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Why was the first Great Reform Act passed in 1832 and not before? Essay

The gradual disintegration of the anti-reform Pittite majority Tory party can be seen as one of the main factors leading to the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. In order to understand why reform hadn’t been passed before, the key factor is the domination of anti-reform politicians attributed to this, and the fact that the old system of representation was quite unsuited to the changing times. Reform had always been a likely and recurrent focus for debate, yet the French Revolution1 increased tension within Parliament, and a conservative backlash resulted. Therefore Reform was less likely. The possibility of reform increased with the resignation of Liverpool in 1827, the ensuing Tory break-up and formation of a Whig government by Grey in 1830.

During Pitt’s ministry2, he had managed to form an anti-reform majority both inside and outside Westminster. It was because of this that those who had served under him3 remained hostile to reform well into the 1820’s, aiding the reason as to why Parliamentary Reform wasn’t passed before 1832. Some historians have even maintained that there was nothing to suggest that Parliament needed reform. One Historian said, ‘There is no objective sense in which these things can be said to have made the electoral system inappropriate.’4 The main threat still remained as to what might happen if Parliament remained dogmatic and inflexible, and therefore, M.P’s were still aware of reform being a live issue.

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In June 1812, Lord Liverpool’s administration was formed, and he consciously refashioned the Pittite coalition, one that was opposed to reform. The call for reform was threatening, so Ministers were inclined to act, as Pitt had done, in a repressive manner. Working class radicals were generally seen as respectable reformers, whose calls for necessary reform had provoked an outrageous response from a set of nervous reactionaries.

During the 1820’s, Parliamentary opinion revealed little more than ‘negligible support’ for reform of Parliament. At the time Liverpool came to make some changes in his cabinet5, the Whigs were divided on reform, while the Tories remained opposed to it. Reform bills introduced in 1823, 1824 and 1826 showed little support. During the 1826 General Election, the issue of reform was hardly raised. With the Tories now in office, even had the Whigs been elected they would not have pushed Parliamentary reform as they were divided on the issue.

Within a year of Liverpool’s stroke6, Tory politics appeared to be in total disorder, and the Tory break-up proved to be a decisive factor in the lead up to the passing of the first Reform Act in 1832. Canning replaced Liverpool as Prime Minister, so increasing instability in government. He replaced some Tories and turned to more conservative Whigs. Some even refused to serve under him7. When Liverpool was governing, he had known what passions Catholic Emancipation still aroused in the country and he had tried to keep it on the backburner. The fact that Canning supported Emancipation was an increasingly divisive factor in the Tory party, as there were those in the cabinet who wanted political relief for Protestants8 and those who backed Catholic Emancipation9. He was therefore distrusted amongst the Protestants from Liverpool’s cabinet.

Canning was replaced by Goderich10, who proved to be an exceedingly weak leader. This did little to aid the divisions and fragility of the Tory party, and because of this, it appeared possible for a Whig government to be elected, thereby allowing Parliamentary reform to occur.

On the collapse of Goderich’s ministry11, the King looked to the Protestant Tory Wellington to form a strong government. On doing so, Wellington dismissed the Canningites in government12, yet many, including Grey, saw the value of united opposition against the Ultra Tory government. As a result, the dismissed Canningites accepted the necessity of reform in 1829 and 1830, as they knew how opposed Wellington was. ‘The way was now open for political realignment.’13

The issue of Catholic Emancipation was still lurking, and Eldon spoke for Wellington when he spoke of the Bill being ‘Revolutionary.’ Daniel O’Connell, an Irish Catholic, won a by-election but could not serve14. Wellington was now in a no-win situation, as if he passed the bill, the fragile unity of the Tory party would be destroyed. However, this was risked and in February 1829, the King said there’d be a ‘review of religious disabilities.’ On March 6th, Peel finally introduced a Catholic Emancipation Bill.

This proved to many that, as Wellington had gone against his beliefs of Emancipation, what was to say that he wouldn’t do the same on the issue of Parliamentary reform? As Horace Twiss said, ‘Catholic Emancipation had riven the Conservative body asunder and through the chasm, the Reform Bill forced its way.’ The passing of the Bill was a major Constitutional reform, and the dissenting radical M.P. William Smith said Emancipation ‘appeared to have transformed a number of the highest Tories in the land to something very nearly resembling radical reformers.15 At this point, Reform appeared to be imminent.

