Reform Act of 1867 Essay

Reform Act of 1867

Introduction:

The Reform Act of 1867 was a British legislation which was meant to enfranchise the working class in urban areas of England and Wales. The Reform Act is often referred to as the Second Reform Act. Prior to the introduction of the bill, 1,000,000 out of the possible 5,000,000 adult males in Britain and Wales qualified as voters and the Act led to the doubling of the number of eligible voters. The Second Reform Act led to more male individuals being enfranchised and also did away with compounding which required households to pay rates to the landlords as part of the rent. In reality however, the Reform Act resulted in very minimal redistribution of seats and that the Conservative Party is argued to have benefited more from the Reform Act.

This paper shall seek to analyze the Reform Act of 1967 elaborating on the arguments in support and opposition to the Reform Act; how the issue of class played in the ensuing debates; and the ways in which the concept of democracy factored in the positions taken on the issue.

Background:

It has to be remembered that many years had passed characterized by the government’s resistance to reforms that could guaranteed more changes. The government was in particular opposed to claims by the Chartist movement which agitated for more changes. Following the 1932 Reform Act, the people had realized that indeed change was achievable and the Chartist Movement intensified from the year 1838. Amongst the parliamentary elites, there was the belief that the 1832 Reform Act had brought about the desired changes but to the middle class, demands for more changes could not be contained and they continued to push for more parliamentary reforms[1].

The intensification of the Chartist Movement activities in the 1850s led to a realization and acknowledgement among the parliamentarians that indeed reforms were needed to be carried out to address the anomalies that had been overlooked by the 1832 Reform Act. In the Second Reform Act that came to pass in the year 1867, the universal human suffrage was still based on gender and property. The parliament resisted to allow for the universal human suffrage to take effect in totality. The Reform of 1867 granted voting rights to male urban householders and lodgers who would pay at least an annual rent worth ten pounds[2]. It also led to a reduction in property threshold in the counties giving the vote to the owners of agricultural land and the tenants owning small parcels of land. Generally, men in the urban areas who met the qualification standards were given the rights to vote and the Act is said to have increased the electorate in Britain and Wales to almost two million voters down from a paltry million. It must be observed that despite the passage of the Act, more than three million men were denied the right to participate in the electoral process[3].

Arguments from Proponents of the Reform Act:

Supporters of the Reform Act of 1867 dismisses the argument that the Reform Act was primarily the document of the Conservative Government as alleged by the critics. They argue that the statutes which were passed were in no way congruence with what Mr. Disraeli had introduced. The Act consisted of sixty one sections with only four having been adopted from the Conservatives[4]. According to a historian, Sir Spencer, though the Reform Bill of 1867 in its first edition had the works of Lord Derby, Mr. Disraeli, and the Conservative Cabinet, the final edition of the Bill was done by Mr. Gladstone. It is argued that as much as Mr. Gladstone’s Party was disorganized, he, in his memorable Session, succeeded in making all the changes in the Bill and declared them to be necessary during the second reading of the Bill[5].

The Reform Act of 1867 is considered to have been a decisive event perhaps the greatest in the modern English History. This Act is credited to have transformed England to a democracy and ensured that democracy was not only a reputable form of government but also the natural and proper model of governance though it soon came to be taken for granted[6]. Though the Reform Act was later supplemented by others, the household suffrage introduced by the Act was the basis for moving towards universal suffrage. Following the adoption of the Reform Act of 1867, there was no doubt that many more reforms were on the way. Compared to the 1832 Reform Act, the 1867 Reform Act can be regarded as the greatest reform bill ever to have been enacted in Britain. This is because, though there were very minimal repercussions from the 1832 Reform Act in comparison to the 1867 Reform Act which saw several Acts being enacted in the years 1884, 1918, and 1928 aimed at universal suffrage. It has been argued that the Reform Act was able to bring about the changes in Britain as to what the French Revolution had done to France[7].

