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An Ambiguous Act

The Great Reform Act

by Michael Brock
Humanities Press, 411 pp., $6.00 (paper)

Eighteen thirty-two, the year that saw the passage of the Great Reform Act, is one of those dates in English history—1066 and 1688 are others—whose significance has become nothing less than mythical. It is a boon alike to textbook writers and to those who set or take examinations. And the tenpound householder, whom the act enfranchised, resembles the spinning jenny and the water frame in being something that everyone talks about, usually without knowing exactly what or who it was. One student memorably defined him as “any member of a household weighing more than ten pounds”; but that was surely in jest. More frequent and more serious comments consist of statements such as: “The Reform Act of 1832 took power away from the aristocracy and gave it to the middle classes”; or “The Reform Act of 1832 put Britain squarely on the path to democracy.”

There is certainly no mystery about what happened in 1832. After a stormy period of fourteen months—which had witnessed not only one of the classic parliamentary debates of modern times but also a dissolution of parliament and a hard-fought election, the mobilization of public opinion on a hitherto unknown scale, a threat by the monarch to create more peers in order to force the bill through a recalcitrant House of Lords, as well as a certain amount of actual violence in the country and the prospect of much more—a Whig government under the second Earl Grey finally managed to get adopted by both houses of parliament a measure designed to correct ancient anomalies and abuses, which resulted in major changes both in the representative system and in the franchise.

One principal provision of the bill took away parliamentary seats from “rotten” boroughs, usually under aristocratic control, at worst consisting of a few hovels, at best of a population of one or two thousand, and gave some of those seats to large and hitherto unrepresented industrial towns such as Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Leeds. Another provision abolished existing urban franchise qualifications often dating back by prescription to medieval times, limiting votes to closed corporations or absentee property holders in some towns while permitting almost universal male suffrage in some others, and substituted a uniform suffrage that gave votes to all adult males occupying (whether as landlords or tenants) premises with a minimum rentable value of £10 a year. These were the tenpound householders. Their social and economic status varied from place to place, depending on whether high or low rents prevailed; but they could generally be said to belong to the middle class. According to the latest estimate, the addition of these and other voters to the electorate helped to increase the total number of voters in England and Wales by nearly 80 percent, from 366,000 to 653,000.

Looking at those two provisions of the act in isolation, one might indeed be persuaded that it was clearly a liberal and progressive measure, a triumph for the new social and economic forces released by the industrial revolution over an increasingly outmoded aristocratic old regime. Furthermore, there is the fact that middle-class agitation, often in conjunction with major sections of the working class, played a considerable part in creating those outside pressures of opinion, including the threat of revolution, that helped to get the measure passed into law. There can be no doubt that the Reform Act was, on the whole, a genuinely popular piece of legislation.

In recent years, nonetheless, some questions have been raised about the act that should make even the most ingenuous examinee in search of a decent grade think twice before committing himself to the formulation, itself now honored by long prescription, that it was a steppingstone to democracy. Should one not beware of affixing the label “progressive” to a measure introduced by one of the most thoroughly aristocratic cabinets of the nineteenth century, whose detailed provisions, regarded as a whole, show that the chief concern of its framers was to establish Burkean communities of interest rather than numerically equitable units of population, with a view to safeguarding property and maintaining due deference toward the upper classes?

Shouldn’t one, furthermore, keep in mind the fact that the predominance of the aristocracy in British public life, as reflected in the social composition of cabinets and successive Houses of Commons, hardly diminished in the generation after 1832? Had the Whigs planned it that way, or was it the unforeseen result of reluctant concession? In any event, how can one speak (as some have spoken) of a clear-cut confrontation between aristocracy and bourgeoisie when it was by no means the middle class alone that had had its fill of the old, corrupt electoral system; and when it is patently true that, as one historian recently put it, “reform was enacted in parliament by one faction of gentry and great magnates against another”? Was there ever a genuine revolutionary threat posed by the extraparliamentary “political unions,” or was it all a bluff, cleverly concocted between insiders and outsiders, to ensure passage of the bill when it appeared that the House of Lords might succeed in blocking it?

