The Reform Bill of 1831
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
In the course of centuries the system of representation had become very much changed. Originally the boroughs returning members had been the substantial towns whose members had been in the main returned by the burgesses. But whether they decayed or progressed these boroughs returned the same number of members as of yore. In many of them the election had been monopolised by the corporations; in others, where the population had fallen off, the few electors had passed completely under the control of some magnate who could secure the return of his own nominee. Under the Tudors, and especially under the Stuarts, many additions had been made to the number of the boroughs, but these were "pocket boroughs" specially created by the Crown not because they were substantial towns but because they were under the Crown's control. Many of these also had since passed into the hands of magnates.
New towns had grown up with large populations, especially since the development of machinery and the factory system had compelled the congregating of workers together; these towns remained unrepresented. The general effect was that in 1830 there were one hundred and fiffy-seven members of Parliament who were the direct nominees of eighty-four persons, and another hundred and fifty whose election was practically controlled by seventy persons.
In Scotland and Ireland the proportion of nominees was still greater. The enormous power exercised by landed magnates in returning members to the House of Commons obviously went a long way towards ensuring a tolerable harmony between the Representative Chamber and the House of Lords. That power a reformed system could not fail to destroy, and with it the effective supremacy of the oligarchical families in the government of the country.
Reform Bill of 1831
But it was not the intention of the Whig leader to introduce a democracy, a government controlled by the masses of the people. A rational extension of the franchise to substantial citizens, a system which gave a real representation to the electors bearing some proportion to their numbers and their fitness for the exercise of political power was the object aimed at by the author of the Reform Bill of 1831.
The ten-pound householder in the boroughs, the ten-pound copyholder and the fifty-pound leaseholder in the counties, were to have the franchise. Corresponding changes were to be made in Scotland and Ireland. Boroughs with less than two thousand inhabitants were to be disfranchised altogether; those with less than four thousand were to return only one member. Out of some hundred and seventy seats thus abolished something over a hundred were to be re-allotted to counties, to great towns, or to Scotland or Ireland, the total number of seats being thus considerably diminished.
The king before his accession had kept himself politically in the background, but had been on the whole associated with the Whigs rather than the Tories. He was now definitely in favour of a moderate reform, and was well satisfied to find that Grey's bill made no concession to the extremists, as they were then considered, who demanded manhood suffrage, annual Parliaments, and the ballot. The bill was passed in the House of Commons on the first reading without a division; but on the second reading the Government were able to secure a majority of only one in a very full house.
A few days later an amendment to which they were opposed was carried, whereupon the king immediately dissolved Parliament, and at the general election, when the whole country rang with the cry of "The bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill," Government was so strongly supported that its majority on the second reading was in the proportion of five to three. Though the Opposition fought stubbornly, the only material amendment was one which extended the franchise in the counties to ￡50 tenants-at-will, such men having a very strong tendency to vote with their landlords. The majority on the third reading was not substantially reduced.
The king, however, was very much afraid of a collision between the two Houses, and though he approved the bill himself, urged Grey to modify it with a view to ensuring its acceptance by the peers. Grey stood firm, and the king's anxiety was justified. After a brilliant debate the Lords rejected the bill in October by a majority of forty-one. In the weeks following the rejection of the bill, public excitement was roused to a very high pitch. In many parts of the country and especially at Bristol there were serious riots. Grey was determined to bring the bill in again with little modification. Negotiations with a view to compromise came to nothing. When the new session was opened in December there were changes, but not of principle.
A slight variation in the basis of disfranchisement, and the preservation of the existing number of seats without diminution, reduced the number of seats cancelled to about a hundred and forty and further increased the representation of the counties and of new boroughs. The bill was carried on the second reading in the Commons, this time by a majority of two to one, and on the third reading the majority was again larger than in the case of the previous bill.
Musical Prime Ministers ... round and round we go
The king was intensely opposed to coercing the peers by a creation which would swamp their majority. Grey, with his aristocratic instincts was extremely anxious to avoid such a step, but still held to it as a power to be used in the last resort; and he was authorised to say that in the last resort the power might be exercised. The peers were induced to pass the second reading, though by a majority of only nine. The king was taking alarm at the temper which was being displayed in the country, and his own most conservative instincts were being disturbed. The
Opposition felt emboldened, aud three weeks later carried an amendment which in effect shelved the bill. Grey thereupon advised the creation of a number of peers sufficient to ensure the passing of the bill, with the resignation of the ministry as the alternative. The king accepted their resignation, and called upon Wellington to form an administration for the purpose of carrying a modified Reform Bill.
The Duke, who considered it his duty to suppress his personal views and to carry out the king's wishes, tried to do so, but Peel refused to join him. A week was long enough to prove that the attempt was hopeless, and the king recalled Grey. Wellington was informed that the necessities of the case would be met by the abstention of a sufficient number of peers to allow the passage of the bill. Accepting this course as preferable to the creation of fifty new peers, the Duke persuaded some hundred of the lords to withdraw, and the bill was carried, receiving the royal assent on June 7th.
Limited as the franchise still was, so that the manual labourers, conventionally described as the "working classes," continued to be excluded from it, the great Reform Bill nevertheless destroyed the old oligarchy and transferred the political centre of gravity to the middle class. Corresponding changes were made in Scotland and Ireland, where the representation of the former was increased by eight members and of the latter by five.