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Do you agree with the contemporary view that the Reform Act of 1832 was a victory for the middle classes?
The 1832 Reform Act, often referred to as the ‘Great’ Reform Act, is traditionally perceived in one of two main ways. Firstly, the act can be viewed as an important, progressive step towards the establishment of Britain as a modern, democratic and representative state. This idea supports the idea of a key victory for the disenfranchised majority of British citizens and the first sign that the grip of the aristocracy on the state being weakened. Alternatively, it can be viewed as something of a non-entity, an act designed to appease the increasingly discontented masses. This line of argument suggests that the act in many ways strengthened the existing system, splitting and dividing the reformers while re-legitimising the status quo.
More recently, however, it has been argued that the 1832 Reform Act primarily was to the benefit of the middle classes. This essay intends to examine the validity of this more modern viewpoint, and attempt to evaluate the extent to which the provisions and outcomes of the act support it.
It is important to note that the idea of a victory is a very subjective one; a particular outcome of an event can only be judged a victory if it is a realisation of the aspirations of the affected parties. To this end, it is necessary to establish what pressures and demands brought about the passing of the 1832 Reform Act before its outcomes can be examined as a success for any particular groupings.
Prior to 1832, Britain has changed little politically since the 18th Century. Power was firmly in the hands of the aristocracy and the landed interest, and the electorate was estimated to be around 500 000 from a population of 24 million. Constituency borders for Commons seats were largely obsolete due the demographic changes and population shifts brought about by the ongoing process of industrialisation. Within these constituencies, the qualification for enfranchisement varied massively; there was no national standard for enfranchisement. The electoral system was beset by bribery and corruption, with voter intimidation and violence commonplace.
The middle class calls for reform were based around a number of ideas. Firstly, the process of industrialisation had created a number of newly wealthy industrialists and manufacturers, a number of whom sat as MPs. Many believed that despite this, Parliament was still too dominated by the landed interest, which used its power to defend its own interests, as it was perceived it was doing with the Corn Laws of 1815. They believed the taxation burden was being unfairly imposed on the manufacturing sector, with duties on imported raw materials, such as cotton, being an example.1 This group by no means supported the idea of universal male suffrage; they simply wanted their own interests to be represented fairly in Parliament. As Moore highlights, they simply wished to reflect the changes in economic power into the political arena.2 This was one of the main middle class objectives of reform.
Fear of Revolution was another reason that the middle class, along with some aristocrats, called for the reform of Parliament. At the end of the 1820s, the British economy had fallen into decline, and the public discontent did not take long to manifest itself. In June 1830, the first ‘Swing Riot’ took place, with agricultural machinery being destroyed, barns burnt and farm owners attacked. These riots propagated and spread rapidly and forced the government to take steps to prevent further rioting. Similarly in industry, miners strikes took place in Oldham and in some areas French Tricolours were displayed as a revolutionary symbol. Many members of the middle class hoped that Parliamentary reform would in some way prevent these actions from becoming revolutionary, something that would be as much against their interests as it would be against the aristocracy’s.
Perhaps it is first useful to note the historian Bentleys’ comments that despite Whig rhetoric about embracing the middle classes whose “power and prestige in society had long since outgrown their political standing”, very little was actually done to redress this balance.3 Only one member of the Whig cabinet, Althorp, was consistent in his demands for a greater enfranchisement of the industrial and manufacturing interests. This would suggest that any victory the middle classes could claim from the reform act would be a result of unintended circumstances. Reform for their benefit was almost certainly not the objective of the Whig agenda.
This is not to say, however, that the Reform Act cannot be seen as a victory for the middle classes. One of the Acts main provisions was the redistribution of Parliamentary seats away from many Southern agricultural boroughs with few voters, such as Ludgershall and Slatash to the industrialised areas of Britain, such as Blackburn, Oldham, Wolverhampton and Leeds. The importance of this is that the enfranchised residents of these areas would be far more likely to support or come under the influence of industrialist MPs.
