What if … the 1832 Great Reform Act hadn’t happened?

This was my contribution to the collection of historical counter-factuals, President Gore…: and Other Things That Never Happened. At one key stage the Great Reform Bill was passed by a majority of just one. What would have happened if the Bill had instead been defeated at that stage?

The general election of July and August 1830 took place in an atmosphere of intense political crisis. The 1829 harvest had been very poor and food prices rose sharply. Widespread agricultural riots and organised protests spread, triggered not only by the state of the economy but also by the make-up of the political system. Demands for electoral reform – in particular an extension of the franchise to give more people the vote, and the granting of seats to the new industrial towns – were common. Revolutions overseas, notably in France, added to the sense that the political system was flirting with collapse.

The election itself saw clear gains for those campaigning for reform, but failed immediately to remove the Conservative government led by the Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo. Its demise was only postponed until November, however, when Wellington’s misjudged – and unpopular – comment that the British constitution was perfect and needed no change, was swiftly followed by defeat in a key vote in the House of Commons.

A largely Whig government took its place, under the leadership of probably the country’s most reluctant Prime Minister, Lord Grey. He had no great appetite for holding office – he called being Prime Minister ‘a damn inconvenience’ – but in the midst of economic and political crises he formed a Cabinet which believed it essential to introduce radical constitutional reform to save the country from revolution.

The electoral system of the House of Commons had come under increasing criticism because of its limited electorate and an allocation of seats that had not been updated despite the Industrial Revolution bringing dramatic population changes across the country. As a result, many MPs sat for constituencies with tiny electorates, whilst large new areas of population, such as the new and growing industrial towns, had no MPs directly representing them.

Plans for reforming the electoral system were hatched in secret by a small government committee over the winter. When unveiled in the spring they caused astonishment, including as they did the abolition of 168 Commons seats, 106 of which were to be reallocated primarily to those growing urban areas lacking their own Parliamentary representation.

There had already been seven long, intense days of debate on the first reading of the Reform Bill a fortnight before the second reading debate in the Commons. As the vote on the second reading approached, its outcome was widely believed to rest on a knife-edge. The government’s earlier defeat on timber duties – by a majority of 46, no less – strained nerves. Heavy betting took place on the vote, with the odds suggesting a very close result.

The dramatic vote, on a Tory proposal to defer further consideration of the Bill for six months (in effect, its rejection), came in the early hours of 23 March. Debate continued until just before 3:00am. While the Tory Chief Whip (Holmes) and the unofficial counter-in for the reformers (Hume) exchanged pleasantries and predictions, they both predicted a very close result. As was then traditional, one side (in this case the Tories and those supporting them) filed out into the lobbies to vote in favour of the motion, whilst those against stayed in the Commons chamber itself to be counted. As MP after MP trooped out to vote against reform, the hopes of those left in the chamber sank. Members anxiously looked around – were there more MPs still sitting than had walked out?

The tellers in the chamber got to work; as the numbers mounted towards 300, victory seemed more likely. Given how common it was for MPs to be absent from Parliamentary votes in those days (and today’s pairing system did not exist), surely 300 would be enough to win? It would have to be the largest turnout in the Commons’ history for 300 votes not to bring victory.

But as the Tories flooded back into the chamber, all sorts of rumours circulated as to their numbers – 303, 307, 309 or even 310. The tellers for both sides pushed through the crowd to stand before the Speaker. As they made their way through the melee the result became clear: it was the government tellers who lined up on the right, the position taken by the tellers of the winning side. By a margin of just one vote – 302 to 301 – the Bill made it through.


It took another fifteen months, including a general election and the resignation of the government, before the final legislation was passed, but what if the Bill had instead been defeated at this early stage? Amongst the many last-minute shifts that determined the result were those of John Calcraft and Charles Wynn. Calcraft had supported Wellington’s government and spoken against the Bill whilst Wynn had resigned from the Whig government and also opposed the Bill – yet both voted in favour of it. Sir Andrew Agnew also switched at the last moment. Had just one of them not changed their minds the Bill would have been defeated. And then what …?


As the Tories flooded back into the chamber, all sorts of rumours circulated as to their numbers – 303, 307, 309 or even 310. The tellers for both sides pushed through the crowd to stand before the Speaker. As they made their way through the melee the result became clear: it was the Tory tellers who lined up on the right, the position taken by the tellers of the winning side. By a margin of just one vote – 302 to 301 – the Bill had been defeated.

