British History - Wellington, the Whigs and the Nation - French and Belgian revolutions - The Grey Ministry formed - The Reform Bill.
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE genius of the English people for politics was faced by new problems arising out of those which it had. solved of old. The age of the Tudors had seen the destruction of the mediaeval privileges of Church and Baronage, that had prevented the unity and progress of the nation ; in their place the full sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament had been established. Under the Stuarts, Parliament had won the supremacy in its partnership with the Crown, while the principle of local government had been preserved against despotic encroachment. In the eighteenth century, Parliament had acquired executive efficiency through the Cabinet system. These institutions were England's unique and native heritage. But they were administered by a privileged group of borough owners, magistrates and members of close corporations, roughly identified in sympathy with the country gentlemen, but not co-extensive even with that class. This group had by long possession come to regard their own monopoly as synonymous with the Constitution itself. To speak ill of the rotten boroughs and close corporations was to utter ' seditious ' words against our ` matchless Constitution.' But in spite of Lord Eldon and those who thought with him, Parliament, Cabinet and local government had been created by England's practical imagination in the past, had now by a fresh creative process to be adapted to the needs of a new type of society born of the Industrial Revolution. The process of adaptation would be complicated, and would never reach ' finality,' because this new type of society was by its nature predestined to undergo perpetual change. It further remained to be proved whether the old institutions, remodelled, could be used to cure the new economic miseries of the mass of the people, a task far more difficult than any that had been thrown on King, Parliament or local magistracy in old days. And, lastly, England would have to extend the principles of her revised Constitution to Scotland, to the Colonies and to Ireland, a scale of ascending difficulty.
The spirit of the new age in face of these new problems, formulated in theory by Bentham, was first manifested in Government action by the Liberal-Tories in Canning's day. But the monopoly of power had still been strictly preserved. To the Whigs between 1830 and 1835 belongs the credit of destroying the monopoly, reinterpreting the Constitution, and harnessing public opinion to the machine of government. Whatever some of the Whigs might say about the ' finality ' of their Bill, this new principle, when once admitted, could brook no limitation until complete democracy had been realised under old English forms. On the other hand the belief of the anti-Reform Tories that the Reform Bill would lead at once to the overthrow of Crown and Lords, Church and property, was the exact reverse of the truth. It was due to the Bill that England was not involved in the vicious circle of continental revolution and reaction, and that our political life kept its Anglo-Saxon moorings.
Both the Liberal-Tories in Canning's day, and the Whig followers of Grey and Althorp, were acting under the direct inspiration of middle-class opinion, and under compelling fear of working-class revolt.
It has been pointed out above that the movement of Parliamentary Reform was revived in the nineteenth century first of all by the working men, because their economic misery was the most acute. The middle classes had been divided or indifferent during the radical agitation of the Peterloo time. The Whigs, meanwhile, to prevent division in their own ranks, waited on the middle-class lead, Lord Grey always abiding by his declaration of 1810 that he would again move for Reform when, but only when, the English people had taken it up ' seriously and affectionately.' In the year 1830 he saw his condition fulfilled. The middle classes, in whom he read public opinion, took up Reform ' seriously and affectionately' ; whereupon, greatly to the surprise of friends and foes, the old nobleman was as good as his word.
There were many reasons why the middle classes moved rapidly towards Parliamentary Reform in the three years following Canning's death. The removal of the statesman whom so many had begun to regard as the national leader, threw them back into their former attitude of opposition to Government, and the reversal of his foreign policy by Welling-ton was a sharp reminder that only Parliamentary Reform could secure that national affairs should be continuously guided on popular lines.
Meanwhile any avenue of escape through ` bit by bit' reform was closed by the action of the Parliamentary Tories in 1828, when they refused to allow the seats of certain boroughs disfranchised for peculiarly gross corruption to be given to the unrepresented cities of Manchester and Birmingham. It was on that issue that Huskisson, Palmerston and Melbourne had left Wellington's Ministry, and the event made a deep impression on public opinion.
