Top positive review
37 people found this helpful
on 12 May 2013
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.