the aristocrats safe in their monopoly. (George Eliot, Felix Holt: the radical speaker in ch. 30)
In the exaltation which followed the Days of May the whigs bestowed gracious words on their radical allies. Grey saw Attwood on 19 May, thanked him for his services, and asked if anything could be done for him to show the ministers' gratitude, an offer which Attwood wisely declined. Even O'Connell was given a good mark for standing by the Bill at the last: 'He has behaved very well in this great emergency', Hobhouse recorded on 18 May. The honeymoon was short. By the end of the year relations had become embittered even by the standards of politics. Attwood was thought 'a coxcomb and a knave' by Grey, and was told by Melbourne that he deserved to be 'torn to pieces'. In the case of the O'Connellites expressions of hostility were not confined to private remarks. The proceedings of the reformed House began with the mover of the Address referring to O'Connell as a 'bird of prey'.
The whigs' bitterness against radicals and O'Connellites is understandable. It was a sign of disillusionment. The cabinet were no longer confident that they had achieved their aim of satisfying the middle classes while preserving the aristocracy's power. Their victory could not remove the fear that since March 1831 the whole basis of their Bill had been undermined. The long agitation culminating in the Days of May looked as if it might entail a radical House of Commons. Such a House would presumably make haste to pass a second Reform Act based on household suffrage, triennial parliaments and secret ballot. Monarchical and aristocratic government could scarcely survive another hammer blow such as that. Some cabinet ministers were as alarmed as Wellington at radical strength. 'You may think yourselves defeated,' Richmond is reported as saying to Wharncliffe in May 1832; 'but ours is the real defeat; we have created the monster which will turn upon us as well as you. Attwood and O'Connell will turn the scale in the end.' 'I have also my fears about the elections,' Graham told Russell in the following December: 'The radicals will be stronger than we imagined; and the destructives will overpower the conservatives.'
Some radicals believed these forebodings to be justified. John Stuart Mill looked forward in October 1831 to a time when 'the whole of the existing institutions of society are levelled with the ground'. After the first reformed Parliament 'the ground will be cleared', he wrote. Even those who had warned the working class that the Bill would do nothing for them tended to come round during the Days of May, and prophesy the imminence of a further Reform. The Poor Man's Guardian announced on 26 May: 'We cannot think so ill of human nature as to think that those who will ... have gained their own freedom will not aid us to gain ours.'
Nonetheless, the radicals suffered from obvious weaknesses. They were heterogeneous and disunited. Cobbett had been abusing the utilitarians for years; and he quarrelled with Attwood during the opening stages of the 1832 election campaign. Moreover the favourite radical project, appropriation for lay uses of the Irish Church's surplus revenues, looked like a vote loser. 'All the Protestant feeling of the country', Grey predicted, would be ranged against taking revenue from an established Church and so favouring the Catholics. When Durham was thinking of resigning in protest at the cabinet's rejection of lay appropriation, Barnes, the editor of The Times, warned him that this would be unpopular. There were English votes to be held or won by standing up to the Church in order to help the dissenters. But outside Ireland there were few to be won, and many to be lost, by helping Catholics. The most experienced radicals were more cautious in their forecasts than young Mill. 'The elections have taken our last wind,' Parkes told Place in January 1833; 'Who the devil is to go on with this public work and his private duty? I can't.'
The one safe prediction about the radicals' struggle for ascendancy was that it would subject the government to severe internal strains. Ministers like Richmond and Graham meant to stand or fall with the 'final' measure. They would rather see the tories in power than march with the radical 'party of movement.' On the other hand this was not the attitude of all their colleagues. It seemed likely, therefore, that the radical upsurge would split the ministry, and that this would strengthen the radicals still further. 'The radicals,' C. W. Wynn told his brother in November 1832, 'will drive a part of the whigs into the opposite ranks and swallow up the remainder.'
