To what extent was popular pressure an important factor in determining the progress of the campaign for parliamentary reformin the period 1780-1885?
To what extent was popular pressure an important factor in determining the progress of the campaign for parliamentary reform
in the period 1780-1885?
Parliamentary reform was a multi-causal landed elite led campaign in the name of the aristocracy. It was the MPs and the Lords who attained the power and even by the end of 1885 there was still no universal manhood suffrage. Although popular pressure was notable, it was only periodically important. A number of other key factors allowed the three reform acts to be passed by 1885. The desire to prevent revolution and the reactionary nature of government was an extension of popular pressure and contributed to the first to reform acts in different ways. The need to gain party advantage, and to ‘dish the liberals’ in the case of the Conservatives, was prevalent throughout the century. McCauley’s notion to ‘reform that you may preserve’ and the wish to gain personal advantage over each party’s counterpart was also significant throughout the campaign period.
Pre-1832 the reform movement was mainly a popular movement. By 1782, the Conservative Pitt the Younger raised hopes of modest parliamentary reform. In 1785 Pitt proposed a modest reform bill, however it was defeated 248-174. The French Revolution of 1789 stimulated reformist sentiments and thus created more popular support for the movement, even prompting the creation of pamphlets, such as, Thomas Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’ in February 1791 and also the creation of political groups, for instance, the British Jacobins in 1791-3 and the Hampden clubs in 1815. Although pro-reform, each group contained only middle-class citizens and artisans but none of the lower classes. This therefore did not create any form of progress towards reform. In fact, it created only reactionary pressures resulting in ‘Pitt’s Reign of Terror’ in 1794, where 50 radicals were arrested and the Habeas Corpus was suspended, however this was rarely used. Also the Peterloo massacre in August 1819 was where the Army killed 12 after ‘Orator Hunt,’ a radical, rallied a 60,000 strong crowd. Although the Army was used it was only a magistrate’s decision not a government reaction. The unrest between 1816 and 1820, such as the Spa Field Riots (1816), the attempted assassination of the Prince Regent (1817) and the Cato Street Conspiracy (1820) where the assassination of the cabinet was plotted, provided the government with ample justification of government repression, and discredited the MPs who supported reform. Thus, before the first act was passed the movement was unable to make any progress.
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The Reform Act of 1832 was produced for a number of different reasons by the Whig government. The Swing Riots of 1830-31, due to an atmosphere of social and economic crisis and the 1830 French Revolution, created growing popular pressure on the Conservative government before 1831, the latter showing Wellington, the PM, the consequence of failing to reform Parliament. The riots in Derby, Bristol and Nottingham in September 1832 also conveyed the popular reformist pressure, leading to a fear of revolution. The Whig government came to power after in 1831 and introduced a reform bill. The fear of revolution was a significant factor although this was shifted to a fear of not meeting the expectations of the middle-class agitators. If it were not for the death of George IV in 1830, the Wellington would not have lost his position as PM in 1831 and the Whigs would never have come into power proposing a reform bill. Also the fact the Whigs had been ‘out’ since 1812 and not in government in their own right since 1782, meant that the Cabinet, headed by Lord John Russell and Earl Grey, wanted to attain and retain a party advantage over the Conservatives. By proposing this reform bill, the party was able to remove the ‘rotten boroughs’ which furnished 200 Tory MPs and only 70 Whig MPs. Grey and Russell, also known as ‘Finality Jack,’ wanted a final sweeping reform that would satisfy any reformist sentiment and prevent any changes in the future. Grey stated, “the measure must be large enough to satisfy public opinion and to afford sure ground of resistance to further innovation,” showing the notion to ‘reform that you may preserve.’ The Reform bill went through three stages. The first bill of 1831 proposing 42 MPs to the North, a franchise of £10 and the abolition of 108 ‘rotten boroughs,’ was passed on a majority of one but was defeated at committee stage. The second bill was defeated by a majority of 41 in the Lords, and the Third Bill was finally passed in the Lords by 106 to 22 in June 1832. However, the last two reform bills were forced to undergo amendments thus showing that the reform bill was still in favour of the landed elite and therefore was not due to the pressure created by popular outcry, although concessions were made to prevent middle-class agitation. The fact that there was no secret ballot, the electorate was still exclusive because of the property qualification, and the reality that there was still landed domination shows that popular pressure was significant in providing a platform for the Whigs to disguise the system in the form of reformation. As Brock stated, “much the same men continued to run much the same system.” So, it can be seen that it was the Whig’s desire to preserve the current parliamentary system and also the need to gain a party advantage which justified the reform bill of 1832 to be passed.
