House of Lords: The Peers Versus the People
It may have lacked the newsworthy drama of the earlier acts, but the Reform legislation of 1884-85 wrought 'great organic changes in the British constitution', writes Paul Adelman.
It must be admitted that the Reform legislation of 1884-85 has never had the appeal, either for the historian or the member of the general public, of the two great measures that preceded it in 1832 and 1867. The passing of the Third Reform Act of 1884 and the Redistribution Act of 1885, with which it went in tandem, certainly lacks the high drama and excitement – both inside and outside the Houses of Parliament – which surrounded the passage of the Great Reform Bill and the Second Reform Act. Nor do the debates in the House of Commons in 1884-85 display that concern with fundamental political principles that make many of the speeches in 1866, for example, so brilliant and compelling.
Nevertheless, the events of 1884-85 have their own special fascination in the story of parliamentary reform; even if the drama was played out mainly in the lobbies and committee rooms of the Palace of Westminster and the residences of the party leaders, rather than on the floor of the House of Commons or 'out of doors'. The crisis that then developed in the relationship between the Commons and the House of Lords summed up in Joseph Chamberlain's emotive slogan, 'The Peers versus the People' – was in some ways a dress rehearsal for the even greater conflict that developed between the two Houses in 1909-11, led by the political heirs of Gladstone and Salisbury. Moreover, it may be argued that the Reform legislation of 1884-85 was more profound in its effects on the British political system than either of the two previous Acts. As The Times wrote on December 8th, 1884, the day that the Third Reform Act received the Royal Assent: 'It is a measure which will henceforth take its place in history among the great organic changes in the British Constitution... It is in every respect, a larger measure than any previous Reform Bill'.
Where did the impulse for parliamentary reform come from in the early 'eighties? The 1884 Act was not – as in 1832 and 1867 – the culmination of a generation of political and intellectual ferment; nor was it a response to the irresistible 'pressure from without of the rural masses, the major beneficiaries of any proposed extension of the franchise, even though there had been political stirrings among the farm labourers during the 'Revolt of the Field' a decade before. Rather, the major factor was the increasing 'democratisation' of English political life in the 1870s, and therefore the growing recognition by all shades of political opinion of the indefensible anomalies contained within the electoral system created by the Second Reform Act.
The major weakness of that Act had been its failure to deal effectively with the problem of the distribution of parliamentary seats – 'the soul of the question of reform', in Bright's famous phrase. In England and Wales only 52 seats were redistributed in 1867; 25 went to the counties to enlarge an already conservative franchise, and only 19 went to the urban areas. The four greatest provincial cities, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool were fobbed off with an extra member each, in addition to the two they already possessed. The great towns and cities, therefore, still lacked their rightful number of MPs in terms of population; and the rural areas – where there still existed scores of small boroughs returning two MPs each – remained heavily over-represented in the House of Commons. Two-thirds of MPs were therefore returned by about a quarter of the electorate.
The anomalies relating to the franchise system were even more absurd. Since the vote had been granted in 1867 only to urban householders, this meant that industrial workers living outside the borough boundaries – the half-a-million or so miners, for example – were denied the vote; while farm labourers living within boroughs possessed it. The contrast between the 'new' qualifications for voting in the boroughs and the 'old' qualifications which still prevailed in the counties, was too stark to be tolerable for long. Indeed, the whole problem of the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies was complex and confused – a nightmare to potential reformers. Moreover, despite the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, the evils of corruption, bribery and intimidation still remained as an accepted part of the electoral system, as the political novels of Anthony Trollope (based on his own bitter experience as a Liberal candidate at the corrupt borough of Beverley) show in lurid detail.