When Wynn's prediction was made the campaign had already begun to go the other way. The pro-radical wing of the cabinet had lost the first battle. Stanley had secured cabinet agreement for an Irish Church Bill which barely recognized the principle of lay appropriation. (Even this recognition disappeared later during the Bill's passage through Parliament.) Moreover the first election for the reformed House in December 1832 was no great triumph for the radicals though it much increased their parliamentary strength. While the ministerialists with their radical and Irish allies emerged holding some 500 seats, whigs of various shades occupied over 300 of them. In March 1833 Durham left the government with an earldom, and Stanley became a Secretary of State.
Yet Wynn's prophecy that the leading anti-radicals would be driven from the cabinet was sound. Despite its unpopularity in the country, lay appropriation commanded a majority in the House. In May 1834 Russell declared for it. In the resulting crisis Stanley, Graham, Ripon and Richmond left the ministry. Isolated by these defections Grey resigned a few weeks later over Irish coercion. He was succeeded by the more pliant Melbourne. In November 1834, when Althorp was removed to the Lords by his father's death, the new Prime Minister proposed Russell for the Leadership of the Commons. A government which had lost its anti-radicals, and in which the advocate of lay appropriation was to be advanced to second place, was too much for William IV. He dismissed them.
The king's move failed. Peel, who became Prime Minister, could not face Parliament without a dissolution. The election of January 1835 increased his strength in the Commons to around 270. But the Reform coalition remained in a majority. Moreover within the coalition the radicals were now proportionately stronger. In April 1835 Melbourne formed his second government, insisting with unprecedented firmness on a pledge of parliamentary support from the Royal Household. Russell duly became Leader of the Commons. The way was now open to complete the work of 1832 by reforming the corporations. The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 was, thought Creevey, 'a much greater blow to toryism than the Reform Bill itself'. The king and the Lords had been shown their place once again. The party of movement seemed to be on the move.
They were not. 'The country,' Wellington told Greville in February 1835, 'is on its legs again.' It was the conservative reaction which was on the move. In the 1837 election following the death of William IV the conservatives reduced Melbourne's majority almost to nothing, the radicals faring disastrously. O'Connell had turned out a bad ally for the latter. Association with him brought them unpopularity; and he spent much of 1837 and 1838 in attacking the trade unions.
Hard pressed for votes, Melbourne now made concessions to his radical wing. In 1839 ballot was made an open question in the cabinet. Two years later, in a bid for radical and anti-corn law support, a small fixed duty on foreign corn was proposed instead of the sliding scale. But these gestures reflected the government's weakness, not radical strength. Attwood resigned his seat in 1839, soured by the continual rejection of his currency proposals. 'Seven years of bitter experience of the reformed Parliament,' he told his Birmingham constituents, 'have now convinced me that all my anticipations of national benefit were vain.' Grote, one of the ablest of the younger radicals, retired eighteen months later, seeing no use in sustaining 'whig conservatism against the tory conservatism'.
The collapse of the parliamentary radicals presaged that of Peel's party. While the conservative party seemed the only bulwark against radicalism, Peel and his followers had to stick to each other. When the radical movement failed the compulsion for the conservatives to stand together went too. Peel won a majority of about 80 in the 1841 election and led a notable conservative government. But the disruption of his party was near even before the Irish potato blight ravaged the corn laws. Disraeli's Coningsby was published in 1844. It contains in Mr Rigby a malicious portrait of John Wilson Croker. Rigby is depicted as a figure of fun whose jeremiads on the country's descent to political ruin have become an intolerable bore. Ten years earlier no one would have dared to laugh at such forebodings. By 1844 Wellington's prediction that the Reform Act would start a revolution 'by the due course of the law' had been proved wrong. The reformed electorate was not radical enough to vote for its own enlargement.
The radicals explained their failure largely in terms of the incompleteness of the Reform Act. Radical electors, they said, were powerless without the protection of the ballot, or were swamped by tory serfs enfranchised under the Chandos clause; and if any radical proposal reached the Lords the tory majority there lay ready to destroy it. These excuses, while not unfounded, were naturally the product of much exaggeration and suppression. The Chandos clause seems to have helped the tories in the counties. But its effect was seldom decisive since those it enfranchised were much like the bulk of the county electorate. Plenty of 'freeholders' were just as dependent on tory landlords as any tenant-at-will. A man might vote in right of a forty-shilling freehold, and yet hold the rest of his farm without even a lease to protect him.
