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Response to Review of Democracy and the Vote in British politics, 1848-1867: The Making of the Second Reform Act

I am very grateful to Dr Miller for his thorough and fair-minded review. I do not propose to take issue with any of his judgements. Instead, I want to reflect briefly on three topics to which he draws attention: the comparison between the First and Second Reform Acts; the interaction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics; and the purposes of the book, in relation to a wider historiography.

I

As Dr Miller notes, the First (or ‘Great’) Reform Act has recently been the subject of an important essay by Philip Salmon.(1) Writing for the new History of Parliament, Salmon presents the Great Reform Act as a ‘negotiated settlement’. For all the talk of ‘the Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill’, reform emerged from a ‘consultative process between centre and locality’, in which both the substance and detail of the measure were recast. ‘Why’, asks Dr Miller, ‘was this not the case in the 1860s?’

The first difference was the comparative importance of redistribution. In 1831–2, reformers set out consciously to redraw the electoral map. The original reform bill listed 107 English constituencies that were to lose one or both of their Members, triggering an earthquake beneath the structure of political patronage. Patrons, Members and, in some cases, the endangered electorates naturally sprang to the defence of these places, impelled by local pride, family honour and the stupendous sums of money at stake. Constituencies were an important economic asset, and patrons had often paid eye-watering sums for the right of nomination. Lord Hertford had bought Aldeburgh in 1822 for 50,000 guineas, while £75,000 secured Westbury for Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes.

If this gave the localities cause to intervene, fate also supplied them with a mechanism. The plan of redistribution rested on crude calculations of population and property, often based on outdated or unreliable information. That opened up enormous scope for special pleading and, crucially, for the deployment of local expertise as a weapon against government. Every endangered constituency had at least one MP able to speak on its behalf, and every disfranchisement was susceptible to parliamentary scrutiny. Supplied with means, motive and opportunity, local champions secured considerable changes to the bill. Boundaries were redrawn, schedules recast and changes made to the regional balance. Of the 107 boroughs earmarked for full or partial disfranchisement, almost a third secured some form of reprieve.

The memory of these negotiations exerted a powerful influence on the second reform debates. As Russell noted grimly, the allocation of seats had been ‘the great source of difficulty’ in 1832, and he had no wish to provoke such a conflict again.(2) In consequence, redistribution loomed much less large in subsequent reform proposals. Though redistribution could not wholly be neglected in 1867, it was kept to a bare minimum. It was brought before Parliament only when the shape of the measure was broadly set, and at a time when MPs were already sick of the subject. The key points of controversy in 1867 – the scale of enfranchisement, the rights of compound householders and the menace of democracy – were national in application, providing less scope either for special pleading or for the detailed constituency negotiations that marked the first reform debates.

Just as importantly, there was no general election in 1866 or 1867. The dissolution of Parliament in 1831 was one of the crucial moments in the first reform crisis. It placed the destiny of the reform bill in the hands of the electorate, and triggered mass mobilisation in the constituencies both for and against the measure. While there was also significant popular protest in 1866–7, the fate of the bill never spilt out of Parliament into a general election. That allowed the actual shaping of the measure to be contained, to a much greater extent than in 1831–2, within the House of Commons.

II

The second issue raised by Dr Miller also concerns the relationship between Westminster and the constituencies. In my book, I explore the use of reform as a tool of party realignment, especially by the Conservative leadership. Disraeli was not a reformer by conviction, but he recognised that the Tories’ behaviour in 1832 had branded the party as distrustful of the people, allowing the Whigs to project themselves as the friends of popular government. A second Liberal reform act, he understood, would entrench that perception; but a Tory reform bill, going beyond the Whigs in the extension of popular privileges, would rebrand the Conservative party and allow it to reclaim the mantle of progressive politics. Where I focused on the party leadership, Dr Miller notes a similar process within the constituencies. Conservative candidates, he observes, ‘were also attempting to detoxify their party’s brand and shake off its protectionist image … Declaring support for parliamentary reform and denying the Liberals exclusive ownership of the issue, was an essential factor in establishing a new urban, forward-looking Conservatism in the 1860s’.

This is an important point well made, and the next instalment of the History of Parliament, to which Dr Miller is a contributor, will provide important materials for such an analysis. I am probably guilty of underplaying this element in my book; but it is worth sounding a note of caution. As I argue in the book, ‘reform’ had no definite meaning. It simply implied ‘change’; and Tories had no difficulty imagining changes that would work to their advantage. After 1832, there was no longer a traditionary argument for opposing reform in principle, and very few candidates or MPs styled themselves as ‘anti-reformers’. ‘Finality’, insofar as it existed, was a Whig doctrine and not a Tory one: the Tories had not made the 1832 settlement, they had not benefited from it and they had no intrinsic objection to amending it. In consequence, it was easy for Tory candidates to declare for ‘reform’ in the abstract – even while opposing all and any of the reforms that were actually put forward. The most reactionary candidate could cheerfully promise ‘due consideration’ for ‘judicious’ ‘well matured’, or ‘thoroughly English’ reform; but such commitments, like earlier endorsements of ‘the reform of proven abuses’, were milk-and-water productions almost wholly devoid of meaning. They should not be taken too literally, and do not seem to have exerted any appreciable pressure on the leadership. MPs knew, as well as their leaders, that the consequences of reform in party terms would depend on its provisions; and that they would be unable to control those details as long as the Liberal party remained united. More telling, perhaps, is the large number of Conservatives who declared against a lowering of the borough qualification. This had become an important dividing line by the 1860s, and most Tory candidates continued to express hostility to such a change.