Having said that though, it should also be remembered that many of the ‘rotten’ boroughs that were disenfranchised were in fact held by wealthy, middle class professionals. These MPs would now have to compete more actively in a new constituency to retain their seat in the future, possibly weakening this classes representation in the country, arguably allowing it to be said that in this respect 1832 could be viewed as a defeat for the middle class. Indeed, according to figures collected by Judd and Thomas, the number of new middle class MPs was only marginally greater that the number lost with the abolition of the pocket boroughs.4
Related to this issue of seat redistribution, it is necessary to stress the fact that the number of new industrial seats created was small, at between 50 or 60 out of 658 falling into this category. It is estimated that while Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool comprised over 2% of the population, they were represented by less that 1% of the seats in the Commons. This was mainly due to the Whig idea concerning what representation was. In drafting the Bill, they took it to be a representation of interests, such as coal mining or spinning, rather than the representation of citizens. Hence under this system, a small town could be enfranchised if it was dominated by a certain interest, whereas a more populous one would not if it lacked this defining feature.5 As the population increasingly were based in urban areas, this gave a certain bias towards agriculture, hence could be said not to be a middle class victory. This could only be really said to be the case in this respect if representation had been based on population.
There therefore remained a strong bias in Parliament in favour of the landed interest, and the urban, industrial areas of Britain were too minor a part of the political nation to comprise anything other than a small and unimportant section of Parliament.6 This would imply a failure of the middle classes to achieve their aim of a fair representation of their interests in Parliament. The disequilibrium of interests would remain unresolved until the next Reform Act of 1867.
An area that the 1832 Reform Act is usually praised for, the reform of the enfranchisement qualification, could also be viewed as a defeat for the middle classes. Under the original terms of the Act, there was a requirement for voters in the boroughs to own or rent property worth ï¿½10 per year, effectively excluding the majority of industrial workers from the electorate. County constituencies remaining contested by largely locally determined qualified voters, however, were subject to one key change, undoubtedly to the benefit of the landed interests. This section of the act, the Chandos clause, granted a vote to tenant farmers whom paid rent of ï¿½50 or more per year.
It was thought that this group would be vulnerable to pressure brought about by their landlords, strengthening their position in the parliamentary system. It could therefore be suggested that reform weakened the position of the middle classes by disproportionately enfranchising agricultural voters over industrial ones. However, Gash highlights the fact that even before the Reform Act, tenant farmers could become enfranchised with little difficulty, and it would be absurd to suggest that the later influence of protectionist, agriculturally based MPs on this clause alone.7 If this is indeed the case, it would imply that while the 1832 Act was by no means a victory in this respect, it could not be deemed a defeat either.
Another way by which the Reform Bill can be seen as a victory for the middle classes rests on the contemplation of what an alternative bill have contained, or indeed, what may have happened if no Bill had been passed at all. Gash argues that an even less radical reform bill could have been passed, having the effect of dampening down the calls for far reaching Parliamentary Reform, while granting fewer concessions to the middle classes that actually took place.8 Alternatively, the act could have been more radical than it was, in which case it would have been most likely rejected by Parliament. Indeed, the actual bill only passed its second reading in the Commons by 1 vote. If this had occurred, it is likely that reform would have taken much longer to introduce, therefore being a defeat for the middle classes.
As it was, the actual 1832 Reform Act can be perceived as the middle classes gaining as much from the political circumstances as was reasonable that they could expect. It would have been unreasonable to expect more from such an entrenched and long established system. In this respect, therefore, the act can indeed been held up as an example of middle class success. Having said that, it is possible to envisage circumstances where if the Bill had not been passed in 1832, the middle and working classes could have become more unified, and gained more sweeping concessions at a future point. This, however, is speculation and difficult to support.
As an alternative viewpoint, it has been contended that the Reform Act helped to stave off violent revolution in Britain. In 1848, revolution once again swept France, with socialist agitators seizing power from the monarchy. It could be said that the 1832 Reform Act demonstrated to the British people that parliamentary reform could be enacted by peaceful means, and could have been important in preventing the later Chartist movement from becoming a violent one. Without the act, it is possible that violent revolution could have erupted in England. This long-term preservation of peace could be seen, therefore, as being in the middle class interest, hence a middle class victory.
An alternative way of viewing the Great Reform Act in the light of the middle classes is to look at its importance not only in what it did, but also in what it allowed to happen in the future and the precedent it set. In enfranchising a greater number of the population, it could be said in some way to have tacitly accepted that a wider franchise was theoretically desirable. The redistribution of Commons seats to the newly industrialised areas can be seen as an acceptance of the fact that the middle classes are economically and socially influential and deserve fairer representation. To this end, it can be argued that 1832 was a victory for the middle classes in that it set a precedent that could be built upon in 1867, which was to be far more sweeping in the changes it brought about. The act of 1832 can be seen as a first step for the middle classes towards their goals or a fair representation of their interests in the Commons.
