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Whig reasons for reform

The Reform Bill was introduced because of public opinion, thus admitting the principle that government must follow the popular voice. The Tories in opposition were the better historians, philosophers and prophets; the Whigs were better politicians. The Whigs did not create, but merely recognised, a situation that demanded reform and offered a practical remedy for a felt grievance. They took their stand on the irresistibility of the demand for parliamentary reform throughout the country and on the futility of piecemeal, half-hearted legislation to answer that demand.

Grey's Bill was the most that could be pushed through parliament and the least which would satisfy the country at large. That the Tories regarded it as revolutionary and the more extreme radicals saw it as a betrayal was a reasonable indication of its value as a national solution. What the Tories said was true but what the Whigs did was necessary. Macaulay commented at the time that,

'They have done all that was necessary for the removing of a great practical evil, and no more than was necessary'. (Hansard)

Lord John Russell based his support of reform on

  1. the awareness of the great advance of the middle classes in wealth, intelligence, influence and knowledge
  2. the lack of sufficient representation of the middle classes in parliament
  3. the obvious disinclination of parliament to pass laws that took middle-class opinion into account

In addition, the Whigs wanted to bring the middle classes into an alliance with the governing class to prevent a middle class alliance with the working classes, thus depriving the lower orders of their natural leaders.

Catholic Emancipation removed the Whigs' inhibitions of reform, which were grounded on fears that an extension of the franchise would help popular anti-Catholicism. The success of the Catholic Association encouraged radicals to believe that parliamentary reform could be achieved by similar means.

While the Tory party was disintegrating, the Whigs underwent a revival between February and July 1830. Lord Grey had always advocated parliamentary reform but the Whigs stood to gain a good deal from reform. Many Whig politicians had been converted to the idea of parliamentary reform in the 1820s when they realised that without it they had little chance of winning or staying in power. The Tories controlled 203 pocket boroughs; the Whigs controlled only 73.

There are different interpretations of the Whigs' motivation

Motives for advocating reform

Brougham, on his election as a Yorkshire MP in 1830, proposed to push for reform; reform was also made a party platform, along with retrenchment. Brougham actually was one of Grey's main problems. Brougham had a reputation for untrustworthiness and unreliability. He was offered and eventually accepted the Lord Chancellorship, which removed him from political life.

The country did seem to be restive in 1830, with the Swing riots, industrial distress and the repercussions of the revolutions in France and Belgium. Wellington's anti-reform speech also created great excitement.

That ministers regarded civil war and revolution as real possibilities between 1831 and 1832 is evident in:

Whig reform was an attempt to cure deficiencies that had impaired the credit and stability of parliament, making it unsatisfactory from the viewpoint of the landocracy. For example, more county members and fewer rotten boroughs would strengthen the influence of the landed classes.

Some Whig ministers, notably Althorp, Russell and Brougham, were motivated by the belief that reform was desirable and in accordance with Whig principles. They felt that the existing system was inadequate and they wanted to get rid of the rotten boroughs and corrupt practises. They genuinely were concerned about the disharmony between the distribution of seats and the wealth and population. They wanted to include the middle classes in the system of government.

  1. Different Whigs saw the Reform Bill differently, and must have acted from a variety of motives
  2. The Bill proposed in March 1831 was more radical than any preceding scheme and was probably more far-reaching than Ministers wanted. However, the government was not forced to produce such an extensive measure and hardly anyone expected them to go so far. In 1831 Francis Place said,
  3. 'the reformers, the enemies of reform, and the borough mongers, were all equally surprised - and all for the same reason, namely, that the plan of reform had been made so extensive'.
  4. The Whigs opted for a far-reaching measure for several reasons:

Although Grey was an aristocrat he understood the importance of the new industrial provincial middle class and believed that

unless a corresponding change can be made in the legal mode by which that property can act upon governments, revolutions must necessarily follow'.

Grey believed that the middle classes had to be won over to the side of the government, and felt that he had no alternative to producing a Reform Bill. He told the king that

With the universal feeling that prevails on this subject, it is impossible to avoid doing something; and not to do enough to satisfy public expectation (I mean the satisfaction of the rational public) would be worse than doing nothing.

The government wanted only to modify the electoral system and therefore assumed that interests should be represented, as in the old system. Also, they intended to exclude the ignorant and bigoted working classes because they were uneducated, although working class support for the Bill was necessary. The £10 householder qualification did not draw a line between the middle and working classes, and it did not produce uniformity either. It depended on house prices in the boroughs. In London it produced virtually household suffrage; in some places it left many of the middle classes unenfranchised. However, it was expected that, once enfranchised, the middle classes would become part of the 'Establishment' to keep the working classes in order and to side with the aristocracy.

The main reason for the Bill was that the events of 1830 had persuaded the Whigs that it was necessary. Demands for reform would not go away, and a revolution had to be prevented/ avoided. The Bill might not have been so radical but for a miscalculation. Grey expected it to pass in a few weeks because he thought there would be majorities in both Houses for drastic reform.

He might never have sponsored it had he foreseen that its passage would entail 15 months of intense agitation, which would include both an election on democratic lines and threats to swamp the House of Lords.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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