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The ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832: Clegg’s unfortunate parallel

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Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has called the reforms announced today 'the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great reforms of the 19th Century', in particular since the Great Reform Act of 1832.

The parallels with 1832 are actually deeply unfortunate. The rationale behind the passage of the Reform Act was to give middle class men the vote so that working class men need not be enfranchised. It brought in new groups of property owners into a system that remained otherwise unreformed. If it was the first step towards one-person-one-vote it was a journey that took over one hundred years to complete, one that at every stage was bitterly contested. Some historians now plausibly claim that the people had more liberties when they did not have the vote - for enfranchisement was accompanied by greater regulation of popular protest and political expressions which were more significant than the possession of a vote.

Many people will welcome most of Clegg's proposals. The repeal of various measures said to infringe liberty and the rejection of ID cards will raise a cheer, for now. However, let's see what the people say if there is ever a new terrorist incident. These are in any case second order issues, for by invoking 1832 Clegg implies that his reforms will do more than alter existing laws but will actually redistribute power.

While his speech was called the 'New Politics' his programme builds on the incremental reforms started by New Labour. It is dishonest of Clegg not to accept this. The record of the last government was certainly mixed, but it did include the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the creation of the London Assembly. Labour also gave the Commons more powers over the executive. Moreover, had Gordon Brown been re-elected he would have introduced the final stage of Lords reform and held a referendum on the Alterative Vote, significant elements in Clegg's own programme.

The extent to which AV - surely meant to be the jewel in the crown of these proposals - marks any real shift in power is highly debatable. Clegg's embrace of AV mark a significant step back for most advocates of electoral reform; quite how it will alter the people's relationship with their elected representative is open to question. What has happened to the Liberal Democrat's long-standing commitment to radical electoral change?

Some might think that the real novelty in this mixed bag of incremental reforms is that the leadership of the Conservative party supports them. For a party that opposed devolution and Lords reform surely this marks a real change of attitude? Maybe. But historically, the Conservatives have embraced reform when they felt it could not be resisted or might exploited for party advantage. Hence the 1867 Reform Act that gave votes to skilled workingmen and the 1928 Reform Act that gave votes to women on the same basis as men.

If this sounds churlish then it is meant to. For someone who says he has embraced a new way of doing politics Clegg's grand rhetoric bears all the hallmarks of the spin and over-selling of which the previous Labour administration was said be guilty - by its Conservative and Lib Dem opponents.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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