A key omission of the 1832 Reform Act was that it made no attempt to reform the actual electoral process. Voting was still carried out in public, and no steps were taken to eliminate bribery and corruption. This omission can be seen as a victory for the middle classes in that often the industrialists who stood for Parliament were often very wealthy, and usually were responsible for a substantial portion of the employment and housing in their constituency. This allowed then to use their influence to pressure the electorate to elect them over a rival. While this obviously would do little in gaining an advantage over an equally wealth aristocrat, in did mean they would not be threatened by other, possibly radical or working class candidates who the electorate may be more inclined towards. As the middle classes were advocating a greater representation of their interests, rather than a greater representation of interests generally, this could be perceived as a victory for them.
It is possible to argue, therefore, that on some levels the 1832 Reform Act was a victory for the middle classes. Undoubtedly it did redistribute seats into more industrialised areas of Britain, especially the North of England, and, despite not leading to a de facto increase in the representation of middle class interests in the Commons, it did lead to a new type of commercial representative. Rather than rich Army officers, merchants or lawyers, the new middle class MPs were often major employers, industrialists and residents of their constituencies. Even though it can be argued that it was a middle class defeat in that they were not substantially numerically superior, in terms of the more relevant aims and outlook the new MPs had, a victory can be claimed.
Similarly, the middle classes can claim a victory in that they would have appeared to have gained as much as they realistically could have expected from the political circumstances at the time. To have hoped to gain more would have to be seen to have been overly optimistic.
Still, as Rubinstein points out, that despite the common view that the middle classes rose to pre-eminence in the wake of 1832, in many respects this view is surely misconceived.9 Although the middle classes did appear to benefit from the act, their key ambition to be fairly represented in Parliament was not, and would not be met, until further reform acts had been passed later in the century. Parliament continued to be overwhelmingly dominated by aristocrats. In its purest form therefore, the act cannot be seen to be a middle class victory.
The question as to whether the 1832 Reform Act was a victory for the middle classes is really a question of scale. The middle classes did gain some political benefits from the act, although these were quite obviously less that they aspired to. Violent revolution did not take place, and I believe the act must take some credit for this, although there is no agreement on this issue. I am inclined to believe the significance of the act lay more in the precedents it set and the tacit admission of the increasing significance of the middle classes than in its actual content. The act was intended to be a means of preserving the power and position of the aristocracy rather than a deliberate attempt to redefine the political spectrum. Although the middle classes made some gains, I personally view the act as victory primarily for the aristocracy. The true middle class victory came later.
1) Norman Lowe, Modern British History (London: Macmillan, 1998), p.48.
2) D. Moore, “Concession or cure: the sociological premises of the First Reform Act,” Historical Journal, (1966), p.39.
3) Michael Bentley, Politics Without Democracy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), p.87.
4) W.D. Rubenstein, Britain’s Century (London: Arnold, 1998), p.45
5) Norman Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel ( London: Longmans Green and Co, 1969), p.22.
6) Rubenstein, Britains Century, p.32.
7) Norman Gash, Aristocracy and People (London: Arnold, 1992), p.149.
8) Gash, Aristocracy, p.150
9) W.D. Rubenstein, “The end of Old Corruption in Britain” Past and Present, (1983), p.80.
Bentley, Michael, Politics Without Democracy, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
Butler, JRM., The Passing of the Great Reform Bill, London: Cass, 1964.
Lowe, Norman, Modern British History, London: Macmillan, 1998.
Gash, Norman, Aristocracy and People, London: Arnold, 1992.
Gash, Norman, Politics in the Age of Peel, London: Longmans Green and Co, 1969.
Moore, D., “Concession or cure: the sociological premises of the First Reform Act,” Historical Journal, (1966) p.39-59.
Newbould, Ian, Whiggery and Reform, Stanford: Stanforn University Press, 1990.
Rubenstein, W.D., Britain’s Century, London: Arnold, 1998.
Rubenstein, W.D., “The end of Old Corruption in Britain” Past and Present, (1983), p.68-86.