More important, perhaps, were the commitments made by Liberal candidates. Such candidates were more likely to pledge themselves not just to reform, but to a lowering of the borough qualification. By 1866, those commitments were becoming a serious embarrassment. Liberal governments had been in power for most of the previous 20 years; they had expelled a Conservative government on the grounds that its reform bill did not go far enough, then failed to pass any kind of reform in its place. That made reform – and the Liberals’ alleged breach of trust – an electoral weapon for the Conservatives. It steeled Gladstone’s determination that MPs must be forced to a decision upon the subject; and it made Liberals reluctant, in 1867, to repeat the experience of 1859, by voting out a Tory government while its reform bill was still under discussion.

III

The final point I wish to address is the place of my book within a larger historiography. Dr Miller notes an emphasis on the ‘narrative and analysis of high politics’ and locates my work alongside ‘other historians … who have sought to rehabilitate the leadership of the mid-Victorian Conservative party’. This was not, in fact, my intention; though that has no necessary bearing on its outcome. What readers take from a book is always more important than what an author intended to put in. Nonetheless, it may be useful to state briefly my purposes in writing the book.

As Dr Miller observes, the account I give of 1867 does not focus exclusively on Parliament. Among the subjects addressed are responses to the 1848 revolutions; literary and journalistic representations of France and America; intellectual responses to democracy; fears of trade unionism; and changing understandings of class. Nonetheless, Dr Miller is right to say that I view Parliament as the locus of decision-making; the node, on which other forces had to operate. Unlike Maurice Cowling, however, I do not view Parliament as a ‘closed world’.(3) On the contrary, as I state in the introduction,

Victorian parliaments were fundamentally outward-looking, open to public opinion, to international comparisons and to the press. Their members were drawn from a range of local and associational networks, from which they drew their ideas, their preconceptions and the categories into which they divided their society. It was a world whose members were constantly talking, thinking and reading (p. 23).

Cowling’s approach, for all its intellectual brilliance, took too little account of these forces; and in this respect, I am sympathetic to the cultural history of politics endorsed by more recent writers on the subject. My criticism of these writers – though it seeks rather to extend their work than to overturn it – is that they rarely show any direct connection between political culture and the precise mechanism of political decision-making. My book was an attempt to bridge the two: showing how the parliamentary struggle was shaped, not simply by the ‘great game’ between the two front benches, but by a much larger body of ideas, values and understandings, of which the most important was the determination to achieve ‘reform’ without ‘democracy’. In this respect, it is a study of ‘ideas in politics’.

The Conservative party naturally looms large in this account, for it formed three governments and tabled two reform bills. Though much of the intellectual energy for the reform debate came from the Liberal party, it was the Conservatives who ultimately passed a Reform Act, extending the right to vote far beyond anything Gladstone or Russell had ever contemplated. The Conservative party between 1846 and 1874 has traditionally been a neglected subject, though the important work of Angus Hawkins, Geoff Hicks and others has done much to redress this imbalance. I would be glad if my book assisted in that process, but I would be reluctant to see myself as ‘rehabilitating’ the Conservative leadership in this period. I do not consider Derby a particularly effective leader, and I am sceptical of some of the claims made for his importance as a statesman. I consider Disraeli the more creative politician of the two, and view 1867 more as his triumph than as Derby’s. Yet Disraeli himself never fully understood the complexities of the reform debate. He spent much of 1867 defending a measure that was intellectually untenable and that would have proven inoperative in practice. He was relaxed about ‘the beer barrel influence’ and lied routinely both to his colleagues and to Parliament. In this respect, Disraeli emerges as ‘successful’ rather than ‘great’.

I concur with Dr Miller that there is more to say on the Second Reform Act, with a number of avenues that I lacked space to explore. In addition to the local and biographical studies he recommends, we need to know more about the role of religion in the debates preceding the Act, and the question of why democratic ideas remained so gendered. I see my book as supplementing, not supplanting, existing work on the subject, and I hope that it will be joined by further studies. I have no doubt that I will learn a great deal from their findings. In the meantime, may I thank Dr Miller again very sincerely for the care and trouble he has taken in his review.

Notes

  1. P. Salmon, ‘The English reform legislation, 1831-1832’, in D.R. Fisher (ed.), The House of Commons, 1820-1832, (7 volumes, History of Parliament: London, 2009), i. pp. 374-412. My review of these volumes, including a detailed discussion of this chapter, is forthcoming in the English Historical Review.Back to (1)
  2. Russell to Palmerston, 24 October 1849, University of Southampton, Palmerston Papers, GC/RU/298.Back to (2)
  3. M. Cowling, 1867. Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution: the Passing of the Second Reform Bill (Cambridge, 1967), p. 340.Back to (3)