Last Tuesday the History of Parliament hosted our annual lecture in Westminster – also our new Director, Dr Stephen Roberts’ first event. The event focused on the Second Reform Act of 1867 in the wake of its 150th anniversary in 2017. This year we approached proceedings differently to the traditional lectures of previous years, in that our chair of trustees, Gordon Marsden MP invited and chaired two speakers to debate whether the 1867 Reform Act was a matter of party interest or the inevitable next step towards democracy in the changing political climate of the nineteenth century. The crowd gathered in Portcullis House to witness the Labour peer, Rt. Hon. The Lord Adonis and Conservative member Kwasi Kwarteng MP state a case for each side.
Before the speakers took to the floor a brief introduction to the politics of Victorian reform was offered by our resident experts, Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the History’s Victorian Commons 1832-1868 Section and Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor. Dr Philip Salmon argued that although the first ‘Great’ Reform Act 1832 was a significant piece of legislation, it was in fact ‘the second Reform Act that really began to alter the rules of the political game’ and lay the groundwork ‘for the modern system that we have today’. The Act added almost four times as many new voters to the electorate as the ‘Great’ Reform Act and in terms of franchise extension was the second largest in percentage terms of all the Reform Acts. He also highlighted rivalries between party leaders – would be Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli (Conservative) and William Ewart Gladstone (Liberal) – the fractured nature of internal party politics in the 1850s and 1860s, and the consequent failure of numerous reform bills pre-1867. Such factors led to parliamentary instability and frequent upheaval. He suggested that this, alongside growing reform movements – like the Reform League and the National Reform Union – and media criticism, caused increasing popular unrest with the government’s failure to further extend the franchise. Finally, he emphasised the importance of backbench politicians in shaping the final outcome of reform.
Dr Kathryn Rix followed on, exploring other aspects of the debates on reform. Firstly, concerning women’s suffrage, she highlighted John Stuart Mill’s unsuccessful motion to change the word ‘man’ in one of the Act’s clauses to ‘person’. Secondly, she addressed the requirement for anonymity for newly enfranchised working class voters, resulting in the (secret) Ballot Act in 1872, which it was also hoped would help to reduce electoral corruption. She then discussed an area in which the 1867 Act effected the least impact in comparison to the 1832 and the 1885 Reform Acts – redistribution of seats: ‘The system remained one which was based on representation of interests rather than of population’. She concluded that neither party implicitly benefited from the passing of the Act and that much work was to be done in winning the support of the urban working classes.
Next, Kwasi Kwarteng stated the case for the ‘road to democracy’. He posited that this Act was ‘necessary’ in response to the vast economic and societal changes that were progressing at breakneck speed following the 1832 Reform Act. He cited industrialisation, economic boom, urbanisation and the population boom as the driving forces behind reform. He suggested that the previous five attempts to reform the law relating to the electorate in the 1850s and 60s demonstrated a clear need and desire for reform. And, finally, that Disraeli was prepared to push this reform through the House of Commons and use it to the benefit of the Conservative party, assist his own political survival, and lead the change for a more broadly based electoral system.
Lord Adonis offered his reflections on this argument and considered how the contrasting characters of Disraeli and Gladstone influenced their politics and the road to reform in 1867. He challenged the notion of inevitable reform and contended that Disraeli, amid the political turmoil of party splits, internal quarrelling and hung parliaments, rather shrewdly outmanoeuvred Gladstone, then used his successful passage of reform to make himself and his party electorally competitive.
Unfortunately, after a short debate, Brexit divided the party. (No, we didn’t resort to arguing about the Brexit deal because we ran out of things to say!) The inevitable call of duty, the division bell, disrupted proceedings and our MPs had to race off and cast their votes in the House of Commons. At which point Lord Cormack, the former Chair of Trustees for the History, saved the day and fielded questions from the audience alongside Lord Adonis.
The event was rounded off by appreciative applause and a reception in the Attlee suite.
See highlights from the event, which will be available on the BBC iplayer for the next few weeks.