An examination of the unreformed electoral system and the 1832 Reform Act in Britain

Published: 2019/12/05 Number of words: 3086

Variously described as an exercise in political modernisation, the first step towards a democratic political system or an episode in the decline of aristocratic political power, the passing of the 1832 Reform Act in Britain has been the subject of much scholarly analysis and comment. Historians have disagreed on the political significance of the Act. For example, Clark (1987) has argued that the Reform Act, alongside Catholic Emancipation, was a terminal blow for the ancien regime in Church and State, while Gash (1953) claimed it was a timely concession by the aristocracy of a small portion of political power, in return for continued dominance of British politics.

Socio-economic explanations have also featured heavily, with the most prominent, the idea of the rise of an urban middle class intent on securing a degree of political power commensurate with their growing economic power. However, there are also many mundane explanations as to the passage of the Act. Among the most notable was the desire among administrative reformers to impose a rational and orderly system for awarding the franchise in place of the chaotic patchwork of franchise qualifications that existed across the country.

The broad significance of the Act, and explanations for its passing, will continue to attract much debate but another area, the detailed examination of the electoral system, has proved to be an insightful area of research. By examining the practical operation and the political philosophy underpinning the pre-1832 British electoral system, historians have obtained a better understanding of the contours of the system’s representative functions. Before and after 1832, the British electoral system was highly complex and varied, and as a result of centuries of piecemeal customary practices and parliamentary legislation, contained a web of arcane regulations and procedures. However, as this paper will demonstrate, the complexity of the system masked a fairly simple but fundamental attachment to property ownership as the conceptual basis for voting rights.

Who possessed the vote?
For historians writing from a liberal-democratic perspective the electoral system that existed before 1832 is indefensible, for that system, by restricting the franchise, was the means by which an unholy alliance of aristocrats and oligarchs maintained political power. Assessed purely in terms of those who possessed the vote, it is easy to accept such an interpretation, for before 1832, only 3.1% of the population qualified to vote. The corresponding post-1832 figure of 4.7% hardly represents a revolutionary change. By disaggregating the figures, before 1832, one in eight adults in England and Wales possessed the vote compared to Scotland where the ratio was one in one hundred and twenty five. After the Reform Act, the ratios were 1:5 for England and Wales and 1:8 for Scotland (Phillips, 1980). These figures relate to the adult male population, for the franchise was gendered, and no women possessed the vote. In fact, the Act, for the first time, formally excluded women from possessing the vote (Vickery, 2001).

The qualifications for the franchise varied. In the counties, there was a uniform franchise qualification conferred upon those owning freehold property worth 40s per annum on the Land Tax valuation, but in borough constituencies, franchise qualifications were of great variety and bewildering complexity.

Four types of borough can be identified:

  1. Large freeman boroughs, accounting for nearly half the represented boroughs
  2. Inhabitant household boroughs, or ‘Scot and Lot’ boroughs
  3. Burgage boroughs, where voting rights were attached to certain properties
  4. Corporation boroughs, with the vote belonging only to members of the municipal corporation. These boroughs were largely narrow self-perpetuating oligarchies.

The first two types of borough could contain a reasonably high number of voters, with men of humble station forming part of the electorate, but this was not true of the other types of boroughs where the franchise was highly restricted.

Distribution of seats in the unreformed House of Commons
In the eighteenth century the House of Commons consisted of 558 members, with 489 MPs for English constituencies, 24 for Wales and 45 for Scotland. English constituencies elected almost 88% of the entire body of MPs, with English boroughs alone responsible for electing 73% of members. After the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800, another 100 members were added to the House. The separate historical identities of England, Scotland and Ireland were perpetuated in their electoral arrangements, and the question of inadequate representation for areas, as well as inadequate individual representation, was a strong argument for reform (Gash, 1953). Redistribution of seats was important for those concerned with achieving equity, balance and justice within the electoral system. The most glaring imbalance was in the boroughs, particularly the over-representation of South-West England. Before 1832, a total of 142 Members, over 25% of the entire House of Commons, were chosen from five counties (Cornwall, Wiltshire, Devon, Dorset, and Somerset) in South-West England.

Cornwall and Wiltshire together returned more MPs than the eight most northern counties of England. Most of these boroughs were the rotten part of the Constitution, possessing very few electors. For example, in 1761, none of the 21 Cornish boroughs had an electorate of more than 200, and in sixteen Wiltshire boroughs, none had more than 300 electors. As Namier (1965) has pointed out, rotten boroughs had their uses, providing access to the political system for the nouveaux rich and for talented, though impoverished, men financed by rich patrons. However, social and economic developments, such as population increase in industrial areas and the emergence of an assertive urban middle class, when juxtaposed against the unreformed electoral system, made them appear increasingly objectionable. As the century progressed, the geographical imbalance in representation was exacerbated, owing to population increase in urban industrial areas but under-represented areas included London and Middlesex which, on the basis of wealth, payment of taxes, and population actually suffered the most glaring under-representation.

