1885 Parliamentary Reform Act

1885 Parliamentary Reform Act


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In 1884 William Ewart Gladstone introduced his proposals that would give working class males the same voting rights as those living in the boroughs. The bill faced serious opposition in the House of Commons. The Tory MP, William Ansell Day, argued: "The men who demand it are not the working classes... It is the men who hope to use the masses who urge that the suffrage should be conferred upon a numerous and ignorant class." (1)

Gladstone told the House of Commons "that every Reform Bill had improved the House as a Representative Assembly". When opponents of the proposed bill cried "No, no !" Gladstone "insisted that whatever might be the effect on the House from some points of view, it was past doubt that the two Reform Acts had made the House far more adequate to express the wants and wishes of the nation as a whole". He added that when the House of Lords had blocked the Liberal's 1866 Reform Bill the following year "the Conservatives found it absolutely necessary to deal with the question, and so it would be again". (2)

The bill was passed by the Commons on 26th June, with the opposition did not divide the House. The Conservatives were hesitant about recording themselves in direct hostility to franchise enlargement. However, Gladstone knew he would have more trouble with the House of Lords. Gladstone wrote to twelve of the leading bishops and asked for their support in passing this legislation. Ten of the twelve agreed to do this. However, when the vote was taken the Lords rejected the bill by 205 votes to 146.

Queen Victoria thought that the Lords had every right to reject the bill and she told Gladstone that they represented "the true feeling of the country" better than the House of Commons. Gladstone told his private secretary, Edward Walter Hamilton, that if the Queen had her way she would abolish the Commons. Over the next two months the Queen wrote sixteen letters to Gladstone complaining about speeches made by left-wing Liberal MPs. (3)

In August 1884, William Gladstone sent a long and threatening memorandum to the Queen: "The House of Lords has for a long period been the habitual and vigilant enemy of every Liberal Government... It cannot be supposed that to any Liberal this is a satisfactory subject of contemplation. Nevertheless some Liberals, of whom I am one, would rather choose to bear all this for the future as it has been borne in the past, than raise the question of an organic reform of the House of Lords... I wish (an hereditary House of Lords) to continue, for the avoidance of greater evils... Further; organic change of this kind in the House of Lords may strip and lay bare, and in laying bare may weaken, the foundations even of the Throne." (4)

Other politicians began putting pressure on Victoria and the House of Lords. One of Gladstone's MPs advised him to "Mend them or end them." However, Gladstone liked "the hereditary principle, notwithstanding its defects, to be maintained, for I think it in certain respects an element of good, a barrier against mischief". Gladstone was also secretly opposed to a mass creation of peers to give it a Liberal majority. However, these threats did result in conservative leaders being willing to negotiate over this issue. Hamilton wrote in his diary that "the atmosphere is full of compromise". (5)

Other moderate Liberal MPs feared that if the 1884 Reform Act was not passed Britain was in danger of a violent revolution. Samuel Smith feared the development of socialist parties such as the Social Democratic Party in Germany: "In the country, the agitation has reached a point which might be described as alarming. I have no desire to see the agitation assume a revolutionary character which it would certainly assume if it continued much longer.... I am afraid that there would emerge from out of the strife a new party like the social democrats of Germany and that the guidance of parties would pass from the hands of wise statesmen into that of extreme and violent men". (6)

John Morley was one of the MPs who led the fight against the House of Lords. The Spectator reported "He (John Morley) was himself, be said, convinced that compromise was the life of politics; but the Franchise Bill was a compromise, and if the Lords threw it out again, that would mean that the minority were to govern... The English people were a patient and a Conservative people, but they would not endure a stoppage of legislation by a House which had long been as injurious in practice as indefensible in theory. If the struggle once began, it was inevitable that the days of privilege should be numbered." (7)

Eventually, Gladstone reached an agreement with the House of Lords. This time the Conservative members agreed to pass Gladstone's proposals in return for the promise that it would be followed by a Redistribution Bill. Gladstone accepted their terms and the 1884 Reform Act was allowed to become law. This measure gave the counties the same franchise as the boroughs - adult male householders and £10 lodgers - and added about six million to the total number who could vote in parliamentary elections. (8)

Charles Wentworth Dilke was responsible for the Redistribution of Seats Bill. Roy Jenkins claims that it was "Dilke's best work" and was involved in detailed negotiations with Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury. "Dilke was the key figure in negotiating with Salisbury in November 1885 a settlement that seemed acceptable from a Liberal point of view, and piloting the resultant bill through the House of Commons with skill and authority. In both the negotiations and the parliamentary process he had the decisive (and for him typical) advantage of knowing twice as much about the subject as anyone else." (9)

The bill was less radical than Gladstone would have liked. He realised he had to pay regard to Gladstone's instinctive conservatism. Another problem was Spencer Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire, who was seen as the leader of the Whigs (aristocratic Liberals), who feared that any new system would result in more left-wing politicians being selected as Liberal candidates. Dilke decided that it would be wise to leave alone university representation or other forms of plural voting that was popular with more conservative Liberals. (10)

