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.

The calm came under threat in the extraordinary year of 1830. There was a Tory government in power, whose prime minister was the hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington. His attitude to democracy was summed up by his assertion that the people were ‘rotten to the core’. He was irritated in July 1830 by another revolution in France, which yet again disposed of the king. Worse, there was unrest in Britain. Hay-ricks were set on fire, and threatening messages from ‘Captain Swing’ sent to the owners of the land they were on. The duke and his ministers saw to it that culprits, guilty or not, were hanged or transported to Australia. But the fires continued, and with them a growing clamour for parliamentary reform. To the duke’s annoyance these demands came not only from the lower orders but from rich and powerful gentlemen, especially in London and Birmingham (manufacturing centres such as Birmingham which had grown quickly from small towns often had no representation). That same summer George IV died, leaving the throne to his marginally more stable brother William. The death of the king brought a general election, and the Tories were replaced by the Whigs. The chief difference between the two parties was that the Whigs were more sensitive to the growing wrath of the unrepresented upper middle classes. They favoured what they called ‘reform’, abolishing the rotten boroughs and apportioning the parliamentary seats in a way that bore a closer resemblance to population size. The Whigs, however, hated democracy just as much as the Tories: the main aim of reform was to save their estates from the plundering masses. The outstanding speech in the parliamentary debates on the second reading of the first Reform Bill was made by the young MP for the rotten Wiltshire borough of Calne, Thomas Babington Macaulay. He denounced the aristocracy’s blind insensitivity to the upper middle classes from which he came. He stressed the contribution that class could and should make to politics. It was precisely the urgent need to keep the barbarians outside the gates, he argued, that demanded the vote for the richer middle classes, especially those who lived in entirely unrepresented cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. This was also the view, although much less coherently expressed, of Whig ministers. The Tories, on the other hand, thought that any degree of reform was an open invitation to the incendiaries and that, in another famous phrase of the Duke of Wellington, ‘the people of England are very quiet if they are left alone.’ The argument had nothing to do with democracy. It was about property, and how best those who had it could keep it safe from those who hadn’t.

Edward Pearce was an eloquent and observant parliamentary commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. He delighted and, to his credit, often infuriated his readers with his sardonic wit and readable prose. Eventually shunned by both papers, he wrote an absorbing account of the argument about Ireland that shaped so much of British politics in the 1880s. In the introduction to his new book he confesses to ‘a prejudice in favour of debate’, and turns his reporting skill to the seemingly endless debates on the Reform Bills of 1831 and 1832. The main problem with this is that these ‘debates’ didn’t affect the enormous majority of the British people. At most, half a million people were enfranchised, around 4 per cent of the British population. There was certainly a debate going on in 1831, a popular debate about popular representation, but it was quite deliberately kept out of Parliament. The idea of universal suffrage was taboo. It cropped up in debates only very occasionally, usually at the instigation of two maverick MPs elected in 1831 and 1832 respectively: Henry Hunt and William Cobbett. Pearce acknowledges both respectfully, but for the most part his book wallows in the mud of the debates between Whig and Tory. He manages somehow to convert most of the Whig ministers into memorable characters, much larger than life. Among those larded with praise are the prime minister, Earl Grey, who told the Lords that ‘the nobility of this country are mixed and blended with the people. They share all the burthens’ and ‘they are known as neighbours’; the unbearably pompous and long-winded Lord Chancellor Brougham; the self-pitying Lord Althorp; and Lord Durham, who, Pearce guesses, had ‘read his Shelley’, though in 1832 pretty well no one, let alone a Whig earl, had read Shelley. Pearce has something nice to say about most of the Tories, too, notably the nauseating and utterly uncompromising reactionary John Croker, for whom the rotten boroughs were the essence of freedom and prosperity; Sir Robert Inglis, who proclaimed that ‘this House would not be bound by the cries of a majority of the people’, and Lord Lyndhurst, who is described by Pearce as a ‘gladiator’.

Much more appetising is the contempt in which Cobbett held the Whig reformers. In September 1830 his Political Register described them as ‘shoy-hoys’, what we now call ‘scarecrows’.

At first the birds take the shoy-hoys for a real man or woman, and, so long as they do this, they abstain from their work of plunder; but after having for some little while watched the shoy-hoy with their quick and piercing eyes and perceived that it never moves hand or foot, they totally disregard it, and are no more obstructed by it than if it were a post. Just so it is with these political shoy-hoys.

Cobbett recognised that the Reform Bill was a distraction from the cause of universal suffrage. Plenty of other people saw this, too, and were busy debating parliamentary representation outside the Houses of Parliament. Pearce is far too good a journalist not to notice them. He offers a rather cursory account of the riots in Nottingham, Derby and Bristol when the Lords first rejected the bill, and the plans for armed insurrection when they threatened to emasculate it. But these accounts soon slide back to the floor of Parliament. Pearce is as obsessed with these debates as he was by the ones between people who had at least been genuinely elected when he sat in the press gallery for the Telegraph or the Guardian. His political instincts are the opposite of reactionary – he ruthlessly exposes the buffoonery of Sir Charles Wetherell, the religious lunacy of young Spencer Perceval and the bigotry of almost all the bishops – but he has little time for the real story, the ‘noise outside’. No time at all, for instance, for the Poor Man’s Guardian, founded in this period, whose most prolific contributor, James Bronterre O’Brien, gave powerful voice to the case for universal suffrage and denounced with passion the parliamentary posturings of the shoy-hoys. Pearce concedes that a lot of the speeches he so indulgently reports are ‘radical rhetoric describing a class-limited bill’, but he cannot resist describing its measures as ‘drastic and sweeping’. Drastic and sweeping they were not. The government elected after the Reform Bill was enacted was packed even more densely with titled class warriors than the old one had been. Even the pocket boroughs were not abolished: at least forty peers were still nominating their MPs. And the attitude to the ordinary people of the new government under Lord Melbourne had not changed at all, as the Tolpuddle martyrs and, a few years later, the Chartists were to discover. Describing a more minor reform 21 years later, Marx, who is quoted by Pearce only to be bowdlerised, summed up the true nature of the not-so-great Reform Act:

This is a true reform in the old English sense of the word. It neither creates anything new, nor abolishes anything old. It aims at conserving the old system by giving it a more reasonable form and teaching it, so to say, new manners. This is the mystery of the ‘hereditary wisdom’ of English oligarchical legislation. It simply consists in making abuses hereditary by refreshing them, as it were, from time to time, by an infusion of new blood.