The Whig historian Macaulay, who was present himself, described what happened next:

Shouts broke out and many of us shed tears. We went out cursing, crying and shouting anguish into the lobby. And no sooner were the outer doors opened then another shout answered that within the House. All the passages, and the stairs into the waiting rooms, were thronged with people who had waited until four in the morning to know the issue. We passed through a narrow lane between two thick masses of them; all the way down they were cursing and talking – what is to be done? what will happen? is reform dead? I called a cabriolet, and the first thing the driver asked was, ‘Is the Bill defeated?’ ‘Yes, by one.’ ‘D—n. May God forgive us, Sir.’

In the early hours of the morning, riots started in London. As news spread around the country, so did the disturbances. When Grey and his Cabinet met later that day it was in a gloomy mood of gathering crisis. As one Cabinet member, Graham, put it to another, Stanley (later to become the Earl of Derby), it had been ‘a dreadful race, lost by an accident at the last’.

Grey showed little enthusiasm for remaining in office. Not only had the Reform Bill been rejected at the earliest stage possible – for even if it had scraped through, how could it possibly have survived the committee stage and the inevitable plethora of amendments? – but the earlier defeat over timber duties had revealed how precarious general support was for his ministry in the Commons. With the defeat of the Bill the central purpose of his ministry was gone and it was only a matter of when, not whether, it would fall. With little dissent, the Cabinet agreed to tender their resignations to the King forthwith, hoping at least that prompt action would minimise the rioting and unrest.

The King was faced with a difficult choice as to who to ask to be Prime Minister in succession to Grey. Turning back to the Tories, for example by asking Peel, would put in place a weak and minority government at a time of great public unrest. Moreover, many Tories still viewed Peel with suspicion after his volte-face over Catholic Emancipation only a few years previously. Could he really lead a united government? A heavy exertion of royal influence might swing many MPs behind supporting a Peel administration, but only at the risk of inflaming popular passions even further and possibly triggering violent opposition to the monarchy itself.

The most senior members of Grey’s Cabinet were also ruled out as possible Prime Ministers: they had all backed widespread Parliamentary reform, which the Commons had just rejected. Nor was the King willing to break with tradition and call a general election, given the risk of inflaming unrest around the country. ‘I consider dissolution tantamount to revolution’, he commented.

Amidst the wreckage of the Whig government, therefore, the King turned to the group of conservative Whigs led by Stanley, a member of Grey’s Cabinet – but as Chief Secretary for Ireland and thereby removed, to a degree, from complicity in the defeated Reform Bill. From his Irish standpoint, Stanley readily accepted the King’s desire to restore stability as his first priority. He also, wisely, let it be know that he was willing to be generous in the financial settlements voted for the King’s sons – winning favour with the monarch and ensuring that at least discreet support would come his way from the King.

Stanley’s Cabinet was shorn of the most eager proponents of the Reform Bill, excluding not just Grey but Russell, Althorp, Melbourne and Palmerston too. It was not a strong Cabinet, but it only needed to manage one issue in the short term – deciding what to do over Parliamentary reform. Stanley’s answer was a watered-down measure of the initial Bill, designed this time to appeal especially to Tories. Gone was the proposal to cut the number of English MPs, a particular anathema to the Tories. Radically cut back were the proposals to axe MPs from certain seats. But in a move designed to ensure popular support, the proposals to establish MPs for the big towns were retained.

The boldest move was a return to an original pair of proposals put forward by the committee that had drawn up Grey’s Reform Bill – a careful compromise which had been rejected by Grey’s Cabinet. The electorate was still to be increased, but only to a more limited extent. The qualification for the franchise for those living in boroughs was to be set at ownership of property with a rental value of at least £20 a year, rather than the £10 proposed in Grey’s Bill. This higher level was balanced by the introduction of the secret ballot, replacing the then-current practice of voting in public.

This mix of proposals left critics on both sides divided and unsure, allowing Stanley to make progress with getting the legislation through. For many Tories the proposals were still too much – but on the other hand the franchise extension had been restricted, England was to keep its MPs and even the secret ballot – a standard demand of radicals – had its attractions in protecting voters from mob rule and public pressure. For radicals the loss of many of the measures in the Reform Bill was deprecated, but at least they could welcome the secret ballot, ensuring that radical votes could be cast free of interference and pressure from the aristocratic orders.

In both camps, views were split on whether the new plans were better or worse than the original ones. This was exactly as Stanley wanted it. As The Times commented, when a vessel comes to rescue you from a desert island, you are not overly concerned with its design being perfect. With all sides split, and the debate frequently descending into arcane detail over the franchise rights in county boroughs and the like, radical protestors outside Parliament found little on which to focus their anger. They called for ‘nothing but the Great Reform Bill’, but without its revival ever being a serious proposition in Parliament, their impact was muted. Even the fiercest riots, in Bristol and Nottingham, eventually came to an end and with no clear focus for the protestors’ claims the political establishment was unmoved.