The nature and timing of parliamentary reform depended, however, on pressures and movements of opinion within the Gladstonian Liberal Party, and especially upon the attitude of the 'Grand Old Man' himself after his triumphant electoral victory of 1880 and the formation of his Second Ministry. It was of course Radicals such as G.O. Trevelyan – who had introduced an annual motion into the House of Commons in favour of the county franchise since 1872 – Sir Charles Dilke, and Joseph Chamberlain, who were most committed to franchise reform; and it was the Caucus – the National Liberal Federation of 1877, created and dominated by Chamberlain – which put its weight most powerfully behind that demand and claimed to speak for grass-roots Liberal opinion. The contribution of Chamberlain and the NLF to the Liberal victory in 1880 meant that not only was he rewarded with a seat in the Cabinet (as Dilke was also in 1882) but that the government was committed, in principle at least, to some measure of parliamentary reform. But it was clear from the start of the 'Ministry of all the Troubles' that the path towards reform would be a slow and bumpy one. Gladstone himself, with his teasing obsession with retirement and old age, gave the topic no high priority; and like most other members of the Cabinet he did not relish the prospect of another general election that would normally follow a new Reform Act. The Whig members of the Cabinet, and especially Lord Hartington, the erstwhile Liberal leader, were clearly unenthusiastic. Even more importantly, the early years of the new government were dominated by the complex and time-consuming issues of Ireland and Egypt – issues which had a divisive and debilitating effect upon the Liberal Party as a whole.
By 1883, however, the impatience of Joseph Chamberlain could no longer be contained. He was worried by the disillusionment of the Radical forces in the country with the dismal record of the government of which he was a notable member. In that year, therefore, he launched a national campaign to revive the flagging spirit of Radicalism. 'The country is ripe', he told Dilke, 'for a new departure in constructive Radicalism and only wants leaders. So if we are driven to fight we shall easily recruit an army'. The basis for such a revival now lay, he believed, in parliamentary reform – the county franchise and equal electoral districts; for parliamentary reform was 'the root of all others... the settlement of which will give the greatest possible stimulus to all the reforms which the Liberal Party have in their hearts to carry'.
Gladstone was worried by the tone of Chamberlain's speeches and their implications for Cabinet policy. By late 1883, however, he had himself become a convert to the county franchise. Like Chamberlain, he too was aware of the need for some great legislative coup to re-unite and revivify the Liberal Party; and, with the dying down of the Irish and Egyptian problems in the mid-'80s, the time now seemed ripe. Moreover, the passing of the first effective anti-Corruption Act in 1883, with virtually all-party support, could be seen as a prelude to a further assault on the system of 1867. In addition, appeals to party unity and the exertion of moral pressure by the GOM were enough to bring Hartington round, reluctantly, in support of Reform.
The Reform Bill introduced by Gladstone in February 1884 was a simple one, deliberately so. What the Prime Minister wanted was a measure that would merely extend the principles of the 1867 Act into the county areas. This would prevent the government getting bogged down in the complexities of redistribution or being diverted into discussing proportional representation, female suffrage or other similar 'crotchets' espoused by Radicals. Such a Bill, Gladstone believed, could be put forward as a practical, relatively uncontroversial measure, and passed without any great fuss; a grand debate on the pros and cons of democracy a la 1866, was unnecessary. 'I take my stand', he said, 'upon the broad principle that the enfranchisement of capable citizens, be they few or be they many... is an addition to the strength of the State'. The proposed Bill did, however, contain one important new principle: its terms were to apply to the whole of the United Kingdom – there were to be no separate Bills for Scotland and Ireland. 'The measure is at once', commented The Times approvingly, 'simple in its structure, comprehensive in its effects and conservative in its spirit'.
Gladstone had his way in the House of Commons; the large Liberal majority obediently followed his lead. The debates were dull but practical – concerned more with procedure than principle. Even the Conservative opposition found it difficult to produce any arguments of substance against the Bill – their worries were centred more on its effects in Ireland than in England – and they were largely cowed into submission. As the Prime Minister had insisted, amendments were quickly disposed of – that in favour of female suffrage was lost by 271 to 135, a surprisingly high minority vote – and in July 1884 the Bill passed through the House of Commons with a large majority.
