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In Our Time
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Listen to the latest editionThursday 9.00-9.45am, repeated 9.30pm.

Programme details

Thursday 27 November 2008
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The Balance Of Power - a cartoon depicting the Reform Act of 1831 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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“We must get the suffrage, we must get votes, that we may send the men to Parliament who will do our work for us; …and we must have the country divided so that the little kings of the counties can't do as they like, but must be shaken up in one bag with us.”

So declares a working class reformist in George Eliot’s novel Felix Holt: the Radical. It is set in 1832, the year of the so-called “Great Reform Act” which extended the vote and gave industrial cities such as Manchester and Birmingham political representation for the first time. The Act is often described as a landmark moment in British political history.

But to what extent was Britain’s political system transformed by the Great Reform Act? What were the causes of reform in the first place and was the Act designed to encourage democracy in Britain or to head it off?


Dinah Birch, Professor of English at Liverpool University

Michael Bentley, Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews

Catherine Hall, Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History at University College London

Audience reactions to this edition

Chris Burgess - Great Reform Act
It is perhaps fair to suggest that the Reform Act did produce a nudge towards a more extensive female suffrage movement, as it consolidated an already existent, albeit small faction. The formation of the Female Reformer Unions in Blackburn in 1818 and the Manchester society a year later, both of which were present at Peterloo, show an established demand for universal suffrage. This movement could well have been consolidated by the active exclusion of the female voter in 1832. It is worth remembering that the history of the fight for female suffrage did not begin and end with Mrs Pankhurst.

Paul Buttle - Great Reform Act
I think it was Catherine Hall who said on the programme that the Reform Act gave a nudge towards the women's suffrage movement developing because it introduced a legal bar to women voting. What evidence is there for saying this? I've sought to find it but have failed. Supporters of women's suffrage in the 1860s, like Mr Pankurst, argued that women actually had the right to vote - they didn't accept that women were banned. The bar the 1832 Act introduced prevented women enjoying the franchise rights it introduced - whether it introduced a blanket ban would probably need a QC to decide. Did the Reform Act really cause women to feel especially aggrieved? - what contemporary documents support this contention? I'm concerned that history is being a little rewritten by feminists.

Eoin Dillon 1832 Reform Bill
There is an irony in Michael Bentley saying that an irish argument could be used to justify the status quo prior to the Reform Act of 1832. Ireland was excluded from some of the reforms of the franchise in 1832 on the grounds that the Irish franchise had already been 'reformed' by the Act of Union of 1800/1. The use of a truly 'Irish' argument would have favoured reform.Michael Bentley also alluded to the calm or quiet of the mid-1820s. This has been a matter of some speculation, with radical historians arguing that a qualitive change took place within English working class political language, as Paine and the outlook of the artisan is replaced by what might be argued in effect to be a proto labour theory of value (as articulated not least by the Irish landlord William Thompson), a move away from the French revolution and towards an analysis and language of industrial political economy. The idea that the British (English?) historic compromise is reached through a franchise reform has always appealed to me, leaving the introduction of some form of proportional representation a possibility with deep historical antecedents.Yours,Eoin DillonDublin

Tony Thomson
The legacy of enclosure before universal franchise was acheived has been the continuance of propertied power underneath the appearance of an egalitarian democracy. The tax on existence which property confers cannot however be ecologically sustained

Roger Macy - Reform Acts
It's just occurred to me - see previous posting - that four academics spent 45 minutes talking about pre-reform politics in Britain without needing to mention that Britain was a monarchy - which begs the comparison with the US even more. In fact, I think it would have been impossible to discuss US politics of the period without much more mention of its Presidents.

Joe Patterson The Great Reform Act 1832
A very interesting programme tracing the diffcult path of electoral reform, always resisted by those with a vested interest (or perceived vested interest) in maintaining the status quo. We have moved a long way despite this resistance but we certainly have not moved far enough.

Paul Buttle - Great Reform Act
It was said, or suggested, on the programme that rotten boroughs were boroughs that had decayed. Two classic examples were given: Old Sarum and Dunwich. They are almost the only examples. I have visited and researched all the 56 boroughs the Great Reform Act disenfranchised. My conclusion is that perhaps no more than ten were less consequential in 1832 than they had been when enfranchised. Sarum and Dunwich were made parliamentary boroughs prior to 1300, but 37 of the boroughs disenfranchised by the Act were created or restored after the death of Henry VIII.

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