The British Reform Act of 1832


                                                                                                  Photo taken by : ALAMY

England, like much of the world has evolved both socio-economically and politically throughout its great history.  In terms of political thought, one of the most important periods of change, it experienced was during the British Reform Act of 1832.  During this period, the British Parliament had many great debates on its floors involving two different schools of political theory, the British Constitution, and social reforms.  Social reform to benefit the middle class had the support of liberals such as Thomas Babington Macaulay.  Other more conservative parliamentarians such as the Tories Robert Peel and Robert Harry Inglis were equally defiant of moving from their political postures in opposition of reform.  Each side of the debate experienced their reasons for support or opposition to the reforms, but ultimately the reforms passed after impassioned pleas from both sides of the issue.  The reforms debated at this time, are not unlike the debates today in both British Parliament and the halls of the United States Capital.  Ideological differences set the stage for the argument, and each side used their own logic in order to set motion in the “rules of engagement” between the liberals and conservatives on the issue of social reform.   Liberals argued that without reform that the masses would become disenfranchised and angry at the British Government.  In addition, they argued that such anger could possibly motivate some to take arms in the form of an organized revolution if left without a voice.  Conservatives argued that they would not support a reform bill presented to them in a confrontational and frightful manner, while citing past bills that resulted in disastrous consequences for the country of England.  Using each sides own words from a series of speeches given during the reform debate it is possible to delineate the political “lines in the sand” that each side presents in their opposition or support of British reform during this era.  The speeches give insight as to the basic tenets of liberalism and conservatism in early-nineteenth-century England.

T. B. Macaulay gave a speech on Parliamentary reform in which he demonstrates his liberal approach to arguing in favor of giving more power to the middle class of England.  His arguments are founded on his belief that England will suffer dire consequences if does not adjust to the needs of its population.  Macaulay believes that the Parliament is not necessarily full of people that do not love their country or have bad intentions that oppose his theories, but instead he feels that the conservatives within the Parliament are misreading the need for immediate change.  He uses examples within contemporary England as to wealth distribution and voting rights as not being consistent with the population at large.  In addition, he looks to other examples in the newly formed United States that give credence to his belief that the English Government is capable of being more a partner of its population rather than being an adversary or entity with conflicting interests.  The following passage is from a speech his gives to Parliament: “Universal Suffrage exists in the United States without producing any very frightful consequences; and I do not believe, that the people of those States, or of any part of the world, are in any good quality naturally superior to our own countrymen” (Maucalay, 2 March 1831). Mauacalay is aware that he is speaking to a domestic audience when he states that he believes that England is not inferior to America.  He essentially is saying that if America is capable of giving universal rights to its people and it works for them, that the same should be possible in English society.   Macaulay’s tactics are not unlike the tactics conducted by any politician regardless of party loyalty or ideological preference.  He issues a challenge to his political rivals rooted in patriotism and competition.  This is a timeless political tactic, but for a country only a few decades separated from a Revolutionary War with the United States, his statements are even more biting in their strength.

Robert Harry Inglis, an ultraconservative Parliamentarian at the time, counters at liberal ideas for political reform by first refuting claims that his liberal colleagues know what is best for the country.  He discusses past failures in the following: “Members consider what must be the consequences of such a state of things in the present artificial condition of society.  To take one instance: one-third of the existing property of the country has been created by the will of Parliament, and may be destroyed by the will of Parliament.  The whole funded debt of England arose in the first instance, from votes of this House: and the credit thus established may be endangered—I will not say extinguished, by another vote” (Inglis, 17 December 1831).  Inglis, is telling the House of Commons that he has been down this road before, and the last time Parliament forced him to do something that he was skeptical about implementing the country paid the price.  Smaller government and less government are strong tenets of modern-day conservative thought.  His statements confirm that some of the political tenets of conservatism are still in place to this day.  Inglis expands on his mistrust of the House of Commons interpretation of British public will in the same speech:  “Now, even if I were disposed to admit to him, which I am not, that Reform is inevitable, I will never admit that it is needful.  I contend that it was not called for either by the wants or by the wishes of the people; and that the attempt to introduce a measure of this kind has been productive hitherto of nothing but injury to the interests of the country” (Inglis, 17 December 1831).  His statement starts defiant in his acceptance that such a Reform Bill will pass into law to begin with, but his statement serves him to attack the fact that the House of Commons will once again make a legislative decision that will hurt the country he loves.  Distrust for the government even by those that work in politics, is a common tenet of conservatism that extends from the nineteenth century to contemporary politics.

