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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic profile of an overlooked period
The period surrounding the passing of the Great Reform Act 1832 is often overlooked due to its seemingly dull core of electoral administration and reform. However, as Antonia Fraser expertly shows in this work, nothing could be further from the truth.

Fraser's success in this work is threefold. Firstly, she describes with great aplomb the social upheavals and...
Published 12 months ago by Huw Davies

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dramatic in Parts.
This book was received with great acclaim and in some ways it merits it. There is certainly nothing about the 1832 Reform Act that a general reader would want to know that is omitted.The characters of the time, especially Grey and Wellington emerge quite clearly. On the other hand, as the author acknowledges, the Act was only a beginning: a small addition to the number...
Published 12 months ago by Michael S


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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic profile of an overlooked period, 24 July 2013
By 
Huw Davies (Taunton, England) - See all my reviews
The period surrounding the passing of the Great Reform Act 1832 is often overlooked due to its seemingly dull core of electoral administration and reform. However, as Antonia Fraser expertly shows in this work, nothing could be further from the truth.

Fraser's success in this work is threefold. Firstly, she describes with great aplomb the social upheavals and tensions which were taking place in the 1830s, and why the Reform Bill fuelled massive protests and helped spark the beginning of political parties and trades unions.

Secondly, she not only explains how the Bill worked and its passage through Parliament, but goes into intricate detail about the key players in this fight for reform:- the Prime Minister Earl Grey (he of tea fame), the leader of the opposition Tories, the Duke of Wellington (he of boot fame), King William IV and numerous others. By the end you feel you have not only read an account of the Reform Act but also detailed sections of these people's biographies.

Finally Fraser explains the impact the Act itself had on future generations. Personally I would have liked this bit slightly longer, and a few more links to today's political arguments would've been nice, but they aren't enough for me to take this from the 5-star mark.

This is an excellent book and anyone with an interest in history or politics will find it a fascinating read.
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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revolution Averted, 12 May 2013
By 
Dr Barry Clayton (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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Antonia Fraser says she wrote her latest book for herself. Many other readers will enjoy it too. The latest book is a fine addition to her earlier works on Cromwell, the wives of Henry V111, and Marie Antoinette. Like these books 'Perilous Question' is strong on depicting characters, and there are many ranging from bean-pole Earl Grey, Lord John Russell and the almost deaf irascible Duke of Wellington who believed any reform of the electoral system would bring the:'destruction of government in England'. Thanks to Fraser we learn about their gross gluttony (the King), physical problems, addiction to alcohol, mistresses and numerous bastard cildren. We also learn how Victoria very nearly missed becoming Queen.

Revolution was endemic in Europe between 1789 and mid 19th century. In 1830 revolution brought Louis Philippe to power, and many in England feared our monarchy was in danger. Fraser argues that the country was a tinderbox. She like many writers before believes that the reform of 1832 averted revolution.

In 1830 our electoral system was medieval. The old landed aristocracy monopolised poitical power. Corruption was widespread throughout the electoral system. Every schoolboy at one time knew about pocket boroughs, rotten boroughs and bought boroughs. There existed scandals like Dunwich that still returned two members to the Commons despite having fallen into the sea. Of course, everyone must know of Old Sarum. It should be note however that recent research has shown that the level of corruption while still significant has been much exaggerated.

Although the fear of revolution played a part in the reform movement, particularly among Whigs, of greater importance was the fact that growing cities like Leeds and Manchester had no representation in Parliament, this, plus a growing middle class, meant that the outmoded system could not possibly continue. Other reasons include: the economic slump that caused riots from June 1830 to 1831, coal strikes, cotton spinners strikes caused by wage cuts, the death of George 1V, the work of Jeremy Bentham and his 'Philosophic Radicals', and the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. All played a part.

The 1831 census showed the population of Britain was approximately 24 million yet only 500000 were enfranchised. Reform had been mooted since at least the 1770's but had been thwarted at every turn. Pitt for example tried but found George 111 and the Lords strongly opposed to any reform. Chaos rather than corruption best described the system at the turn of the century. in the whole of England, only 7 boroughs out of 202 had more than 500 voters, while 56 had fewer than 50 voters each.