Before one can even begin to answer such questions with any amount of assurance, one must be familiar with the sequence of events that led to the passage of the Reform Act. The last book to have dealt exclusively with that subject appeared sixty years ago. A great deal of new source material has become available since then, and it was time that the task was undertaken once more. Mr. Brock has performed it admirably. He possesses a spare, lucid style that lends itself particularly well to the narrative account of a complex series of events; he takes nothing for granted; he understands politics and politicians; and he has an appropriately ironical sense of worldly wisdom which not infrequently spills over into epigram. “Frightened peers,” he writes, “inclined towards the waverers. Those who were frightened of being thought frightened continued to die hard.”

About the two Whig lawyers who secretly drafted the actual bill, he says: “The discretion of this pair was exceeded only by their incompetence as parliamentary draftsmen.” On the effect of contradictory but equally dire Tory prophecies about what the act, if passed, would do to the system of government, Mr. Brock writes that “the hearer was as unclear as the speakers about the political habits and interests which the new system might engender. He was free to adopt whichever picture of ruin corresponded most closely to his own fears.” And this is his view of the Tory party just before and after the Reform Act crisis: “When they thought themselves safe they had been in danger. Now that they thought themselves beaten they were safe.”

Mr. Brock writes well. He is also an elegant practitioner of an art few historians command, that of drawing fruitful and illuminating historical analogies which seem to arise naturally instead of giving the impression of having been dragged in by their figurative coattails. Whether he is applying Bonar Law’s dictum about the isolation of prime ministers—“their friends do not tell them the truth; they tell them what they want to hear”—to the Duke of Wellington, or citing Harold Macmillan’s reported remark that a Conservative leader can persuade his party to accept changes so long as he is wearing a Brigade of Guards tie, in order to help him make the point that Lord Grey’s patrician looks and manner did no disservice to him in his role as reformer, he convinces one of his ability to see beyond the brief compass of the events he relates so well and to regard history, with all due caution, as a school of politics. This skill stands him in particularly good stead in his treatment of the aims and effects of the Reform Act; for, whatever view one takes of it, the Whig government’s handling of reform is a lesson in the successful management of peaceful change by a hard-pressed governing elite anxious both to avoid violence and to preserve its own powers.

Mr. Brock makes it quite clear that far from wanting to speed the coming of democracy or give power to the middle classes, the Whigs did their best to leave the structure of politics as it was; to preserve legitimate local influence, whether of landlord or manufacturer, to the fullest extent; and, in general, to strengthen rather than to weaken the aristocratic and deferential elements in British society. That is why, in the end, the counties gained more seats than the new industrial towns. That is why, when the dust had settled, rural areas were still overrepresented as against urban areas, the south as against the north. Indeed, that is why Lord John Russell, in his speech presenting the bill to the House of Commons, expressed his satisfaction that the new electorate would consist of persons

all connected with the property of the country, having a valuable stake amongst us, and deeply interested in our institutions. They are the persons on whom we can depend in any future struggle in which this nation may be engaged, and who will support Parliament and the Throne in carrying that struggle to a successful termination.

What Lord John meant was that he hoped that (in a phrase of Mr. Brock’s) the poachers would become unpaid assistant gamekeepers. That is indeed what happened. As it turned out, the working classes lost rather than gained votes by the Reform Act, and their temporary middle-class allies were successfully weaned away from them. Not a few elements of another Eighteenth Brumaire are certainly to be found in the story as Mr. Brock tells it. How Marx would have relished the fact, for instance, that the Governor of the Bank of England was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife’s brother-in-law, and that both these pillars of the establishment suddenly found themselves at one in their advocacy of moderation in the face of disorder.

Mr. Brock is no Karl Marx; and his narrative, with all its virtues, lacks the passion, the color, and the vividness—not to speak of the saeva indignatio—of Marx’s great essay. But it has something else, a judicious and balanced historical outlook that enables him to conclude that while the Reform Act confirmed and prolonged patrician power, it also recognized an altered social balance and inevitably served as a precedent for further changes. In those ways its tendency was indeed democratic; and professors of history need not feel excessive guilt even now when they award that B minus to the student who characterizes the Great Reform Act as a steppingstone on the road to democracy.

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