The Reform Act of the 1867 improved the democracy of the British as seen in the emergency of a working-class Party which had its basis on the greatly extended electorates. This party aimed at advancing the working class’ interests in competition to those of property owners owing to the impact that enfranchising the male householder in the urban boroughs constituencies. The Party also aimed at taking advantage that had been brought by the Reform Act in providing framework of distributing the seats that ensured that the urban remained distinct from the rural. This also perpetuated the small urban constituencies whereby Tory was capable of holding control and increased important role of the Conservative’s county fiefdoms. These rules were responsible for the Conservative Party’s revival to form a full-term government which was mostly composed of the middle class[8].

Arguments Opposed to the Reform Act:

Opponents to the Reform Act of 1867 did not acknowledge any sound changes that the Act had brought. The changes that the Reform Act had made were merely changing the men which were not what the people required. The argument was that it made no difference when retrogressive laws were passed by either the Conservatives or the Tories. Individuals were not allowed to request for accountability from their elected leaders and assess the possibility of achieving the promises made during the election. Questions are also raised in regard to the objective of the Reform Act which was to widen the basis of representation; strengthen the fundamentals of the government; promote harmony amongst the people; and aid in the cause of human progress and freedom. Opponents contest that these objectives were not meant to benefit the common man but the elected members of the House of Commons[9].

On democracy, opponents lamented that the Reform Act did not expand the elective franchise to all people as intended thus denying the majority to participate in the electoral process. It is argued that there was fear amongst the parliamentarians that allowing universal suffrage to all citizens would have seen most of the incumbent loose their seats. The Reform Act was designed to preserve the status quo and not to bring the much needed change. It was argued that expecting those holding the legislative power to give it up was like pleading with the wolf to leave the lamb alone. This was a mission impossible. The argument that the Reform Act would bring about harmony amongst the people and result in human progress and freedom was unrealistic considering the fact that the poverty, misery, and crime rates were extremely high in the country. Freedom and harmony that was talked about can be argued to be referring to about the two million enfranchised male voters. The more than four million individuals who were not enfranchised were excluded from the ‘sacred enclosure’ as referred to by the Chairman, Mr. Cosham[10].

Conclusion:

The Reform Act of 1867 was one of the historical moments in the British political history having led to expansion of the voting rights that saw the number of eligible voters in England and Wales almost double. Nevertheless, voters were still qualified on the basis of property and gender. Though voting rights were not given to all individuals in the kingdom, it still marked an important step in attaining universal suffrage amongst the populace.

Bibliography:

Bristolian. The Reform Question. The Bee-Hive (London), 10 February 1866

Park, J. Hendershot. The English Reform Bill of 1867. READ BOOKS; ISBN 1445530902, 9781445530901, 2010, p 223

United Kingdom House of Commons. Representation of the People Bill. Sessional Papers, 1867, Vol. V, p 583

Walton, John. Impact of the Second Reform Act. 1998. Retrieved on 17th July 2010 from;

http://www.orange.k12.oh.us/teachers/ohs/tshreve/apwebpage/readings/secondreformbill.html para 2

[1] Joseph Hendershot Park. The English Reform Bill of 1867. READ BOOKS; ISBN 1445530902, 9781445530901, 2010, p 36
[2] United Kingdom House of Commons. Representation of the People Bill. Sessional Papers, 1867, Vol. V, p 584
[3] Bristolian. The Reform Question. The Bee-Hive (London), 10 February 1866, p 7
[4]Joseph Hendershot Park. The English Reform Bill of 1867. READ BOOKS; ISBN 1445530902, 9781445530901, 2010, p 223
[5]Ibid, p 169
[6] United Kingdom House of Commons. Representation of the People Bill. Sessional Papers, 1867, Vol. V, p 583
[7] Joseph Hendershot Park. The English Reform Bill of 1867. READ BOOKS; ISBN 1445530902, 9781445530901, 2010, p 213
[8]John, Walton. Impact of the Second Reform Act. 1998. Retrieved on 17th July 2010 from;

http://www.orange.k12.oh.us/teachers/ohs/tshreve/apwebpage/readings/secondreformbill.html para 2
[9] Bristolian. The Reform Question. The Bee-Hive (London), 10 February 1866, p 7
[10] Ibid