Britain emerged from the Napoleonic wars with an executive composed of a prime minister and his cabinet of ministers who were wholly under the control of Parliament.
The Crown had become largely decorative. On that decorative post, held for much of the century (r. 18371901) by Queen Victoria, were centered the patriotic emotions of loyal British subjects. Victoria was the most popular British monarch since the days of the Tudors, and her name would be used to describe an entire era. Queen Victoria was also a dynastic focus, as her many children and grandchildren married into the royal families of the Continent.
Still, real power lay with Parliament, which in the early nineteenth century was very far from being a broadly representative body. The House of Lords, which had equal power with the lower house except over money bills, was composed of the small privileged class of peers born to their seats, with the addition of a relatively few new peers created by the Crown from time to time.
The House of Commons was recruited from the gentry, the professional classes, and very successful businessmen, with a sprinkling of sons of peers. It was chosen by less than one sixth of the adult male population, voting without a secret ballot. The working classes in both town and country and the run of moderately prosperous middle-class people were generally excluded from the franchise, although some few boroughs had a much broader electorate. None included women.
Proposals to modernize the structure of representation had come close to being adopted in the late eighteenth century, but the wars with revolutionary and Napoleonic France postponed reform. In wartime and in the immediate postwar years, even moderate reformers were denounced as Jacobins.
Several disorders had frightened the upper classes, notably an attempt to arrest a speaker as he addressed a peaceful assemblage of nearly sixty thousand people, who carried banners advocating parliamentary reform, at St. Peter’s Field near Manchester in August 1819. Eleven persons died and more than four hundred were wounded in what was called the Peterloo massacre.
Entrenched positions hardened and class antagonisms became more evident. Postwar repression reached its height with Parliament’s approval of six “gag acts,” which curtailed freedom of speech, prohibited training in the use of firearms, and imposed a stamp tax on political literature.
The Whig party increasingly moved toward conciliation to avert the dangers of revolution. Many popular leaders talked as if the Reform Bill would bring immediate political democracy to England. Yet much of the preparation for reform was actually the work of conservatives. Guided by George Canning and Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), the Tory governments of the 1820s lifted the restrictions on civil rights imposed during the long war with France and the postwar crisis.
They permitted laborers to organize into unions, though not to strike; they reformed the antiquated criminal code, so that, for example, the theft of a sheep no longer carried with it a death penalty; and they began the reduction in protective tariffs (though not as yet affecting the Corn Laws) that was to lead to free trade. Civil restrictions for Roman Catholics now came under renewed fire, and the duke of Wellington, who in 1828 had reluctantly accepted the premiership, working with Robert Peel pressed legislation through Parliament in 1829 providing for Catholic emancipation. Now Catholics could enjoy all but the highest offices of state—which were still reserved to the established church.
The Reform Bill itself was enacted under the leadership of a Whig, the second Earl Grey (1764-1845). Tory opponents of parliamentary reform were won over—even the duke of Wellington was converted at the last moment—until only the Tory House of Lords blocked the measure. At this climax, Lord Grey, as prime minister, persuaded William IV (r. 1830-1837) to threaten to create enough new Whig peers to put the reform through the Lords. This threat, combined with fears of a run on the Bank of England and of an outbreak of popular violence in Bristol, resulted in passage of the bill on June 4, 1832.
The First Reform Bill accomplished a potentially revolutionary change without revolutionary violence. It marked a distinct weakening of the established church and the Crown. It demonstrated that the working classes could be won to the cause of parliamentary reform, and that the masses need not be driven into the arms of the Jacobins.
Yet by no means did the Reform Bill bring political democracy to Britain. It did diminish the great irregularities of electoral districts, giving seats in the Commons to more than forty unrepresented industrial towns. The number of voters was increased by about 50 percent, so that virtually all the middle class got the vote, but the property qualifications for voting excluded the great mass of workers. As the bill extended the suffrage in the counties, which tended to vote conservative, its impact was not, in fact, as radical as its opponents had feared.