The Redistribution Act made the following changes to the House of Commons: (i) seventy-nine towns with populations smaller than 15,000 lost their right to elect an MP; (ii) thirty-six with populations between 15,000 and 50,000 lost one of their MPs and became single member constituencies; (iii) towns with populations between 50,000 and 165,000 were given two seats; (iv) larger towns and the country constituencies were divided into single member constituencies. (11)

The House of Lords has for a long period been the habitual and vigilant enemy of every Liberal Government... Nevertheless some Liberals, of whom I am one, would rather choose to bear all this for the future as it has been borne in the past, than raise the question of an organic reform of the House of Lords. The interest of the party seems to be in favour of such an alteration: but it should, in my judgement, give way to a higher interest, which is national and imperial: the interest of preserving the hereditary power as it is, if only it will be content to act in such a manner as will render the preservation endurable.

I do not speak of this question as one in which I can have a personal interest or share. Age, and political aversion, alike forbid it. Nevertheless, if the Lords continue to reject the Franchise Bill, it will come.

I wish (an hereditary House of Lords) to continue, for the avoidance of greater evils. These evils are not only long and acrimonious controversy, difficulty in devising any satisfactory mode of reform, and delay in the general business of the country, but other and more permanent mischiefs. I desire the hereditary principle, notwithstanding its defects, to be maintained, for I think it in certain respects an element of good, a barrier against mischief. But it is not strong enough for direct conflict with the representative power, and will only come out of the conflict sorely bruised and maimed. Further; organic change of this kind in the House of Lords may strip and lay bare, and in laying bare may weaken, the foundations even of the Throne.

the obstructiveness of the Lords for the past fifty years the subject of his speech. He was himself, be said, convinced that compromise was the life of politics ; but the Franchise Bill was a compromise, and if the Lords threw it out again, that would mean that the minority were to govern, and that a Liberal Government must pass a Tory Reform Bill. The demand for Redistribution was a demand that Tory Lords should dictate to the Commons the method of Reform. He held that the offer to pass the Franchise Bill if a Redistribution Bill were introduced would,.if accepted, be "a betrayal and a humiliation," and that the proposal to send up the Bill again and again was useless under the Septennial Act. He has, therefore, occasionally thought that Mr. Gladstone, if thus driven, might propose a complete Re- form Bill,—one including the Franchise, Redistribution, and "the clipping of the pinions of the House of Lords." The English people were a patient and a Conservative people, but they would not endure a stoppage of legislation by a House which had long been as injurious in practice as indefensible in theory. If the struggle once began, it was inevitable that the days of privilege should be numbered.

On 21 July, an estimated 30,000 people marched through the city to merge with at least that many already assembled in the park... "Down with the Lords - Give us the Bill" was the universal slogan. The Radical MP for Southwark, Professor Thorold Rogers, likened the House of Lords to "Sodom and Gomorrah and the abominations of the Egyptian temple". Joseph Chamberlain told the biggest of the seven crowds: "We will never, never, never be the only race in the civilized world subservient to the insolent pretensions of a hereditary caste." His speech produced a furious response from Her Majesty the Queen. Queen Victoria was opposed to the extension of the franchise - no one, after all, had elected her - but she was much more concerned that the rising temperature of popular fury would sweep away her beloved House of Lords. In August, Chamberlain held a series of enormous meetings in Birmingham at which he denounced the Lords with renewed fervour. The Queen protested again - and again: on 6, 8 and 10 August. In the pathetic belief that as many of her people supported the Lords as opposed them, she encouraged the Tory leaders to whip up counter-demonstrations in favour of the Lords and against the extension of the suffrage. Lord Randolph Churchill obliged at once and urged Midlands Tories to organize a huge ticket-only Queen, Country and Lords meeting at Aston Park for 13 October. Birmingham Radicals organized a mass purchase of tickets. When the meeting opened, it was immediately clear that the Tories were in a minority. A near-riot ensued. Seats were ripped up and hurled at the platform. "At last - a proper distribution of seats!" was the triumphant shout of the demonstrators.

When Parliament reconvened, on 6 November, Gladstone brought a new, very similar franchise Bill to the Commons once again, and the Tories moved the same amendment. The speeches bore witness to the mood of the country. Thorold Rogers persisted in his contemptuous assault on the House of Lords. For this blatant defiance of the rules of the House, Rogers was not even reprimanded.

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(1) William Ansell Day, The Conservative Party and the County Franchise (1883) page 5

(2) The Spectator (12th April, 1884)

(3) Roy Jenkins, Gladstone (1995) page 493

(4) William Ewart Gladstone, memorandum on the House of Lords sent to Queen Victoria (August, 1884)

(5) Edward Walter Hamilton, diary entry (30th October, 1884)

(6) Samuel Smith, speech in the House of Commons (6th November, 1884)

(7) The Spectator (13th September, 1884)

(8) Annette Mayer, The Growth of Democracy in Britain (1999) page 57

(9) Roy Jenkins, Charles Wentworth Dilke : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Roy Jenkins, Gladstone (1995) page 497

(11) Robert Pearce and Roger Stearn, Government and Reform: 1815-1918 (1994) page 70


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