In January 1830 Thomas Attwood founded the Birmingham Political Union, to agitate for a large but undefined measure of Parliamentary Reform. It was, professedly and actually, a union of middle and working classes ; it was the first step towards their co-operation in Radical politics which marked the Victorian era. In other industrial centres, such as Manchester, it was more difficult for employers and workmen to cooperate, though both were now avowed enemies of the ' borough-mongers.'
Bad trade and hard times had returned. Common economic misery sharpened the sense of common political wrongs, and predisposed the whole nation to unite in the demand for Reform. In 1830 Cobbett enjoyed a second period of great popular influence, which he used as he had used his popularity in 1817, to turn all streams of discontent into the one channel of Parliamentary Reform. But whereas in 1817 he had been the leader of the working class alone, he found in 1830 that even the farmers thronged to hear him speak, as he rode on his cob from one market-town to another. Radicalism had become for the moment almost a national creed.
There were differences of opinion as to the economic cure for the distress of the time. Some, like Attwood, saw it in currency reform ; more, like Cobbett, in retrenchment ; others in Free Trade ; others in Factory Acts or in Socialism. But all were agreed that reform of Parliament was the necessary first step before anything effective could be done.
The greatest danger to the cause of Reform arose from dissension as to what the new franchise ought to be. Some claimed household suffrage, others desired government by ` the solid and respectable part of the community.' But the rallying cry of ' Down with the rotten boroughs ' served to harmonise these discords. Every class that was hoping to exert greater influence over Parliament was enraged that more than half the House of Commons owed their seats to individual peers or commoners. The borough owners, who for generations back had pulled the strings of ministerial favour and lived on the fat of patronage, they and their kinsmen and their servants, suddenly found themselves objects of universal execration, and the ' borough property ' which they had inherited or purchased denounced as having been stolen from the nation. The cry against the ` borough-mongers ' rose on every side. Capitalists, clerks, shopkeepers, besides that great majority of the inhabitants who were comprised under the two categories of working-men and Dissenters, all were talking against ' Old Corruption.' The very ostlers and publicans entered into the spirit of the hour. Even country gentlemen who did not happen to have an ` interest ' in a borough, began to think that they would like to see a fairer proportion of county members in the House, honestly chosen by themselves and their farmers. The only class that remained solid for the old system was the Church clergy, who were so conscious of unpopularity that they believed Reform would lead to the destruction of the Establishment.
Into the midst of a society thus agitated came the news of the Paris revolution of 1830, the ' glorious days of July.' Charles X and his minister Polignac had provoked their own downfall by illegally suspending the Constitution. Although the fighting on the barricades had been done by the workmen, the movement was not permitted to turn ' red,' but solidified round Lafayette, the National Guard and the bourgeois King, Louis Philippe. The noblesse and the Clericals had fallen once more, but property was safe. These events could not, like the French Revolutions of 1792 and 1848, and the Commune of 1871, be used as a warning against change over here. The year 1830 still stands as the one occasion when the French set a political example that influenced us otherwise than by repulsion.
The first effect of the inspiring news from France was to increase the number of open seats carried by the Opposition in the General Election that August. A new Parliament had to be elected, on account of the death of George and the accession of William IV, the popular sailor king. It was the House of Commons chosen in these circumstances that turned out Wellington and carried the Reform Bill by one vote. Brougham, the interpreter between the official Whigs and the national movement for Reform, was sent up as a member for Yorkshire, amid the rejoicings of the whole country. He never again touched such a height of popular influence.
But the French Revolution of 1830 did more than affect the elections. It gave Englishmen the sense of living in a new era, when great changes could safely be made. To act boldly on behalf of the people, it was seen, did not produce anarchy as the Tories had argued ever since 1789. Rather, it was half-measures that were dangerous, and resistance to the people that was fatal. Our middle class saw the bourgeoisie governing France, and blushed that in England they themselves were still subject to an aristocracy. The working-men heard that the ouvriers had defeated the Army in fair fight, and the word went round that what Frenchmen had done English-men could do at need. Pamphlets on the technique of street-fighting had a suggestive popularity. The knowledge that Englishmen were so thinking, and that Frenchmen had so acted, gravely affected the politics of the propertied class as a whole, and not a few of the borough owners themselves, persuading them to make concessions they would never have dreamt of two years before.