The Chartism movement of 1838-48 showed huge working-class support, however its members were varied. It contained moderates (Attwood and Place), radicals (Feargus O’Connor, an Mp for Cork) and revolutionaries (Bronterre O’Brien is best known) all of whom disagreed on the course of parliamentary reform, eventually leading to divisions which weakened the movement. It created the People’s Charter including demands for: universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, equal sized constituencies, the removal of a property qualification, the payment of MPs, and annual elections. These points were seen as too ambitious and as “too much, too soon,” and it was unlikely that the government would hand over parliament to the working class. Police forces were set up in Manchester, Birmingham, Bolton and many others and the Army was increased by 5,000 leading to the suppression of the Newport rising in November 1839 where 20 were killed out of 500, showing that the government was able to take effective action against the public outcry and that the re was no need for a fear of revolution. Although the Chartists were successful in exploiting the economic slump which the country was experiencing, the economic situation improved markedly after 1842, effectively reducing the Chartist pressure on reform due to their main reason for reform improving. Therefore, it was a separated, ambitious movement with a misplaced emphasis on the economic situation, causing the movement to fail once the economy had improved and the show of control by the government. As Evans stated, “the threat posed by Chartism delayed parliamentary consideration of adjustments to the franchise and distribution of seats,” agreeing that the Chartist movement made no real progress in furthering reform.
The period between 1848-66 saw the decline of the reform movement. However, the Hyde Park ‘Riots’ of July 1866, the Sheffield Outrages of October 1866, and the Fenian Rising in 1867 in Ireland, all showed popular support for reform. The Hyde Park Riots were hardly riots at all where only the railings gave way to the crowd, and the Fenian Rising was dubbed an “ignominious defeat.” Therefore, although the big demonstrations did at best create a minute atmosphere of revolution, it did maintain the pressure on parliamentary reform and allowed the then minority Conservative government of Derby and Disraeli to achieve their own aims. By creating a Reform Bill, they were able to appease the Reform Union and the Reform League enough to allow them to remain in power. By passing the bill in the atmosphere of reform the Tories were able to ‘dish the Liberals’ and stay in office for longer. By supporting the notion of reform, the very ideal over which the Whig Party had become split, they were able to keep reform in parliament for longer and eventually aggravate the Liberal’s split. This could possibly split the Liberals more and therefore would provide the Tories with a longer period in office. The fact that there was also an inherent Liberal bias since 1832, and that they believed the counties were being infiltrated by the liberal middle-class and artisans showed that in order to stay in power they would have to make concessions. That is, they would have to create a reform bill liberal enough to appease the liberal middle-class and artisans and also one which would appease their own party. Therefore, the bill was passed in order to stay in power for longer and therefore gain a party advantage over the Liberals, and the popular pressure for reform was vital in providing an atmosphere for Disraeli to propose reform for his own goals, and therefore it was important. However, it created no radical reform, because of the concession to the far-right Tories in the form of the minority clause allowing only two votes in cities where there would be three MPs, ensuring that a Tory MP would be elected, although the electorate was increased by 40,000. Disraeli also wanted a personal victory over Gladstone, which would increase his standing in the Commons and would also allow him to challenge the party leadership. Therefore, without Disraeli’s need to create a reform bill to increase party advantage and increase his own power the progress gained would not have been achieved with popular pressure alone.
It was only in 1880 that the Whigs were back in power. They had attracted the support of the working class in the city. They proposed the three reform acts of this period: the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883, the 1884 Franchise Act and the 1885 Redistribution Act. The act of 1883 removed the corruption in Parliament and was cross party supported, as the Tories did not want to appear corrupt. The Franchise Act gave the vote to householders and lodgers and increased the electorate from 2.5 million to 5 million. The third act created mostly single member seats and equal constituencies of about 50,000. However, the 1884 act was only passed because Gladstone, the PM, made a concession of one-member constituencies and redistribution of franchises to Lord Salisbury. The popular pressure came from radicals and liberals, such as Jo Chamberlain who created the National Liberal Federation in 1877. It was these radicals and the oration of Chamberlain which brought the passing of the acts, as the Whigs with a now predominantly working class support had to appease them to remain in power.
Therefore, popular pressure was periodically important with it providing an excuse to the governments at the time of the acts to pass a reform, with the exception of the 1883-85 acts. The first act was passed to the notion of ‘reform that you may preserve’ and the popular pressure allowed the Whigs to reduce the number of ‘rotten boroughs and gain a party advantage over the Tories and therefore preserve the current system and administration. The second act in 1867 allowed Disraeli and his party to gain a personal advantage and a chance to ‘dish the liberals.’ Popular pressure allowed Disraeli to disguise these aims as reformation and it can be seen that without this desire to achieve these aims, the bill would not have been passed. In fact a concession in the form of the minority clause was given to the far right Tories, in order to pass it. The final act was probably the most supported by the working class, however there was little popular pressure, only the reality that the Liberals had then recruited more working class citizens to support them. The Chartist movement of 1838-48 was the most working class movement driven to pressurise for reform, however this group did not progress the reform movement, due to its divisions and easily suppressed members. Popular pressure was important but it only provided the disguise for the many different aims of the governments, and no real progress would have been seen if it were not for the intentions of the Whig and Tory governments.