How successful was the Great Reform Act in rectifying the defects of the political system?

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Rebecca Johnson

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 ...

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