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Democracy in Britain

by Kelly Jane Torrance

Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832, by Antonia Fraser (PublicAffairs, 352 pp., $29.99)

This lively book by Lady Antonia Fraser more than delivers on the promise of its dramatic title. It was the maneuvering of the early 1830s that began to make the Britain we know today — and prevented the emergence of a more disturbingly defiant one that we happily don’t.

The very modern Lady Antonia — her last book was a memoir of her sometimes scandalous life with her late second husband, the playwright Harold Pinter — offers a Whiggish history of this period of Whig rule, focusing as she does on a conflict that ended in a glorious reform, rather than a revolution, owing to the monumental efforts of a handful of great men. For her, the political is very much the personal: Letters, recollections, and biographies make up much of her source material. Some of the details she recounts, such as the death of the 13-year-old grandson of the prime minister, are given rather too much importance in the story of the passage of the bill that would come to be called the Great Reform Act. Fraser also spends too much time examining the scant evidence regarding the influence of King William IV’s much younger German wife, Queen Adelaide, on the politics of her adopted country. But Fraser’s personality-centered approach makes for more engrossing reading than one would expect of a volume centered on the vagaries of the British Parliament in the 1830s.

That period did mark the beginning of a great age of British thinkers and writers. Though the childless William IV’s niece, Victoria, did not begin her long reign until 1837, many insightful historians date the start of the “Victorian era” to 1832 and the passage of the First Reform Bill.

It was the fall of another icon, in 1830, that marked the first move toward reform. After the first Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, it had seemed as though there was nothing he couldn’t do. But, as Fraser astutely observes, the idolized war hero’s “aloofness from popular reality” kept him from perceiving that the agitated British public would not be calmed by anything but reform — a word Wellington couldn’t even utter when he declared that no “measure of this nature” would be brought forward while he was prime minister. Fraser writes, with some understatement, that “since men were a great deal more complex than muskets, Lord Grey had a point when he declared that Wellington did not understand ‘the character of the times.’”

When Wellington’s Tory government fell, Charles Grey, leader of the Whigs, became prime minister. Thus the Iron Duke — an odd moniker for a general who wept in public more than once — was replaced by the former ladies’ man who was widely known to have had an illegitimate daughter with the married Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. (And Americans think of Victorians as a bunch of prudes.)

Grey’s first declaration as head of government was a promise to enact the parliamentary reform that had cost Wellington his reputation. It must have been a gratifying moment: Grey, then 66, had entered Parliament at the age of 22 and presented his first petition demanding electoral reform before he was 30. But though the system was so obviously corrupt and the people so plainly agitated by it — and a prime minister’s refusal to fix it had wrenched him from power — it would take two years of politicking that left him “verged on the cadaverous” for Grey to succeed at last.

The Industrial Revolution had created a new middle class in Great Britain and would soon help make the country the world’s first superpower, but politics hadn’t yet caught up with economics. Commercial cities at the center of Britain’s rising prosperity had grown rapidly, but this growth was not reflected in Parliament. Over half a million people lived in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield, but not one of those cities sent a member to Parliament. Rotten boroughs and pocket boroughs, meanwhile, had become notorious. Fifty-six rotten boroughs had populations under 50 but still sent two MPs each to Parliament, usually Tories. Pocket boroughs were constituencies small enough to be controlled by a single landowner — who could bribe voters to choose the correct candidate, or evict them if they chose the wrong one — because the secret ballot wasn’t used in national elections. (It was enacted in 1872.) “Of 658 members of Parliament,” the scholar Richard D. Altick has noted, “only some 234 were elected by any sizable body of voters.”

Bristol, a port city, was fortunate enough to have two MPs — meaning its 100,000 residents had the same representation as, for example, Old Sarum, a small piece of land near Salisbury that was officially uninhabited. Only 6,000 of those 100,000 Bristol residents could vote. When the House of Lords rejected the Reform Bill that had passed overwhelmingly in the House of Commons after the 1831 election, called as a referendum on the matter of reform, riots flared throughout much of Britain, but nowhere worse than in Bristol. When Sir Charles Wetherell, an Ultra-Tory Bristol magistrate who also served as one of the two MPs for Boroughbridge, returned to the city, he was greeted with rocks and rotten eggs, and escaped likely death by fleeing the city in disguise. Fraser estimates that 400 rioters died in the struggle.

The “scene of desolation” in Bristol, as Dickens referred to it in a poem, was just one of many. There were so many casualties over those testy two years that Britain’s avoidance of revolution — which had already repeated itself in nearby France and would do so again, and spread throughout Europe — seems a frighteningly close-run thing. But Grey and his team of reformers carefully navigated the many minefields, and instead of monarchs on the chopping block and decades of deadly instability, Britain saw “commemorative jugs, pots and basins”: Grey’s face would end up on gin flasks “and there were other images for toothbrush boxes.”

As a result of the bill Grey passed in 1832, about 220,000 men were newly franchised, for a total of 656,000 — “an approximate increase,” as Fraser writes, “from 3.2 percent to 4.7 percent of the population.” The Parliament convened under the new rules was not filled with men from the middle class, about half of whom had just been enfranchised (the 1832 bill was the first to exclude women explicitly from the vote, and it also disenfranchised a small number of the working class who had the ability to vote in some constituencies). More than 200 of its members were peers or baronets. And the hereditary House of Lords retained its influence, rejecting for years Commons-passed legislation, including measures that would have secured some civil rights for Jews.

But Great Britain was now firmly set on a path from which it would prove unable to waver. The Reform Act of 1867 would enfranchise a million more men, many of them in the working class; in 1884, the Third Reform Act would extend the vote to agricultural workers and, therefore, to the majority of men in the country. (Women were not trusted with the vote until 1918, when those over 30 got it, and 1928, when age discrimination between male and female voters ended.)

The Duke of Wellington gave up a chance to regain power because he could not, in good conscience, help pass a compromise on this issue: He was convinced, like many Tories of the time, that reform would lead inevitably to revolution. The happy circumstance that it did not is owing to the work of a remarkable generation of public-minded Englishmen — enlightened noblemen, middle-class leaders, and self-educated working-class men who urged their fellows to pursue political change using nonviolent means. One Radical, tailor Francis Place, who had been raised in the debtor’s prison in which his father served as bailiff, ominously declared in 1830 that “no corrupt system ever yet reformed itself.” His own efforts — which included plans to create a run on the banks and organize a widespread refusal to pay taxes in the event that the anti-reform Wellington made it back into power — helped prove him wrong. Many peers and parliamentarians were certain that a strong Britain required a weak people. They lost the battle over reform, and the whole world benefited from that result.

– Kelly Jane Torrance is the assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

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