In the partly reformed Parliament, agitation went on for a wider suffrage. The more militant workers, not content to accept reform piecemeal, wanted immediate direct representation in Parliament to press for legislation that would mitigate the hardships brought on by the industrial revolution. These demands were formally drawn up in the People’s Charter calling for universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, abolition of all property requirements for members of Parliament, payment of members, equal electoral districts, and annually elected Parliaments.
The Chartists’ strength lay in the urban industrial proletariat, particularly the unions, and was supported by many intellectuals of varied social and economic backgrounds. The movement presented to Parliament in 1839 a monster petition with several hundred thousand signatures, urging adoption of the People’s Charter. Parliament never considered the petition, even after two additional Chartist initiatives in 1842 and 1848, but the Chartists’ major demands were to become law in the next two generations.
By the 1860s the groundswell for more parliamentary reform was so powerful that Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), the leader of the Conservatives (as the former Tories were now officially designated), recognized that if his party did not put through the reform, the Liberals (former Whigs) almost certainly would, and that his party had best get the credit. Disraeli hoped that the newly enfranchised urban working class would vote for the Conservatives with the expectation that they would be responsible caretakers of the lower classes.
But in 1868, in the first general election after the new reform, Disraeli (now prime minister) and the Conservatives were turned out. In the meantime, a potential embarrassment was removed. Though a Christian convert, Disraeli was of Jewish background, and Jews could not take seats in Parliament, since members were required to swear “on the true faith of a Christian.” (In 1866 a new oath was at last drawn up removing the sectarian reference.)
Still, the Reform Bill of 1867 did not introduce full manhood suffrage. Like the first, it was a piecemeal change that brought the electoral districts into greater uniformity and equality, but it still left them divided into boroughs and shires, as in the Middle Ages.
It about doubled the number of voters in Britain by giving the vote to householders—that is, settled men owning or paying rent on their dwellings—in the boroughs. But this Second Reform Bill did not give the vote in rural areas to men without the “stake in society” of property—that is, men who did not own a piece of real estate or a bank account, men who were therefore regarded by many upper-class Victorians as irresponsible, willing to vote away other people’s property.
The next reforms were put through by the Liberal party under the leadership of William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898). Bills of 1884 and 1885 again doubled the size of the electorate, particularly by extending the franchise in rural areas. But migrant laborers, domestic servants, and bachelors living in parental households still did not have the vote.
However, the medieval constituencies of borough and shire were finally modernized, and many smaller boroughs were lumped together with surrounding country areas to form single constituencies. The political map of Britain was beginning to be redrawn so that all districts would have roughly the same population. Some striking inequalities continued, however. Workers could scarcely hope to become members of Parliament, for MPs still served without pay; voters with business property in one district and a home in another could vote twice or more; and graduates of Oxford and Cambridge could vote a second time for special university members.
Nor could women vote or, indeed, own property with any security, for the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, despite its title, only assured women of the right to keep money they personally earned, so that they were generally unable to acquire the theoretical “stake in society” on which the franchise had been based. Only by means of two acts, in 1882 and 1893, did women gain the right to separate ownership of property, the first act applying to married women, and the second to single women.
By 1885 Britain was, relative to other Western societies, a political democracy in which the majority of males were almost, if not quite, politically sovereign through their representatives in the House of Commons. The House of Lords retained the right to veto most legislative acts until 1911, when a Parliament Act ended the real power of the Lords, leaving them with no more than a delaying or suspensive veto.
Other extensions of the logic inherent in the reforms were: the Local Government Act of 1894, in which urban and rural boards and local government parishes were granted wide public service powers, and women, whether married or single, were allowed both to vote in local elections and to stand as candidates; the institution of salaries for MPs in 1911; and a majority act in 1918 that nationally enfranchised all men over twenty-one, gave the vote to women over thirty, and limited plural voting to two votes—a property vote and a university vote.