Other Tories that differ with Macaulay in terms of political perspective at this time include Sir Robert Peel.  Peel differs with his liberal colleagues in the Parliament that believe that Ireland was in a state of peace due to policy changes that resemble the English Reform Bill. Instead of giving credit to the policies in Ireland, he maintains cautiously optimistic.  He is a moderate conservative when it comes to this issue, especially when he gives praise to the government’s leaders.  This is an excerpt from a speech he gave to Parliament: “No party hostility shall ever prevent me from doing justice whenever justice should be done, or bestowing praise wherever praise ought to be bestowed.  I approve of the course pursued by the present Home department; I admire the conduct of the noble marquis now at the head of Irish government; ever since he has reassumed that office, I have seen nothing in his conduct but entitles him to praise” (Peel, 3 March, 1831).  He takes a populist position on this topic that does not completely conflict with his liberal colleagues.  Instead of attacking the actions of the House of Commons and the legislature introduced by other liberals, he focuses his criticism on the unknown or rationale given for the legislative change.  Another example of this occurring is within the same speech when he questions the intentions of moving elective franchises.  He states the following:  “For noble friend says, that if, in the year 1828, the late government had not refused to transfer the elective franchise from the borough of East Redford to the town of Pirmingham, we should not be now discussing the question of parliamentary reform; for that single measure would have quieted the people on this subject, and would have given general satisfaction.  If, sir, from so small an event, such mighty consequences should have flowed—if it really would have been possible, by so trifling concession as the transfer of the elective franchise from East Redford to Pirmingham; to have satisfied and conciliated all the classes of the community, it is surely of great importance to enquire what is paramount reason which should induce us at the present moment to make so extraordinary a change in the constitution as that which is now proposed” (Peel, 3 March, 1831).  Peel believes that legislative reform should not occur just because one group feels disenfranchised, and therefore he comes to the conclusion that there will always be people dissatisfied with their position within society.

Macaulay believes that the English had gone through many changes throughout their history.  In a speech to Parliament, he goes through a timeline of these changes and how England has progressed as a country due to these changes.  He says the following: “All history is full of revolutions, produced by causes similar to those which are now operating England.  A portion of the community which had been of no account, expands and becomes strong.  It demands a place in the system, suited, not to its former weakness, but to its present power.  If this is guaranteed, all as well.  If this is refused, then comes the struggle between the young energy of one class, and the ancient privilege of another” (Macaulay, 4 March, 1831).  In not so many words, Macaulay is saying that all progress is met with resistance, and that the conservatives around him are from another era that is resistant to inevitable change.

Macaulay’s ideas are representative of nineteenth-century liberal thought.   He firmly believes that the world is changing around him, and the examples of Ireland and the newly formed United States have shown him enough to understand that more rights for the population at large enable countries to progress both socially and economically.   He looks at these examples and thinks that England may benefit greatly from social reforms since it has already gone through substantial progress throughout its history.  Inglis and Peel represent the conservative mindset of the time.  They both have different reasons for their opposition to social reforms, but Inglis is much more of a radical conservative than Peel.  Peel is open a certain amount of change in English government policy, but he is weary of the method and reasons given to him by the English Parliament’s most liberal members such as Macaulay.  He is encouraged by the changes he has witnessed in Ireland, but is also quick to mention that the final verdict is yet to be determined since he views many social reforms as untested liberal policies.  Inglis was a conservative that when compared to other conservatives such as Peel seems even more skeptical of social reforms being offered by liberal parliamentarians.  He voices his skepticism by citing past failures or miscalculations of the House of Commons.  Although he gives logical arguments not unlike Peel, his tone and approach is one that uncompromising and fundamentally different from those given by politicians such as Macaulay.  As difficult of a challenge it was for Macaulay to reach his goal of passing social reforms in England, eventually his side won the debate.  Social reforms soon passed in the House of Commons enabling new rights and voice to larger segments of English society.  In this case, England became a beacon for change after Parliament passed some of the most battled legislature in its history.

Work Cited

“Peel’s speech on Parliamentary Reform :3 March 1831.” Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2012. <;.

“Peel’s Speech on Parliamentary Reform: 6 July 1831..” Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2012. <;.

“Reform that you may preserve.” Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2012. <;.

“Sir Robert Inglis’ speech in the Debate upon the Second Reading of the Reform of Parliament (England) Bill: 17 December 1831.” Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2012. <;.