Open voting injured the radicals on balance. In most seats landlords were better placed to bully than radical mobs. But a great deal of the landlord influence exercised during the 1830s depended on deference rather than bullying and would have survived ballot. After the Reform Act as before it, many tenants were willing to leave the choice of MPs to the landlord. In their eyes he was as much part of the 'agricultural interest', and as deeply concerned to retain legislative protection for it and for its products, as they were themselves. There was some truth in the prediction with which the Morning Post heartened its tory readers when the election results were being announced in December 1832:
With the return of stable and regular government ... the tory party will gradually regain its political ascendancy ... simply because it has a great, manifest, and indestructible superiority over every rival party in its association with the historical glory of the nation, in its possession of large masses of property, and its insuperable connexion with the education, the intelligence, and the respectability of the country. ... Neither vote by ballot, nor universal suffrage, nor both of these combined, would retard this restoration.
To ascribe the radicals' failure to the tory majority in the Lords was not entirely plausible. If the radicals' proposals had aroused widespread enthusiasm that obstacle would have been removable by a creation or the threat of one. The tory peers had the last word because enthusiasm on that scale was lacking: a creation was no longer practical politics. The Chandos clause and open voting, and obstruction in the Lords, do not explain the radicals' loss of support in the press. The explanation of defeat that mattered was, as usual, the one which none of the defeated dared give. The trouble with the 'popular party', as they called themselves, was that they were not popular enough. The electors who sent the radical contingent to Parliament in December 1832 were voting, not for radicalism, but against the old toryism. Once that contingent started to press their views on the electorate most of their popularity disappeared. To a doctrinaire radical appropriating the surplus revenues of the Irish Church to lay purposes symbolized rational reform. To many voters it meant helping the papists.
The radicals failed because the Reform cabinet's original calculation about their Bill was sound. The poachers were successfully transformed into gamekeepers. Those new voters who were not men of substance often turned out to be amenable to the views of their richer neighbours. The reformed electorate was neither radical nor tory: it was conservative. Although by no means confined to people of property it was dominated by them. Middle-class people, once given the vote, wanted to conserve institutions which they had formerly been inclined to attack. Peel's achievement, symbolized by his Tamworth Manifesto of December 1834, was to bury ultra toryism and so to attract to his party hosts of these natural conservatives. The Manifesto gave them the assurances they wanted. In it Peel accepted the Reform Act as a permanent settlement, and laid the basis for a great anti-radical alliance.
Most of the new voters wanted, not to challenge the aristocracy, but to win recognition from it: once they had their rightful position they did not favour further adventures. Dr John Fife of Newcastle was one of the chief organizers of the Northern Political Union during the Reform agitation. He gained some prominence in April 1832 by announcing at a Newcastle meeting that he would pay no more taxes until the Bill had been passed. He resigned from the executive council of the Union later that year because he disagreed with the radical majority who wanted further Reform. Some years afterwards he was knighted for his success in dealing with the local chartists.
The fears which had bound commercial men and industrialists to the status quo in the 1820s, and on which the expectation of the Act's finality had been based, were just as strong ten years later. Such men had seen enough of radical agitation, and of the disturbed trading conditions that went with it, in 1831-2. They had agitated to secure the Reform Bill. Some of them were to repeat the performance in order to repeal the corn laws. But they would not embark on an agitation, with all its risks, for ballot or triennial parliaments or household suffrage. Many of them operated on credit. 'Quiet times are good for all trade,' Edward Lytton Bulwer wrote in 1833: 'but agitated times are death to a man with a host of alarmed creditors. This makes the middle class, especially in London, a solid and compact body against such changes as seem only experiment.'
After 1832 the middle classes not only remained as deferential as ever and as reluctant to engage in agitation. They also retained all their determination not to allow the workers a greater influence in politics. The reformed system might be a disappointment; but it was better than plunging towards democracy by means of another change. Before the Act was ten years old the fears of 1831 began to look foolish. Lord Hertford had concluded then that a nobleman's property was no longer safe from spoliation in Britain, and had therefore put half a million pounds in an American concern. He would have done better in consols. The concern failed and he lost the money.
