The Great Reform Act changes Parliamentary constituencies

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The Great Reform Act changes Parliamentary constituencies

Westminster, London The 7th of June 1832 AD

The representative system that existed in Britain at the start of the 19th century was riddled with corrupt practices, was hopelessly outdated, and was exclusive rather than inclusive. In spite of the blindingly obvious need for reform, however, vested interests fought long and hard to resist change.

The Commons was made up of MPs representing counties and MPs representing boroughs. This was supposed to mean that agricultural and landowning interests were given a voice via county MPs, and mercantile and latterly industrial interests via those elected for the boroughs. But the system meant that Rutland and say Warwickshire were on a par representatively. And as the boroughs given royal charters and thus the right to elect MPs had changed over the centuries, patently ridiculous situations arose: Old Sarum was no longer inhabited, but the landowner could return two MPs; whereas Manchester and Birmingham had no royal charter and no representation in the Commons.

Corruption was rife in the system too: with voting allowed over forty days there were many opportunities for vote rigging; some boroughs existed with tiny electorates, who could be bribed singly or en masse; there were Freemen boroughs, where only those given the freedom of the borough could vote (and this was surprisingly retained after the 1832 Act); open voting meant landlords could force tenants to vote as they wished (generally for the Tory Party). There were ‘pocket boroughs’, where the power of a local Lord meant he had the borough in his gift – some of the leading nobles had many such boroughs, and in combination they could at times sway, bring down, or select governments.

The electorate was limited by property holding qualifications, with the result that perhaps only 350,000 to 400,000 or so men over the age of 21 had the vote.

There had been a movement for reform since the mid-18th century, but Tory grandees were able to halt various proposed measures, and the general fear of unrest and political change sparked by the French Revolution created a conservative climate. But by the 1830s the demand for reform was becoming hard to resist. The Tory PM the Duke of Wellington lost power when he misjudged the public pressure for change. The Whig Prime Minister Lord Grey pushed repeatedly for change, but his first attempted reform bill in 1831 was defeated partly by the Bishops in the House of Lords voting against his measures. His resignation brought Wellington back, but he failed to form a government as few in the Commons were willing to side with him and attempt to hold back inevitable reform.

Eventually the impossibility of retaining the status quo was obvious. Riots in Nottingham , Birmingham and Manchester, and what amounted to a local revolution in Bristol , caused consternation in the capital. Some radicals were calling for the abolition of the Lords and the monarchy. Fears of the French experience being repeated could not be ignored. King William agreed to create a mass of new peers to vote reform through the Lords if needs be, but faced with that move and the long term loss of authority it would entail, the Tories in the Lords largely abstained and allowed The Representation of the People Act 1832, better known as the Great Reform Act, to pass into law on June 7 1832.

The main provisions of the Act were to increase the representation of more populous counties – for example Yorkshire was given six MPs rather than the previous four – creating an additional 65 county seats. Some 56 boroughs whose population fell below the threshold of two thousand had their right to send an MP to Parliament revoked. Others where the population was less than four thousand, where historically two members had been elected, had their representation reduced to one. The historical anomalies meaning many larger towns were either unrepresented or just had one MP were addressed, 65 new borough seats being created.

The electorate was also expanded, but qualification was still property based: rental property and other holdings were brought into consideration. Voter registration was systematized; polling reduced to two days, and multiple polling points allowed – previously awkwardly sited polls had been another weapon in influencing elections.

The Great Reform Act is perhaps a misnomer. Some abuses were dealt with, and the Commons undoubtedly grew in power and in moral authority. But some smaller boroughs escaped abolition, and corruption in subsequent elections was still rife. The franchise had been extended to well over half a million, but the working classes and much of those in the middle ranks were still excluded, as were all women. The strange anomaly of Freemen boroughs was retained. Peers controlled fewer boroughs and so the Commons was given greater independence. But the Lords retained power – as the institution, though much reformed, does to this day - well beyond a level that could easily be justified.

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