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Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of an important moment in the development of parliamentary democracy in Britain: the Reform Act of 1867. But it has scarcely been noted – despite it increasing the size of the electorate by a greater proportion than the more celebrated Acts of 1832 and 1885. It buried forever the idea that reforming the franchise and the distribution of parliamentary seats was a one-off event, and it started a cascade of further measures of electoral reform. While the Liberals had traditionally been more interested in reform, it was the Conservatives who legislated for it in 1867. The whole process is sufficiently strange and little known that I thought it might be a good idea to pay some tribute to ‘Disraeli’s Reform Act’ before 2017 was over.

The cause of extending the right to vote was only very partially satisfied by the 1832 Reform Act and, particularly during the 1840s, there were Chartist protests and petitions from the disenfranchised working class which culminated in a huge rally at Kennington in 1848. Gradual reform, even if not the democracy the Chartists wanted, attracted increasing establishment support and, during the 1850s, there were repeated moves to widen the franchise by lowering the property qualification for the vote (generally a Liberal idea) or creating new ‘fancy franchises’ for different categories, such as graduates or people who paid sufficient tax (generally a Conservative idea). None of these attempts was pursued with much energy: the hostility of Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, was a powerful block on progress, and the politics of electoral reform went quiet, except among enthusiasts such as the radical Liberal, John Bright.

The phrase ‘mother of parliaments’ is more often misquoted than quoted correctly, hardly anyone who uses it knows where it came from, and – like many historical quotations – its original meaning has been subverted so that it is now often used to support the attitudes its author intended to scorn (see also ‘meritocracy’). It comes from Bright, speaking in Birmingham in January 1865, who was contrasting the lack of voting rights in Britain compared to the United States and the colonies:

“England is the mother of parliaments. I ask you men of Birmingham, who are a fair representation of the great mass of the [disenfranchised] five or six millions, why you should be thus treated in your own land?… I claim for them the right of admission through their representatives into the most ancient and venerable Parliament which at this hour exists among men, and when they are admitted, and not till then, it may be truly said that England, the august mother of free nations, herself is free.”

Palmerston died in office in October 1865 and, shortly afterwards, the question of reforming the franchise returned to the agenda. The Liberal government was now led by Earl Russell, who had long supported reform, and a bill duly appeared in 1866. It aimed to expand the electorate by around 200,000 electors (it had been 1.35 million in the 1865 election), a very mild reform compared to Bright’s aim of enfranchising five to six million men (he was no supporter of women’s suffrage).

But despite this moderation, the Liberal bill foundered. A Liberal faction, the Adullamites (political factions had such sophisticated names in those days: no ‘wets’ or ‘headbangers’ for these mid-Victorians), opposed reform in principle, the Conservatives saw an opportunity to turn the government out, and any number of detailed objections could be found within the mass of detail that any reform involved. The Russell government lost a crucial vote on its reform bill (by 304-315) in June 1866, and resigned office.

The new Conservative government under Lord Derby was precarious, lacking a Commons majority and with its own internal divisions. The failure of the Liberal government’s bill had aroused popular indignation about voting rights, and the Tories were not opposed in principle to some sort of reform, so the new government soon proposed its own version.  The plan was overseen by Benjamin Disraeli and was typically complex and devious. On the one hand, the franchise would be widened; but, on the other, there would be more qualifications for extra votes that would weight the system in favour of the upper classes, and the administrative barriers that stopped many people from exercising their theoretical right to vote would be left in place.

Something funny happened to the reform bill on the way to the statute book. There was certainly pressure on the Commons from outside, such as the big reform demonstration in Hyde Park in May 1867, which was ineptly managed by Spencer Walpole, the Home Secretary; and there was parliamentary opportunism, but it was one of those moments during which the dynamics of the situation spun out of the control of its authors. A bill that started out proposing what one might call ‘soft Reform’ mutated into ‘hard Reform’ by the time it was law.

Disraeli, having worried about an ‘Americanised’ electorate on the modest increase (2-400,000) proposed in 1866, ended up enfranchising over a million people. The Government conceded without much of a struggle on Liberal amendments about such issues as the dual votes proposed for the upper classes and, crucially, also gave way on the vexed question of ‘compounding’ (when tenants paid rates via their landlords, bundled up in rent). But the Government, and the Lords, kept the rural franchise much more restricted than in the boroughs.