The whigs did not exactly welcome the rise of Peel's Conservative party. Nevertheless its ascendancy coincided with their primary aim of preserving the political and social order. That aim entailed keeping the radicals from gaining too much power. It did not entail keeping Peel from power once he had thrown off the diehards who might provoke another explosion. To the whigs the Act was a success in that the existing order was conserved. It was unfortunate but of secondary importance that some of the work of conservation fell to the Conservatives.
The radicals had no consolations. The brilliant young men of the 1820s had gravitated naturally to radicalism. It was equally natural that those who were undergraduates when the Bill was being passed should react against the reformers. Gladstone and his friends began their careers as Conservatives. The radicals' gradual realization of their weakness brought them up against the characteristic dilemma of a left-wing group. Were they to defy the whigs and make their protest, or curry favour with the whigs and creep into a small share of power? To keep the left wing united in face of this problem was as difficult in the 1830s as it has been since.
Although the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1884 were regarded as radical triumphs, both were followed by periods of Conservative ascendancy. This is no coincidence. In each case a sequence of action and reaction is discernible. Once the radicals seemed near power their partners became frightened. The alliance by which the Reform had been enacted failed to hold together; and the conservatives were the beneficiaries of this alarm and disruption. The opening chapters of this book depicted the tories in decline. From 1827 to 1830 they despised their opponents, quarrelled, and came to grief. From 1832 to 1835 they feared their opponents, maintained their unity, and prospered. When they thought themselves safe they had been in danger. Now that they thought themselves beaten they were safe...
The Act's defects should be judged in the context of the crisis during which it was devised. Its provisions were the outcome, not of a leisured attempt to build a faultless system, but of a severe parliamentary struggle. It contained clauses intended to appease critics and last-minute improvisations of all sorts. When alterations in the Boundary Bill had to be settled for the Report stage, for instance, Littleton and Drummond had great difficulty in finding Russell. They ran him to earth in a stable, and arranged the Bill 'with the groom's ink bottle and pen, and lying down on straw in one of the stalls'. These pressures apart, Grey's cabinet lacked both the experience and the resources needed for tackling complicated administrative problems. Their political judgments by contrast proved largely sound. Their assumption that the essentials of their political world would survive the Act was justified. Althorp's prediction, quoted earlier, that MPs 'would continue to be selected from the same classes' proved right. The number of Members belonging to the aristocracy showed little decline between 1831 and 1865. To keep their seats the aristocrats were obliged in most constituencies to work harder and show more attention to public opinion. The landowner had the increased time to give. Most commercial and industrial magnates had not. It was almost as difficult as ever for one of them to enter the House. The abolition of seats which had been for hire offset the enfranchisement of commercial and industrial centres. Viscount Sandon who sat for Liverpool from 1831 to 1847 was preferred by the merchants there to one of their own number. He aroused no jealousies. Not being identified with any business in the city he could be trusted to use his influence impartially for all his mercantile supporters. Many Liverpool merchants thought an aristocrat best for dealing with an aristocratic government. Lord Sandon, as a Liverpool pamphleteer told his fellow-electors in 1832, 'has personal friends amongst those at the helm of affairs, which cannot but allow a freer and more easy intercourse than amongst strangers, and which has been highly serviceable to us'.
The network of landlord influence became far more complicated after 1832; but it remained almost as strong. The magnates had not lost control. But in most places they were obliged to agree among themselves, and perhaps act with more consideration and restraint, in order to retain it. Provided they agreed the voters had little chance to vote: in the 1847 election there were no contests in nearly three-fifths of the constituencies. While control by an individual magnate became less common, it did not disappear. Professor Gash has estimated the number of boroughs which remained under some considerable degree of patronage after the Act. He distinguishes, though with difficulty, between 'proprietary' boroughs and those which were a little less dependent and fall into the 'family' class. He lists some seventy 'proprietary' seats.