The French Revolution of July, over and above its effect on our own domestic crisis, created an international crisis in which our Reform Bill was the deciding factor, just as our revolution of 1688 had been the deciding factor in the European resistance to Louis XIV. The change in France broke up the Holy Alliance as a pan-European affair, and arrayed Western parliamentarianism against Eastern despotism. But would Canning's England turn reactionary at the very moment when Bourbon France turned Liberal ? Wellington, who had already reversed Canning's policy in Greece, could not but regard the resurgent tricolor as the mischievous flag which it had been the great achievement of his life to haul down. If the Duke had not fallen in November i 830, and if the High Tory party had not been destroyed by the Reform Bill, it is probable that England would soon have been fighting by the side of h& old allies against revolutionary France, to the indefinite postponement of constitutional reform in our island.
The danger was made acute by the Belgian revolution. After Napoleon's fall, Belgium had been united to Holland by the Treaties of Vienna. The reunion of the ancient Netherlands could only have been rendered permanent by statesmanship worthy of the House of Orange in times long past. The present King, though well-meaning, was unwise. In August 1830, Brussels, in imitation of Paris, rose and drove out the Dutch garrison, and the other Belgian cities followed suit. By the co-operation of her clerical and liberal forces, Belgium asserted her right to separate national existence.
For the second time in two months the Holy Alliance had been defied, and although Prussia, Russia and Austria had shrunk from challenging the right of the French people to self-determination, they had no such scruples about Belgium. They were preparing to put down the Belgian revolution in accordance with alleged obligations under the Treaty of Vienna. It was equally clearly the intention of the new French Government to fight, if necessary, to protect Belgian independence, and how much of Belgian independence would be left when France had done fighting for it was a question which made even Grey and the English Liberals anxious.
Wellington's sympathies and those of his Foreign Minis-ter, Aberdeen, were all against the new France and against the Belgian revolution. Yet nothing short of the co-operation of England with France to protect Belgium could prevent war between France and the Eastern Powers, which would almost certainly have involved England. From this catastrophe Europe was saved by a change of government at Westminster.
All autumn the agitation in the country was deeper than political. Economic misery, pauperism, starvation and class injustice had brought society to the verge of dissolution. Rick-burning, under the orders of ' Captain Swing,' that dark abstraction of the vengeance of the ruined peasantry, kept the rural south in terror. In the industrial north the workmen were drilling and preparing for social war. The middle classes clamoured for Reform, equally to pacify the revolutionary spirit below, and to secure their own rights against an aristocracy they had ceased to trust.
In the first fortnight of November, when Wellington met the recently elected Parliament, came the most important political crisis of the century. Everyone was looking to the new House of Commons to save the country, yet no one knew what it would do, even in making its choice between Wellington and Grey. The group system still prevailed, and many of the groups had no defined political allegiance,. As late as November the First, there were three future Prime Ministers waiting to find out whether they were Whig or Tory; for the Canningites under Lords Melbourne and Palmerston, and the independent group led by Edward Stanley,1 ' the Rupert of Debate,' came up pledged to moderate Reform and looking to see whether Wellington or Grey would give them what they wanted. If the Duke had made a declaration promising a peaceful and liberal policy towards France and Belgium, and a small measure of Parliamentary Reform, he could have rallied these men round him and stayed in office. It is indeed unlikely that a Tory Reform Bill would have been large enough to pacify the country. But in any case the experiment was not destined to be tried.
The King's speech mentioned the Belgian revolution with ominous disapproval, and when Lord Grey called attention to the absence of any promise of Reform, the Duke replied that ' the system of representation possessed the full and entire confidence of the country.'
The Duke had challenged the nation, and the nation took up the challenge. The excitement inside Parliament was a feeble reflection of the feeling outside; yet never were the lobbies and clubs more busy, or busy to better purpose. In a week the basis had been laid of the Whig-Liberal party that was to dominate the next generation. The Canningites and moderate reformers all enlisted under Grey's banner, and were prepared to join a Whig Government on the programme of ' Peace, Retrenchment and Reform.' With the help of a few High Tories who were still so anxious to be revenged on the Duke for Catholic Emancipation that they cared not what happened afterwards, the Government was beaten in the Commons on the Civil List. Wellington resigned, and the King sent for Lord Grey.
