To what extent was the 1867 Reform Act a turning point in parliamentary democracy in Britain

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Democracy by etymology, requires that the people exercise power. The term is derived from the ancient Greek model of democracy, where Athenians met regularly to decide upon the issues of the day collectively. It is often cited as the definitive definition of a democracy, or at least the beginnings of a democratic structure, although there were clear shortcomings to this model. Plato criticised the system for its qualifications; women and slaves could not vote, nor could children vote.

Clearly a functioning democracy has to have some sort of qualifications if it is to function effectively in expressing the wishes of the people at large. Yet from our vantage point of our current times, we would no doubt find the exclusions to women indefensible, (we no longer have slaves, and we believe that children lack the capacity to make reasoned judgements about government). However, we would not question that ancient Athens did possess the attributes at least, of the early stages in the evolution of what we call democracy.

By this measure, we can therefore see the second Reform Act of 1867 as one step in the direction towards democracy. It was a long way off from ‘one man one vote’, as by this point only 1 men in 3 could vote, and women were completely excluded. But nevertheless, it followed on, correcting some of the shortcomings of the 1832 act with regards to enfranchising members of the working class (or at least some of them), and importantly, it set a precedent for further reforms.

The secret ballot followed in 1872, and within the next decade the shift towards a full democracy moved even further with the Third Reform Act and all of its measures relating to voting rights and election practices. It is the cumulative effect of the reforms that brought us to where we are today, and it would be absurd to propose that in 1832 we might have adopted ‘universal suffrage’ (although a minority of campaigners such as Hunt however, argued for women to be enfranchised in 1830).

I see it as an incremental process, which needs to be carried through step by step in manageable proportions. Clearly, as a society, we were not ready for full democracy in 1832 and we had to wait nearly a century for attitudes to change to make democracy possible. So, in 1867, we have a reform bill put to the House of Commons by Lord Russell’s ministry soon after the death of Lord Palmerston who fervently believed that the way things were was satisfactory and infinitely preferable to democracy.

The bill was rejected by rebel Liberal MP’s (the so-called ‘Adullamites’) and Conservatives, largely because of the firmly held belief among the propertied classes that the uneducated masses would destroy effective government (what Bagehot in 1867 called ‘government by conversation’). However, soon afterwards, in the belief that reform was inevitable, the Conservatives under the leadership of Disraeli in the Commons, passed their own bill so that they could limit its effects.


The property qualifications, with many working class people on the move, meant that they did not meet the requirement of 1 year residence as laid down by the act. Rotten boroughs had been largely eliminated by now, but corruption and patronage were common until 1883. Indeed Gladstone and Disraeli himself, found their way into the Commons (after four attempts in Disraelis case) through patronage. There was no secret ballot yet, but there would be in 5 years time.

Would the Ballot Act have passed without the 1867 Act as a precedent? It is unlikely, as the issue of voting in confidence would not have been as much of a priority to many as for example, gaining the vote. In this light, we can see the Second Reform Act as paving the way for future electoral changes. There were now 2 million voters. Some of the increase was due to demographic changes, but 1 million voters (252,000 in the counties, 670,000 in the boroughs) were created by the act.

This had significant implications for parliamentary democracy; people now had the vote, and soon could vote in confidence as well. How they would vote was always a concern of the politicians with the magic wand, and large-scale treating would now not be possible as it had been in the past. Parties had to reorganise themselves, at local and national level but it would take a long time to do this effectively, with the Liberals establishing a national federation (the National Liberal Federation) of local Reform Associations ten years after the act in 1877.

They had established a Reform Club back in 1836, which served as a party headquarters, in parallel to the Conservatives Carlton Club established in 1832. At local level the Birmingham Liberal Association, a highly democratic organisation, was to bring members such as Joseph Chamberlain, the future radical MP (that was to split both main parties) to national prominence. Anybody could join and there was an effective 2-way dialogue in place between the ‘grassroots’ of the party and those at the top.

The Birmingham Liberal Association was to provide a model that was to be emulated throughout the country in similar associations. Its success was clear; in 1868 and 1874, the Liberals had won all three of the seats in the Birmingham constituencies. The Conservatives were quicker to respond on a national level than the Liberals, establishing a National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations (NUCCA, or more commonly referred to as the CNU) in 1867 and a Central Office (CCO) in Parliament Street in 1870.

Disraeli appointed Sir John Gorst as Party Agent, and in 1871 he became Secretary of the CNU. The historian Paul Adelman describes the CNU as the ‘propaganda arm of the CCO’, which clearly describes the Conservatives intentions at the time of the act to move in a ‘populist’ direction under the changing electoral climate. The CNU would rise in prominence and decline, notably after Disraelis death in 1881 when the traditional aristocratic ‘authoritarianists’ sidelined the CNU, although it would rise and fall as and when it was needed by those who wanted it to.

