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Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
Chapter 36, The British Reform Act Of 1832

While the activists were writing of the necessity of reform before the turn of the century (see Godwin and his Political Justice) none of it was acted upon until the 1820s. During, what was 23 years of war, the British could not seriously take up the business of reforming their laws. "It is impossible to repair one's house in the hurricane season."

John Stuart Mill:

"It was a time, as is known, of rapidly rising Liberalism. When the fears and animosities accompanying the war with France had been brought to an end, and people had once more a place in their thoughts for home politics, the tide began to set towards reform. ... the enormous weight of the national debt and taxation occasioned by so long and costly a war, tendered the government and parliament very unpopular. Radicalism, under the leadership of the Burdetts and Cobbetts, had assumed a character and importance which seriously alarmed the Administration: and their alarm had scarcely been temporarily assuaged by the celebrated Six Acts, when the trial of Queen Caroline (ahead) roused a still wider and deeper feeling of hatred. Though the outward signs of this hatred passed away with its exciting cause, there arose on all sides a spirit which had never shown itself before, of opposition to abuses in detail."1
In England, those in power know only too well how to stay in power: distribute patronage among those who held parliamentary strings, the owners of the rotten boroughs. "In the Army and Navy, in the Church and in the State, to be in the relation or client of a borough-owner was the path to preferment. This was the system that became known to the Radicals of a later day as 'Old Corruption.'"2

As the 18th century turned into the 19th century, it was realized by those that might be in a position to make changes, that the manner or system of political representation which existed in England prior to this time "was a fit target for the slings and arrows of reformers."3

The principal problem was that many of the electoral districts (boroughs4) were quite literally owned the aristocratic class. These privileged people possessed power (exercised by passing out favours) of controlling the election of a member of parliament for a borough. "The borough-owner in his turn extracted from the Government of the day office, pensions, peerages, sinecures, and every form of advancement at the public expense for himself, his clients, and his relations."5

The Reform Bill was introduced into the commons on March 1st, 1831. To get the bill through the Upper House, changes were again made and a third bill went through with its last reading during April of 1831.

"The bill disfranchised sixty boroughs of less than 2,000 inhabitants, and returning 119 members; it took one member from forty-seven boroughs with a population between 2,000 and 4,000, and cut down the representation of the combined boroughs of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis from four to two members. Thus 168 seats disappeared, and in their place 97 new seats were given to English constituencies, one to Wales, five to Scotland, and three to Ireland. ... The fact that the bill did not redistribute all the available seats showed the care taken to maintain the balance of power in parliament."6
The Reform Bill disfranchised 62 boroughs; 47 were to send one instead of two members; and a number of populous towns and cities previously unrepresented were to be be represented in parliament. It is to be noted, too, that there were changes in the voting procedures. The Bill required that voters were to be registered. Further, the election period was to be reduced to two days.7 These changes "formed the first breach in a time-honoured system, and that their tendency was to shift the balance of political power from the landed aristocracy to the industrial and commercial classes, which had been born of the far-reaching changes of the Industrial Revolution."8

The new parliament that came into being in 1833 as a result of the 1832 bill, however, looked much the same as the old one.9 Years were to pass before there was much of a difference in its composition. The new parliament "contained 217 sons of peers or baronets; in 1865 the number was 180; the landed interest which was nearly 500 strong in 1833 had about 400 representatives in 1865." Things in the reformed parliament ran along much like things did in the unreformed parliament, that is to say as "a continuous, antimated, after-dinner discussion."10

The Reform Bill of 1832 and the English Municipal Corporations Act11 of 1835 had done a lot for democracy but those that brought them into being "had no head for the social and commercial questions" brought on by these legislative measures.12 These reforms obliged the upper class to adjust. They may have lost certain of their special privileges but they adjusted to the new conditions. They kept "unbroken the tradition of upper-class connections with political life." Thousands of British people were enfranchised in 1832 but they continued to be subject to the old customs; they still chose country gentlemen to represent them in the boroughs of England and accepted their patronage.

Not everyone embraced parliamentary reform. A significant number of farmers were against it because the political opposition spread the rumour that they would lose government subsidies (the Corn Laws). Those who held positions in the Church of England were generally against reform as they feared the loss of their ecclesiastical privileges.13 Tradition can wage a stubborn conflict with reason, "especially when the institutions supported by tradition are favourable to the interests of the governing classes, and reason lacks the sharp blade of popular agitation."14 G. M. Trevelyan observed: "The old borough-mongering oligarchy disappeared in 1832, but the landed gentry as a whole were the governing class until 1846 ... they had immense power until the Reform Act of 1867."15

Walter Scott died in 1832; he would have thought that the Reform Act of 1832 to be "an irretrievable disaster for his country." In the year of his death he said this:

"... I can't help suspecting that the manufacturers of this new Constitution are like a parcel of schoolboys taking to pieces a watch which used to go tolerably well for all practical purposes, in the conceit that they can put it together again far better than the old watchmaker. I fear they will fail when they come to the reconstruction, and I should not, I confess, be much surprised if it were to turn out that their first step had been to break the mainspring."16
While political reform came to England in 1832, as the 19th century progressed, other important social reforms came about. For example there was passed a Factory Bill of 1819 prohibiting children under the age of nine to work in cotton mills.17 This was the first of a series of parliamentary bills which were to be passed over the following forty years in a process of law reform which was first prompted by the writings of the legal philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Such British legislative reform included the 1833 Factory Act where there was a provision for inspectors; school inspectors and Mine Inspectors shortly followed.18

NEXT: [Chapter 37, Agriculture]


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Peter Landry