Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Commons debates on the 1832 Reform Act

In this post, I want to look at the debates in the House of Commons on the bill which became the Great Reform Act of 1832 - the measure which is conventionally seen as marking the beginning of modern British democracy.

The anomalies and abuses which characterised the unreformed House of Commons are well known, and were brilliantly satirised in the first episode of Blackadder the Third.  Parliamentary constituencies were divided into counties and boroughs.  The counties had a relatively broad franchise because the property qualification was fixed in the 1430s and had been eroded by centuries of inflation.  Nonetheless, the great majority of the people could not vote, and the representation was unproportional: the tiny county of Rutland had same same number of MPs as Yorkshire.  The greatest abuses were associated with the boroughs.  The distribution of seats had not kept pace with economic and demographic changes: for example, no new borough constituencies had been created since 1661.  The boroughs ranged from large towns and cities such as Westminster (12,000 voters) down to the infamous 'rotten' and 'pocket' boroughs, which were controlled by aristocrats, government departments or small, corrupt cliques of voters.  The best known of the rotten boroughs was Old Sarum, which had 11 voters at the 1831 election, all of them absentee landowners.

What the reform bill sought to do was to reduce or eliminate the rotten boroughs and to extend the franchise to the middle classes.  Parliamentary reform had been put on the political agenda by Pitt the Elder as long ago as the 1760s, but turkeys do not usually vote for Christmas, and in any event the bloody excesses of the French Revolution largely discredited the idea of constitutional reform on this side of the Channel.  Only in the early 1830s was there sufficient popular pressure and political will to enact reform, and even then it took three attempts to do so - the 1832 Act had been prefigured by two earlier measures that failed to make it through Parliament.  The Whigs had to threaten to flood the House of Lords with reformist peers to get the final bill through - a threat which was referred to indignantly by the anti-reform side in the debates.

By the time that the final bill was introduced, there wasn't much doubt that the it would pass the Commons.  It had a majority of 162 on second reading and 116 on third reading.  By this point, even the anti-reformers were prepared in a number of cases to concede that reform of some sort was necessary - just not the kind of reform on offer.  For their part, the reformers repeatedly made the point that reform was unavoidable: the true danger would lie in failing to make changes.  The historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, who was a Whig MP, expressed the point eloquently:
I believe that over the great changes of the moral world we possess as little power as over the great changes of the physical world. We can no more prevent time from changing the distribution of property and of intelligence — we can no more prevent property and intelligence from aspiring to political power — than we can change the courses of the seasons and of the tides....  The feeble efforts of individuals to bear back are lost and swept away in the mighty rush with which the species goes onward....  It is because rulers do not pay sufficient attention to the stages of this great movement... that so many violent and fearful revolutions have changed the face of society....  What then can you do to bring back those times when the constitution of this House was an object of veneration to the people?  Even as much as Strafford and Laud could do to bring back the days of the Tudors — as much as Bonner and Gardiner could do to bring back the days of Hildebrand — as much as VillĂ©le and Polignac could do to bring back the days of Louis 14th.  You may make the change tedious; you may make it violent; you may — God in his mercy forbid! — you may make it bloody; but avert it you cannot.
By contrast, the anti-reform side exhibited a striking complacency and an almost superstitious belief in the virtues of the old constitution.  Sir Robert Peel thought that it was "the very best that ever existed in the annals of history".  Lord Porchester described it as "great and glorious", "splendid and renowned... in the history of the world".  Under it, he said, Britain had become "the envy and admiration of the world".  According to Sir Robert Inglis, "under the existing system, greater happiness has been enjoyed by the people of this country, than ever was bestowed upon any people in any age, or in any country".  George Rice-Trevor likewise claimed that the existing order of things had taken Britain to "a pitch of power and property unparalleled in the history of the world".  This sort of hyperbole did not go down well with Macaulay:
When I hear it said, over and over again, that the English are the happiest people under the sun — when I hear this laid down as an undeniable proposition, which it is unnecessary to prove, and absurd to deny — I cannot but feel astonished at such an argument.  From the first acquaintance I have had with political affairs, I have heard, from all sides and from all parties, statements of the distressed situation of the people.  Speech after speech from the Throne, parliamentary address after parliamentary address, have admitted the existence of great distress, expressing a vain hope that it would be but temporary.  I scarcely remember the time in which some great interest has not been complaining.  It is certain that the people of this country are by no means in a prosperous condition.
The core of the anti-reform case was that reform would disrupt the delicate balance of the constitution between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the people.  Sir George Rose said:
It has often been remarked, that our Constitution has successfully solved Aristotle's famous problem, whether it were possible to frame a government which, if established, would exhibit the perfection of human wisdom, in which the regal, aristocratic, and democratic powers should exist together in so nice a balance as to secure a perfect tranquillity in the machine, and, consequently, the greatest mass of human happiness to the subject.
If the bill passed, the King and the House of Lords would lose influence to the Commons and what Sir Robert Peel called "the undue encroachments of [the] democratic spirit".  At the same time, the aristocratic landed interest would lose out to manufacturing industry.  It was not that giving some power to the people was necessarily wrong.  Rather, as Viscount Mahon put it, "the will of the people is not indeed to be altogether resisted, but may be considerably guided".  In similar vein, Peel said in the second reading debate:
I cannot concur... in opinion that £10 householders are a class qualified to draw profound conclusions on the intricate questions of commerce and legislation, or exempt from the bias of party violence, or deaf to the delusions and exaggerations by which they will be assailed.
He expressed a similar sentiment in the third reading debate:
It is not right that men filling high and responsible offices should be compelled to court popular favour, by making sounding speeches about the liberty of the Press, and gaining the favour of the populace by the most despicable prostitution of their minds and acquirements.
Conservatives tend to be pessimists by nature, and the anti-reformers often allowed themselves to indulge somewhat exaggerated fears.  They repeatedly claimed that reform would be the first step on a slippery slope: the monarchy would be abolished, and private property would be put in danger.  Time after time, they drew analogies with revolutionary France and the English Civil War.  Sir Robert Inglis predicted "the overthrow of all our institutions" and "unspeakable and immeasurable misery".  According to the Irish anti-reformer John Wilson Croker, "Anarchy, with all its horrors and miseries, will ensue".  Thomas Pemberton Leigh foresaw "a tyranny of the mob... succeeded by the tyranny of the sword".

