Why many Liberal and Conservative politicians feared the consequences of the 1867 reform act were that of a “Leap in the dark”

The nineteenth century saw massive changes in the way Britain was run. It had developed from a feudal survival that had been intact since the early fifteenth century, towards a system of government relying on popular participation. The Great Reform Act of 1832 had set the precedent for change. It was impossible that the 1832 Act would be the ‘final solution of a great constitutional question’. Moreover the act was seen as a ‘stepping stone’ for other reforms which finally awarded the working class with the vote and in effect, allowed the social classes to co-operate and collaborate in the running of the country.

Many people believed the 1832 Act was passed to ease tensions caused by the revolution taking place across the English Channel in France and indeed, domestic tensions back home in England but in the 1860’s, this tension was no longer present. Political demonstrations and strikes continued, but they took on a far less threatening tone. Ironically, political parties in the mid 1800’s became concerned in making the country more democratic at a time when violent campaigning in favour of a wider electorate grew weaker. The result of this confusing political activity resulted in the Reform Act of 1867, another stepping stone in making Britain more democratic.

However, even after two reforms had been passed (1832 and 1867), only 2.5 million adult males in the United Kingdom had gained the right to vote out of a total population of 30 million. However, as Michael Bentley put it, “A dam breached by a small hole is breached nonetheless, and the pressure it brings to bear on the remaining structure may eventually topple altogether” – a strong, valid argument for those admired the short and long term effects of the 1832 act.

During 1850-60, there were five occasions in which Reform Bills were drawn up and then rejected. Four of these bills were drawn up by Lord John Russell, the pioneer of the 1832 Act but it was after this reform that he stated he was against any further changes to the system. However, in 1951, Russell ‘considered it necessary to extend the franchise into at least the upper levels of the working class, as a means of preventing the revival of popular radicalism’. He was unsuccessful, as was the other bill, which was drawn up by the Conservative leader Lord Derby and the Conservative Leader in the Commons, Benjamin Disraeli.

This Conservative proposal was said to be ‘purely a matter of political expediency. It aimed at equalizing the country and the borough franchises, and compelling voters living in urban constituencies to vote in their borough rather than their country, in an attempt to make the county seats sager for rural Conservatism.’

Despite five rejections of reform, there was a general consensus in the Commons that reform was the way forward, but as soon as specifics were mentioned, talks fell apart. However, the 1860’s signaled change for British politics and this was down to many factors.

The death of Lord Palmerston in 1865 was a defining turning point, as it was he who was opposed to further reforms. With Palmerston out of office, there was one less obstacle to addressing the issue of reform. With the departure of Palmerston, William Gladstone was thrown into the fray and he, unlike Palmerston was in favour of reform. This ensured that the issue rose up the political agenda and it became a prominent topic in the mid 1860’s in the Commons and Lords.

Disraeli was a key figure in British politics in the mid 1800’s. He was a very intelligent man and he had the rare talent of being able to identify lively issues but there were times when he looked like more of a liability to the Conservative Party rather than an asset. He was baptised a Jew which caused concern amongst other Conservatives who were clearly prejudice to his religion. His novels – Coningsby, Sybil, Tancred – had all brought criticism and jealousy as a well but they had elevated Disraeli to a much respected place in society as an intelligent man. However, Disraeli often felt isolated in the party, struggling to dispose of the mediocrity that often plagued his political career, one possible explanation for the unorthodox ‘leap in the dark’ he took in 1867.

The Liberals, in government in the 1860’s, knew that they could not run away from producing a reform bill and this pressure not only came from outside but also from within the party both on the left and on the right. The bill had to suit both sides of their party, a virtually impossible task. Gladstone was also having trouble as he found political life with Lord Palmerston extremely tough. Gladstone, who spoke so fondly of ‘bringing the people within the pale of the constitution’, was having difficulty in putting his words of wisdom into practice. The Liberals brought a reform to the Commons which was severely amended in the Commons. This resulted in the resignation from government by The Liberals and Gladstone was publicly disgraced.

The Conservatives were then asked to become the government but they would do so with no majority. Furthermore, the Conservatives could survive only as long as the Liberals hated one another, more so than their political counterparts. Disraeli realised this and he instantly began to plan a way to politically humiliate the Liberals even more so by committing his party to this ‘leap in the dark’ a phrase given to the reform by Lord Derby. Disraeli knew what he had to do, but in the months directly after the Liberals being axed from power, he started cautiously, preferring to ignore the issue but he realised this would aid the Liberals in returning to power. Disraeli had to seize the moment.

At first, Conservative backbenchers opposed the defensive bill that Disraeli produced, not because they wanted to fully commit to democracy, far from that in fact, but their incentive was to save themselves from Gladstone’s Liberal party returning to power. The Tories believed that it was better to ‘chance their arm in a more popular electoral system than to slope back into the political wilderness of opposition’. This involved the Tories producing a ‘liberal’ bill, so liberal in fact that Gladstone would be not be able to resist it. If he did, then he would do himself no favours as suggesting anything would deepen his own party’s disgust at his ineffectuality. The final bill was passed in 1867 which was significantly transformed as the government accepted a series of amendments by Liberal leadership. But nevertheless, the bill was passed and Disraeli had succeeded where Gladstone had failed.

In practice, the bill had a quite a few effects. It gave the vote to every made adult householder living in a borough constituency. Male lodgers paying �10 for rooms were also given the vote. Government seats were also freed up and awarded to towns with the biggest population increase since 1832. Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds for example.

Despite its flaws, and the manner in which it was passed, (Bentley described it as a ‘toboggan ride whose speed and direction had largely escaped Disraeli’s control’), the bill provided a threshold across which British politics began to appear modern. The peculiarity of the story of 1867 lies in unorthodox political maneuvers by a party who went to great lengths to be more revolutionary than its opponents, to go against what they stood for – for political progress and a fairer, more democratic Britain.

Whether it was to keep the Liberal split alive, to humiliate Gladstone even more so or simply to succeed where others had failed, Disraeli achieved a landmark victory in British Politics, which did indeed earn his party and himself a lot of credibility.