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The Reform Act Crisis

Although men such as John Wilkes and Major John Cartwright had made demands for the reform of parliament in the 1760s there had been no systematic reform made in the eighteenth century. Certainly after the French Revolution, no Prime Minister in Britain was prepared to advocate parliamentary reform. The Whig opposition, however, took the issue as one of their electoral platforms and Earl Grey began to press for a major Reform Bill as early as 1793.

Earl Grey

By 1830 two major constitutional changes had been made, ironically, by the Tories: the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and the passing of Catholic Emancipation. Both these pieces of legislation were put through parliament by Wellington's government with the assistance of Peel, his leader in the House of Commons.

Following his election success in November 1830, the Duke of Wellington was forced to resign after making a speech in which he pledged not only not to introduce any measure for parliamentary reform but also to oppose any reform proposals. Grey formed a ministry which was pledged to introducing a Reform Bill and he asked Lord John Russell to prepare the legislation. On 1 March 1830 the Bill was presented to the House of Commons, passing its second reading by only one vote at the end of the month. The government was then defeated on an amendment to the Bill and Grey resigned. The ensuing general election was fought solely on the question of reform and saw the return of the Whigs with a massive majority. Grey took this to be a mandate for continuing with the reform proposals.

Since the first Bill had not passed through all the required stages of debate and vote, committee and discussion by the time the parliamentary session had ended in the summer of 1831, Russell had to introduce a new Bill in the new session. This passed the Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords on 8 October 1831. The House of Lords was dominated by the Tories, led by the Duke of Wellington; the Lords deliberately rejected the Bill because the legislation was intended to curtail the power that the Lords previously had exercised over the election of MPs.

Grey was reluctant to ask parliament to discuss the issue of reform yet again but Thomas Attwood and other leaders of the Political Unions organised a huge campaign to demand the passing of the legislation. There were outbreaks of violence in Derby, Nottingham, London and Bristol. Grey attempted to defuse the situation by agreeing to the introduction of a third Bill. The terms of this Bill were so new that only Russell knew what it contained: he was still attempting to dry the ink on the paper as he entered the Commons to present the proposals.

This third Bill passed the Commons and was sent to the Lords on 26 March 1832. The Lords threatened to reject it so Grey resigned. Wellington attempted to form a ministry but was unable to form a Front Bench in the Commons because Peel refused to join the Duke. William IV sent for Grey who agreed to resume office but only on the condition that the king would create sufficient new Peers to ensure the passage of the Bill through parliament.

Whilst the politicians argued and bargained the people resorted again to violence. The Duke of Wellington, always eager to avoid bloodshed, ordered the Tory Lords either to vote for the Bill or to absent themselves from the session when the vote was taken. Over two hundred Tory Lords missed the vote and the Bill passed through the House of Lords on 7 June 1832.

Although the legislation is referred to as the "Great Reform Act" its terms - although far reaching at the time - were quite moderate.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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