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The case for parliamentary reform: 1831

Lord John Russell: 1 March 1831 (Hansard, ii-1065-83)

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 on 1 March 1831 when leave was sought to bring in a bill to amend the representation of England and Wales. Though the official leader of the House of Commons was Lord Althorp, the motion was entrusted to Lord John Russell who had been a member of the Committee of Four which drew up the draft bill for the cabinet and was therefore better acquainted with its details. A seven-night debate followed at the end of which the bill was allowed to be brought in without a division and given its first reading. The second reading was fixed for 21 March and after two nights of debate passed by 302 votes to 301 in the largest division ever known in British parliamentary history. The bill differed in many of its details from that which finally became law in 1832. In particular the proposal to reduce the size of the House of Commons from 658 members to 596 aroused much opposition and it was a defeat on this issue in committee on 19 April which decided the government to withdraw the bill, dissolve Parliament (22 April) and appeal to the electorate. The slender majority on the principle of the bill on the second reading had in fact made it almost certain that it would not be able to stand up to detailed criticism in committee.

I come now to the utmost difficult part of this subject - the explanation of the measure, which, representing the King's Ministers, I am about to propose to the House. Those Ministers have thought, and, in my opinion justly, that it would not be sufficient to bring forward a measure which should merely lop off some disgusting excrescences, or cure some notorious defects; but would still leave the battle to be fought again with renewed and strengthened discontent. They have thought that no half measures would be sufficient - that no trifling, no paltering, with so great a question could give stability to the Throne - authority to the Parliament - or satisfaction to the Country… The chief grievances of which the people complain are these; - First, the nomination of Members by individuals. Second, the Elections by close Corporations; third, the Expense of Elections. With regard to the first - the nomination by individuals - it may be exercised in one of two ways; either over a place containing scarcely any inhabitants, and with a very extensive right of election, or over a place of wide extent and numerous population, but where the franchise is confined to very few residents.… We have addressed ourselves to both these evils, because we have thought it essential to apply a remedy to both; but they must, of course, be dealt with in different ways. With regard to Boroughs where there are scarcely any inhabitants, and where the elective franchise is such as to enable many individuals to give their voices in the choice of Members for this House, it would be evidently a mere farce to take away the right from the person exercising it, and to give it to the borough; and the only Reform that can be justly recommended is, to deprive the borough of its franchise altogether.…

It would be a task of extreme difficulty to ascertain the exact proportion of the wealth, trade, extent, and population, of a given number of places, and we have, therefore, been governed by what is manifestly a public record - I mean the population returns of 1821, and we propose that every borough which in that year had less than 2,000 inhabitants, shall altogether lose the right of sending Members to Parliament. The effect will be, utterly to disfranchise sixty boroughs. But we do not stop here.… We find that there are forty-seven boroughs, of only 4,000 inhabitants, and these we shall deprive of the right of sending more than one Member to Parliament. We likewise intend that Weymouth, which at present sends four Members, shall, in future, only elect two. The abolition of sixty boroughs will occasion 119 vacancies, to which are to be added forty-seven for the boroughs allowed to send only one Member, and two of which Weymouth will be deprived, making in the whole 168 vacancies. Such is the extent to which Ministers propose to go in the way of disfranchisement. But, as I have already said, we do not mean to allow that the remaining boroughs should be in the hands of select Corporations - that is to say, in the possession of a small number of persons, to the exclusion of the great body of the inhabitants, who have property and interest in the place represented.… We therefore propose that the right of voting shall be given to householders paying rates for, or occupying a house of, the yearly value of £10. and upwards. Whether he be the proprietor, or whether he only rent the house, the person rated will have the franchise, upon certain conditions hereafter to be named. At the same time, it is not intended to deprive the present electors of their privilege to vote, provided they be resident. With regard to non-residence, we are of the opinion that it produces much expense, that it is the cause of a great deal of bribery, and that it occasions such manifold and manifest evils, that electors who do not live in a place ought not to be permitted to retain their votes. At the same time, I do not believe that we are inflicting even upon this class any in for nearly all, either in one place or in another, will possess a franchise as belonging to the great mass, of householders. With regard to resident voters, we propose that they shall retain their right during life, but that no vote shall be allowed hereafter, excepting on the condition.…

I now beg leave to direct the attention of the House to that part of the plan which relates to the expense of long-protracted Polls, and which, while it removes that evil also greatly facilitates the collection of the sense of the elective body. The names of electors are to be enrolled, by which means we hope that the disputes regarding qualification will be in a great measure avoided. We propose that all electors in counties, cities, towns, or boroughs, shall be registered, and for this purpose, machinery will be put in motion very similar to that of the jury Act:… These regulations are extremely simple, and will prevent all those vexatious and noisy scenes now so often witnessed, regarding disputed votes. The means of ascertaining who are the electors being made thus easy, there will be no reason why the poll should be kept open for eight days, or for a longer period; and it is proposed that, nearly according to the present law, booths shall be erected for the voters of the different parishes, so that the whole poll may be taken in two days.… With respect to the manner of proceeding at Elections, we have it in view to introduce a measure which can hardly fail to be an improvement of the present system. Everybody knows, and must have lamented the enormous expense to which candidates are put in bringing voters to the poll. An election in Yorkshire has been known to cost nearly £150,000; and in Devonshire some of the electors are obliged to travel forty miles over rough cross-roads, which occupies one day; the next is consumed in polling, and the third in returning home; the whole scheme being a manifest source of vast expense, and most inconvenient delay. We propose, therefore, that the poll shall be taken in separate districts, into which the counties are to be divided, those districts to be arranged according to circumstances by the Magistrates at Quarter Sessions.... Having gone through the several alterations proposed in England and Wales, in Scotland and Ireland, I now come to the result. The number of

Members now belonging to this House is
The number to be disfranchised
Number remaining
Additional Members for Scotland
Additional Members for Ireland
Additional Members for Wales
Additional Members for the metropolis
New Members for large towns in England
Additional Members for counties in England
Total additional Members
Members of the House not to be disfranchised

making a decrease of sixty-two Members in the total number of Representatives. I will now state the number of additional persons who, I suppose, will be entitled to votes for counties, towns, and boroughs under this Bill:

The number in towns and boroughs in England already sending Members, will be increased by
The electors of towns (in England) sending Members for the first time I estimate at
Electors in London, who will obtain the right of voting
Increase of electors in Scotland
In Ireland, perhaps
Increase in the countries of England probably

It is my opinion, therefore, that the whole measure will add to the constituency of the Commons House of Parliament, about half a million of Persons, and these all connected with the property of the country, having a valuable stake amongst us, and deeply interested in our institutions. They are the persons on whom we can depend in any future struggle in which this nation may be engaged, and who will maintain and support Parliament and the Throne in carrying that struggle to a successful termination. I think that those measures will produce a further benefit to the people, by the great incitement which it will occasion to industry and good conduct. For when a man finds, that by industrious exertion, and by punctuality, he will entitle himself to a place in the list of voters, he will have an additional motive to improve his circumstances, and to preserve his character amongst his neighbours. I think, therefore, that in adding to the constituency, we are providing for the moral as well as for the political improvement of the country.…

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