Alexander Baring's suggestion that the Act would dethrone the land and make industry supreme was scarcely borne out. Of course, the field of coal gradually beat the field of barley; but there is little or no evidence that the Act accelerated this process. It does not seem to have made any great contribution to the slow rise of the industrialists to political power. Althorp never altered his view that it gave too much influence to the landed interest. He told Brougham in 1841 that it had helped to delay the repeal of the corn laws. Gladstone expressed the same belief in the 1870s.
It is more difficult to say whether the Act proved as 'final' as its authors intended. It could be argued that Sydney Smith's prediction about the Reform question being set at rest for thirty or forty years was exactly fulfilled. The next Reform Act was passed in 1867; and there was no Reform agitation formidable enough to make even the slightest impression on Parliament until 1866. Underlying the prediction was the view that, with the Reform Act on the statute book, Britain's progress to popular government would be orderly and slow. This also proved correct. Ballot and Irish Church disestablishment were not passed until after the 1867 Reform Act. The peers were not curbed, nor were MPs paid, until the present century. None of the Reform Acts were followed by the disturbances which the opposition predicted in 1831, and which might have accompanied a more rapid movement towards popular government.
Once rid of the rotten boroughs, the aristocracy survived through the railway age and beyond it. In five generations the immediate connexions of the first Earl Grey have included three Prime Ministers, five Viceroys of India, four Governors General of Canada, four Foreign Secretaries, two Chancellors of the Exchequer, four Secretaries of State for the Colonies or Dominions, and two First Lords of the Admiralty, to name only the highest posts. In 1837 Thomas Arnold wrote:
I shared [during the Reform crisis] the common opinion as to the danger which threatened all our institutions from the force of an ultra-popular party. But the last six years have taught me ... that when an aristocracy is not thoroughly corrupted its strength is incalculable; and it acts through the relations of private life which are permanent, whereas the political excitement which opposes it must always be short-lived.
The finality of the Act can be exaggerated, however. The period during which it set Reform completely at rest was not thirty-five years, but a mere sixteen. Though Britain escaped, the revolutions of 1848 convinced Russell, who was then Prime Minister, that a further Act was needed. He presented a scheme to the Commons in 1852 and from then until 1867 Reform was always in the air. Moreover, while the political scene is evanescent, politicians are not. Bagehot pointed out that the 1832 Act lasted scarcely long enough to come into full effect. Until 1865 British politics were dominated by men who had formed their political habits in pre-Reform days. Gladstone and Disraeli, who had learned their politics in the 1830s, did not reach the premiership until the 1832 Act had been replaced.
Some of the authors of the Act judged it more harshly than this. Grey wrote to Ellice about O'Connell in September 1837: 'If I had thought that the result of the Reform Bill was to be the raising of a new Rienzi, and to make his dictatorship and the democracy of the towns paramount to all the other interests of the state, I would have died before I would have proposed it.' This did not represent a passing mood. In December 1841, while touring in the United States, Morpeth dined with an American judge. The constitution was pronounced 'an utter failure' by the other guests. 'They talk', Morpeth recorded, 'much as Lord Grey would talk of the present proceedings of the Reform Parliament.'
Melbourne hated to think of what he had done in 1831 and 1832. He wrote to Russell in January 1839 about a modification of the corn law: 'We shall ... only carry it by the same means as we carried the Reform Bill; and I am not for being the instrument or amongst the instruments of another similar performance.' On another occasion Melbourne told Russell that if the Act 'was not absolutely necessary it was the foolishest thing ever done'.
Russell was better satisfied than this with his handiwork. An obituary by him of Grey and Althorp appeared in January 1846. On the original reception of the Bill he wrote: 'The radicals deceived themselves when they supposed that so large a ruin must lead to a more uniform construction. The authors of the plan were alone justified by the event.' Russell's view did not change when he decided that another Reform Act was needed. He told the queen in 1851 that the decision to retain some small boroughs had been sound. Their Members tempered extremes of opinion. In the repeal of the corn laws they had helped to counteract the counties: when it was important to keep up the army and navy estimates they neutralized the large towns. Russell was critical of one feature in the Act, however. Introducing the Reform Bill of 1854, he said that the 1832 Act had 'tended ... to divide the country in a way in which it was not divided before; in short, into opposite camps according as the districts might be connected with land or trade'. The greatest liberal of the next generation, whose judgment was unaffected by the guilt or self-justification of a participant, was as severe on the Act as Grey had been. Gladstone constantly maintained that the unreformed system had been superior to the one created in 1832.