The Reform Bill split the government, with three Cabinet resignations including that of Lord Cranborne (later, as Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister), who exploded that Disraeli’s handing of the bill was: “a political betrayal which has no parallel in our Parliamentary annals, which strikes at the root of all that mutual confidence which is the very soul of our party Government”.

Even among those who voted for reform, the sense was that it was inevitable rather than pleasant. Lord Derby, in a phrase current at the time, called it “a leap in the dark”. But the bill passed, and became part of Disraeli’s persona as an advocate of “trust the people” and “Tory democracy”, educating his party in modernity: “I think England is safe in the race of men who inhabit her; that she is safe in something much more precious than her accumulated capital – her accumulated experience; she is safe in her national character, in her fame, in the traditions of a thousand years, and in that glorious future which I believe awaits her”.

Gladstone’s Liberals won a large majority in the first election under the new rules in 1868. But – as far as one can tell given the number of unopposed seats and the then obscurity of the party system – the Liberal majority was less than would be expected, given the large lead the party had in votes. In 1874, the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority despite the Liberals again winning a majority of the popular vote. The Conservative ascendancy in the county constituencies was actually strengthened by the smaller reform there, and the party even strengthened in the towns; but the large urban areas were Liberal-dominated (and severely under-represented in the Commons). Disraeli had found the ’angel in marble’ of the Tory working man in the recently enfranchised masses.

Unlike 1832, there was no pretence that 1867 would be a permanent settlement. The position after 1867 was obviously anomalous. The gap between the franchise in the borough and county constituencies was not sustainable. Britain was becoming increasingly urban, and the proud late Victorian municipalities were steadily extending their boundaries and increasing their populations. By 1880, Birmingham had three MPs for over 60,000 electors while Calne in Wiltshire, with 795 electors, had an MP all to itself. The matter of whether the big boroughs should be divided, or multi-member representation should continue, was not resolved until 1885, and this also raised the question of whether elections would be by single-member First Past the Post, or some form of multi-member proportional system. The 1867 Act involved a rudimentary element of PR, in that the largest cities were given three seats, but the voters had two votes. This ‘limited vote’ was intended to give the minority Conservative interest some representation, but this did not work because the Liberals developed their party organisation, and spread their voters efficiently among three candidates.

The 1867 Act left elections poised between the corrupt and oligarchic system that existed before, and the mass, organised party politics in which local election campaign finance was strictly controlled that came into being after 1885. It took a step towards legal regulation of elections by moving the responsibility for adjudicating election results from Parliament itself to election courts, but did not clean up elections itself or indeed take the obvious step to limit corruption and intimidation: the secret ballot followed in 1872.

Although dramatic in the context of British history, the 1867 franchise left the UK with a relatively restricted form of electoral democracy. It did not answer Bright’s complaint about the supposedly free-born Englishman having no say in government. Universal male suffrage had become established in Switzerland and France in 1848, and in the North German Confederation (which rapidly became the empire of Germany) adopted it at the time of its creation in 1867; and Spain did in 1869. The United States passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, although racial discrimination rapidly subverted it in the South. Universal male suffrage was spreading in Britain’s Australian colonies, although it too was marred by racial bars. Women were already campaigning before the 1867 Act for the franchise, and had the support of John Stuart Mill within Parliament, but they were denied even if they reached the property qualification that would result in a man getting a vote. Lily Maxwell, a Manchester shopkeeper, cast a ballot in November 1867 but it was disallowed following legal action and women did not vote until 1918 except in local elections.

Britain had fallen a long way behind in terms of access to the vote since its initial reform in 1832, and certainly did not catch up in 1867. But the Act was an important step towards electoral democracy, though far from sufficient and more about managing, dividing and taming popular opinion than giving power to what the Adullamite Robert Lowe sneeringly called “our masters” – the populace. So: two cheers for Disraeli and the unintended consequences of his leap in the dark, the Reform Act of 1867.

5 comments for: Lewis Baston: Disraeli’s “leap in the dark” towards modern democracy. 150 years on from the 1867 Reform Act.

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