on 24 July 2013
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.
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.
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.
on 6 August 2014
Class is important in Britain. EP Thompson backed the working class The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Modern Classics), FML the aristocracy ; Lady Antonia Fraser's work on the Great Reform Bill is about prominent people within the establishment, and the conflict between fathers and sons, or a class in complete disarray against itself.
As the 1832 Great Reform Act was the first of its kind in Britain, and the Georgian society is so different to our own, Fraser adopted a long, and medium term analysis to illustrate the oddities of the two societies with lengthy pen pictures of protagonists. Before the abolition of stamp duty on newspapers and such publications like Hello magazine came on to the stands, she wished to give readers a true humane flavour of this distant period, rather than electoral stats and swings of pendula which psephologists get a big fix on. So John Turner is in, as what was a real dandy.
This is followed by a short term day by day account of the original proposal first raised by Lord John Russell in the Commons in July 1830, the reactions from the opposition, in the Lords, around the country, the back room dealing's with the monarch, until the Bill was eventually approved on "Derby Day, in July 1832, without the King's physical presence or his actual distinguished mark.
In this narrative Fraser went beyond the well-known tales, almost stereotypes of the mound in a field in Wiltshire, Old Sarum, deserted since 1217, or Dunwich on the Suffolk coast fallen into the sea, with two MPs, while fast growing manufacturing towns in the Midlands and the North, like Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, and Sheffield with none. She mentions others, such as Gatton in Surrey, and used other founts of research to back up earlier historical works: including the classics of literature: Jane Austen, Lord Byron, George Eliot, Shelley, Wordsworth; the landscapes of Constable, the portraits of Gainsborough, as well as poetry, popular rhymes and ballads.
In essence, the book still treats heroes and villains, the Whigs and the Tories; Premier Earl Grey, and the Duke of Wellington, as well as the Birmingham Political Union, and Queen Adelaide - which by simplifying the event itself, as the author acknowledges, re-creates stereotypes, but it makes analysis clearer for the unaware and gives those in the know something to debate.
When the moment arose that the Bill would not be passed King William IV called upon the "Opposition" led by the trustworthy Wellington to take up the gauntlet, drink the poison chalice as he had previously done with the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, and pass that which he and many Tories had been strongly spoken out against. As a soldier who recognised duty and order, he could not on this occasion set aside his scruples as he identified reform and this Reform, in particular, as a revolution; and he was right, though his opponents, including Grey, and Thomas Attwood of the Political Union, were equally right when they realised this change as revolutionary, as a means for further reform.
If the former saw it as a destructive end of and to government based on property, the latter recognised the emergence of a new rising class of the "people" who could save the system. She quotes de Tocqueville who said: The English aristocracy has a hand in everything; it is open to everyone, and anyone who wishes to abolish it or attack it as a body, would have hard task to define the object of his onslaught."
So, if there was no reform then, it is likely with recent bloody memories of the Terror in France post 1789, those with the power, guided by the frightened obsessed German Queen, could have imagined circumstances escalating along the antagonistic slippery revolutionary slope, demanding severe reactionary measures on the Peterloo scale, which in turn would have prompted real "revolutionary" demands which the popular Chartists in the 1840s may have sounded almost moderate, limited, and insignificant. In other words, it possible that Britain might have headed either towards an autocratic state along the lines developing in pre unified Germany led by Prussia, and Russia. An interesting, dangerous situation. But not every dangerous event or emergencies produces immediate reprisals; so such movements might simply be one dimensional pipe dreams of revolutionary idealists, which can fade away.
What Fraser did not say, but might have simply said in terms of change in early Nineteenth century Britain was said by the Sicilian Prince, Tomasi di Lampedusa, that "everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same": a progressive statement, with a very conservative vision The Leopard (Modern fiction).
The greatness of the Reform Act was understood by an outsider, like Benjamin Disraeli in his political heart throb tale, Sybil Sybil: or The Two Nations (Oxford World's Classics), or the Two Nations - which Ed Miliband has misused and misunderstood, that the establishment, and subsequently its agent or machine for change, the Tory Party, would turn to that advanced, enlightened section of the "people" it could use, restyle itself, and ignore the powerless underclass, "the mob", or "le canaille". What was obtained according to Lord John Russell was the middle position between "Bigotry" of the Ultra Tories, and fanaticism of the "Radicals".
