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How important was popular pressure between March 1831 and June 1832 in securing the passing of a Reform Bill?

Despite the fact that it has become conventional to claim that popular pressure was instrumental in the passage of the Reform Bill through parliament, this in no way detracts from the assertion's intrinsic validity. The Whig party did not provoke the crisis surrounding the Reform Bill since the cry of reform had already arisen before the Whigs took power; Wellington's refusal to consider reform caused the fall of his government in 1830. Lord Grey was asked by William IV to form a government on the platform of "peace, retrenchment and reform", in response to popular feeling. Although the leading politicians consistently recognised the influence of public opinion, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the role of popular feeling since it was parliament which passed the Reform Bill, not the influential Birmingham Political Union (BPU). Moreover, it could be argued that the Whigs' sponsorship of a Reform Bill was merely political opportunism since the Tories had over 200 rotten boroughs while the Whigs had only 73; it can be seen just as an attempt to regain power which they had last held in 1783. Although there may be an element of truth in this argument, the fear of revolution was very real in the Whig government, which Grey thought he could avert by making some concessions to public opinion. By 1831 even the staunchest opponents of reform were coming round to the opinion that some reform might be necessary; in May 1832 the Duke of Wellington attempted to form a Tory government pledged to parliamentary reform but was unable to because Peel refused to repeat his reversal of policy which he had made over Catholic Emancipation and consequently refused office. The Reform Bill finally passed through parliament in 1832 to prevent the possibility of revolution.

Although the BPU was not leading a national movement for reform it was acknowledged by Francis Place "as the leading voluntary public Association" and because Attwood was heading a peaceful campaign Place saw him as "the most influential man in England" (November 1830). Attwood's opposition to any violence or law-breaking ensured that the Reform Bill was supported by the middle and working class in Birmingham. After the Whigs had introduced their first Reform Bill the BPU held a meeting attended by 15,000 people, at which they not only petitioned for the Bill but thanked the king and government for introducing it. The other provincial cities were unable to show a concerted will for reform because of class cleavage. For example, in Leeds and Manchester separate Unions for the middle and working class were formed. This was in spite of the BPU's wish that "all be united as one man" (The Times, 24 October 1831). Support for reform was prominent in London among the radicals and artisans - organised by Francis Place - and also the press. The Times was especially prominent in its support of the Political Unions and the Reform Bill, while The Spectator called for "the Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill". Since Cobbett came out in support of the Reform Bill in his Political Register the opposition expressed by Hunt and Hetherington was in a minority. The widespread support for the Reform Bill is illustrated by the fact that on 8 April 1831, 23 county meetings were held to petition for the Bill. As Brock said in The Great Reform Act (p.170), "like Joseph Chamberlain's radical programme, and the 1909 budget, the Bill became a symbol of popular power".

The Whig politicians were certainly greatly influenced by popular pressure as is shown by Sir James Graham's comment in 1851 that their aim was "the outline of a measure ... large enough to satisfy public opinion". Grey commented that if it was not for the threat of revolution and the continual pressure from the public he would not have persisted in putting the Reform Bill to parliament. Grey believed that "not to do enough to satisfy public expectation (I mean the satisfaction of the rational public) would be worse than doing nothing" (to William IV). Thus in April 1831 William IV agreed to a dissolution of parliament and a general election on the issue of reform, since it would prevent revolution by providing an outlet for the excitement in the country. Since the Whigs won the election with a huge majority of about 130 it seemed that the Reform Bill would now pass easily through parliament. However, since Wellington was "a man who does not understand to character of the times" (Grey to Princess Lieven, May 1831), the opposition in the Lords would be just as resolute. On the same day that the House of Lords started to debate the second reading of the Bill - 3 October 1831 - the BPU held a meeting on Newhall Hill, Birmingham, which was attended by 15,000 people. Also, at about this time at least 100 petitions were presented to the Lords in favour of the Bill. Despite such widespread support for reform the Bill was defeated in the House of Lords on its second reading by 41 votes on 8 October 1831. This led to a violent reaction in places which did not have a Political Union. For example, at the end of October there were riots in Bristol which claimed about 400 casualties; there were also disturbances in Nottingham, Derby and Bath. The various pressures from the country at this time, both violent and peaceful, led Grey to say to Palmerston on 10 October 1831: "My information leads me to believe that the middle classes, who form the real and efficient mass of public opinion, and without whom the power of the gentry is nothing, are almost unanimous on this question".