In choosing his Ministry, Grey was constituting a new party. He was fusing the Canningites and reforming Tories with the Whigs. The heirs of Fox were about to put his political testament into execution, with the help of allies from the ranks of Pitt. The object that Grey had in view in constructing his Cabinet was to carry a Reform Bill extensive enough to give peace to the land. He enlarged the boundaries of his Ministry enough to obtain a majority in the Commons and a large minority in the Lords, without which even the popular enthusiasm could not have carried the Bill under the existing forms of the Constitution.
It has often been charged against Grey's Ministry that it was too aristocratic. And certainly the proportion of peers and their near relations was larger than in Tory Cabinets before and after. But, with the material to hand, a more bourgeois Ministry would not have been an abler Ministry, and would have been much less likely to get the Bill through. It was Grey's task, partly indeed to frighten, but partly also to persuade and cajole King, Lords and borough-owners into giving up their power. For this purpose a Cabinet of aristocratic reformers would be the most useful. And, fortunately, although the cause of Reform was then popular, if ever a cause has been popular in England, the balance of ability among the reforming statesmen lay among the aristocrats. While its ablest opponents were plebeians like Peel, Wetherell and Croker, its ablest supporters were scions of great houses Grey, Durham, Holland, in the Lords ; Russell, Althorp, Stanley and Palmerston in the Commons. Apart from O'Connell, whom Grey certainly treated badly, the only reforming members of Parliament on the same level of ability with these aristocrats were Jeffrey, who was set to rule Scot-land as Lord Advocate; Brougham, who was made Lord Chancellor and as such caused great trouble, though he would have caused more if left out ;1 and young Tom Macaulay, who got office after he had proved his powers by his Reform Bill orations. The Cumberland baronet, Sir James Graham, after-wards Peel's friend and colleague, was taken into Grey's Cabinet, which for average ability could vie with any that came before or after.
The old aristocracy still produced very able men, and most of the able aristocrats were reformers. It is remarkable that the peers of old creation were about equally divided on the Reform Bill; and the dissentient majority of the Upper House was due to the bishops and to Pitt's lavish creations of Tory partisans and borough-owners. The Whig borough-owners, who in 1831 held about sixty rotten borough seats out of two hundred, were prepared to sacrifice these cherished possessions and so produce a majority in the Commons consonant with the national will.
The decisive and permanent effect of the crisis of November i 8 30 on the course of British politics is illustrated by the career of Lord Palmerston. He had held office for twenty years as a Tory, and was now to hold office for almost thirty years as a Whig. He was a Whig in his attitude to the Church and to foreign affairs, but he retained much of his old Toryism on other questions. At heart he disliked the Reform Bill. He was the member of the Cabinet who most constantly pressed to have it modified. But as Foreign Minister he rendered yeoman's service to his colleagues, by keeping the Continent at peace while they passed their Bill.
In this his first and best tenure of the Foreign Office, Palmerston had the advantage of the advice of Grey, who was deeply interested in foreign affairs, and would never have tolerated the dangerous bounce and bluff of later ' Palmerstonianism.' The settlement of the Belgian question by these two in daily intercourse with the veteran Talleyrand, the French Ambassador at London, was one of the most beneficent and difficult feats ever accomplished by our diplomacy. The question ran through a series of crises punctuating the successive crises of the Bill at home, again and again threatening a war that would have made short work of the programme of ' Peace, Retrenchment and Reform.' Again and again Grey and Palmerston warded off disaster.
The first and greatest step was secured in December 1830, when Palmerston, by standing firm beside France, won the recognition of Belgian independence by Austria, Russia and Prussia. The next crisis followed early in 1831, when the French candidate, a son of Louis Philippe, was rashly chosen as king by the Belgian Congress. The choice was the more ominous because many French politicians were working to make Belgium a part of France. But when the statesmen of Paris were made to understand that even a Whig government would oppose by arms a French King of Belgium, his candidature was withdrawn. Such a retreat was rendered possible, in face of the French chauvinist party, only by the fact that the Whig government was known to be the sincere friend of the new France. A more acceptable king was found in Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the happiest possible choice for Belgium and for Europe. Leopold had lived for a long time in England, on familiar terms with the leaders of the more liberal school of British constitutionalism. He was the favourite uncle and adviser of Princess Victoria.