Representation and the electoral system
Clearly, the electoral system was unrepresentative in terms of numbers of the population who could vote. But the system was not designed to represent numbers, but property in its various guises. Plural voting is the most obvious example of the vote being regarded as property, with propertied men possessing more than one vote, and permitted to vote in different constituencies. This was rational given that it was a man’s relationship to property that determined franchise qualification. Contemporary political theory did not accept that voting rights were natural rights but rather saw them as a trust awarded to those possessing sufficient property and intelligence, and who would be able to use it responsibly. With this in mind, ‘one man, one vote’ would have been illogical. The electoral system sought to represent ‘interests’ rather than individuals. Society was not viewed as an aggregation of individuals, but as a complex network of personal, local, and economic interests, and it was these interests that Parliament sought to represent. For example, a landowner could represent the interests of the agricultural community in his area, while a cotton manufacturer would perform a similar function relative to his workers.

The electoral system did claim to represent areas unrepresented in Parliament. The theory of ‘Virtual Representation’ was based on the idea that although an area was officially unrepresented, the connections of MPs with areas other than their constituencies ensured that representative functions were exercised on their behalf. More widely, virtual representation related to the role of the MP, for according to this conservative constitutional theory, when constituencies elected an MP they did not elect a Member specifically for their area but for the whole nation. In this view, the Commons was a deliberative assembly of the nation rather than a collection of Members representing specific localities. In effect, every person was represented in Parliament whether they possessed a vote or not.

Members of Parliament
The background of Members of Parliament in the eighteenth century was in many ways a reflection of the varied and fluctuating propertied interests within the country, and sons of peers, country gentlemen, wealthy businessmen, merchants and nascent industrialists appear as MPs. The 1710 Property Qualification Act stipulated that to become an MP, one had to own property with a minimum value of £600 per annum in the counties or £300 in the boroughs. This measure was enacted to preserve the landed basis of the Constitution, but it was easily evaded. Nevertheless, the presence of such a stipulation indicates that one of the most salient facts about becoming an MP was that one required money. Elections were costly, for entertaining electors, bribery in all but name, was essential. At constituency level, candidates could be involved in purchasing votes, making payments to electors and indulging in manifold displays of electoral generosity. Seats became costlier as the eighteenth century progressed, with the result that there were an increasing number of uncontested seats, which affected the accountability of MPs to their constituents. An election was the most obvious test of accountability, and uncontested seats meant that even if you had a vote you could not use it. In the smaller boroughs, uncontested elections were common, and hard-fought electoral contests were more often fought in larger constituencies, where the presence of a larger electorate meant that patronage would not suffice as a means of controlling the election.

In fact, O’Gorman (1986) has argued that as many as one-fifth of borough constituencies were too large to be controlled by patronage. In these constituencies, issues, principles and electoral organisation counted for more than influence, and even uncontested seats did not necessarily indicate political indifference, but displayed the satisfactory functioning of local deferential mechanisms, making contests unnecessary. These arguments rely on evidence of the increasing politicisation and vibrancy of electoral culture, particularly apparent in election rituals existing in all types of constituency. It is true that the complex franchise qualifications meant voting was not necessarily restricted to the wealthy. For example, the freeman vote gave the vote to men in humble occupations, and popular participation at elections could be extensive, either through artisans possessing the vote or by the attendance of non-electors at meetings and at the hustings. These aspects of popular participation led O’Gorman (1992) to claim that the electoral system was not as unrepresentative as it is often portrayed, and that petitioning of MPs and ‘instructions’ from constituents to Members are further evidence of the responsiveness of the unreformed House of Commons to popular demands. Despite this research suffering from selectivity of evidence, it does provide a useful corrective to lazy assumptions and generalisations about the unrepresentative nature of the electoral system. Many MPs were accountable to their constituents. Residence was a means of enforcing Parliamentary accountability, and in the counties it was rare to find Members living outside the constituency. The boroughs were different, and their unusual complexion and in many cases lack of accountability meant that rich merchants and nabobs could ‘carpet bag’ constituencies.

The Reform Act
The inadequacies of the representative system, and the absence of any significant reform for centuries, meant that any legislation would be potentially far-reaching and highly controversial. The Reform Act has been traditionally viewed as a modernisation of the British State, by the allocation of political rights upon the middle class commensurate with their increasing economic power and importance in British society. However, its scope was clearly limited and its provisions modest. While it removed the most scandalous rotten boroughs, and extended the representation of industrial areas, the Act allowed much of the electoral structure to remain intact, and property ownership remained the ideological underpinning of the system.

Reform: franchise qualifications
In the counties, the Act maintained the 40s freehold franchise, with the addition of leaseholders and copyholders who were in effect equivalent in economic status. In the boroughs, a household franchise of £10 per annum became the basic borough franchise. In London boroughs, the £10 valuation produced a fairly large electorate but further north and in country towns, where the relative value of the valuation was much higher there was a much smaller electorate. The considerable regional variation in property values meant that the electoral impact of the provisions of the Act, arising from franchise qualifications, was highly variable.

