To what extent was popular pressure an important factor in determining the progress of the campaign for parliamentary reform in the period 1780-1885?

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James Moore

To what extent was popular pressure an important factor in determining the progress of the campaign for parliamentary reform in the period 1780-1885?

Popular pressure did influence the campaign for parliamentary reform because without public outrage over the manner in which parliament represented the country, the issue of reforming Britain’s governing body would not have arisen to the heights it did in the 1780’s.  Therefore, one could argue that popular pressure was indeed a factor which contributed to the passing of reform legislation in parliament, but it was not the most important factor.  The Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed largely due to public pressure, but the most important factor in the minds of those in parliament was the threat of revolution.  The government wanted to prevent a revolution like that in France in 1789 and the reactionary nature of government was an extension of popular pressure.  Throughout the campaign for parliamentary reform, self-interest of those in parliament was evident, with parties wishing to gain advantages against rival parties as can be seen in the case of the second Reform Act of 1867, with Disraeli wishing to ‘dish the Liberals’.  Public pressure for reform decreased dramatically after its initial upsurge before the 1832 Reform Act and by the time of the passing of the 1883-85 Acts, it had reduced in magnitude as a factor influencing the passage of legislation.

There was considerable public pressure to reform the composition of parliament and the nature of its rule decades before the Great Reform Act.  Pitt the Younger introduced a modest reform bill in 1785 but it was defeated 248-174, showing that reform was on parliamentary agenda as early as the 1780’s.  The most significant factor which contributed to the increase in popular pressure for reform was the French revolution in 1789.  Individuals saw the events that were taking place across the channel and their enthusiasm for the revolution to spread to the UK grew.  Vast numbers of political groups were established because of the French revolution, such as the London Corresponding Society in 1792, and existing groups such as the British Jacobins and the Hampden clubs grew in statute.  Politicians who supported the campaign to reform parliament such as Charles James Fox (Leader of the Whig opposition) and Richard Price hailed the outbreak of revolution in a country long regarded as the prime example of absolute monarchy.  The fact that leading politicians were rejoicing in events in France and with Henry Flood introducing a motion for parliamentary reform soon after the French revolution, claiming that reform had become more urgent, public support for reform grew.  Combined with events in France, publications pressing for reform became more frequent, as can be seen by the publication of Thomas Paine’s best selling ‘Rights of Man’ in February 1791.  However, although public support for parliamentary reform undoubtedly increased, the fact that the increased support was amongst the working classes did not aid the cause in terms of persuading those in parliament to legislate in favour of the working masses.

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Those in parliament did not perceive the working masses to be a viable opposition and therefore a combination of force and repressive legislation was introduced by the government.  The closing down of associations deemed too threatening to the security of the union such as the Spencewan Societies and the implementation of the ‘Six Acts’ quashed potential uprising.  The Peterloo massacre in August 1819 was an example of how the government crushed a potential rebellion, which resulted in 11 civilian deaths after Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt led a crowd of 60,000 in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester.  The government justified the action by claiming ...

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