There was no secret ballot and votes were cast openly so every candidate knew how each elector had voted. Bribery was therefore commonplace-beer being a great favourite. An election in Liverpool in 1830 cost the two candidates over 100000 between them, an enormous sum then.

Does the 1832 Act deserve to be called Great? This is a favourite exam question.
The Reform Act did eradicate some of the worst faults such as most of the rotten boroughs, and the electorate was increased by about 350000. However, many faults remained. Constituencies still varied greatly in size. Some boroughs had only 30 voters or less while Westminster had 11600. Large sections of the population still had no vote. These included agricultural labourers, the majority of industrial workers, and all women. In brief, only one in 7 adult males had the vote in Britain-only one in 20 in Ireland. There was no secret ballot. Readers should turn to Dickens' 'Pickwick Papers' to read his very funny description of a corrupt election, after 1832, in the fictious borough of Eatanswill. The length of parliaments was not altered-still 7 years-until 1911.

The real importance of the 1832 Act was it began a process of electoral reform that led to the Acts of 1867, 1884, 1911, 1918, and 1928. It was the first breach in the system. Earl Grey made a very perceptive remark after the Act of 1832. He said:'the Act did consolidate the aristocratic grip of the House of Commons in the coming generation'. He was proved to be right.

The 1832 Act also-and Fraser fails to mention this-encouraged other reforms in mines, factories, the poor law and local government.

Readers may notice some uncomfortable similarities with our politics today.
Also given the long and at times bitter fight to achieve the right to vote it is disgraceful how few today can be bothered to vote, even with postal voting being available. Take away the right and there would be uproar.

The author is a very good storyteller. Her book is lavishly illustrated and is very easy to read. She has a flair for character and her style is lively. A book to take to the holiday beach.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perilous Question, 7 Aug 2013
By 
Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
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I always look out for books by Antonia Fraser, as her writing always thrills as well as enlightens the reader. This book, on the Reform Bill of 1832, may sound rather prosaic, or even dull. But it is anything but. The drama, as the title of the book so rightly suggests, is present throughout. While it may seem strange to us today that in 1830, when William IV became King, only a small percentage of men had the right to vote, that "rotten" boroughs existed, that bribery and corruption, and the power of aristocratic landlords to nominate MPs to represent their landholdings and surrounding countryside, back then the undercurrent calling for Reform grew from small beginnings to a call from the "people" that could no longer be ignored by any incoming Government. With Europe in an uproar from revolutions and the overthrow of monarchies, the King and his Government needed to walk a fine line between reform that could threaten their own positions, and revolution that could topple them. The Tories and the Whigs fought their individual battles from their individual entrenched positions.

This book tells the tales of these men (and women), the growing Unions and agitators for reform, those who sought to better the lives of those in a large underclass in a growing industrial Britain, and those who read the signs of Europe and saw their own dooms written therein. This is great stuff; exciting, exhilirating, cutthroat politics at their best, and brought to the reader in this wonderful book by a masterful teller of such tales. Definitely recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good starting point for the layman, 12 Oct 2013
By 
G. L. Haggett "glynlhaggett" (UK) - See all my reviews
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This is an ideal starting point for those, like myself, who have an interest in history and how we got where we are today, but are perhaps short of the time and patience required to engage with a scholarly tome on the subject.