The more moderate Tories, led by Peel, recognised that they had been backed into a corner. Faced with a Whig administration, the weakness of their own numbers in the Commons and the King’s refusal to agree to an early general election, there was clearly no alternative but to let Stanley govern. Whilst many moderate Tories spoke fiercely against the reform proposals as they made their way through Parliament in April and May 1831, they knew better than to force any of the key measures to a vote, either in the Commons or the Lords. Serious defeat would just bring deadlock and further unrest, together with the risk that it might trigger the return of the more drastic reform proposals which had, after all, only be seen off by one slender vote.

By June Stanley’s ‘Lesser Reform Bill’, as radical critics mocked it, was law. It was a blessed relief for the Prime Minister, as on nearly all other measures his government was regularly defeated. Missing Grey, Althorp, Russell, Palmerston, Melbourne and others, Stanley’s government was never a strong one and there was little enthusiasm for supporting it beyond the minimal necessity of letting it limp on until the Lesser Reform Bill was passed.

Once it was, the King was willing to call an election. Now it was no longer a matter of an early contest bringing the risk of unrest, or of being seen as an attempt to abuse his powers to force through particular legislation; rather, the introduction of a new electoral system provided a dignified reason for calling an election to implement it.

Stanley’s government went down to a modest defeat, not so much because its keenest supporters lost out at the polls – they did not – but rather because the highly fractured nature of the make-up of the Commons was maintained. Shorn of the main reason for his ministry – to carry some measure of electoral reform – Stanley was still not in a strong enough position to ensure support for his government.

In many of the new urban seats, radicals and Whigs polled well, but continuing Tory strength in the countryside saw them make modest gains. As John Wilson Croker, one of the key Tory election organisers, wrote afterwards:

An election held in the midst of tumult for reform would have seen us go down and reformers elected north, south, east and west. Thank the King for refusing an election until Parliament had settled the reform question. With the bill passed the rioting crowds could do no more than shout their futility.

The Tories’ position was also buttressed by the much more minor changes in Scotland introduced by the Lesser Reform Bill, compared to those proposed originally by Grey. Instead of gaining the scores of Scottish seats the Great Reform Bill would have given them, the Whig numbers were little changed.

Although many Radicals had hoped for an outburst of popular support for reform and a landslide election victory, the reality was that the very limited extension of the franchise continued to deprive most of their supporters of the vote, whilst the weakness of Stanley’s government had encouraged Tories to contest far more seats than they would have if a radical reform measure been brought in by a popular and successful government.

The new Parliament was therefore fundamentally split between radicals, the Great Reformers (the group of Whigs who had backed Grey and then fallen out of favour with Stanley), the Lesser Reformers (Stanley’s supporters), the moderate Tories led by Peel and the Ultra-Tories (some of whom had backed reform out of horror at the way in which Peel and Wellington had been able to override popular sentiment and introduce Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s). It was no surprise that it was Peel who was summoned to form a ministry, for he could hope at least for the acquiescence of both Ultra-Tories and Lesser Reformers. On taking office, Peel pleased his more conservative supporters by pledging that the matter of Parliamentary reform was now settled and closed. Radicals might fulminate, but as Peel’s ministry got on with slowly introducing moderate reform in other areas of public life he secured broad support, as it became clear that his measures were helping to secure the existing political system rather than radically changing it.

It was local government, in the form of the Municipal Corporations Act, which proved the most troublesome. The previously highly restricted electoral franchise benefited the Tories considerably, yet was increasingly difficult to justify when compared with the Lesser Reform Act’s changes to Parliamentary elections. Peel concentrated on administrative reforms, such as the introduction of a paid town clerk and treasurer for every corporation, along with a requirement to produce audited accounts. Over the electorate, the government proposed the same franchise as for Parliamentary elections – more generous than many Tories had wished yet less than the Whigs had demanded. A series of concessions became necessary to keep the government’s supporters happy, including exempting both Ireland and the City of London from the provisions of the bill and ensuring that elections would not take place more than once every four years. They were sufficient to ease the measure through Parliament.

Typical of other modest reforms that Peel was willing to introduce was the extension, in 1835, of the rule that driving should be on the left from London Bridge to the whole country. The most radical reform of his period in office, the abolition of slavery, in 1833, came through a private bill promoted by the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery rather than through a government measure.

Amongst the rising stars in Peel’s government was William Gladstone, elected as Conservative MP for Newark in 1832. Although his talent would surely have resulted in a successful political career under any circumstances, Gladstone benefited from filling one of Peel’s political needs. Given the Prime Minister’s support for Catholic Emancipation, many of the Ultra-Tories continued to be suspicious of him and his motives. Peel needed to reassure them, and including staunch defenders of the Church of England in his ministry fitted the bill.

