Paul Foot

  • Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act by Edward Pearce
    Cape, 343 pp, £20.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 224 06199 2

No one disputes that the British electoral system before 1832 was a mockery of representation. Members of Parliament did not want or pretend to be representative: the word ‘democracy’ conjured up in the minds of most of them the spectre of the French Revolution and the guillotine. Membership of Parliament was largely in the gift of the rich. Property was represented, not people. A third of MPs were elected to ‘pocket boroughs’, nominated by a handful of rich landed aristocrats. There were scores of ‘rotten boroughs’ – some were near-deserted villages in which a tiny number of inhabitants could elect an MP. The right to vote was restricted to wealthy men or to ‘potwallopers’, who could afford a hearth and a cooking pot and were almost entirely in thrall to their landlords. The only elections that offered their diminutive electorate anything like a choice had come about by chance in a handful of places, such as Preston and Westminster. Naturally, most of the men who became MPs regarded this system as the best and fairest in the world. Equally naturally, most of the people who didn’t have a vote wanted to have some say in their government, and occasionally were moved to say so. Such were the sixty thousand trade unionists who met in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester in August 1819 and were greeted by the yeomanry, who charged at them with sabres, killing 11 and wounding around four hundred. After the Peterloo massacre, however, politics seemed to settle down again into its accustomed unrepresentative groove.

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