Lord Randolph Churchill used it as a vehicle for his attacks on Northcote, but was soon bought off by Lord Salisbury with a better job, and the CNU sank into the depths once more. Churchill’s son, Winston, later wrote of its being ‘peacefully laid to rest’. Understanding the need to appeal to the country as a whole, non-political organisations such as the Primrose League were founded, which organised social trips and activities for men and women alike, and essentially served as propaganda to the newly enfranchised electorate. We can therefore see the 1867 Act as changing party attitudes towards voters; they now had to appeal to the people.

At Manchester, and Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli launched his own principles of Conservatism, largely in the tradition of Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto of 1834 asserting that the Conservatives would countenance moderate, and not radical change when it was necessary. Crystal Palace was the venue for the great exhibition of 1851, which highlighted the disparity of foreign progress by comparison to Britain’s who at the time led the world in technology and innovation. Choosing this venue for ‘appealing to the masses’, may then be considered as tactical, as the public associated it with prosperity.

Sean Lang dismisses Disraeli’s pledge to ‘elevate the condition of the people’ a morale booster, rather than a commitment , as he compares it to the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ calls in the middle of the 20th century. The significance of such axioms, which later would encompass such ambiguities as ‘Gladstonian Liberalism’ and ‘Tory Democracy’, were that they were designed purely with the function of capturing the minds of the electorate. It is no coincidence that before 1832 there was no equivalent to these virtual ‘pleas’ for votes, it is simply because without an electorate to appeal to there was no incentive to appeal to the public.

Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaigns and his attacks on the phenomenon of ‘Beaconsfieldism’ were also launched with more than an attack on the immorality of Disraelian foreign policy. He too wanted to capture the votes of the people. It was now the only way into Parliament. [Such is the traditional line of thought. However, even well into the 20th century we can find Prime Ministers, and Ministers alike directly descended from their prominent fathers; Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill to name just a couple of those that defied the demise of patronage]

Through local associations, parties could find out what needed to be addressed in particular areas through local associations and tailor policies from the top accordingly. Perhaps then, the 1867 Act can be looked upon as a catalyst for local grievances to be directly addressed through policy; something that hitherto would have been difficult, as there would have been no channel for communication to the top in many cases.

Indeed, it should not be omitted that parties, concerned with their own political survival at this time above all, (there was yet to be a radical-dominated government) would not have the desire or inclination, since there would be no political benefit from an unenfranchised mass, to implement appropriate legislation. 1867 is often referred to as a watershed in that it gave us the modern two-party system with the ‘swing of the pendulum’. Looking back, this would appear to be true. The last century has largely been dominated by the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

However, by 1886 there was a third party who exercised considerable political influence, the Irish Nationalists. By 1900, the Labour Representation Committee was established, the forerunner to the modern Labour Party, and at the end of the 21st century there were lists of parties for the voter to choose from. So as well as giving us the two-party system of government (which owes a lot to our electoral system of first-past-the-post) we have today, the Act would be part of a process of changes that would eventually give us the choice of many parties.

Many parties is often considered as the sign on a healthy democracy, and the 1867 act certainly played its part in bringing the political structure closer to democracy. People had been campaigning for parliamentary reform for a long time. In the 17th century there were ‘the Levellers’, seeking universal manhood suffrage without much success. Yet by the 1790’s there was widespread demand for change to a system that was no longer as representative as it had claimed to be.

Those that supported it argued that there was ‘virtual representation’, in that while individual candidates did not democratically represent a given community, interests such as wool, agriculture and industry or the Church, for example, were represented by MP’s. The people were not directly represented, but the interests of the country were, and to eighteenth century eyes this was enough, if not the best possible state of affairs. By global standards, our democracy evolved more slowly than some other countries, such as the USA, but this should not lead us to think that enfranchising the masses of the working class was inevitable.

Reform was met with powerful opposition and it could easily have been deferred even further. Blood was spilled in the name of reform and at times it would seem that efforts to pursue the cause would remain futile. In 1847, Chartists with the backing of 6 million signatures calling for reform on Kennington Common, were threatened with armed forces deployed by the government, an instance illustrating clearly the obstinacy and firm resolution to oppose a measure by those whose interests were best served by the status quo.

After the Second Reform Act people now had a voice in how their country was to be run, and they could hold their government to account. In theory, an electorate can remove its government if it so wishes to do so. Prior to 1867 this would not have been possible, and by this measure, parliamentary democracy was fundamentally altered forever.

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