Reform: Redistribution
Perhaps more significant was the re-drawing of the electoral landscape, which tackled the most glaring absurdities of the electoral system. Boroughs with less than 2,000 inhabitants lost separate representation, and boroughs with a population between 2-4,000 inhabitants lost one of their two seats. Fifty-six boroughs were disfranchised and thirty reduced to single-member constituencies, while twenty-two boroughs returning two MPs and twenty new boroughs returning one member were created. Regardless of the number of inhabitants, no borough possessed more than two members, a clear indication that it was not representation of numbers that the system sought to promote. Sixty-five additional county seats were created, with twenty-five counties having their representation doubled. Areas North of the Trent gained 110 additional seats, but in terms of population and wealth, the South was still over-represented. The intention of the Act was to remodel the representation of interests, and it sought to do this by redistributing seats and enfranchising new boroughs. The justification for enfranchising towns such as Merthyr Tydfil, Walsall, Whitby and Sunderland was not based on their population but rather the industries and ‘interests’ they represented.

The Reform Act for England and Wales was accompanied by separate Acts for Scotland and Ireland. The impact on Ireland was limited, as the representative system had been reformed in 1800 and 1829. In 1832, Ireland received five additional Members. The Scottish Act, incorporating extensive redistribution and new franchise qualifications, was far more significant, and raised the Scottish electorate from 5,000 to 65,000. Edinburgh and Glasgow became two-member burghs, Dundee, Aberdeen, Perth, Paisley, and Greenock became single-member burghs, and smaller towns were grouped into districts with single members. The number of Scottish MPs increased from 45 to 53, and for Scots, the Reform Act was a political coming of age (McCord, 1991; Dyer, 1983).

While the provisions of the Reform Act were far from democratic, to contemporaries and in the context of the representative system then existing, it appeared far-reaching. Yet there was no revolutionary change in the distribution of power, and the political authority of the aristocracy remained unshaken. There remained many constituencies where the influence of patrons and Government was paramount and the number of voters very small. In the following years, although party organisation accelerated as a result of the Act, there was little immediate change in the structure or personnel of politics (McCord, 1991). As Beales (1992) argues, there was scarcely a feature of the unreformed electoral system that could not be found in existence after 1832. For example, despite the increase in the number of voters, 240 seats were uncontested at the 1859 General Election, and constituency size varied enormously, with electorates ranging from 200 to 18,000 (Lloyd, 1965). There was no secret ballot, no change in the duration of Parliament, and most fundamentally, the electoral system continued to be based on a conception of the franchise as a trust rather than a right, with the possession of property a prerequisite of voting rights. With no legal limit imposed on expenditure, bribery and treating continued, though more covertly. After 1832, the cost of contesting elections remained high, with the average sum estimated at between £1,000 and £4,000 per seat (Gash, 1953). As MPs were unpaid, it was clearly the case that only men of independent wealth could afford to stand for Parliament.

In the long term, the constitutional importance of the Reform Act is difficult to overstate. In the political crisis that accompanied the passing of the Act, the House of Commons, backed by public opinion, had forced the King and the House of Lords to accept a measure which they vehemently opposed (McCord, 1991). Henceforth, the supremacy of the Commons was demonstrated by the reluctance of the monarch to use the Royal Veto, and the refusal of the Lords to reject ‘popular’ controversial legislation, most notably Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the Second Reform Act in 1867. It was not until the ‘People’s Budget’ controversy of 1909 that the Lords attempted, unsuccessfully, to challenge the legislative power of the Commons. While the provisions of the Act cannot be viewed as a significant shift towards a more democratic system, in the longer term the Act was supremely important, particularly in paving the way for organised political parties formed for the purposes of engaging with a larger electoral body, and in ensuring the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons. In this sense, the moderation of the electoral reforms can be over-stated, for the long-term constitutional implications of those changes were profound and permanent.

Beales, D. (1992) ‘The electorate before and after 1832’, Parliamentary History, 2, 1, 139-50.

Clark, J. C. D. (1987) English Society, 1688-1832: ideology, social structure and political practice during the ancien regime, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dyer, Michael (1983), ‘”Mere detail and machinery”: The Great Reform Act and the effects of redistribution on Scottish representation’ Scottish Historical Review, 62, 173, 17-34.

Gash, Norman (1953) Politics in the age of Peel: a study in the technique of parliamentary representation, New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

Lloyd, Trevor (1965), ‘Uncontested Seats in British General Elections, 1852-1910’, Historical Journal, 8, 2, 260-5.

McCord, Norman (1991), British history 1815-1906, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Namier, Lewis (1957), The structure of politics at the accession of George III, second ed. London: Macmillan.

O’Gorman, Frank (1986), ‘The unreformed electorate of Hanoverian England: the mid-eighteenth century to the Reform Act of 1832’, Social History, 11, 1, 33-52.

O’Gorman, Frank (1992) ‘Campaign rituals and ceremonies: the social meaning of elections in England, 1780-1860’, Past & Present, 135, 1, 79-115.

O’Gorman, Frank (1993), ‘The electorate before and after 1832: a reply’, Parliamentary History, 12, 2, 171-83.

Phillips, J. A. (1980), ‘Popular politics in unreformed England’, Journal of Modern History, 52, 4, 599-625.

Vickery, Amanda (2001), Women, privilege, and power: British politics, 1750 to the present, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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