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Reform after the Reform Act: a radical view

Taken from Norman Gash, The Age of Peel (London, Edward Arnold, 1973), with the kind permission of Professor Gash. Copyright of this document, of course, remains with him.


Although the Reform Act was designed by the government to be a measure of political pacification and its sweeping provisions (compared with earlier reform proposals) justified on those grounds, their Radical supporters expected the act to inaugurate a series of legislative reforms. Cobbett's Manchester Lectures, delivered in December 1831 on the assumption that parliamentary reform was now a certainty, elaborated thirteen propositions as a basis for legislation after the Reform Act passed. They included a revision of all pensions and the reduction of official salaries; the abolition of the army except for coastal artillery; the assumption of the defence of the country by the county militia; the abolition of tithe; the confiscation and sale of episcopal and cathedral property and crown lands, the proceeds to pay off the National Debt; the abolition of all internal taxes except the land-tax; the institution of a property tax; and the abolition of the Church of Ireland hierarchy.


William Cobbett's Manchester Lectures (1832), pp. 8-9

A great many people mistake the Reform Bill for reform itself; and a very great mistake it is. The Reform Bill furnishes the means of making the reform. A reform means a change for the better; and, in this case, the change must be very great to be of any use at all. A great many people seem to imagine, or at least they act as if they imagined, that the mere sound of reform would be sufficient, without any proceedings to produce a change in the state of the country. The Ministers themselves appear to be amongst these persons; for you never hear from their lips any-thing seeming to indicate that they look upon it as necessary that some great change should take place in the manner of managing the affairs of the country. Yet, if some great change do not take place, in this respect, I am perfectly convinced that the passing of the Reform Bill would lead to disappointment and discontent, such as must plunge the country into utter confusion. Does any one believe that the mere sound of the word Reform will quiet the country? That, when the trader, who feels the work of ruin still proceeding, is told, in order to pacify him, not to complain now, for that we have got reform: does any one think, that that will make him submit to his ruin without further complaint? When the hungry and angry half-starved labourers complain of their sufferings, and are ready to break out into acts of violence; will they be quieted by telling them, that they must not complain now, for that we have got reform; will they, at the sound of that word, cease to harbour vindictive thoughts relative to those whom they deem their oppressors? Oh, no! the reform must be something more than a bill, something more than a bit of printed paper, it must, to be productive of harmony, cause something to be done to better the state of the people; and, in order to do this, it must produce, and quickly too, not only a change in the management of the affairs of the country, but a very great change.…

If the Reform Bill be to leave the system of sway that which it now is; if the same sort of management of our affairs be to go on after that bill shall have passed as is going on now; and really, to judge from the language of the Ministers, one would say that they contemplate no change; if the tithes and taxes be still to remain such as they are; if a Bourbon gendarmerie be still to dog our steps, and stop us when they like at any hour of the day and night; if the Englishmen, who do all the work, be still doomed to live on potatoes and water, while those who take from them the fruit of their labour, are living on all the choice products of the earth; if Englishmen and women be still harnessed and made to draw like beasts of burden; if a reformed Parliament cannot find the means of protecting the dead bodies of the working poor, while such ample means are found for protecting the dead body of a hare, a pheasant, or a partridge; then, indeed, the bishops did right in opposing the Reform Bill; for a greater delusion, a greater fraud, never was attempted, to be practised on any part of mankind.


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