Antonia Fraser has produced a very readable account of a complex issue and is very good at painting a picture of the context of the times. I suspect those who have a particular interest in the Reform Bill will be able to use this book as a starting point for further study; in producing a primer and an introduction to the key figures and to the mood of the nation in the era in question, she has done a fine job indeed.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dramatic in Parts., 2 Aug 2013
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This book was received with great acclaim and in some ways it merits it. There is certainly nothing about the 1832 Reform Act that a general reader would want to know that is omitted.The characters of the time, especially Grey and Wellington emerge quite clearly. On the other hand, as the author acknowledges, the Act was only a beginning: a small addition to the number of electors and the end of a number of abuses.It may be a book for the historian but I found a number of longueurs and learning too much about too little. Perhaps a book on the reform acts in general would be of more use to the non-specialist reader. I was also surprised by the number of usage errors that a good editor should have picked up. In short, this is a worthy read but not exactly an entertaining one.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating story of Britain's developing democracy., 9 July 2013
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Excellent telling of the battle between the reactionary Tories and progressive Whigs during one of the most important reforms in modern British history. Antonia Fraser not only brings this important period to life, but provides interesting biographical information on all the leading players in the story.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars fascinating read, 14 Aug 2013
I was curious about the subject but worried that this may be too heavy a read. Totally the opposite, really enjoyed the author's style, the portrayal of the key characters and the way the social context was woven in. If you are interested in social history, then I would recommend this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read with some contemporary lessons, 26 April 2014
By 
R. Darlington "Roger Darlington" (London, England) - See all my reviews
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Too often, people seem to think that a country can be made into a democratic state overnight by simply creating the basic political institutions of established democracies. What they do not appear to appreciate is that democracies can take a long time to nurture and require much more than the establishment of a few institutions or the holding of an election.
Britain is rightly thought of as one of the oldest and most genuine democracies, but it is often forgotten how long it took to evolve that democracy and how hard were the battles along the way. “Perilous Question” is a fine piece of writing by Antonia Fraser who provides a compelling narrative about the watershed battles around the enactment of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, a period from July 1830 to June 1832.
This was a time literally of revolution. The original very bloody French Revolution of 1789 to 1799 still cast a dark shadow and the French had just experienced a Second Revolution in July 1830 when the Bourbon King Charles X was overthrown. In Britain, that same summer, King George IV died and was succeeded by the 64 year old William IV and the country was awash with demonstrations and riots as result of appalling social conditions.
The Whigs – forerunners of the Liberals – were convinced that without Parliamentary Reform there would be some form of revolution with a change of king or even the abolition of the monarchy. In complete contrast, the Tories – forerunners of the Conservatives – believed that Reform would itself be a major step in the encouragement of revolution.
This was the background to the General Election of 1830 that was at the time a legal requirement of a change of monarch. This was a time when there had only just been Catholic Emancipation but Jews were still not allowed to be elected to Parliament.
The British parliamentary system was, to modern sensibilities, a disgrace. Only around 400,000 out of a total population of 16 million – a mere 3% - had the vote (all male and all requiring a property qualification). Hundreds of the 658 seats in the House of Commons were located in “rotten boroughs”, the most extreme example being Old Sarum which had three houses and seven voters but elected two members, while major conurbations like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield had no representation at all. There was massive corruption over the selection of candidates and the act of voting (there was no secret ballot).
And then there was the absurdity of the House of Lords with its hereditary peers and bishops, not one of whom was elected.
Polling in the 1830 General Election took place over a month but only about a third of seats were contested. In those days, the lifetime of a Parliament was up to seven years. As Fraser explains, the designation of Tories and Whigs was not always clear-cut, but the election resulted in a Tory Government that was likely to be supported by a majority of about 42. The King’s Speech made no mention at all of Parliamentary Reform and the Prime Minister – the redoubtable hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington - set himself explicity against any kind of reform. Yet a motion from the Whigs, proposing in very general terms the need for reform, was carried by 29 votes.
This provoked a change of Government with the Whigs assuming power for the first time in a quarter of a century under the leadership of Earl Grey (in those days, all Prime Ministers came from the Lords).
Reform was now on the agenda. In a House of Commons with constituencies of generally two members each, the smallest constituencies would be eliminated and new constituencies created in the towns; other constituencies would remain but have a seat removed; and the franchise would be extended (but only from around 200,000 to 400,000). Universal suffrage, the secret ballot and the lifetime of Parliament were no part of the package.
