Opinion Articles

Nick Clegg and the not-so-great 1832 Reform Act

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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has authenticated his blueprint [pdf file, 43KB] for political and constitutional reform with a comparison to the 1832 'Great' Reform Act, promising to deliver:

The biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy, for the first time extending the franchise beyond the landed classes.

Yet he has fundamentally misread the objectives and outcomes of the legislation.

The 1832 Act, far from extending the franchise beyond the landed elite, consolidated the power of the propertied classes. In counties, the 40 shilling freehold franchise (unchanged since the fifteenth century) was maintained. In boroughs, a uniform property franchise was introduced bestowing the vote on substantial householders. At the same time ancient and more inclusive franchises were abolished. In boroughs such as Preston and Northampton where before 1832 all inhabitant householders had possessed the vote, the ten pound household franchise severely curtailed the electorate.

The Whig government considered themselves defenders of the landed interest and the 1832 Reform Act certainly consolidated the power of property rather than promoting individual rights. The electorate increased slightly due to the creation of new, large urban constituencies but the voters in these boroughs constituted a tiny elite. In Leeds for example only four per cent of the population possessed the vote after 1832.

The Reform Act has received the epithet 'Great' not because it dramatically extended the franchise but because it began a series of electoral reforms following centuries of stasis. Nick Clegg may have been on safer ground invoking the 1918 Representation of the People Act which trebled the number of voters to over 21 million. Women were able to vote in parliamentary elections for the first time and comprised around 43 per cent of the electorate. The Act also ensured that general elections took place on one day rather than with polls staggered over a number of weeks.

The 1918 legislation is far closer to Clegg's notion of "big bang" reform than the 'Great' Reform Act.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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