MPs and peers returned to Westminster earlier this month after over a year of upheaval, disruption, and online chambers. In today’s blog Dr Stephen Ball from our Commons 1832-1868 project looks into another eagerly awaited return to Parliament; the first session following the 1832 Reform Act…
When the reformed Parliament first met on Tuesday 29 January 1833 many people speculated about the way the reconfigured House of Commons would conduct its business. Fear that the Whig government would be unduly influenced by newly elected Reformers and Radicals, who might try to seize the initiative over legislation was widespread in conservative circles in the early weeks of the new parliament.
A contemporary analysis of non-Conservative MPs returned at the 1832 general election identified 145 Reformers, 40 Radicals, 33 Irish Repealers and two Liberals, who saw the Reform Act as a springboard for further constitutional change, and 194 Whigs, who could be counted on to support the 23 members of Lord Grey’s administration. The Parliamentary Review, in turn, identified 96 ‘Liberals’ who on questions of reform would ‘go almost as much beyond the Whigs as the Whigs do beyond the Conservatives’. It was this ‘Movement party’, that disturbed the alarmists who ‘dreaded the ascendancy’ of a faction whose ‘noise and swagger’ might ‘bear down the good sense and staunch principle’ of the Commons.
On 29 January nearly 400 MPs assembled in the House, a much greater number than anyone remembered seeing on the first day of any previous parliament. Amidst the bustle and excitement it was observed that the Irish leader Daniel O’Connell, and the veteran reformer, William Cobbett, who had been returned for the newly-enfranchised borough of Oldham, were among the earliest attendants and confidently took their seats on the Treasury bench, close to the leader of the House, Lord Althorp. After briefly attending the Lords on the summons of Black Rod, the first business of the Commons was to elect a speaker. Immediately, the veteran Radical MP for Middlesex, Joseph Hume, seized an opportunity to challenge the authority of the government by questioning its proposal to grant a £4,000 annuity to Charles Manners Sutton, the speaker since 1806. Aware that ministers had disagreed over their candidate for the speakership and had opted to support Sutton, Hume nominated Edward Littleton, MP for South Staffordshire, whose candidacy the government had explicitly rejected, but who, Hume announced, had ‘shown himself a zealous Reformer’. The motion was seconded by another veteran radical, Sir Francis Burdett, MP for Westminster, and was supported by O’Connell. Littleton, however, expressed ‘repugnance’ at being nominated, and the motion was defeated by 32 votes to 242, the minority including Sutton, who had voted for Littleton ‘as a matter of etiquette’.
Two days later Sutton took the chair and a ‘considerable’ number of MPs were sworn in according to the alphabetical order of the counties in which their constituencies were situated. After an unusually long king’s speech was delivered from the throne on 5 February, a ‘quite unprecedented’ four days’ of angry debate ensued, which turned on the condition of Ireland. An attempt by the Repeal MP for Dublin, Edward Ruthven, to adjourn the debate on 7 February was defeated by a majority of 236, and the following day O’Connell called for a committee of the whole House to inquire into the necessity of an Irish coercion bill. He was defeated by 42-430, and a more moderate motion by the Lambeth MP, Charles Tennyson, went down by 60-393. Next it was the turn of Cobbett to move his own amendment to the address after observing that ‘the two factions of Whigs and Tories’ had now clearly ‘united against the people’. He was, however, no more successful than O’Connell, losing the division by 23 to 323.
In spite of these Radical failures, the disordered state of the reformed Commons had, according to the diarist Charles Greville, provided anti-Reformers ‘with a sort of melancholy triumph’ as their ‘worst expectations’ were fulfilled. The government, they believed, had failed to manage a House that Greville regarded as very different to the last, pointing to ‘the number of strange faces’ and ‘the swagger of O’Connell, walking about incessantly, making signs to, or talking with his followers’. The Tories were ‘few and scattered’ and their putative leader, Sir Robert Peel, had been evicted from his usual seat in the House by Cobbett and the Radicals, who although ‘scattered’ and leaderless appeared ‘numerous, restless, turbulent’ and increasingly confident.
Although the government rallied after Lord Althorp put forward his plan to reform the Irish Church ‘with complete success’ on 13 February, its satisfaction was tempered the following day when Hume moved to abolish military and naval sinecures and pensions. This time he was defeated by a narrower margin of 94, prompting Greville to complain about ‘the presumption, impertinence, and self-sufficiency’ of the new Members, who behaved as if they had taken the Commons ‘by storm’. He was not alone in believing that the government had no power to control them, and so risked ‘a virtual transfer of the executive power to the House of Commons’, which ‘like animals who have once tasted blood’ would ‘never rest till it has acquired all the authority of the Long Parliament’. However, that danger was averted largely due to the influence of Peel, who according to one observer had demonstrated ‘prodigious superiority’ over every other Member of the House during the session and would, it was hoped, persuade his ‘frightened, angry, and sulky’ party to help the ministry to pass its most controversial measure yet, a draconian bill to suppress disorder in Ireland.
With the cabinet divided over the matter, some observers doubted the government’s ability to carry this measure unaltered. Introduced in the Lords by the premier, Lord Grey, on 15 February, the bill was there passed a week later. However, its passage through the Commons was obstructed by O’Connell, who initiated a debate during a supply vote on 18 February. During six nights of debate on the issue, the Cashel MP, James Roe, called for government correspondence on the bill to be produced, and Ruthven twice tried to adjourn the debate but was easily defeated by margins of around 400. O’Connell successfully moved for a call of the House to ensure that the first reading of the bill would be well attended, the turn out reportedly being the largest yet seen in the House, where even the upper side galleries were ‘filled to overflowing’. It did O’Connell little good, however, and the first reading passed by 466-89. The following day Ruthven failed to prevent the government from debating sugar duties, mustering only nine votes, leaving Hume to observe that the first occasion on which the reformed House had met to impose taxes fewer than half the 314 new MPs were present, which ‘did not say much’ for their ‘industry and attention’. The following day Hume’s own intervention prior to the vote on the army estimates was defeated by 23 to 201, and on 11 March the second reading of the Irish coercion bill was endorsed by 363-84. After six more nights of ‘wordy warfare’, the bill passed into law virtually unaltered.
The Radicals’ attempt to alter the course of the government’s programme of legislation had been a signal failure, and it would be some time before they recognised that in the face of a revived Conservative party the best way to pursue progressive reform was to work wherever possible in tandem with the Whig majority.
C. C. F. Greville (ed. H. Reeve), The Greville Memoirs. A Journal of the Reigns of King George IV. and King William IV. (1874), vol. 2.
S. Walpole, A History of England from the Conclusion of the Great War in 1815 (1890), vol. 3.
Morning Chronicle, 30 Jan. 1833.
Hereford Journal, 6 Feb. 1833.
Follow the work of our Commons 1832-1868 project at the Victorian Commons blog page.