Largely as a result of the pressure exerted by the Political Unions the Reform Bill had once again passed the House of Commons by 24 March 1832. The willingness of this chamber to respond to public opinion can be contrasted to the Lords' determination to defend their privileges; the 1832 Reform Act crisis seems to foreshadow the Constitutional crisis of 1911.

The refusal of William IV to create the necessary Whig peers to pass the Bill through the Lords led to Wellington's attempt to form a government and the infamous 'May Days'. Prior to the Cabinet's resignations the "Gathering of the Unions" was held on Newhall Hill, Birmingham on 7 May 1832, which urged the Lords "not to drive to despair a high-minded, a generous and a fearless people". However, since this meeting was not reported in London when the Cabinet resigned, it had little or no effect. On 10 May 1832 the news of Grey's resignation was greeted with despair in Birmingham and precipitated the assemblage of another mass meeting. As a result of the prospect of Wellington forming a government, work slowly ground to a halt, "and a large number of our manufacturers and warehousemen state that, for anything they really have to do, they might just as well actually close their establishments" (Manchester Guardian, 12 May 1832). From 13 May 1832 Francis Place with the help of Joseph Parkes placarded London, "to stop the Duke, go for Gold", and there was the possibility of the government being bankrupted. In the 'May Days' (9 to 19 May 1832) about £1½ million in gold was withdrawn from the Bank of England. The BPU and the London radicals also discussed the possibility of a rising if Wellington formed a government, in which the London mob would riot and the BPU cause a revolution and overthrow the government. In the 'May Days' at least 200 meetings were held in support of the Bill and approximately 300 petitions were presented to parliament asking the Commons not to vote supplies until the Lords passed the Bill. The fear of revolution was great among the governing classes because there were no riots and the protests were highly organised. Although Attwood proclaimed on 16 May 1832 that Grey "had been carried back ... on the shoulders of the people", it seems that popular pressure played a far less significant part in Wellington's inability to form a government. What was significant in Wellington's failure to form a ministry was Peel's refusal to serve and consequently the other Liberal Tories' refusal to support Wellington: he had no front bench in the House of Commons. However, the provinces believed that Grey's return to office was due to their agitation. The Reform Bill finally passed the House of Lords on 4 June 1832 because Wellington and the Tories failed to turn up to register their votes.

It seems to be clear that without the popular pressure exerted by the Political Unions, the BPU especially, the Reform Bill would not have passed parliament in 1832. O'Brien's comments on the BPU are perceptive: "To this body, more than to any other, is confessedly due the triumph (such as it was) of the Reform Bill. Its well-ordered proceedings, extended organisation, and immense asemblages of people, at critical periods of its progress, rendered the measure irresistible" (The Destructive, 9 March 1833).

It is possible that large numbers of Whigs initially came round on the side of reform because of their need for a cause and also as a ploy to regain power from the Tories. However, regardless of their original intentions, agitation from the country soon made it impossible for the Whigs to drop the troublesome Bill. Also the Reform Bill was introduced when it was because of the popular pressure in its favour in 1830. The Whigs' faithfulness in repeatedly pushing for the Reform Bill was due to their great fear that if they did not "satisfy the country" a revolution would occur. The influence exerted by the Political Unions and the press in ensuring that the Whigs persisted in their support of the Reform Bill in the Autumn of 1831 was far greater than the influence they had in 1832 in preventing Wellington from forming a Tory government. Wellington's failure to form a government was largely due to Peel's refusal to serve a ministry sworn to a reform of parliament. Despite the great influence the BPU had upon the Whig politicians one must be careful not to overstate the role of popular pressure in forcing a reform of parliament. Without the pressure from the country the Reform Bill would not have passed parliament, but in the final analysis it was the unreformed parliament which reformed itself, in order to pre-empt a revolution.


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