The Great Reform Act Of 1832

The Great Reform Act of 1832 was one of the most important changes in the history of British politics, conceding to radical demands for the changing of the electoral system.

Reform was not a new idea when the first bill was presented to the British Government in 1831. The electoral system had remained virtually unchanged since the late 1680s, by contrast to a country whose economy, class system and political methods had changed immeasurably in that time. The principal reason for the great change in the orientation of the country was the Industrial Revolution, which had created a new economy and caused the emergence of new cities such as Manchester and Birmingham where the new factories were centred. However, because the electoral system was still that formulated in 1682, these new towns had no political representation, while towns that had been important but now had as few as ten inhabitants still had two MPs in the House of Commons. These were known as rotten boroughs.

Demand for reform had grown as the Industrial Revolution had grown, and in addition to the demand for the fairer distribution of voting towns there were also calls for a change in the voting process. At the time the vote was only open to landowners, meaning that almost 95 percent of the population had no say in political matters. The vote was done by counting hands in an open vote, a process that made it easy for a landlord to see which of his tenants had betrayed him and so treat them worse as a result. This led to corruption. Most radicals wanted changes that would mean the vote for all and a secret ballot, where voters could cast their vote anonymously.

These had been demands for a long time, but under a Tory government they were never going to be realised, as the party believed that the system as it was was perfect and responsible for Britain's then supremacy in international matters. Also almost all Tories were landowners, and so it had their political interests secured as well. However, when the Tories collapsed over the Question of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the Whigs were able to take over, and they were willing to implement parliamentary reform.

Led by Earl Grey, the Whigs were still an aristocratic party who believed in the worth of the British constitution. They had a more liberal outlook than the Tories and were aware of the level of discontent in the country as a whole. Their decision to push for reform had three motivations. Firstly, they wanted to enact a moderate reform that would make the system fairer without actually giving in to the demands of the working classes. They hoped that a minor reform would stop the demand for one that, if not granted, could cause an actual revoluton like that in France 40 years before. Secondly, it would harm the Tories in the eye of the public if the Whigs were seen to be 'the party of reform' and thus the party of the population at large. Lastly, the people in the towns that would be enfranchised were generally Whigs anyway, as they were the party of choice for rich men who didn't own aristocratic land. To allow these people influence would mean a larger ratio of Whigs to Tories in Parliament.

In 1830 George IV died, and his more liberal brother William IV came to the throne in his place. Although the Whigs were the party in power, it still took a very long time for the Great Reform Act to actually become law.

The presentation of the first bill in March 1831 was defeated in the House of Commons, and so it had to be revised substantially. Earl Grey of the Whigs called a general election, which saw the Whig majority increase substantially. Finally, in October 1831, the House of Commons passed a reform bill. However, it was defeated when it reached the House of Lords, by a majority of 31, and this led to minor riots throughout the country in protest. Several members of the Lords were attacked in their homes.

Another even more compromised bill was proposed in December 1831, and by March it had passed through the Commons wthout a problem. However, the House of Lords was still hostile, and Grey appreciated the likelihood of another rejection. He asked King William to create another 50 Whig peers to ensure its passage, but William refused, at which point Grey resigned from his post as Prime Minister. There were more widespread and serious riots throughout the country. It is fair to say that Britain was on the brink of revolution, and Lord Wellington was asked to form a new Tory Ministry. However, it had no support, and so after a week without government, William asked Grey to come back, and the Tory peers abstained from voting on the bill that ensured that on 7 June 1832 the Great Reform Act became law.

The terms of the Reform act had been heavily compromised. Although the rotten boroughs had generally been eliminated and the new industrial centres enfranchised, the process remained the same open vote, and there was a ten pound property qualification that meant that the majority of the working classes, who owned nothing, could not vote. Also, it was still necessary to pay to stand for election, and so almost all people who stood for election were still aristocrats, landowners or businessmen. This led to many working class people resenting the Whigs, and their failure over the next ten years. Although the Act had been conceived as a final resolution of the reform question, pressure was exerted by groups like the Chartists, and the Great Reform Act was very far from being the last Reform Act in British politics.

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