How successful was the Great Reform Act in rectifying the defects of the political system?
The Great Reform Act was not very successful in rectifying the defects of the political system. This is because it did not address most of the defects and the problems that it did consider were not fully addressed. This is because the government only wanted to address certain aspects of the political system to prevent revolution and not go too far at the same time.
There were many defects in the political system prior to 1832, which needed to be rectified. These were, the franchise, because only 11% of adult men could vote and only 5% overall, there were many different franchises in the boroughs so some had high numbers of voters and some scarcely none at all. Rotten Boroughs with very few voters had MPs but the growing population in industrial towns meant that some did not have any representation. The franchise was granted to freeholders with a rental value of over 40 shillings. There were many different boroughs at this time and the number of people who had the franchise varied. All countries returned two MPs, regardless of their population.
In the elections information was noted down in poll books including the name of the voter and whom they had voted for. Only one third of the elections were actually contested and there was no secret ballot; therefore voting was open and public. As a result of this bribery and threats were ideal weapons in the voting. Wealthy landowners controlled elections in Pocket Boroughs and they would use bribery to enforce the population to vote for whom they wanted them to. ‘Government and Reform’ by Robert Pearce and Roger Stearne suggests that borough elections were rowdy and loud affairs and the voters would be drunk and so would not be in the right mind to make good decisions and may be easily misled in whom they voted for. As there was no secret ballot non-electors would participate to influence the voters. Election agents would hire gangs of criminals armed with clubs to attack the opponent’s supporters, some voters were kidnapped (cooping) until after the election and the people would impersonate dead or absent voters. Occasionally there were major riots and serious injuries. Radicals would criticise the unreformed political system through books, cartoons, the press and speeches. Tom Paine a Radical writer insisted that the government should rest in the consent of the people. He demanded parliamentary reform and democracy in ‘The Right of Man’, 1791. Reformers especially condemned the Rotten Boroughs. John Wade a Radical writer called them the ‘cancer of constitution’.
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The ruling elite passed the Act to prevent revolution and to detach the middle classes from their political alliance in 1832 with the working classes. Eric Evans suggests that the Act was passed because, ‘the people with the power did not fear for their position and authority any earlier,’ and Earl Grey, the Prime minister at the time told the Lords in 1831 that ‘The principle of my reform is, to prevent the necessity for revolution.’ It is evident that the Act clearly never intended to address all of the defects.
The Act partially addressed some of these issues, but there were still many problems in the political system after 1832, which continued to make the political system unfair. The Act enfranchised many middle class men and from 1830 when the population of men who could vote was 11% it went up to 18% in 1833, and the Act increased the size of the electorate by about 75% overall. This was not much and still many people still could not vote, but this was clear evidence that the Act had addressed the size of the franchise to a certain extent.
The Act gave representation to towns and cities such as Sheffield, Oldham and Bradford, but it also removed representation from places such as Dunwich, Fowey and Lostwithiel, who did not require it. Many of the Rotten boroughs, which were often more like pocket boroughs as they had a small population so it was easier to bribe the voters, were removed as figures show that in 1830 the number of boroughs was 447 and after the Act in 1832 the number of boroughs decreased to 399.
On the other hand following the Act there were some problems that the Act did not consider in the slightest. On of these was that there was no Secret Ballot introduced, which caused voting to continue to be unfair. Despite the fact that overall 1 in 7 adult males whom were 30 or above could vote, the number of votes given to a particular place depended on the wealth of that place. For example England, which was very wealthy was given 1 in 5 of the votes, Scotland, which was the not very wealthy was given 1 in 8 people who could vote and finally Ireland, which was the poorest country at this time was given 1 in 20 people who could have the vote. This was because there were still many requirements for the vote such as the 40-shilling qualifying requirement and the poorer countries could not afford it. Further more the majority of the population could not vote even after the Reform Act. These people were women, but this wasn’t an issue at the time. There were still certain qualifications for the vote after the Reform Act in the county’s and the boroughs; therefore there still was not universal suffrage for men. In county seats only adults males either owning freehold property worth at least 40 shillings per annum or adult males who were in procession of a copyhold worth at least ten pound per annum or adult males leasing or renting land worth fifty pound per annum were allowed the vote. In boroughs seats the qualifications were that adult males owning or occupying property worth at least ten pound per annum were given the vote, providing they had been in procession of the property for at least one year, had paid all taxes charged on that property and that they had not been in receipt of parish poor relief during the previous year. Voters who did not qualify under the qualifications outlined above, but had already had the vote prior to the Reform Act still retained the right to vote during there lifetime in that borough as long as it was still existent. They also needed to live in, or within seven miles of the borough where they would vote. This vote could not be passed onto their heirs once they had died. This was a major problem as it penalised many men and it was not until Universal male suffrage was achieved after 1918 that the franchise was more equal.
There was a lot of unpleasant feeling from the working classes after the Act because the middle class got the vote and they did not receive anything. This was because the government wanted to break up the political alliance between the working classes and the middle classes in order to prevent revolution. The Working classes did not think that this was just seen as they had been the reformers and they had campaigned for the Act in the first place.
If you wanted to be an MP then you would have to fund election campaigns and own your own property. There still remained a property qualification after 1832, which meant that the property had to be worth £300 a year if you wanted to qualify, but that was only until 1858. There was no payment of salaries to MPs until after 1911; therefore it was only possible to become an MP if you were rich, causing people with lower incomes to be unfairly treated. Half of the English boroughs with 3000 voters could still bribe, because there was no secret ballot. Nearly half the elections were still not contested and the Act could work in favour of the Working class. This was because the Act would allow the working class to bribe the middle class by threatening them; therefore people who did not have the vote put people who did have the vote under enormous pressure.
In conclusion I can see that the Great Reform Act was not entirely successful in rectifying the defects of there political system because even though it did consider some of the defects in the political system before 1832, such as, the franchise, representation of towns and cities and the removal of the Rotten and Pocket boroughs, it did not address these defects to the full extent. Also some of the defects it didn’t even consider such as the secret ballot. As a result it can be consummated that the Great Reform Act was not ‘Great’ because of the significance of it, as it did not achieve much. It was great because of the difficulties that were encountered in order to get it passed and the possibilities it left open in terms of political and social reforms for the near future.