As the 19th century progressed and the memory of the violent French Revolution faded, there was growing acceptance that some parliamentary reform was necessary. The unequal distribution of seats, the extension of the franchise and 'rotten boroughs' were all issues to be addressed.
The Tory Prime Minister in 1830, Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, was resolutely opposed to parliamentary reform. However, there was growing support for limited change within his party, primarily because partially extending the franchise would allow the wealth and influence of Britain's growing middle class to be exploited.
When the Tory government was ousted later in 1830, Earl Grey, a Whig, became Prime Minister and pledged to carry out parliamentary reform. The Whig Party was pro-reform and though two reform bills failed to be carried in Parliament, the third was successful and received Royal Assent in 1832.
The Bill was passed due to Lord Grey's plan to persuade King William IV to consider using his constitutional powers to create additional Whig peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the Bill's passage. On hearing of this plan, Tory peers abstained from voting, thus allowing the Bill to be passed but avoiding the creation of more Whig peers.
The first Reform Act
The Representation of the People Act 1832, known as the first Reform Act or Great Reform Act:
- disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales and reduced another 31 to only one MP
- created 67 new constituencies
- broadened the franchise's property qualification in the counties, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers
- created a uniform franchise in the boroughs, giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers
Another change brought by the 1832 Reform Act was the formal exclusion of women from voting in Parliamentary elections, as a voter was defined in the Act as a male person. Before 1832 there were occasional, although rare, instances of women voting.
Limited change had been achieved but for many it did not go far enough. The property qualifications meant that the majority of working men still could not vote. But it had been proved that change was possible and over the next decades the call for further parliamentary reform continued.