3rd November 2010
In the history of democracy, the Reform Act of 1832 has played an absolutely pivotal role (along with the Second Reform Act of 1867). Without this particular reform, English democracy was but a sham, with aristocrats purchasing seats in the lower house (in addition to the seats they already had in the upper house). The members of the lower house were not compensated (paid) either, meaning that politics was quickly becoming a preserve only of the rich.
From 1688, when the English king was effectively superceded by the Parliament, to 1832, not much had changed. The power had simply transferred from the King to the aristocrats and lords.
But by 1832 the voice of the new middle class was rising in great opposition to this unrepresentative form of government. The Whigs (the classical liberals) led the reforms, bitterly opposed by the Tories (the conservatives). The leaders in favour of reform included Lord John Russell and TH Macaulay.
The Bill passed the Commons but was twice rejected by the House of Lords (who would not tolerate the diminution of their powers). It finally (the third time) passed the upper house when the Ministers (who were from the lower house) threatened to create sufficient number of new Lords to ensure passage through the upper house. 100 Tory Lords abstained from voting in the upper house, allowing the bill to pass.
The liberals threatened revolution. That was the underlying driver of the reforms.
Here’s an account of Macaulay’s speech in the lower house:
“[O]n the 1st of March 1831 Lord John Russell introduced the Reform Bill amidst breathless silence, which was at length broken by peals of contemptuous laughter from the Opposition benches, as he read the list of the hundred and ten boroughs which were condemned to partial or entire disfranchisement. Sir Robert Inglis led the attack upon a measure that he characterised as Revolution in the guise of a statute. …
On the evening of that day Macaulay made the first of his Reform speeches. When he sat down the Speaker sent for him, and told him that in all his prolonged experience he had never seen the House in such a state of excitement. Even at this distance of time it is impossible to read aloud the last thirty sentences [see below]without an emotion which suggests to the mind what must have been their effect when declaimed by one who felt every word that he spoke, in the midst of an assembly agitated by hopes and apprehensions such as living men have never known, or have long forgotten.” [Source: Life and Letters of Macaulay]
EXTRACTS FROM MACAULAY’S SPEECH
… This is not government by property. It is government by certain detached portions and fragments of property, selected from the rest, and preferred to the rest, on no rational principle whatever.
All history is full of revolutions, produced by causes similar to those which are now operating in England…. Such, finally, is the struggle which the middle classes in England are maintaining against an aristocracy of mere locality,
… We have had blood. New treason's have been created. The Press has been shackled. The Habeas Corpus Act has been suspended. Public meetings have been prohibited.
Under such circumstances, a great plan of reconciliation, prepared by the Ministers of the Crown, has been brought before us …. It takes away a vast power from a few. It distributes that power through the great mass of the middle order.
Last 30 sentences
"The question of Parliamentary Reform is still behind. But signs, of which it is impossible to misconceive the import, do most clearly indicate that, unless that question also be speedily settled, property, and order, and all the institutions of this great monarchy, will be exposed to fearful peril. Is it possible that gentlemen long versed in high political affairs cannot read these signs? Is it possible that they can really believe that the Representative system of England, such as it now is, will last to the year 1860? If not, for what would they have us wait? Would they have us wait, merely that we may show to all the world how little we have profited by our own recent experience? Would they have us wait, that we may once again hit the exact point where we can neither refuse with authority, nor concede with grace? Would they have us wait, that the numbers of the discontented party may become larger, its demands higher, its feelings more acrimonious, its organisation more complete? Would they have us wait till the whole tragicomedy of 1827 has been acted over again? till they have been brought into office by a cry of 'No Reform,' to be reformers, as they were once before brought into office by a cry of 'No Popery', to be emancipators? Have they obliterated from their minds–gladly, perhaps, would some among them obliterate from their minds–the transactions of that year? And have they forgotten all the transactions of the succeeding year? Have they forgotten how the spirit of liberty in Ireland, debarred from its natural outlet, found a vent by forbidden passages? Have they forgotten how we were forced to indulge the Catholics in all the license of rebels, merely because we chose to withhold from them the liberties of subjects? Do they wait for associations more formidable than that of the Corn Exchange, for contributions larger than the Rent, for agitators more violent than those who, three years ago, divided with the King and the Parliament the sovereignty of Ireland? Do they wait for that last and most dreadful paroxysm of popular rage, for that last and most cruel test of military fidelity? Let them wait, if their past experience shall induce them to think that any high honour or any exquisite pleasure is to be obtained by a policy like this. Let them wait, if this strange and fearful infatuation be indeed upon them, that they should not see with their eyes, or hear with their ears, or understand with their heart.
“But let us know our interest and our duty better. Turn where we may, within, around, the voice of great events is proclaiming to us, Reform, that you may preserve. Now, therefore, while everything at home and abroad forebodes ruin to those who persist in a hopeless struggle against the spirit of the age, now, while the crash of the proudest throne of the Continent is still resounding in our ears, now, while the roof of a British palace affords an ignominious shelter to the exiled heir of forty kings, now, while we see on every side ancient institutions subverted, and great societies dissolved, now, while the heart of England is still sound, now, while old feelings and old associations retain a power and a charm which may too soon pass away, now, in this your accepted time, now, in this your day of salvation, take counsel, not of prejudice, not of party spirit, not of the ignominious pride of a fatal consistency, but of history, of reason, of the ages which are past, of the signs of this most portentous time. Pronounce in a manner worthy of the expectation with which this great debate has been anticipated, and of the long remembrance which it will leave behind. Renew the youth of the State. Save property, divided against itself. Save the multitude, endangered by its own ungovernable passions. Save the aristocracy, endangered by its own unpopular power. Save the greatest, the fairest, and most highly civilised community that ever existed, from calamities which may in a few days sweep away all the rich heritage of so many ages of wisdom and glory. The danger is terrible. The time is short. If this bill should be rejected, I pray to God that none of those who concur in rejecting it may ever remember their votes with unavailing remorse, amidst the wreck of laws, the confusion of ranks, the spoliation of property, and the dissolution of social order."