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Reform Act: A First Step Towards Democracy

What was the Great Reform Act of 1832, how did it come about and what, if anything, did it achieve? Stephen Farrell looks at the people and politics involved.

There is a curious but almost entirely consistent feature of the history of constitutional change in Britain, a feature which could be said to typify the twin national characteristics of boldness and caution. It is that significant political alterations – such as the granting of votes for women, or the removal of the hereditary peers from the Lords – are generally resisted for decades, but once adopted are almost immediately absorbed into the general pattern of stable political continuity. Perhaps the very airing of an issue for so long beforehand helps account for the ease with which it is subsequently accepted.

This peculiarly English historical feature is well illustrated by the Reform Act of 1832. For, although the passage of the Reform Bill produced over a year of high political drama, something of the kind had long been called for and, once enacted, little resistance to it ever really emerged. That said, however, the actual narrative of the carrying of the English reform legislation is one in which a series of major political surprises led to the advancement of an almost wholly unexpected constitutional project. The promoters as well as the opponents of reform felt that they were living through a period of groundbreaking change, even if – in retrospect – the alterations were never quite as extensive as was thought at the time.

The unreformed system

The oddities of the unreformed electoral system were plain for all reformers to see. What sense did it make for both the tiny county of Rutland and the much larger and more populous Yorkshire to return two MPs to Westminster? The former, with about 800 electors, was under the control of a couple of aristocratic families, while the latter,with perhaps 50,000 electors, was fought over by numerous local and party interests drawn from various economic and social backgrounds.

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