Liberty on the march

Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832, by Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£20 / PublicAffairs, RRP$29.99, 336 pages

When the fourth King George died in June 1830, The Times thundered that there had never been “an individual less regretted”. His family, however, reigned on, in the short, stout and ruddy figure of his brother, William IV.

The rules stipulated that the arrival of a new monarch triggered a general election, fought between the two political parties of the day, the Tories and the Whigs. The former had been in power for decades, so the House of Lords was heavily weighted in their favour: their leader was the hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington. The Whigs were led by the patrician Charles, second Earl Grey. Both of them, like the new King, were in their sixties.

By contrast, watching from the public gallery were Charles Dickens, a teenage cub reporter, William Gladstone, an Oxford student, and the knowledgeable young Thomas Macaulay. The drama they witnessed over the next 15 months is the subject of Antonia Fraser’s enthralling new book.

The burning issue of the day was parliamentary reform. In general terms, the Whigs were for it, the Tories against. Such reform was long overdue. Only 3 per cent of the population had a vote, and a system of fiendish intricacy, evolved over centuries, meant that “pocket boroughs” were essentially in the gift of the landed gentry, while tiny “rotten boroughs”, with few or no voters, returned two MPs each. An uninhabited stony field known as Old Sarum, for example, and the port of Dunwich, mostly fallen into the sea, returned four MPs, while the expanding cities of Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Bradford and Leeds were disenfranchised, with not one representative between them.

The resentment engendered by this situation was sharpened by the suffering resulting from a series of bad harvests and cold winters, while the numbers of unemployed, already swollen by the introduction of machinery to replace agricultural workers, grew further as soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars sought work. Thomas Attwood, a banker from Birmingham, and Francis Place, a radical London tailor, organised cannily unsettling financial manoeuvres and enormous, banner-waving demonstrations. Though these displays of unrest were largely peaceful, in the context of the recent revolution in France and the American War of Independence they made the government, and particularly the King, profoundly uneasy.

The Tories believed that giving in to popular pressure would lead to the collapse of society. The Whigs held the opposite view: that reform was the only way of appeasing the people and returning to normality. Fraser leads her readers steadily over the dizzying switchback of parliamentary victories and disasters that greeted every reading of the Bill (usually victory in the Commons, followed by defeat in the Lords); of debates lasting several days and nights; of crucial votes taken at five in the morning; of despair and Dissolution; of apparently certain defeat and, in the end, of exhausting triumph.

She is a knowledgeable guide, spicing her narrative with vivid sketches of the anxieties of individuals involved, from the king’s dismay at the indiscretions of Queen Adelaide to Lord Grey’s grief at the death of his little grandson, the “Red Boy” of Thomas Lawrence’s portrait. Such details give humanity and vigour to the story of one of the most important moments in British history. Further parliamentary bills were later introduced, argued and passed. But never again would unelected peers be able to thwart a House of Commons supported by what seemed like the whole country. The Great Reform Bill was not conclusive, but it was, as Fraser writes, a very great beginning.

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