The Impact of the Second Reform Act

The 1867 Reform Act did not set the British electoral system in stone until the Third Reform Act of 1884-85. John Walton reveals that its effects were complex, varied and quite often unintended.

Historians of politics and society in nineteenth-century Britain have neglected the Second Reform Act in recent years. The 1960s and early 1970s saw a spate of studies of the making of the Act and of its impact on electoral processes and popular political participation, at local and national level; but since then the focus of attention has shifted to the earlier and later Acts of 1832 and 1884. The 1867 Act has been allowed to languish. This is a pity: its passing raised important issues about contemporary perceptions of the nature of the mid-Victorian working class. and about the potential and actual threat its organisations posed to property and the established constitution; while its impact, taken in conjunction with the death of Palmerston in 1865 (which helped to make it possible) and the Ballot Act of 1872, might be argued to entail the remaking of the national political system, as the Conservatives and Liberals emerged as well-defined national parties, cornering the market in new voters and ushering in an era of alternating hegemonies and principled rivalry to replace the stagnant coalition-mongering of the 1850s and 1860s.

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