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Lord Palmerston on parliamentary reform: 3 March 1831

Hansard, ii - 1324-30

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.


The government plan of reform was first revealed by Lord John Russell on 1 March 1831 when leave was sought to bring in a bill to amend the representation of England and Wales. Palmerston, who had entered parliament as a Tory, crossed the House to join the Whigs because he favoured parliamentary reform. This is from his speech supporting the proposed legislation that had been announced in parliament


There were some, he knew, who called the present Reform by the name of Revolution. There were others, he believed, who thought that it fell far short of what the people were entitled to demand; but he was convinced that all educated and intelligent men, who admitted the importance of preserving and consolidating the constitutional institutions, would be satisfied that the plan now proposed was well adapted to the end which all had in view. Any man who looked at the workings of the present system must see, that there were five great and peculiar blemishes, which it was necessary to remove, in order to fit it for the intelligence and feelings of the times in which we lived. The first of these was the system of nomination by the patrons of boroughs; the second, the gross and barefaced corruption which prevailed among the lower classes, when their votes become necessary to the higher; the third, the absence of all adequate balances of representation with respect to the great manufacturing and commercial towns; the fourth, the great expense of elections; and the fifth, the very unequal and unjust distribution of the power of voting among the middle and lower classes. The plan then before the House applied to all these defects, and he was convinced that, if calmly and dispassionately examined, there was not an evil they generated for which it did not provide a sure and effectual remedy.…

The object the Government had in view in framing the Bill was, first, to give Representatives to the great manufacturing towns; next, to add to the respectability of the electors; and then to increase the number of those who claim to enjoy the right of choosing their Representatives. This had been done by conferring the right of voting generally on those who inhabited a house paying £10 a year rent. The independence, too, of the electors was secured by throwing open the closed boroughs to the inhabitants of the surrounding parishes, increasing their numbers, and making it impossible for any individuals to control them. In making these alterations, the Ministers disclaimed any intention to sever the ties which bind together the middle classes and the aristocracy. On the contrary, it was their earnest desire to increase, rather than to diminish, that influence – an influence arising from good conduct and propriety of demeanour on the one side, and respect and deference on the other; and which was as honourable to those who exercised it, as to those who acknowledged its authority. The measure before the House was not intended to affect this power, for it gave additional reasons for supporting and defending it; but it was intended to destroy that corrupt influence which destroys all public principle, and debases the state of every class of society wherever it has existence.…

There were many and strong objections to virtual representation, and they applied with great force to the manufacturing towns which were unrepresented, and the interests of which were seriously affected by almost all the measures that were discussed in Parliament. in fact, if there were any classes who required more than others proper Representatives, they were the inhabitants of large manufacturing towns – Representatives who understood their interests, and who might be ready to watch over them. For this purpose, the Government proposed to give thirty-six Members to the manufacturing towns; and because this was done, a cry had been raised that the balance between the agricultural and manufacturing interests was destroyed. But the plan proposed went to restore to the landed interest that influence which he thought indispensable to the safety and prosperity of the country, by giving fifty-five Members to the counties, and still further, by conferring votes on copyholders, and not permitting those who had votes for towns to enjoy the same privilege in counties. He looked, indeed, on the increase of the Members for counties as the surest and most stable basis of representation; for, without meaning to disparage the manufacturing or commercial interests, he must say, that he considered the soil to be the country itself… The great merit of the Bill, in his opinion, was, that it altered the distribution of political power, and restored the Constitution, by placing the middle classes in that situation to which they were entitled, and which was most likely to prove advantageous to themselves and to the community.


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