These are not the judgments of historians. They illustrate the truth of De Tocqueville's dictum that 'great successful revolutions, by effecting the disappearance of the causes which brought them about ... become themselves incomprehensible'. Much the same might be written of successful reforms. As the Reform crisis receded, the conditions under which the Act had been launched became hard to discern, while its defects loomed large. No great effort to remember the political situation in 1830 and 1831 underlay the later judgments even of its authors. Grey thought that the consequences of conceding Reform had been harmful. He did not keep in mind that the consequences of refusing it might have been disastrous. It did not occur to him that, even if he had foreseen all the results of his Bill from the first, he would still have been right to regard introducing it as the least dangerous course that he could take. Perhaps the judgment from the last century which comes closest to expressing what was done - and prevented - in 1832 is John Bright's: 'It was not a good Bill,' Bright said; 'but it was a great Bill when it passed.'
The repentant authors of the Bill were inclined to think that they had gone too far. Today they may seem not to have gone far enough. The Bill, it might be argued, could have been made far more radical without any risk to the institutions of the country. In retrospect we may question even the need to postpone a more sweeping change until the educational standard had been raised. No doubt the provision of better schooling, together with the drive in the working class for self-improvement, had made Britain readier for a wide suffrage in 1867 than it had been in 1832. Basing the first Reform Act on household suffrage in the boroughs instead of the £10 rule would have increased the number of ignorant men who were given the vote. Yet it m15 November, 2014 It is no coincidence that the Education Act of 1870 followed so hard on the second Reform Act. It was not quite a case of making people voters because they were now better educated. They were given a better education because they were now voters.
Few of the radical proposals look revolutionary today. With the significant exception of annual parliaments even the points of the Charter are firmly enough embedded in our political system to be taken for granted. Reading what one radical said privately to another we can see how cautious they were. The fears of revolution which were to trouble E. J. Stanley on his deathbed had grown to full size many years earlier. 'We have quite as much reason,' he told Durham in December 1833, 'to fight against the wild notions of destruction amongst the radicals as [against] the senseless folly of the tories.'
Our views about the mildness of the radicals are beside the point. The king and the opposition would not have allowed a more radical Bill to pass peacefully. A great change is not compatible with political stability if enough people refuse to accept it. After a long and peaceful political evolution this obvious truth is easily forgotten in England. The Act was well judged because reformers would not have accepted less as a settlement, and anti-reformers might not have accepted more without bloodshed. The means used to pass it were well judged, not because the 'independence' of the House of Lords benefited the country in the nineteenth century, but because the tories would not have accepted as an irreversible settlement an Act which had been forced on king and Lords by an avoidable creation of peers. In the bitterness caused by such a creation the system of government would have remained a leading political issue.
The fact that most of the gloomy prophecies about the Bill proved to be mistaken does not make them absurd. They were no more wrong, and no less reasonable, than later predictions that the 1867 Act would give the working class a permanent dominance in British politics. No one on either side foresaw just what effect the 1832 Act would have on the governmental system. In 1830, or indeed in 1860, no one could have predicted the process by which Britain has come to be governed by two centrally organized parties alternating in power. The reformers of 1832, though better prophets than their opponents, were not infallible. Many of the hopes aroused by the Act turned out to be dupes. Some of the fears were liars.
The conclusion that the authors of the Reform Act judged well for their purposes does not constitute the whole verdict in what Sir Winston Churchill called 'the grievous inquest of history'. Something must be said also about the purposes themselves and about the more distant effects of the change. Each book about the Act is coloured by the preoccupations of a particular time. Our criteria for success are not those of the whigs. They thought sometimes of popular education and of raising the living standards of the poor. We expect such preoccupations to be with a statesman always. They were inclined to assume without argument that the predominance of their own class was for the general good. We do not share this patrician assumption.
