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Perilous Question:

the Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832

by Antonia Fraser

The Palace of Westminster, in the early afternoon of April 22, 1831. In the Commons, the Tory champion Sir Robert Peel is on his feet, telling his fellow MPs that parliamentary reform would unleash the “despotism of journalism”. But just as Peel is warming up, “loud and vehement cries” ring out. The word spreads: with the government’s reform plans ­having run aground, William IV is on his way to the Lords to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. Almost to a man, the Commons pound down the narrow corridor to the Lords, led by the Speaker, florid and furious. They find the peers in a state of utter pandemonium, rival speakers having to be dragged apart amid what one observer calls great “bellowing and roaring and gnashing of teeth”. Now the king is on the threshold; and as the doors swing open, a puzzled William asks his lord chancellor, Henry Brougham, what all the noise is about. “That,” says Brougham smoothly, “is the Lords debating.”

If, like our sensitive Speaker Bercow, you find the din at Prime Minister’s Questions today a bit much, you should probably avoid Antonia Fraser’s rollicking history of the Great Reform Act of 1832. Historians often see this period as a watershed in the evolution of parliamentary democracy, but it was also an age of extraordinarily flamboyant characters, impassioned rhetoric and popular enthusiasm. In Fraser’s brisk and engrossing narrative, barely a few pages pass without a peer of the realm, his features contorted with fury, spluttering with rage about the betrayal of everything that made Britain great, or some high-minded reformer, his voice trembling with passion, invoking the spectre of popular revolution. George Galloway would have loved it, but I don’t imagine Ed Miliband would have lasted very long.

To a modern reader, the storm over the Reform Bill looks a bit odd. In 1831, only 439,000 people were entitled to vote — roughly 3% of the population. A year later, after the victory of reform, the electorate had gone up to 656,000 — still barely 5%, and still a tremendously long way from universal suffrage. But at stake was not so much the survival of the old aristocratic order, which continued to dominate British politics, but the very principle of change, however marginal. To diehard conservatives such as the Duke of Wellington, the very thought of change was anathema. The Tory MP Spencer Perceval — named after his father, who had been assassinated while prime minister — even blamed the reformers for the cholera epidemic in London’s overcrowded slums. “The curse of God”, he told the Commons, was on the land.

Although Fraser breaks no new ground, her book is a mine of juicy details, not all of them familiar. Until 1832, Britain’s democracy was so ramshackle and corrupt that while Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds had no MPs at all, the ­rotten borough of Old Sarum, which consisted of “a lump of stone and a green field”, had two. Polling often went on for months, there was no secret ballot and open bribery was the norm: at a Liverpool by-election in 1830, the candidates spent the equivalent of more than £10m wooing just 4,400 voters. When three sailors landed on the last day of polling, each was paid the equivalent of £15,000 for his vote.

To activists such as Thomas Attwood, whose Birmingham Political Union became the key vehicle for popular pressure, cleaning up the system was an almost religious obsession. “Where is the man among you,” Attwood would ask his listeners, “who would not follow me to death in a righteous cause?” And the crowds would answer: “All, all.”

Although Fraser makes a vague show of discussing the ordinary people who made up the bulk of the reform movement, her heart is not really in it. As so often in her books, the central characters are the men at the top: the Whig leader Lord Grey, with his tight white pantaloons and “dome of a head”; the brilliant, fluent Henry Brougham, with his “amazing bottle-nose” and “uproarious” hair; the passionate, stammering Lord John Russell, with his “large head and notably small body”. Most academic historians would be horrified by a book that spends more time on the size of the characters’ heads than on the nuances of their politics. Still, that is prob­ably why Fraser sells and they don’t. Her book may be thin on analysis, but as a pure storyteller she has few equals.

In her preface, Fraser hints at parallels with politics today, from recent arguments about “voting and the House of Lords” to demonstrations about spending cuts and student fees. But as her book shows, the context was very different. The reform crisis unfolded against the backdrop of revolution in France, where the autocratic Charles X had been replaced by the nominally egalitarian Louis Philippe, and fears of insurrection were running high. With the public clamouring for change, riots in Bristol in October 1831 saw an estimated 400 people killed, many of whom burnt to death while drunk. Even Wellington’s London mansion, Apsley House, was not safe from rioters, who smashed the former PM’s windows with joy after the king dissolved the Lords. But in the end, Britain’s genius for compromise asserted itself. The Tories blinked, the king agreed to sign the bill, and the principle of reform was established once and for all. Today the actual changes look minimal, but one of the great services of Fraser’s book is to remind us how much they mattered. “This Reform will touch everybody by and by, a thoroughly popular measure,” says Dorothea’s uncle in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. “A sort of A, B, C, you know, that must come first before the rest can follow.” And follow it did.

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