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HISTORY OF GREAT BRITAIN (from 1707)
 
 


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End of an era: 1815-1830

The years after the victory at Waterloo are uneasy ones in Britain. There has been industrial unrest even before the end of the war. In 1811 bands of masked men in Nottingham launch night raids on factories to smash the textile machines which they see as a threat to their livelihood. They become known as Luddites, because to preserve anonymity the leaders are all referred to as King Lud. The violence spreads to other industrial regions until a mass trial of suspects in York in 1813, followed by hangings and transportation, brings a lull.

But after the end of the war economic hardship, aggravated by an appalling harvest in 1816, brings another burst of Luddite activity.
 









This mood of violence, with continuing economic depression in the country, makes the ruling classes neurotically fearful of suspected radicals and obsessively inclined to measures of repression. Peaceful protest and nervous authority come face to face in Manchester in 1819.

A crowd of citizens, gathering on St Peter's Fields to demand the reform of parliament, is so alarmingly large (some 60,000 people) that the magistrates order troops to clear the area. Mounted soldiers charge in and lay about with their sabres. Eleven people are killed and about 500 wounded in an event which becomes known as the Peterloo massacre, in an ironic echo of the British army's rather better performance four years earlier at Waterloo.
 







Later in the year parliament passes the so-called 'Six Acts', designed to enforce public order by such means as limiting the right of assembly and the freedom of the press. But it proves impossible to suppress the radical journalism of campaigners such as William Cobbett - who in his weekly Political Register (with an astonishing circulation of about 50,000 copies) describes in pungent prose the harsh conditions of the poor and the nest-feathering of the self-indulgent rich.

The society which Cobbett and many others are desperate to reform has at its head a caricature of all that is wrong, in the person of George IV.
 







Though king for only ten years (1820-30), George IV is in effect the monarch for the previous decade as well. George III is prone to fits of insanity (now thought to be the result of a physical condition known as porphyria). His son, already notorious for a dissolute life of drink and gambling, becomes prince regent in 1811 when George III's new bout of insanity seems likely to be permanent.

The prince regent, though a Whig in his youth (with the brilliant but unpredictable Charles James Fox as a favourite drinking partner), retains his father's Tory ministry to the end of his reign. By then there has been an unbroken spell of thirty-six Tory years since George III appointed the young Pitt as his prime minister.
 







In some respects the Tories prove themselves well able to move with the times. George Canning, foreign secretary from 1825, is strongly supportive of the liberation movements in Greece and in Latin America. He becomes prime minister in 1827 but dies after only a few months - to be followed by a much more reactionary figure, albeit a national hero, the duke of Wellington.

Wellington astonishes even his supporters by stating that he sees no need for any element of political reform in Britain. But in one important respect events overtake him. Confronted by a sudden crisis, he pushes through a reform which had eluded even Pitt - that of Catholic emancipation.
 






Daniel O'Connell and Catholic emancipation: 1823-29

The issue of Catholic emancipation is brought back on to the agenda by a brilliant use of grassroots politics. Daniel O'Connell, an experienced campaigner who first achieves prominence in 1800 for his speeches in Dublin against the Act of Union, organizes from 1823 a network of Catholic associations throughout Ireland. Their purpose is to demand an end to discrimination. The campaign is unmistakably an expression of popular will, being funded only by the members' subscriptions of a penny a month.

There is considerable sympathy in England for this cause and several bills for Catholic relief are put forward - only to be rejected in the house of lords.
 









In 1828 O'Connell raises the stakes. Even though his religion prevents his sitting in parliament in Westminster, he contests a by-election for the county of Clare. The election has been arranged so that Vesey Fitzgerald, invited by the duke of Wellington to join his cabinet as president of the board of trade, can be hurried into parliament. Sensationally, O'Connell wins the seat. The result puts Catholic Ireland in an uproar.

Wellington, the prime minister, and Robert Peel, his home secretary, have both been strongly opposed to any concessions to the Catholics. But in the circumstances they persuade George IV (equally disinclined) that something must be done.
 







The Emancipation Act is passed in 1829, removing nearly all the barriers against Catholics holding public office. The crucial clause, in the immediate context, is the one dropping the requirement for members of parliament to deny on oath the spiritual authority of the pope. O'Connell takes his seat.

He soon becomes the leader of the Irish members and works towards the achievement of his main aim - the repeal of the union of 1800. But for the moment, as he himself recognizes, this cause takes second place to the frenzy now gripping Westminster in the battle for and against parliamentary reform.
 






