Boyd Hilton

Liberty or Dearth

Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832


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As every schoolchild once knew – and will again if Michael Gove transforms the history curriculum so as to portray Britain as a ‘beacon of liberty for others to emulate’ – there were three parliamentary reform settlements in the 19th century. The Conservative government’s Reform Act of 1867 and the Liberal Reform and Redistribution Acts of 1884–5 were framed partly with an eye to democratic accountability – which citizens deserved and could be trusted with the franchise? – and partly by each party’s desire to reshape the electorate to its own advantage. By contrast the Whig Reform Act of 1832 was concerned not with individual rights or voter profiles or party politics but with the need for better government. Crown, Church and Parliament had all lost legitimacy, rapid urbanisation had thrown up huge conglomerations of people with virtually no institutions for social amelioration or policing, and there was also the fear of full-scale revolution, especially after the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy in France in 1830. The system looked broke and in need of fixing. In this sense the 1832 Reform Act was, in the words of the historian D C Moore, an attempt at a ‘cure’ rather than a ‘concession’ to democratic forces.

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