But meanwhile the Dutch and Belgians were quarrelling about the terms of separation. In August and September 1831 the dangers caused by a Dutch invasion of Belgium, and a counter-invasion by the French, were skilfully averted with-out causing a quarrel between ourselves and France. A year later (October to December 1832) Britain and France actually co-operated by sea and land to coerce the Dutch into the surrender of the citadel of Antwerp. All these delicate operations were carried out under the watchful and hostile eyes of the French war-party on one side, and on the other of English Tories and of the despotic powers of the East. Russia, Austria and Prussia, jealous of Belgian independence as a breach in the reactionary system of the treaties of Vienna, only waited for a misunderstanding between France and England to pounce down on the small rebel kingdom. Finally in 1839 Palmerston set the seal on his task in a treaty fixing the vexed question of Dutch-Belgian boundaries, and guaranteeing Belgium as ' an independent and perpetually neutral State.' The treaty was signed by Belgium, England, France, Russia, Austria and Prussia.
In a letter to Lord Grey in 1832, King Leopold had thus summed up the Belgian settlement from the point of view of British interests :
' It has been the policy of Great Britain for centuries never to permit Belgium to fall into the hands of a great Power. Everything is now favourable to the policy. The Belgians are warmly attached to their newly-acquired independency. They hate the Dutch, and they are jealous of the French. The new Kingdom is quieter and better settled than many old countries. An object on which Great Britain lavished so much blood and money has been attained without costing a farthing to that country, or being the cause of the slightest hurt to any Englishman.'
Elsewhere, Grey and Palmerston revived the policy of Canning. The boundaries of Greece were extended northwards at the desire of the new British Cabinet.1 In Spain and Portugal we again befriended the constitutional cause under the more favourable conditions created by the Liberal revolution in France. Throughout the 'thirties the first principle of our foreign policy was friendship with France. Wellington and Aberdeen attacked it openly and King William remonstrated against it in private. But the Reform Bill gave the Whigs security of tenure independent of the growing alienation of the sovereign, and enabled them to carry through the change in our foreign policy which saved the peace of Europe.
At home, the three months between the formation of Grey's Cabinet and the introduction of the Reform Bill did not go smoothly for the new Ministers. Their budget was a failure and had to be recast. Finance was from first to last a weakness of the Whigs in contrast to the party of Huskisson and Peel. In opposition they had countenanced the rather wild talk about ' retrenchment 'with which the hopes of the public had been inflamed. Cobbett had, in his loose way, taught men to suppose that most of the taxes were eaten up by sinecurists and pensioners, and that everyone would be prosperous if the wages of ' Old Corruption ' were docked. The Whigs made reductions of this kind, but could not make enough to satisfy the public demand. It was not under-stood that a progressive community, as yet grossly ill supplied with those services which must in the modern world be rendered by the central and local authorities, would obtain less benefit from reducing the public burdens than from adjusting them fairly and spending them to the general advantage. The Tories had already done their duty in cutting down army and navy after the war. Whig ' retrenchment ' was therefore foredoomed to fiasco.
At the very moment of the change of Ministry, the labourers of the southern counties, driven by famine, were marching through the countryside demanding a living wage of half a crown a day. They were cruelly punished at the assizes, when 450 of the rioters were torn from their families and transported to Australia, besides three unjustly executed. The new Whig Ministers, in a panic lest the propertied classes should confound ` Reform ' with ' Jacobinism and disorder,' would not mitigate these sentences. In connection with the same riots they prosecuted Richard Carlile and Cobbett for articles in the Press. Cobbett at his trial in the following July, made the Whigs look as foolish before a British jury as the Tories of old. His acquittal effectually discouraged a revival of that spirit of coercion which Peel as Home Secretary had so wisely abandoned.
