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  • Writer's picturecaitlyncallery9

Back scratching, deals, and more of the same. The Great Voting Reform Act 1832.

In the UK this week, there have been local elections, mayoral elections and a by-election. By January 2025 at the latest, there will also be a general election here.

These days, to be eligible to vote you must be 18 or older, a citizen of Britain, Ireland or a qualifying Commonwealth country who is resident in the UK or Gibraltar, or who is registered as an overseas voter. You must also not be legally excluded from voting: for example, convicted prisoners cannot vote while they are incarcerated, and members of the House of Lords are exempt from voting in general elections, but can vote in local ones. There are no other qualifying criteria, such as property ownership, marital status, etc.

It hasn't always been this way.

Before the Great Reform Act of 1832, the electoral system in this country was unfair and unrepresentative. In order to vote, a person had to own property or pay certain taxes, which automatically excluded all but the richest members of society.

Interestingly, before 1832, women were not excluded from voting. A woman who owned property could vote, and some did, although since it was rare for women to own property or pay taxes in their own right, there were never many who could take part.

As well as ensuring only those who were economically privileged could vote, the whole process was uneven. Some constituencies returned two or more MPs to parliament, even though only a few people were eligible to vote for them. The vote was not secret, and those seeking power openly bribed voters. These constituencies were known as “rotten boroughs.”

Rotten boroughs included Old Sarum in Salisbury, which was basically an uninhabited hill, Dunwich, with 32 voters, Camelford with 25, and Gatton, with just seven. Meanwhile, huge cities like Manchester and Birmingham, which had grown after the constituencies had been established, had no MPs to represent them at all.

Several attempts were made to reform voting and enfranchisement. The whig politician, Lord John Russell, (left) tried several times to disenfranchise rotten boroughs and transfer their MPs to industrial cities such as Leeds, but he was always defeated. Hardly surprising: asking MPs returned by the boroughs to vote for their demise is akin to asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

The turning point came in 1829, when the Duke of Wellington (below) proposed a law allowing Roman Catholics to hold political office, something that had been denied to them for generations. Wellington did this, not because he believed in Catholic emancipation, but because he wanted to reduce the danger of civil strife in largely Roman Catholic Ireland.

His proposals upset some in his party, who saw Catholic emancipation as a threat to the established, Anglican, religion. They watered down his proposals by favouring wider parliamentary reform, in particular giving representation to Manchester, Leeds, and other, largely non-conformist cities in northern England.

From 1829 to 1831, several attempts were made to reform the voting laws. The issue brought down two prime ministers, and caused a level of political agitation bordering on revolution. Protesters refused to pay taxes and urged a run on the Bank of England. In just a few days, £1.8 million was withdrawn from the bank, out of their total gold deposits of about £7 million. There were calls for the abolition of the nobility, and even the monarchy.

In an effort to get the reforms passed, the new Prime Minister, Lord Grey, (left) tried to fill the House of Lords with new Whig Peers who would vote for his proposals. Meanwhile, Wellington indulged in political horse trading and persuaded several Tory peers to abstain, thus ensuring the vote would go through. The bill finally became law in June 1832.

It was still a long way from the universal suffrage we have today. The bill abolished 56 of the smallest boroughs, and reduced the number of MPs returned by a further 30 boroughs from two to one. In total, the boroughs lost 143 seats. 130 of these seats were transferred to previously under-represented areas in England and Wales.

In addition, the right to vote was extended to men who held a lease on land of at least 60 years, where the lease was worth at least £10 annually, and to male tenants paying at least £50 rent annually. Qualifying properties included not just homes, but warehouses, counting-houses and shops, so long as they were occupied, and had been for at least twelve months.

It also stated, for the first time, that qualifying voters MUST be male, preventing all women from voting at a stroke. It would be 88 years before any women at all regained the right to vote in the United Kingdom.

Even though the qualifying criteria for voters were overhauled, the Act did not impact the population massively. Before the reform bill, about 1% of the population could vote. Afterwards, the franchise was extended to about 7% of the population.

The status quo had, on the whole, been maintained, while giving the illusion that things had changed.

As the French say: “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

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