Academic journal article History Review

The Impact of the Second Reform Act

Academic journal article History Review

The Impact of the Second Reform Act

Article excerpt

The 1867 Reform Act did not set the British electoral system in stone until the Third Reform Act of 1884-5. John Walton reveals that its effects were complex, varied and, often, quite unintended.

Historians of politics and society in nineteenth-century Britain have neglected the Second Reform Act in recent years. The 1960s and early 1970s saw a spate of studies of the making of the Act and of its impact on electoral processes and popular political participation, at local and national level; but since then the focus of attention has shifted to the earlier and later Acts of 1832 and 1884. The 1867 Act has been allowed to languish. This is a pity: its passing raised important issues about contemporary perceptions of the nature of the mid-Victorian working class, and about the potential and actual threat its organisations posed to property and the established constitution; while its impact, taken in conjunction with the death of Palmerston in 1865 (which helped to make it possible) and the Ballot Act of 1872, might be argued to entail the remaking of the national political system, as the Conservatives and Liberals emerged as well-defined national parties, cornering the market in new voters and ushering in an era of alternating hegemonies and principled rivalry to replace the stagnant coalition-mongering of the 1850s and 1860s.

What was not involved, in spite of contemporary fears, was the emergence of a distinct working-class party, based on the greatly-expanded electorates which male householder suffrage brought to the urban borough constituencies and aiming to advance working-class interests against those of the propertied nation. This was partly due to the Second Reform Act's redistribution of seats, which sought to isolate the urban from the rural, to perpetuate the small urban constituency in which Tory influence might still hold sway, and to increase the importance of the Conservatives' county fiefdoms, in which the democratisation of the franchise was delayed until 1884 and in which Disraeli expected his party to continue to hold sway. It was, indeed, under these new rules that the Conservative Party was able to return from the wilderness and form a full-term government with a working majority in 1874, bringing about the long-delayed apotheosis of Disraeli.

It would be interesting to speculate on the extent to which the great personal rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli, and the closely-related crystallising of the two-party political system of the post-Reform era, should be ascribed to the impetus the Act gave to adversarial politics in the big new boroughs. But what recent debate has occurred has concentrated on the extent and nature of the expansion of the urban working-class electorate and the changes this brought to the workings of the political system. This will be the main theme of this article.

The Urban Electorate: how great were the changes?

As John Davis commented in 1991, `For many years it was believed that the Second Reform Act brought something close to universal adult male suffrage in urban Britain'. The prevailing view was that Disraeli's anxiety to pass a measure of reform with a minority government had led to the progressive abandonment, as his Bill went through the Commons, of the safeguards which had originally been proposed to ensure that the new borough voters were stable, respectable and financially responsible in lifestyle and outlook. But research in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated that enjoyment of the urban franchise was actually quite restricted in practice. The exclusion not only of paupers but also of the sons of householders and the overwhelming majority of lodgers conspired with the one-year residential qualification to deprive up to 40 per cent of adult males of the parliamentary vote in late Victorian urban constituencies. It then seemed tempting to argue that Disraeli's original preferences (and those of most other MPs and political commentators from the governing class) had come to pass after all. …

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