The Whigs had made a bad start. But when on March 1, 1831, Lord John Russell introduced the Reform Bill into the Commons, and revealed the well-kept secret that all the 'nomination ' boroughs were to be abolished, without compensation to the borough-owners, Ministers sprang to the summit of popularity at a single bound. The Tories were dumfounded. They had confidently expected a weak measure, buying up a few of the rotten borough seats to give them to a few great cities; such a Bill would have left the nation cold and the reformers divided ; lacking support from outside, it could pass the Houses only by agreement, after being further whittled down ; finally the Whigs would be turned out as incompetent sciolists and power would revert to its long-tried possessors. But instead of lending themselves to this plan, Ministers had summoned the whole nation to their support, to overawe the recusants at Westminster. The bold appeal was not merely a winning move in the political game, but it established the fundamental principle of the new constitution,' namely, that in the last resort the opinion of the nation was to count for more than the opinion of the legislators.
The anger and amazement of Opposition were shared in a less degree by many of the Government's supporters in the Commons, who relished their position as privileged senators of the modern Rome, and had no wish to become mere elected persons in a paradise of Benthamite utility. If, as soon as Russell had sat down, Peel had moved the rejection of the ' revolutionary measure ' on first reading, it was believed that the Bill would have been lost. But the Opposition, having come to the House expecting something very different, had no plan ready, and Peel's genius did not lie in dramatic moves and lightning decisions. The opportunity was let slip. As the second reading debate dragged on night after night, many who had at first been doubtful or hostile, were converted by the unmistakable evidences of the national will. Three weeks after its introduction the Bill passed its second reading by one vote, in the most exciting division since the Grand Remonstrance.
A defeat in Committee soon narrowed the issue to a choice between a new Ministry with a much modified Bill, or a General Election to save Bill and Ministry together. In such circumstances a modern Prime Minister could claim a dissolution of Parliament as of right. But under George III and his sons dissolution was, in custom as well as in law, a personal prerogative of the king. Would William dissolve at Grey's request ? The decisive crisis in the fortunes of the Bill had come, and the choice lay with a retired admiral of no great brains or experience in affairs of State, but with an instinct of personal loyalty to his Ministers which, sharply distinguished him from his father and brother before him.
In January 1831, while the draft Bill had been a secret between William and his confidential servants, Grey had persuaded his master to allow him to introduce it a permission necessary under the custom of the Constitution as George III had defined it. Grey had persuaded the King that the Bill was an ' aristocratical ' measure, designed to save the Constitution from more revolutionary changes. And so it was in Grey's mind. Its ' democratical ' implications only began to be apparent to William after it had become public, when the joy of the Radicals of whom he lived in terror, and the rage of the Tories with whom he lived in intimacy, gradually made him realise what he had done. In April he had to decide whether he would accept Grey's resignation or his advice to dissolve. The straw that weighed down the balance in his mind was the fact that there had been a majority of one for the second reading. With many misgivings he granted Grey his dissolution.
The General Election was almost as onesided and enthusiastic, so far as popular opinion was concerned, as the elections for the Restoration Parliament. The Reformers carried almost all the open constituencies, including seventy-four English county seats out of eighty. But no amount of popular intimidation could shake the hold of the proprietors on the nomination seats. In their last Parliament the rotten borough members voted two to one against the Bill, in much the same numbers as before the election.
But there was now a majority of 136 for the Bill. It passed through the Commons that summer under Lord Althorp's patient management in Committee, and went up to the Lords, where it was thrown out on second reading by a majority of forty-one votes.
Under the old system of government, the average English-man had had so little to do with politics that he was taken by surprise at this perfectly inevitable event, which had been long anticipated in Parliamentary circles. The popular enthusiasm, suddenly brought up against an obstacle which it had not expected and could at first see no legal way to remove, exploded in outrages against bishops and peers who had voted against the Bill. A single false step by the Ministers might have precipitated anarchy. The Army, smaller than at any other period in our modern annals, was insufficient to keep order in England and Scotland, in addition to its usual task in Ireland. Peel's police as yet only existed in London. It was impossible to raise volunteer forces to put down Reform mobs. The workmen in the North were drilling and arming to fight the Lords. In the South the ricks were blazing night after night. Unemployment and starvation urged desperate deeds. The first visitation of cholera added to the gloom and terror of the winter of 18 3 1-2.