The new Government made the first attempt to reform Parliament with a Bill introduced in the House of Commons by Lord John Russell on 1 March 1831. The all-important vote on the Second Reading was carried by the narrowest margin possible – a mere one vote. But a month later an amendment moved by the Ultra Tory MP General Isaac Gascoyne – opposition to any reduction in the number of MPs in England & Wales – was carried with a majority of eight and effectively blocked the Bill.
This defeat caused an immediate General Election just eight months after the previous one and in June 1831 the Whigs stormed to victory. A second Reform Bill was introduced in the Commons and this time the majority was a very substantial 136. There were then 40 sittings in Committee that hardly changed the measure at all before it was finally sent to the House of Lords.
Inevitably the Tories mobilised against the Bill and it was defeated by a majority of 41. Those voting against the measure included two Royal Dukes and 21 of the 23 bishops in the Lords. In the face of this constitutional crisis – the elected Commons against the non-elected Lords – the hapless King George IV prorogued (rather than dissolved) Parliament and attempted to persuade the Duke of Wellington to form a Tory Government that would introduce more limited reform.
The country was in revolt and, in the worst of the riots, at Bristol something like 400 were killed. Wellington was not prepared to take on the task and a small group of Tory peers emerged who came to be known as ‘the Waverers’.
So, in December 1831, a third Reform Bill – there were some modifications – was introduced and predictably sailed through the Commons with a majority now of 162.
As the Bill was passed to the Lords, politicians, press and monarch were all forced to consider “the fearful alternative”; that is, the creation by the King of sufficient extra peers to enable the Bill to pass in the Lords. This was regarded by many – certainly the King – as such a constitutional outrage as to be avoided if at all possible and, when the King did contemplate this possibility, he insisted that the permanent character of the House of Lords should be changed as little as possible by finding these extra peers from those due to inherit a peerage eventually, those who had no sons who would inherit their title, and peers from Ireland or Scotland who were existing members of the aristocracy.
In fact, the Bill did obtain a majority on Second Reading in the Lords but by a mere nine votes and it was clear that this was insufficient for the legislation to pass through the Committee Stage. Indeed on 7 May 1831 – known as ‘Crisis Day’ – the government was defeated in Committee with a majority for the Opposition of 45.
At this point, the crisis was so acute that, according to Fraser, ”people talked very openly of civil war” and “there was even talk of a change of dynasty”. In the end, the pressure was too much on the Tories and they backed down allowing the Bill to succeed at Third Reading on 4 June 1832. In fact, very few of them were in the Lords for the crucial vote, Wellington himself being deliberately absent. So the Bill was carried with a majority of 84 but with only around 120 peers actually taking part.
In those days, the monarch would normally attended Parliament for the Royal Assent of a Bill, but King William IV – originally sympathetic to reform but increasingly angered by the pressure on him to create a block of supportive peers – “declined to honour the House of Lords with his presence”.
Fraser’s account of the enactment of the Great Reform Bill tells us very little about the detail of the legislation itself which she clearly judges would be dry matter for most readers. Instead her story revolves around the colourful characters on either side of the debate. No less than six of them would become Prime Minister.
At the time, opponents of the Bill made apocalyptic judgements on its consequences: Wellington pronounced that “the Government of England is destroyed” and the poet William Wordsworth called it “a greater political crime than any other committed in history”.
The new Act was immensely popular in the country and, in the new General Election of January 1833, the Whig majority over the Tories was 276. But the overall size of the electorate only rose from 439,200 in 656,000 – although this was a 49% increase.
For many reform campaigners, the 1832 Act was as much as could be achieved at the same but only one step in a series of struggles to make Parliament much more representative. Further Reform Acts followed in 1867 and 1884. As Fraser puts it: “The Reform Bill was destined to be the first of such, spread forward across the nineteenth century and beyond, 1918 being a significant end date; although women were not fully enfranchised until 1928.” She might have added that 18-21 year olds did not obtain the vote until 1969.
The Great Reform Act of 1832 left the membership of the House of Lords intact. Although there has been some recent reform of the Lords, almost two centuries after the first Reform Act we still have no elected members of the Lords. The road to democracy is long and troubled – and never quite over.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Perilous but illuminative, 6 Oct 2013
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Well researched and a lively writing style. I will be reading more by Ms Fraser. Grey's monumental achievement strikes wonder again.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent well-written book, 14 Aug 2013
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A clear, well-written account of the passage of this important bill. This certainly deepened (and refreshed) the knowledge I already had. It was particularly good to gain more understanding of why there was so much opposition to what was, on the face of it, such an obviously necessary reform.
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Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832
Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 by Lady Antonia Fraser (Audio CD - 9 May 2013)
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