In some ways the new House was more oppressive than the old. This reflected the greater confidence which a broader basis of support provided, rather than exceptional harshness among the new voters. MPs had been convinced for years that the poor law must be reformed. But until 1832 governments had always shirked the issue. The Poor Law Amendment Act was harsher than anything which the old House would have dared to pass. On the other side of the account might be set the Factory Act of 1833 and the beginning in the same year of a state grant for education. It is impossible to say whether, on balance, working-class people were injured by the Reform Act. Their own belief that they were is not conclusive evidence. The horrors of the new poor law were very real. But their effect was heightened by disillusionment. Miseries which might have been accepted in the 1820s seemed intolerable after the hopes of 1831.
Nor is it possible to make a valid comparison between the work of the reformed and the unreformed Houses. In trying to judge the effects of the Reform Act the inquirer is almost as apt as Grey or Gladstone to forget how it came to be passed. He compares the political system of 1825 with that of 1835. Finding the latter the more democratic in such and such ways, he concludes that in those ways the Act had a democratic tendency. But the political system of 1825 was collapsing by 1830. If there had been no Reform Act it would have been overturned by more or less revolutionary means. The comparison required therefore is one between the system of 1835 an what would have existed then had no Reform been conceded. But this comparison is too speculative to pursue. It is hard to imagine a refusal to concede Reform in 1831 and 1832.
Such questions as how far the Act increased middle-class influence, or had a democratic tendency, do not admit of clear-cut answers. It gave the middle class a new political status and made their influence more obvious. Equally it fixed them in a status in which they w15 November, 2014n the views of contemporaries must be treated with reserve. The fact that Attwood's hopes were dashed and his currency schemes neglected does not mean that his class gained nothing from the Act.
In so far as the Act confirmed and prolonged patrician power its effects were aristocratic. But it was a recognition of an altered social balance. The agitation which accompanied its passage diffused political awareness. It was a precedent for further changes. In these ways its tendency was democratic. It is difficult in the light of history to say which measures were radical in outcome and which conservative. The more sweeping the present reform the more it is liable, by forming new habits and vested interests, to delay the next. Any enactment which is at once sweeping enough to form such habits, and yet moderate enough to be accepted by those who have opposed it, is likely in thirty years time to be an obstacle to progress. No reformers can escape from this 'finality' when they come to legislate, whether they rejoice at it like the whigs of 1831, or are dismayed like modern men of the left.
Whether the authors of the Act unwittingly quickened Britain's progress to democracy cannot be determined. What can be said is that they helped to make this an orderly progress, uninterrupted by revolution or episodes of dictatorship. The Grey cabinet made some bad blunders at the start of their Reform career. Their committee's original scheme was faulty and they overestimated their parliamentary support. They thus became committed to a severe parliamentary campaign which they were by no means sure of winning. On at least three occasions - in April 1831, towards the end of that year, and in May 1832 - they might have lost control of the Reform movement but for their opponents' mistakes.
When it mattered most, however, Grey and his colleagues did not go wrong. On the greatest Reform questions their judgment was shrewd and enlightened. They were liberal enough to see the sort of changes which were needed to rejuvenate the system. They had experience and confidence enough to put these in hand while there was still time. They realized that no mistake which they could make would be as serious as the mistake of doing little or nothing.
'The principle of my Reform,' Grey said, in November 1830, 'is to prevent the necessity for revolution.' The men who carried that principle into effect deserved to be honoured. In England the advantages of a peaceful political evolution, and the drawbacks of a revolutionary tradition, are easily overlooked. Violence has a high price in hatred, misery, and stagnation. Any political system may become ossified; but there is no ossifier like the memory of a revolution. To enact the Reform Act by peaceful means was a great and beneficent feat of statesmanship.
|Meet the web creator||
These materials may be freely used for
non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances
and distribution to students.
Last modified 4 March, 2016
|American Affairs 1760-83||The Age of the French Wars 1792-1815||Irish Affairs 1760-89|
|Economic Affairs in the Age of Peel||Irish
|Primary sources index||British Political Personalities||British Foreign policy 1815-65||European history||