Employers and City men clamoured more loudly every week for a creation of peers to pass the Bill and save social order. The working classes, if it came to blows, would fight not for this Bill of the Ten Pound householders, but for a Bill that enfranchised their own class, and for much else besides. Civil strife, if it came, might easily degenerate into a war between ` haves ' and ` have-nots.' The Bill seemed the sheet-anchor of society. Even the burning of the central part of Bristol by Radical ruffians failed to cause a serious reaction, each side drawing its own moral from the event.
Grey kept his head. He neither resigned nor, as the King urged, whittled down the Bill. On the other hand he refused, in spite of the remonstrance of the leading members of his Cabinet, to force the King to a premature decision about peer-making, before the time came when circumstances would be too strong for William's reluctance.
Before Christmas a new Bill was introduced, modified in detail to meet some reasonable criticisms and so save the face of the ' waverers ' among the peers, but not weakened as a democratic measure. It quickly passed the Commons, and was accepted by nine votes on the second reading in the Lords.
The final crisis, known as the ' Days of May,' was provoked by an attempt of the Lords to take the Bill out of the hands of the Ministers in charge, and amend it in their own way. This was countered by the resignation of the Cabinet. Resignation in the previous autumn, when the Lords had thrown the Bill right out, would have produced anarchy. Now it secured and hastened the last stages of a journey of which the goal was already in sight. In October 1831 the country, taken by surprise by the Lords' action, was not properly organised, as the riots had shown. But in May 1832, the Political Unions had the situation in hand. Grey's resignation was not followed by violence or rioting, but by a silent and formidable preparation for ultimate resistance in case. he did not speedily return. The English genius for local self-government, voluntary combination and self-help, which had little or no expression in the close municipalities, found its outlet in these unofficial Political Unions of citizens determined alike on order and on freedom.1 These organisations, improvised by the British people. constituted the strongest proof of its fitness to work self-governing institutions of a more official character. Abhorred by the King and
They had been formed in most towns. The model of Attwood's Birmingham Union, presided over by middle-class leaders, but including all classes, prevailed in the midlands and west. In the industrial north there were ` low Political Unions ' of working-men only. In some towns there were both kinds of Political Union formed side by side.
Tories who clamoured for their suppression, the Unions were tolerated by the Whig Ministers on the condition of their ceasing to arm and drill.
Grey had resigned because the King refused to create peers. But William was now prepared to do anything short of that to get the Bill through intact. He appealed to Welling-ton to form a Tory Ministry for the purpose of carrying ' the Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill ' through the House of Lords on the precedent of Catholic Emancipation three years before. The most fearless, if not always the wisest, of public servants accepted this extraordinary commission, the nature of which was not understood in the country, where people naturally supposed that the victor of Waterloo, who had pronounced against all Reform, was coming back to rule them by the sword. If Wellington had succeeded in forming a Ministry, the Political Unions would have led resistance, with what result it is impossible to say. But the actual cause of the Duke's abandoning the task was not his fear of popular resistance, but the refusal of Peel and the Tories in the House of Commons to take part in a scheme so absurd and dangerous, no longer with a hope of modifying the Bill, but solely to save the face of the Lords. The King was obliged to come to terms with Grey, and could only get him back by a written promise to create any number of peers necessary to carry the Bill. The threat when known in the Upper House sufficed, and the Reform Bill became law.
The main provisions of the English, Scottish and Irish Reform Acts of 1832 were as follows. The substitution of the principle of popular election for that of nomination by individual borough-owners in the case of more than 200 seats. This revolution was achieved by two distinct processes : first, by taking away seats from the nomination boroughs, to the amount of 140 in England alone 1; secondly, by ' opening ' to all Ten Pound householders the franchise of those ' close ' boroughs whose population justified their retaining one out of two members. The seats obtained by disfranchisement were redistributed, partly among large centres of population converted into new boroughs, partly by an increase in the county representation, which had previously been unfairly limited to two members for each English shire. The right to vote in all boroughs, new and old, was fixed at the uniform Ten Pound rating franchise. The vote in the counties, hitherto confined in England to Forty Shilling freeholders, was extended to tenant farmers, by an amendment which the Ministry had been forced to accept at the hands of the Whig landlord members composing the bulk of the Reform party in the House.
