The path to Reform

For a century following the 1689 Glorious Revolution, the government saw no reason to change a system that kept effective power in the hands of a self-perpetuating oligarchy, utterly uninterested in social administration, and responsible for legislation primarily of an economic nature, either of a local landowner variety or of a national interest in curbing the ambitions of rival nations. The composition of the House of Commons was largely controlled by the owners of the pocket boroughs (Wikipedia has the details of the unreformed House in 1800) and their geographic location bore no resemblance to the population they impacted by their legislation and administration. The usual example is that Haverfordwest had the same rights as London while Manchester and Birmingham were not even represented. Initially that state of affairs was of no concern. As Cobbold said, in his youth in Surrey “no-one knew nor thought anything about the matter”.

It did mean, however, that any serious opposition was going to be generated outside Parliament, and inevitably it was the London public that had the interest in, and the ability to, provide a contrary opinion (Burke’s “swinish multitude”): In 1733 it howled down Walpole’s Excise Bill; in 1751 it was responsible for our 5th April tax year anomaly to preserve the 11 days “lost” though moving to the modern calendar; in 1753 it forced the Commons to maintain the disabilities of the Jews; and in 1763 it voiced its interest in electoral reform with its support of “Wilkes & Liberty”. The French historian Elie Halevy called it “a country of rebellion, home of insurrection – the only reigning dynasty established by a successful rebellion.

In 1769 the supporters of Wilkes formed the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights which in 1771 called for (a) shorter Parliaments, (b) a wider franchise and ( c) the abolition of aristocratic 'pocket boroughs.' The milestone year was 1776 when apart from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations, some major works on political reform were published: Bentham‘s “Theory of Legislation”, Richard Price’sOn Civil Liberty” and Maj John Cartwright’s “Take Your Choice”. Wilkes introduced a bill for universal male suffrage, which was duly rejected. Despite the distraction of several wars that Great Britain was engaged in globally, the move for Parliamentary reform was gaining traction.


Then, in 1780 the London mob’s determination to have certain legislation repealed led to the Gordon Riots which lasted days until the army forcibly restored order. It severely frightened the middle classes and extra-Parliamentary reform (eg: the “National Association”) waned, some nine years before events in Paris produced a more severe example of anarchy unleashed in the name of Liberty.

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