Gladstone and Parliamentary Reform, 1832-1894: Michael Partridge Charts the Changing Political Views of the Grand Old Man of 19th-Century British Politics

By Partridge, Michael | History Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Gladstone and Parliamentary Reform, 1832-1894: Michael Partridge Charts the Changing Political Views of the Grand Old Man of 19th-Century British Politics


Partridge, Michael, History Review


If, Sir, the nobility, the gentry, the clergy are to be alarmed, overawed, or smothered by the expression of popular opinion such as this, and if no great statesman be raised up in our hour of need to undeceive this unhappy multitude ... the day of our greatness and stability is no more, and ... the chill and damp of death are already creeping over England's glory.

This comment, on a Bill designed to reform the House of Commons, was written by the 21-year-old William Ewart Gladstone in 1832, while a student at Oxford University. When, 63 years later, he made his final speech in the Commons, he warned the House of Lords that their days were numbered if they continued to oppose the wishes of the majority of the population. Far from becoming more conservative as he grew older, Gladstone became one of the more radical supporters of Parliamentary reform, a move which puzzled many of his contemporaries.

The question of Parliamentary reform exercised British politicians throughout most of the nineteenth century. It revolved around four main issues: who should be able to vote; who should be able to stand for election; how should they be elected; and where they should represent.

The Suffrage

When debates began about Parliamentary reform in 1830, the issue of suffrage was high on the agenda. Even after the passage of the Reform Act, in June 1832, the electorate was confined to about 650,000 men in England, Scotland and Wales, out of a population of some 16.5 million. This represented an increase of over 80 per cent; but, radical though it may have appeared, it was still in many respects a conservative measure. It did not offer anything like universal manhood suffrage, nor did it change the means of conducting elections, while MPs, as before, were not to be paid salaries.

This did not prevent Gladstone attacking it root and branch, when he declared to the Oxford Union that 'the Reform Bill threatened to change the form of the British government, and ultimately to break up the whole frame of society'. His political mentor, Sir Robert Peel, recognised its essentially conservative nature, and worked to educate his party accordingly. By the mid-1840s, Gladstone was prepared to accept the Act, and work within its framework, but not to move any further. When the Parliamentary reform issue resurfaced in March 1854, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Aberdeen's coalition ministry, composed of Peelites, like Gladstone, and Lord John Russell's Whigs. Gladstone refused, however, to support Russell's reform proposals, ostensibly because of problems with Russia. Ironically, his first support for a reform measure was that which he gave, silently, to a Conservative one in 1859, but this was mainly to keep Lord Palmerston out of office.

Gladstone, however, to many people's surprise, joined Palmerton's ministry formed in 1859, allying himself to those who favoured reform. He began to realise he could get as much support from radicals in the Commons, who favoured Parliamentary Reform but shared his dislike of high government expenditure, as he could from Palmerston and his more conservative supporters. He nevertheless opposed Russell's reform measures put forward in 1860, because they would interfere with his budget, with which he was already having enough trouble.

During the 1860s Gladstone began to feel he might be able to get more support from outside the Commons. In April 1862 he visited Manchester and addressed a largely working-class audience, bidding for help in his struggles with those, like Palmerston, still trying to spend public money. He was impressed by the self-discipline displayed by the many Lancashire cotton-mill workers thrown out of employment by the slump of 1861-2, caused by the American civil war. This helped produce an earthquake in Gladstone's political career.

On 11 May 1864 he declared to the Commons his belief that 'every man who is not personally incapacitated by some consideration of personal unfitness or of political danger is morally entitled to come within the pale of the constitution'. …

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