Unhappily for the Liberals, this was not the end of the story. In the House of Lords, Lord Salisbury, the Conservative leader, was determined to fight the Reform Bill tooth and nail – for strictly party reasons. He believed, probably correctly, that the extension of household suffrage into the counties without a redistribution of seats, would give the Liberal party considerable electoral advantages by enabling the old constituencies to be swamped by new Liberal voters. It was estimated that the Bill would increase the electorate by well over a million. 'I quite recognise", wrote Salisbury, 'the danger of defeat which attends the course we have selected... But the alternative which Mr Gladstone presented to us was the absolute effacement of the Conservative Party. It would not have reappeared as a political force for thirty years'. What the Conservative leader aimed at, therefore, was to use the inbuilt Conservative majority in the House of Lords to 'suspend' the passing of the Reform Bill until he obtained firm guarantees from the Prime Minister that it would be accompanied by a Redistribution measure. If these blackmailing tactics failed to work and they were bound to stiffen the GOM's pride and resolution not to yield – then, better still, the accompanying deadlock might force Gladstone to accept a dissolution and thus another general election which the Tories might win. This was the strategy that Salisbury imposed upon the Conservative Party in Parliament during the summer and early autumn of 1884. As a result, the Reform Bill was rejected by the Lords by a large majority and passed back to the House of Commons.
It was a dangerous hand for Salisbury to play – but one that was typical of the Conservative leader. For it meant not only upsetting moderate opinion in Parliament and in the country which wanted a quick convenient settlement; it also provided the Radicals with abundant ammunition for an anti-Tory and anti-Peer campaign based on the cry of 'ending or mending' the House of Lords. That is exactly what did happen. In the summer of 1884 Chamberlain began to organise a national campaign around the slogan of 'the Peers versus the People', and fulminated against 'the insolent pretensions of an hereditary caste'. He was supported not only by the parliamentary Radicals and the NLF, but elements of the labour movement; together they organised a great demonstration in Hyde Park on July 21st on the theme of reforming the House of Lords. This meeting – though good-humoured and orderly – was bound to arouse memories of the 'Hyde Park Affair' of July 1866, when a mob had pushed down the railings and taken over the park for three days, and thus alarmed the respectable London middle classes. The Aston Riots in Birmingham in October, when a Liberal mob attacked a Tory meeting addressed by Lord Randolph Churchill, seemed to give some credence to these fears. What would happen if the Reform Bill was rejected a second time by the Upper House?
The deadlock continued. 'The immediate future is most dark', wrote Leonard Courtney, a leading Liberal, to a colleague, 'the PM and Lord Salisbury have led their armies to the brink of collision and it is not easy to see how a conflict is to be avoided'. Yet behind the scenes moves were taking place which presaged some sort of compromise settlement. Gladstone had already got Dilke (the Liberals' electoral expert) to work out the broad principles of a redistribution scheme; within the Conservative Party there was an influential group of moderate Peers led by Richmond, Cairns and Carnarvon, who were uneasy at Salisbury's tactics, and the strength of public opinion in favour of a settlement could not be ignored.
Moreover the Queen herself, who had started off by blaming the Liberals for the crisis and the attacks on the Lords, now saw the intransigence of the Tory leaders as the major obstacle. She told G.O. Trevelyan on October 28th, in an account that he sent to the Prime Minister: 'We must not have a dissolution... She was much convinced of the dangers of starting the constitutional question... of giving strength to the extreme wing of the Liberal Party. She spoke strongly of the utter inadmissibility of the crisis being made an opportunity for a party success by the Conservatives'. A few days later Queen Victoria wrote to Salisbury and Northcote and strongly urged a personal meeting between the party leaders as the best means of resolving the deadlock. Faced by all these pressures, Salisbury felt he had no alternative but to yield, abandon his aim of forcing a dissolution, and agree to negotiate; a view which was accepted equally by Gladstone who was quite happy to ditch Joseph Chamberlain and the Radical campaign against the Lords. Once it became clear that the Conservative leader was prepared to let the Reform Bill through if the Prime Minister agreed to an accompanying Redistribution measure, the material for a settlement existed.
The terms of the Reform Bill were clear and well-known: everything turned on the principles of the proposed Redistribution Bill – and here the views of the party leaders and their emissaries were vital. On this issue Gladstone was a traditionalist. He accepted the need for a more rational system which would redress the balance of representation in favour of the urban areas -where Liberal strength lay! But he was anxious to retain some of the old well-worn principles of representation. 'We shall seek to deal with anomalies in a manner agreeable to the spirit of English legislation', he proclaimed, 'to attain that kind of practical result by a change sufficiently wide, yet not reckless in character, and which is agreeable to the traditions and practices of Parliament'.