No one could have criticised the enfranchisement of the tenant farmers, if it had been accompanied by the protection of the ballot. But under the system of open voting this new class of voter had no independence, and their enfranchisement only added to their landlord's hold over the county seats, which were at the same time increased in number. Since, also, the smaller boroughs, that had just managed to escape the melting-pot of the Bill, were much under the influence of neighbouring squires, the landlords as a class were still greatly over-represented even under the new scheme. If it had not been so, the Bill would not have got through Parliament.
It is incorrect to say that the Bill gave all power to the middle class. Power, which had previously resided in a privileged section of the landlords, was now divided between all the landlords on one side and a portion of the middle class on the other. The Ten Pound household franchise was not set up in the counties at all, and even in the boroughs it did not affect the poorer clerks. It was because half the middle class were still left without votes that they eventually joined with the working-men to demand a further extension of the franchise under Bright and Gladstone. If the First Reform Bill had given full representation to the middle. class, the politics of the Victorian era would have taken on a more distinctively class character than they actually did.
The uniformity of the new borough franchise was the least democratic part of the Bill of 1832, if considered as a final settlement, for it excluded nearly all the working-men. Yet this uniformity may seem its most democratic point if it is regarded as the first of a number of steps - Le premier pas qui coûte. Uniform Ten Pound suffrage in 1832 ensured uniform household suffrage in 1867. The very absurdity of defining the sovereign people for all time to come as the Ten Pound householders, had persuaded Cobbett and Place to support the Bill, in the interest of future working-class enfranchisement, although the Bill abolished the working-class vote previously existing in a few boroughs like Westminster and Preston
The motives of most of the Whigs for adopting the uniform Ten Pounds were more simple. They idealised the middle class as the ' solid and intelligent ' part of the community, and became its party chiefs by a pact of mutual advantage. But the Whigs of 1831 also knew what their modern critics sometimes forget, that the Ten Pound franchise was the only thing that could then have been passed into law. An amendment in favour of household suffrage received only one vote in the House that carried the Reform Bill by a majority of 136. And a mixed or fancy franchise, differing from one borough to another, such as Peel seems to have vaguely contemplated, would never have been accepted by anyone, and would have set the various boroughs quarrelling over their different positions under the Bill. A limited but uniform franchise was necessary, because nothing else could then have passed, and it was democratic, because it cleared a smooth path for the gradual inclusion of all in the sovereign nation.
For a generation after the Reform Bill, the benches on both sides of the House were still occupied by country gentlemen, and people of the social standing of Cobbett, Cobden and Bright were stared at as oddities. But many of the country gentlemen, especially on the Whig side, had been chosen by the votes of the Ten Pound citizens. The trial of strength between the Ten Pound householders and the landlord interest, came in the 'forties over the issue of the Corn Laws. It was decided in favour of the middle class not more by the elections than by the popular support of the unenfranchised. After the experience of 1832 the landlords shrank from saying ' no' to the great majority of the nation.
For the Reform Bill, by the fact and by the manner of its passing, had done a great deal more than enfranchise one-half of the middle class. It had asserted the power of the whole nation, enfranchised and unenfranchised, because it had been carried by the popular will against the strenuous resistance of the old order entrenched in the House of Lords. It had been a fair fight and a straight decision. Forty years before, the people had been told by Bishop Horsley that ' they had nothing to do with laws but to obey them,' and they had submitted to the decree. But now at length they had learned how to organise their power and to exact obedience from the law-makers. The ` sovereignty of the people ' had been established in fact, if not in law. George III and Pitt had once cut Fox's name off the Privy Council for drinking that toast, but the wheel had come full circle now. The people did not become sovereign in Germany when Bismarck granted limited popular rights, because those rights had not been won by the action of the nation itself, as the First Reform Bill had been won. In England, ' the nation ' was defined afresh by each of the Franchise Acts of 1867, 1884, and 1918, but the fact that the nation was master in its own house had been settled once for all in the days of May.