The Reform Bill: 1831-1832

There has been no such prolonged period of intense political excitement in Britain as the fifteen months, from March 1831 to June 1832, during which repeated attempts are made to achieve a measure of parliamentary reform.

The need for reform, widely agreed around the country, is evident both in the laughable nature of much of tbe system inherited from the past, and in the inadequacy of the existing arrangements to cope with the present.
 









The anomalies from the past are famously evident in the so-called pocket and rotten boroughs. Pocket boroughs (or those where the nomination of the candidate is in the pocket of a single individual) have no electors at all; the owner's nominee automatically becomes a member of parliament, and ownership of the borough can even be put up for auction. By 1831 one such borough is entirely notional. Coastal erosion means that it has vanished under the sea, but it still returns a member to Westminster.

Rotten boroughs are those with very few electors. Old Sarum becomes the most notorious. Its seven voters have the right to elect two members, though in 1831 the constituency's rolling fields contain not a single habitable building.
 







These relics of the past give maximum opportunity for corruption in a system where there is not yet a secret ballot. Votes are bought for openly stated prices and the election campaigns become gross orgies of competitive hospitality. Even worse, landowners sometimes victimize tenants who fail to vote for their nominees.

If these traces of the past are a bad joke, the failure to address present realities is even more serious. The rapidly growing new industrial cities are for the most part unrepresented in parliament. A significant step in the crescendo of demand for reform comes in 1830 when the Tory majority in the house of commons rejects a bill to extend the franchise to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
 







By the end of 1830 Wellington's Tory government has fallen. A new Whig ministry, headed by Earl Grey, is committed to parliamentary reform. By March 1831 a bill is ready.

Presented to the house of commons by Lord John Russell, the bill causes astonished delight in the country, and outrage on the Tory benches, by the bold sweep of its proposals. Most of the pocket and rotten boroughs are abolished, with their seats in the house transferred to the industrial cities; the property qualification for electors, previously different all over the country, is rationalized. Debate rages for seven nights, and when the time comes for a vote the result could hardly be more dramatic. The bill passes by a majority of one.
 







Grey and his cabinet persuade the king (by now William IV) to dissolve parliament for an election to be held, effectively on this one issue. During the campaign there are passionate meetings and rallies around the country - mainly attended by people unable to vote, since the election is still on unreformed lines.

The Whigs sweep in with a majority of more than 100, and immediately carry in the house of commons a second Reform Bill. It is rejected in the lords in October 1831 by a majority of forty-one. A third and modified bill is carried in the commons in March 1832, and then in the lords by a small majority of nine. But crisis strikes when this bill too is rejected by the peers at the committee stage in May.
 








The Whig cabinet resigns and Wellington attempts to form a government committed to more moderate reform. In the mood of the country few members of parliament will support him, and within a few days he recommends that the king recall Grey. The Whigs return, with the king's reluctant agreement to create sufficient new peers to carry the bill if necessary. But Wellington now exerts himself to ensure acceptance by the lords.

On 7 June 1832 the bill receives the royal assent and becomes the Reform Act.
 







Representation of the people: 1833-1918

In the election for the first reformed parliament, which assembles in January 1833, the Tories do predictably badly - winning only 172 seats compared to 486 for the Whigs. Yet the new members are less different in kind than those fearing reform had predicted (though the duke of Wellington claims to be unimpressed by the standard of dress, commenting sourly that he has never seen 'so many shocking bad hats').

The reason is that the property qualification to become an elector is still high. Even under the new system only 813,000 people qualify to register as voters in 1832. But this is now a middle-classs electorate, in place of one representing mainly the landed gentry.
 









The immediate change may not be great, but the shift in direction is immense. As yet only a few radicals are arguing that everyone should have a vote (and even these few have in mind only an electorate including all adult males). To everyone else it seems obvious that those with a material stake in the economy should be the only people with power to influence political decisions.

Once it is accepted that the level of this stake can be changed, anything becomes possible. The reform of 1832 in Britain, together with similar movements in other countries, makes possible the progression towards the universal suffrage now taken for granted in 20th-century democracies.
 







In Britain the successive stages are four measures, each known as a Representation of the People Act. That of 1867 reduces the property qualification to the point where the urban working class wins the vote. The act of 1885 effectively does the same for workers in the countryside. (Between these two the Ballot Act of 1872 introduces the secret ballot, a measure which provokes a great deal of parliamentary opposition.)

The act of 1885 still contains a financial threshold, albeit a low one. This is done away with in the act of 1918 which makes proof of residence the only qualification. This act also finally achieves universal suffrage in Britain, since it introduces votes for women.
 






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