‘Why is Gladstone like a telescope?’ ‘Because Disraeli draws him out, looks through him and shuts him up. ’
Quoted, MAGNUS, Gladstone, p. 189
The Second Reform Act of 1867 was the decisive political event of the Queen’s reign. Yet the circumstances surrounding its passing have long been obscured by an excess of both prejudgement and hindsight; and they were indeed so unusually complex as to permit of a wide variety of interpretations.
The oldest tradition is that the act was a natural and inevitable corollary of the act of 1832. This had not only established the principle that the representative system could be changed but, because of its limited character, had made further change merely a matter of time. The 1867 act is thus seen as abnormal only in that its passing was unnaturally deferred because of Palmerston’s obstinate longevity and because it was passed, not under a Whig-Liberal, but a Conservative administration. This view depends to a great extent on the frequency with which Lord John Russell,1 in the years after 1832, either introduced reform bills in the Commons or proposed them to his cabinet colleagues, a practice by which, it was said, Russell transformed himself after 1832 from Finality Jack into Fidgety John.
Another line of approach is to attribute the bill’s postponement to the diffusion of prosperity in the 1850s and 1860s, and
1 Russell put forward bills in 1849, 1852, 1854 and finally in 1866. Gladstone came out for reform in 1864; and even Disraeli had launched an unsuccessful bill in 1859.