The attitude of Dilke, who did the detailed donkey-work for the Liberal leaders and was largely responsible for the final settlement, was much more far-reaching. As a Radical, he supported a system based on the twin principles of equal electoral districts and single-member constituencies. He believed that this was a sound and just policy in itself, since it would at last give the urban areas their rightful weight in the parliamentary system. But, coupled with the Reform Act, the new redistribution proposals also held out the prospect of Radical advance in the country at large. It was they, the Radicals believed, who would gain most from a massive creation of new seats in the great towns and cities, for such centres were bound to become strongholds of Radical power and influence. Moreover, the establishment of single-member constituencies would end the old practice by which a Whig and a Radical were run together in two-member seats, and who could doubt that in an age of rising democracy, this would favour the choice of Radical candidates? The new reform legislation would thus become the prelude to a Radical take-over of the Liberal Party; and the implications of this were already being canvassed by the leading Radical of the day, Joseph Chamberlain, in a series of articles he inspired in the Fortnightly Review under the general heading of 'The Radical Programme', the basis of his campaign during the general election of 1885.
The attitude of Gladstone and Dilke towards redistribution was not unexpected: it was the outlook of Lord Salisbury that was remarkable. The Conservative leader had come to the discussions with Dilke with no detailed plans of his own. But once he got to grips with the problems and grasped the significance of the redistribution issue, he was disposed to be much more iconoclastic than Gladstone. Unsentimental and hardheaded where party advantage was concerned, and urged on by his Radical partner, Salisbury went to work with relish. He was prepared to sacrifice the smaller boroughs ruthlessly, and reorganise constituency boundaries on a drastic scale in order to demarcate clearly rural and urban areas, and thus maintain Tory ascendancy in the counties. Such a scheme also contained the tempting possibility of Conservative gains in the new middle-class seats in the towns and cities that would thus be created. 'I believe there is', Salisbury commented, 'a great deal of villa Toryism which requires organisation'. Hence to Gladstone's astonishment, the Conservative leader in the end blithely accepted Dilke's two principles of equal electoral districts and single-member constituencies. In this bizarre way, and for opposite motives, the unholy alliance of the Radical and the arch-Tory worked to the same end; and the final details were concluded at a private meeting of the party leaders at Salisbury's London home in November 1884the so-called 'Arlington Street Compact'. As a result the Lords passed the Reform Bill and it received the Royal assent in the following month. The Redistribution Bill was then piloted through Parliament in a curious bipartisan operation and became law in June 1885. In this way the parliamentary map of Great Britain which had existed without fundamental change for some three centuries finally disappeared, unmourned.
The results of the Third Reform Act were in some ways less drastic than contemporaries realised or expected. The application of the urban household and lodger franchise to the counties meant an increase of the vote in those areas from about just below a million to roughly two-and-a half million; and the total electorate wais therefore raised to some five millions. But, as we now know in some detail, the principle of 'one man one vote' was not really achieved by the Act. About 45 per cent of adult males in practice still lacked the vote; either because, like most domestic servants and those on poor relief, they were excluded from the franchise, or because they did not possess the necessary technical qualifications – especially the one year's residence clause – to enable them to register. The excluded were of course mainly members of the working class. At the other end of the scale, the existence of plural voting gave extra votes to men of wealth and standing.
Thus, even apart from the vexed question of the women's vote, Great Britain did not really possess a democratic franchise in the generation that followed the Third Reform Act. Indeed, a mass electorate was not finally achieved until the passing of the Fourth Reform Act in 1918; an Act which not only gave the vote to women over the age of thirty, but, by modifying many of the restrictions on the franchise, created a new army of male, largely working-class voters. In this way the size of the electorate trebled after 1918 from about seven millions to twenty-one millions. Statistically, by the side of these figures, all the Reform Acts of the nineteenth century pale into insignificance.
