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Industrialization and Progress, Agitation for Political Reform

The Reform Bill of 1832 was the first successful attempt to correct these inequities. Although the bill was a moderate compromise, it was defeated twice in the House of Lords; only when King William IV threatened to create a number of new Whig peers in the House of Lords was it allowed to pass. The act decreased the amount of land one had to own to qualify to vote, especially in towns. It redistributed nearly one-quarter of the seats in the House of Commons, mainly from the agricultural southwest to the industrial northwest, but this was still far too few seats to reflect the redistribution of population. More than 250,000 adult males were added to the electoral rolls, but still only 20 percent now had the vote in England; the figure was 12 percent in Scotland, and 5 percent in Ireland.

The Reform Act of 1832 was a bitter disappointment to many radicals who had hoped for fundamental change. Social discontent in Britain came to mirror the country’s emerging class structure. The wealthy, who had been divided between landowners and capitalists, gradually merged into a single ruling class that dominated the government, the church, and the military. Birth and family connections combined to define its members, who attended elite public schools and universities. The middle classes, which had expanded greatly in the 18th century, now participated in the political process as a result of the Reform Act. Their values of tight-knit families, religious observance, and moral personal conduct were to characterize the coming Victorian era.

The working class became the outsider looking in. By far the biggest class, workers had few rights and little security. The ruling and middle classes looked upon the working class with suspicion and feared their numbers and their potential for violence. However, they also provided the leaders who agitated for reforms in working conditions, political rights, and economic justice that ultimately improved the lives of British workers.

Two important political parties emerged during the 1830s. The Whig faction in Parliament combined with a group of radicals to create the Liberal Party, which devoted its energy to government reform, free trade, and the extension of voting eligibility to a larger percentage of the population. The Conservative Party evolved as the successor to the Tory Party. The Conservatives were staunch supporters of the monarchy and championed the cause of imperialism.

In the mid-19th century two significant reform groups presented their programs to government: the Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartists. The Anti-Corn Law League championed free trade and advocated the removal of high taxes on imported grains. The Chartists hoped to expand political participation to members of the working class.

Agitation for repeal of the Corn Laws came from middle-class radicals who believed in free trade rather than protection. They argued that the Corn Laws only benefited rich landowners whose profits came at the cost of expensive bread for everyone else. The terrible potato famine in Ireland, which began in 1845 and killed nearly 1 million people, finally convinced Prime Minister Robert Peel to repeal the laws in 1846. The repeal split the Conservative Party, but it made Britain the world’s leading advocate of the principle of free trade.

Chartism championed the cause of workers by demanding that they receive full political rights. In imitation of the Magna Carta, which had secured the rights of the nobility from the Crown in 1215, the Chartists produced a People’s Charter. The charter advocated the extension of the vote to all adult males, the redistribution of parliamentary seats on the basis of population, and the use of the secret ballot. The Chartists presented their program to Parliament in 1839, 1842, and 1848. Each time Parliament decisively rejected it.

Eventually nearly all of the Chartist demands were met. The male electorate was doubled by the Reform Bill of 1867, which extended the vote to many men working in urban areas, and then tripled by the Reform Bill of 1884, which extended the vote to agricultural workingmen. Both bills furthered the redistribution of parliamentary seats, and the bill of 1884 virtually conceded that further reform must be made on the basis of population. The secret ballot was introduced in 1872. It was not until 1918 that all men and women received the vote.

 

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