Extra Parliamentary agitation increased dramatically during the period of 1829 to 1832.16 Working class leaders favoured full male suffrage and middle class allies still distrusted democracy. Political rallies, demonstrations and pro-reform petitions increased the want for reform. The outbreak of the ‘Swing riots’17 showed that the working class were beginning to take the law into their own hands, and therefore parliament felt threatened. Ministers began to think that the only way to stop revolution was to grant a Reform Bill.

George IV died in June 1830, and the ensuing general election showed that Reform was important in determining strength of the government; those who dared to declare themselves against reform were beaten. This proved that change in the constitution was relatively welcome.

Wellington confessed defeat following his 1830 November statements, after which he was told, ‘You have announced the fall of your Government.’ He had done so by saying that he didn’t want Reform as he had given in on the issue of Catholic Emancipation. Grey replaced him, realising that Whigs could increase support if they backed Reform, which at the time was at the top of the list of aspirations for the working and middle classes.

It was because of this that Grey wanted to introduce a measure of reform, as by doing so he could strengthen Whigs and weaken Tory opposition. A Reform Bill in March 1831 only passed its second reading stage by one vote. Grey then asked William IV for a dissolution of Parliament, and a general election was called. This was a huge triumph for reformers, who won almost all ‘open’ boroughs. However, the House of Commons remained strongly anti-reform, so the Second Reform Bill was thrown out of the House of Lords by a majority of 40. Grey now had to convince the House of Lords of the necessity of a Bill.

However, his patience was running out, as, although he had tried to persuade the Lords that he was on their side, the Bill was continuously being thrown out by them, The Kings refusal at Grey’s request to create fifty new peers, lead to Grey’s resignation. Wellington agreed to the Kings request to introduce a modest Reform Bill, but more demonstrations were organised as a result18, keeping alive the threat of revolution. Finally on the 16th of May, the King reluctantly asked for Grey back as Prime Minister. Parliament believed that revolution was imminent, so they realised that a full measure of reform must be passed in order to satisfy public opinion. Once Wellington also confessed defeat on the issue of Reform, Parliamentary opposition collapsed.

On the 4th June, all opposition to Reform melted and the battle for reform was over. The 3rd reading of the 3rd Reform Bill sailed through the House of Commons and further through the House of Lords with a huge majority of 106 votes to 22. The House of Lords had finally given in and Parliament had accepted a full bill of Reform.

Therefore, the Great Reform Act was eventually passed as the peers, still fearing revolution, thought that the Bill would quell the rising spirit of the radicals, and that their position in Government would be more threatened if Parliament remained unchanged. The anti-reform Pittite majority that had dominated since 1794 had prevented a Bill from being passed, but once they had gone, Whig persistence and extra-Parliamentary pressure outside Westminster convinced Parliament that, without some measure of reform, the constitution remained increasingly threatened. Therefore, success was owed to the Whigs, who had passed a Reform Bill while still managing to preserve the system of Aristocratic Government.

(Word count- 1,356 excluding quotations and footnotes).

1 The French Revolution began in 1789. Louis XVI was overthrown by radicals, and the French response was favourable, so posing a threat to the British Parliament that the same could be done in England. The overthrowing of this most powerful Autocracy in Europe led to a greater emergence of radical groups everywhere.

2 Pitt was Prime Minister from December 1783-1801, and for a second time from 1804 till 1806.

3 Namely Liverpool, Castlereagh and Canning.

4 Doctor Jonathon Clark.

5 Changes made between August 1822 and January 1823.

6 Liverpool suffered a stroke in February 1827, so was forced to resign.

7 Wellington and Peel refused to serve in Cannings ministry.

8 Wellington, Westmoreland and Eldon wanted political relief for Protestants.

9 Huskisson and old Grenville supporters backed Catholic Emancipation.

10 In August 1827, Canning died and Goderich became Prime Minister.

11 Collapsed in autumn 1827.

12 Among those he dismissed was Huskisson.

13 Eric J. Evans: The Great Reform Act of 1832.

14 The rules stated that a Catholic could stand in a by-election, but not serve.

15 J. C. D Clark: English Society1688-1832.

16 Riots broke out due to failed harvest; unemployment rose and the public were in disarray.

17 The riots began in 1830. Workers began to burn hayricks and riots broke out due to a bad harvest.

18 In Bristol, rioters controlled the city for 3 days and in Nottingham, the Duke of Newcastle’s castle was set on fire. The days of May began in order to stop the Duke of Wellington becoming Prime Minister, as this would mean that reform would be even less likely. People were encouraged to run to banks and demand gold.

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