Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832, by Antonia Fraser

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Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832, by Antonia Fraser

Published:

Thu, 20/06/2013 - 12:31

By:

Amir
Image: The Trustees of the British Library
Published: 
20 June, 2013
by GERALD ISAAMAN

IT was indeed a “perilous question” in 1832 when the Whig aristocrats led by Earl Grey sought to remove the stink of corruption and set the House of Commons on a democratic path with what is now known as the Great Reform Act.

As he worked in secret – and fear – to bring reform about, Grey confessed: “The perilous question is that of parliamentary reform, and as I approach it, the more I feel all its difficulty.”

More than half the MPs at that time were returned by a ridiculous total of 11,000 voters, too many by bribery, scores of them elected by members of the House of Lords, who regarded constituencies as their personal property which could be comfortably bought and sold at will.

Major cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield had no MPs at all while some 21 tiny towns in Cornwall returned two MPs each in what were known as the rotten boroughs. Wiltshire’s notorious Old Sarum, without a single inhabitant, returned two MPs too.

Not that the Reform Act brought about devastating change. It proved to be just a small though vital step for mankind as it extended the electorate from 478,000 out of a total of 24 million to 813,000.

The size of the Commons remained at 658, the same as it is today, the Duke of Wellington, arch enemy of reform, viewing the new Commons of 1833 with the sour comment: “I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life.”

And he had to guard Apsley House, his home on the edge of Hyde Park, against angry mobs bombarding his home.

Yet, stop most people in any high street today and they will make the same withering comment about too many of today’s MPs, whose behaviour has worn away the trust so essential to the democratic process.

Add to the dangerous mix the lack of faith in bankers, the national media, the utilities, giant tax-avoidance companies, the police, the Church, a government out of touch, a Chancellor out of control plus all those dodgy supermarket beef-burgers and the parallels with 1832 strike home.

The terrible trouble is that it has resulted in voters significantly sitting on their hands at election time – survey polls show only 10 per cent of the populace are seriously interested in politics anyway – while others now deliberately seek alternative parties support, UKIP the present beneficiary.

And who can blame them when the democratic process is now considered so unfit for purpose that we need to reform the system inherited from Lord Grey and his successors.

What upsets so many democrats is the ignorance of the sacrifices down the centuries that brought them emancipation, in particular women through the protests of the suffragettes.

Those who perversely criticised George Orwell know without doubt that Big Brother is well and thriving with concern over Prism secrets.

It’s not as if we weren’t warned, yet we’ve allowed a plastic world of so-called celebrity tittle-tattle to delude and brainwash the millions.

That is why Antonia Fraser’s immaculate and dramatic history of the 1832 Reform Act is so important and essential reading, a brilliant eye-opener and heart-stopper as she reveals the passions of the radicals at the crossroads of British history for whom the advance of democracy was the only sane way forward.

Perhaps Education Secretary Michael Gove should declare it a must-read course book for his latest GCSE proposals.

What is a sheer delight is the meticulous thoroughness with which she paints vivid, intimate portraits of all those involved, not least the women “working” secretly behind the scenes, from Lord John Russell in favour to the police creator Sir Robert Peel, described as a man of “pure and cold moral character”, against.

Then there are the enlightened roles of the so-called revolutionary reformer William Cobbett, who declared: “Every man you met seemed to be convulsed with rage.” His statue still proudly stands in Camden Town.

Lesser known but now resurrected is the radical tailor Francis Place, a bailiff’s son raised in a debtors’ prison, who knocked on the door of No 10 to meet Lord Grey, whom he described as “the most open and manly” of Prime Ministers.

And the role too of our Tory King, William IV, who reluctantly gave his royal consent to the legislation on June 7, 1832, and is still remembered by the pub named after him in Hampstead Village.

Wellington vowed that revolution, as in France, threatened to introduce new peers in a future government to overcome the Commons. There were riots in Bristol, Nottingham and Manchester, just as there have been in the reign of this and other misguided governments – same-sex marriage and the G8 summit divisions and splits the latest targets of chaotic protest. 

All the awful pomposity is there to behold, all the chicanery, all the lust for power, money and love – today’s redtop newspapers would have had a truly joyous time, the role of the press in 1832 fundamental on the issue that faced the UK then – and the world today.

Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 by Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20 and £10.99 eBook

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