The Redistribution Act of 1885 probably had a greater impact on the later Victorian political system than the Third Reform Act. As we have seen, it was based on the principle of constituencies roughly equal in size (50,000 voters was the ideal), each electing one member of parliament. To achieve this, small boroughs with populations of less than 15,000 lost both members, and boroughs with populations between 15,000 and 50,000 lost one of their members. The 142 seats thus made available, were distributed almost equally between boroughs and counties; in this way the metropolitan area obtained 39 new seats – giving it 58 MPs – and the largest cities received between three and six new MPs apiece. The industrial counties, similarly, increased their representation; Lancashire, for example, obtained fifteen new seats and the West Riding thirteen. The country was at the same time divided up into one-member constituencies, though twenty-four boroughs remained as two-member seats, partly out of deference to traditionalists like Gladstone.
The effects of these changes were profound but imponderable. By creating new constituencies, the Redistribution Act helped to undermine old political traditions and loyalties, and therefore gave a stimulus to professional party organisation and a new emphasis on national issues in politics; but these were tendencies which rapid social change in the later nineteenth century was encouraging anyway. The consequences for the political parties were paradoxical. At the time, it was believed by the party faithful that the Redistribution Act was a triumph for the Liberal Party and a defeat for the Conservatives: for historians, the opposite view is probably nearer the truth. In the later years of the nineteenth century, the Liberal Party did retain the allegiance of many of its traditional areas of support in industrial England and in Scotland and Wales. But in absolute terms it proved unable to increase its share of the votes of a greatly enlarged electorate. It was losing the middle-class vote, and failed to secure the positive allegiance of the new working-class voters, particularly in England hence its increasing dependence on the 'Celtic Fringe'.
In many ways, of course, the Reform legislation of 1884-85 was a triumph for the Radical section of the Liberal Party: their traditional trio of demands – the county franchise, equal electoral districts, one-member constituencies – had now been secured. Much of this was due to Sir Charles Dilke personally. As his fellow-Radical, Frederic Harrison, wrote to him in December 1884: 'I am in an optimistic mood now that we are to have the best of all possible Reform Bills'. It is also clear that the Radicals (despite the defection of Chamberlain in 1886 over Home Rule) did increase their influence within the Liberal party at the expense of the Whigs; but, for a variety of reasons – Home Rule, the prolongation of Gladstone's leadership, their own internal weaknesses – they were unable to gain much from their new ascendancy.
As far as the Conservative Party was concerned, Salisbury's prediction about 'villa Toryism' (and indeed 'slum Toryism', as the representation in East London constituencies during the later Victorian period shows) seemed to be coming true. In the general election of 1885 the Tories won a majority in the English boroughs for the first time; partly because the cities had been deliberately carved up on 'class' lines by the Redistribution Act, and middle-class voters were therefore separated out into constituencies of their own which soon became safe Conservative seats. It was growing middle-class support, therefore, that helped to underpin Conservative domination in the later nineteenth century, as revealed in their remarkable electoral victories in 1886, 1895 and 1900. Only in the general election of 1906, when the Liberals won an overwhelming victory, was that pattern modified; and just four years later, in the elections of 1910, the English middle classes whose votes had contributed to the Liberal landslide returned to their 'natural' allegiance to the Tory Party. What Salisbury had pinned his faith on in the settlement of 1884-85, was the conviction that an increasingly democratic society – which he detested – was not incompatible with Conservative rule. Time has proved the soundness of his judgement.Paul Adelman is Reader in history at Kingston Polytechnic.
- Two detailed accounts of the passing of the Third Reform Act are: Andrew Jones, The Politics of Reform 1884 (Cambridge University Press, 1972) and William A. Hayes, The Background and Passage of the Third Reform Act (Garland Publishing Inc., U.S.A., 1982).
- On the consequences of reform, see: Charles Seymour, Electoral Reform in England and Wales (1915, David and Charles reprint, 1970)
- Neal Blewett, 'The Franchise in the United Kingdom 18851918', Past and Present, vol 32, 196a; Donald Read, England I868-1914. The Age of Urban Democracy (Longman, 1979).
- For the Radical background, see: Paul Adelman, Victorian Radicalism (Longman, 1984).
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