Gladstone and Parliamentary Reform, 1832 – 1894

Michael Partridge charts the changing political views of the Grand Old Man of 19th-century British politics.

If, Sir, the nobility, the gentry, the clergy are to be alarmed, overawed, or smothered by the expression of popular opinion such as this, and if no great statesman be raised up in our hour of need to undeceive this unhappy multitude ... the day of our greatness and stability is no more, and ... the chill and damp of death are already creeping over England’s glory.

This comment, on a Bill designed to reform the House of Commons, was written by the 21-year-old William Ewart Gladstone in 1832, while a student at Oxford University. When, 63 years later, he made his final speech in the Commons, he warned the House of Lords that their days were numbered if they continued to oppose the wishes of the majority of the population. Far from becoming more conservative as he grew older, Gladstone became one of the more radical supporters of Parliamentary reform, a move which puzzled many of his contemporaries. 

The question of Parliamentary reform exercised British politicians throughout most of the nineteenth century. It revolved around four main issues: who should be able to vote; who should be able to stand for election; how should they be elected; and where they should represent.

The Suffrage

When debates began about Parliamentary reform in 1830, the issue of suffrage was high on the agenda. Even after the passage of the Reform Act, in June 1832, the electorate was confined to about 650,000 men in England, Scotland and Wales, out of a population of some 16.5 million. This represented an increase of over 80 per cent; but, radical though it may have appeared, it was still in many respects a conservative measure. It did not offer anything like universal manhood suffrage, nor did it change the means of conducting elections, while MPs, as before, were not to be paid salaries.

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