Gladstone was one such person. He forged his ministerial career in Ireland, where his presence reassured the Ultra-Tories that Catholic Emancipation would not prove to be the first in a series of concessions from Peel that would undermine the established church or threatening the union. Gladstone vigorously campaigned for the protection of the Anglican Church and opposed the provision of any monetary support to other religious institutions. He never felt on strong enough grounds to cut the aid given since before the 1830s to the Catholic Maynooth Seminary in Ireland, but he was successful at blocking any discussion of extending greater financial support to it.

The firm line of Gladstone and others in thus protecting the established Church brought political benefits for Peel’s government, in the shape of the continued strong support of William IV. The King’s backing proved vital in enabling Peel to hold together the shaky coalition of factions that had first put him in government.

Peel also benefited, as his ministry continued into the mid-1830s, from the fractured nature of the opposition. Grey, never keen on becoming Prime Minister in the first place in 1830, retired from active politics. Rivalries between Melbourne, Palmerston and Russell stopped any of them establishing themselves as the undisputed alternative to Stanley. The support for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland felt by many Whigs and radicals was vigorously disputed by Stanley; but, out of power, these arguments were largely academic. It was clear that Peel’s government – particularly with Gladstone in Ireland – would never support such a proposal. As Gladstone explained, ‘I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty’. Revolutions abroad were seen as a stark warning as to what could happen in Ireland if a firm line was not taken over religious and nationalist demands.

Gladstone’s hard line in Ireland, however, made the Irish nationalists, led by Daniel O’Connor, keen to support any possible alternative to Peel’s government. In 1835 an abortive series of meetings at Lichfield House saw O’Connor try to secure promises of moderate reforms in Ireland in return for supporting the Whigs in Parliament. Stanley’s conservative Whigs were not willing to countenance such concessions and in the end no agreement could be reached. This further reinforced Peel’s position, as the O’Connor’s followers increasingly dropped out of Commons proceedings, seeing both sides as bad as each other. Despite the best attempts of Althorp as a conciliator – ‘the tortoise on whose back the world reposes’ – the opposition remained fractured and unable to present a united front against the government.

Not only were the Irish and Radical pushing for policies Stanley and his followers could not support, but even the other Whigs were split. Some, led primarily by Russell, still hankered after more widespread electoral reform and also wished to see greater toleration in Ireland and religious reform. The Whigs’ disunity over purpose and policy was very similar to that in the fifty-year period running up to 1830, when they so rarely held power or even stayed united. Grey’s brief premiership had turned into a false dawn, destroyed on the rock of excessive enthusiasm for Parliamentary reform and returning the Whigs to their previously factionalised state.

During the 1830s a new generation of opposition MPs came to prominence, including the unsuccessful Radical candidate for High Wycombe in 1832. Benjamin Disraeli lost that election, but his instinctive rebelliousness and contrariness – a combination familiar to many liberals – combined with a desire to make a name for himself, kept him as an opposition gadfly. Victory in a by-election in 1834 gave him the House of Commons as a stage on which to declaim. He frequently spoke up in support of the poorest in society, arguing that it was not only morally correct but in their own self-interest for the rich to make greater efforts to care for the poor. It was their Christian duty – and also the best way of ensuring that revolution and unrest was kept at bay.

In 1837, the death of the King brought Queen Victoria to the throne. It also, under the rules of the time, meant a general election. Peel went into the contest confident of triumphing again over the divided opposition and planning – as Lord Liverpool had done so successfully earlier in the century – to bring in an infusion of new blood to senior Cabinet posts. Top of his list was promoting Gladstone to Chancellor. Stanley was still the de facto leader of the opposition, though MPs such as Disraeli were by far the most active in speaking and pamphleteering against the government’s record. Faced with such a divided opposition, Peel’s government was safely re-elected, with his own position strengthened by the increased stature derived from another election victory. So started the long Victorian ascendancy of moderate Toryism, with its modest political reform, increasingly radical administrative reform and – under Gladstone’s guidance – an increasingly strong attachment to free trade.


Note for those unfamiliar with the actual course of events: Gladstone was initially a High Tory, and a supporter of Peel, prior to becoming a Liberal Prime Minister, Stanley (Derby) was a Whig and Cabinet member in the early 1830s, prior to becoming a Tory Prime Minister, and Disraeli was a Radical candidate before joining the Conservatives and becoming a Conservative Prime Minister.

You can buy the collection of historical counter-factuals, President Gore…: and Other Things That Never Happened here.

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