As for the glaring anomalies of the existing system, the anti-reformers, like good Burkeans, were relaxed about them.  Lord Porchester observed that "the irregularities and anomalies which pervade all nature, pervade also the English Constitution".  Sir John Malcolm said of the reform bill:
It defames our ancient Constitution, and tramples on all those prejudices, passions, and interests, which influence, but are not dependent on reason.  Those landmarks have a tendency to keep every form of Government and society, whether civilized or otherwise, together.
The anti-reformers seemed mostly happy enough with the rotten boroughs (or "nomination" or "close" boroughs, as they were euphemistically called).  These boroughs allowed into Parliament men of talent, like Burke and Fox, who would otherwise be unable to secure election.  It was also claimed that members for rotten boroughs had been among the greatest defenders of the people's liberties, as well as allowing governments to raise their sights above the level of "petty local interests and popular prejudices", as Sir Robert Peel put it.  John Croker saw other advantages in the system:
The existence of close boroughs has... prevented or guarded against those violent checks and collisions between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, which, in all probability, would have happened under other circumstances; but they have also been the channel by which such interests, as have no direct Representatives, whether manufacturing, commercial, or colonial, have been enabled to send Representatives to the great council of the nation.
In any event, it was said, the rotten boroughs were in decline.  As for the desire to root out corruption, the reformers should get their heads out of the clouds.  It was "idle... to state that they could ever have a Parliament freely elected, or one without corruption", said Sir Robert Inglis.

The reformers largely accepted the premises of the anti-reform case but denied its conclusions.  Reform would not be inimical to property or the peerage, and the landed interest would not lose its influence.  Some speakers claimed that reform in fact represented a restoration of the old constitutional order rather than the creation of a new one.  Yes, universal suffrage was a bad thing and parliamentary representation should accord with property - but that was the whole problem.  Industrialisation had created a new propertied middle class which was disenfranchised.  The intent, according to Lord John Russell, was to extend the vote to "those who are best qualified to exercise the important privilege, from their education, from their general intelligence, and from the stake which they have in the country".  He elsewhere referred to the new voters as "the more intelligent of the working class in the large towns, and the more respectable of the middle class in the small boroughs".  Other reformers called them "the respectability, intelligence, and knowledge of the kingdom" (Robert Grant) and "the most intelligent mechanics, the most skilful artificers, and the most steady shopmen — men who, by their industry and integrity, have placed themselves in a situation of comparative comfort" (Robert Slaney).

As for the slippery slope argument, this was without merit - the reform under consideration would be final and conclusive (this led to Russell being given the nickname 'Finality Jack').  The reformers were right about this, at least in the medium term.  There would be no more political reform for over a generation, until the 1867 Reform Act, and full universal suffrage would not not achieved until after the First World War.  It is also worth quoting the words of Macaulay in the third reading debate:
Of every plan of Reform, it may be said, that it is the first step to revolution. It will always afford an opportunity of making allusions to the scenes of the French revolution; to the guillotine — to heads carried upon pikes, and all the horrors of that eventful period.  All these topics, however, it will be recollected, are brought into requisition when the only question before the House is, whether Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham should have Representatives.
The fact was that democracy and universal suffrage were simply not on the agenda.  There was essentially only one radical voice in the debates - Henry Hunt, the MP for Preston, who pointed out that the Act would exclude 90% of men from the franchise.