Britain Has Come a Long Way from Votes for the Elite

By Kwarteng, Kwasi | The Evening Standard (London, England), May 2, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Britain Has Come a Long Way from Votes for the Elite


Kwarteng, Kwasi, The Evening Standard (London, England)


PERILOUS QUESTION: THE DRAMA OF THE GREAT REFORM BILL 1832 by Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld, [pounds]20) EIGHTEEN thirty-two used to be a well-known date in British history. It was the year of the Great Reform Bill, when an outdated political system gave way to a wider franchise allowing a number of middle-class men to vote for the first time. Antonia Fraser's latest book is a spirited attempt to bring the controversy and passion of the era to a new audience.

Her prose is charming and fluent. She shows she has lost none of the touch that brought her fame as a popular historian. Yet her enthusiasm cannot hide how utterly remote the Reform Bill debates seem from modern political life. The world Lady Antonia describes was, as Disraeli observed, "for the few, and the very few". A tiny landed elite governed the country and paid little regard, it would seem, to many of the concerns of ordinary people.

The daughter of a Labour earl, Lady Antonia is perhaps the nearest thing we have to a Whig literary grandee. The atmosphere of stately homes is a dominant presence in her book, and she seems particularly happy describing this world. Of course, the Reform Bill was passed by a progressive Whig government against the opposition of reactionary old Tories. As the champion of a number of fashionable Left-wing causes, Lady Antonia is keen on aristocratic- led reform. Noblesse oblige and all that.

In some instances, admiration for these liberal grandees gets in the way of historical accuracy. This reviewer was surprised to learn that Viscount Althorp earned a first-class degree in mathematics at Cambridge University. This seemed unlikely as noblemen did not have to take exams to get degrees in the Cambridge of the early 1800s. In fact, his Lordship took a pass degree, after two years, without taking any of the exams required of his lesser-born college mates.

"Honest Jack" Althorp, as Leader of the House of Commons, played a big role in the events surrounding the passage of the Reform Bill.

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