More interesting is Fraser's conclusion: the strengths, the weaknesses, the beneficiaries and the forgotten. She looks both at the immediate beneficiaries: the Whigs, with a great majority of 276, and she then says overall it was the "Tories" with politicians involved in the Bill who later became Premiers: Wellington (again), Peel, Melbourne, Palmerston, Lord John Russell and Lord Derby (all except Sir Robert Peel were Lords), as if hinting the Whigs and their later descendants, the Liberals, did not benefit - which sadly is not quite correct.
She gives the numbers and percentage increase in numbers enfranchised: an increase in 49% to 656,000 of a 16 million population, or 18% of males. Though no longer rotten, controlled boroughs, uncontested elections, open ballots, corruption, and oddities, however, still continued to exist, and no mention of female suffrage until JS Mill - which was not introduced until 1918. Weakness? In hindsight with a Twenty-first century vision, definitely yes.
The Great Reform allowed the system to renew itself, and proved to older politicians that reform need not lead to bloody rebellion. Further reforms could be enacted in time when they felt they and the country could afford change, or as the Liberal free trader John Bright concluded in the 1860s: "It was not a good Bill, but it was a great Bill when it passed." This partly explains why she shows a slight sympathy for Wellington. Was that because she was armed with material from her mother, Elizabeth Longford, an accomplished two volume biographer of the Iron Duke Wellington: Pillar of State v. 2? Was it a strength? For the establishment obviously yes; but not for the disenfranchised. But then they were considered, like women, or "the sex", or children, at the time, to be seen but not heard.
There were forgotten few, such as Attwood, Joseph Parkes, and John Doyle. But their political reforming ideas lived on.
Unfortunately, she makes no comparison with the next occasion when the Government was blocked by the Lords in 1909, and again HH Asquith, as Grey previously, was forced to demand the creation of hundreds of new Lords. What is new here is there is a hint in private that Grey as a Lord he did not wish to devalue the status of the British aristocracy, and there were thoughts for the appointment of Life peers - an idea which came to pass after Lord Stansgate / Tony Benn's decision to renounce his peerage, by the elevation of worthy elderly statesmen with no male heirs. As in 1909-10 the greatest power for the Premier was the threat.
What Fraser does not explain is why certain younger nobles held so conflicting opinions to their parents. The author might have admitted if she thought the present system was acceptable, workable, and indicated any of the present oddities with the first pass the post system.
One excellent and original idea, however, is next to every historical value she provides an official contemporary equivalent.
The book it illuminating, well written; long enough for the general reader, short enough for students of politics with a heavy load of volumes to study, and for their teachers to update their knowledge outside their present confined, economic and mathematically modelled specialisms.
It was a Perilous Question by Antonia Fraser, but now she has guaranteed more than one firm safe answer. A balanced pairs of hands by a worthy historical mind.
on 10 August 2014
This is a hugely entertaining account of this exciting and dramatic episode in british history - the fight to pass the reform bill to extend the franchise and reform parliament. it was a very dramatic period, with feelings running very strong among those who supported it, and those who opposed it, and Antonia Fraser brings this thrilling era vividly to life.
parliament certainly needed reforming - the notorious 'rotten boroughs' were an absolute disgrace, particularlu Old Sarum, which as the author writes 'two MPs represented - quite literally - a lump of stone and a green field.' nevertheless, there were those who fiercely opposed any attempts at reform, and the outcome was by no means certain.
William IV - a monarch who is often overlooked, overshadowed as he is by his predecessor george IV and his successor Victoria, emerges in this book as a rather endearing personality. Determined to be economical, he insisted on a very cheap coronation, and his dislike of Buckingham palace led to determined attempts to resist being moved there - "In 1831 he hopefully suggested that 1,500 foot guards in need of a new home should have Buckingham palace adapted to a barracks, only to have lord grey condemn that as too expensive." Then in 1834, when the houses of Parliament burnt down "ever anxious to escape incarceration in Buckingham palace, he suggested hopefully that parliament itself might be transferred there and occupy the space in place of the Sovereign: the combined parliament and palace would be 'the finest thing in Europe.' once again his hopes were to be disappointed."
This book is so full of fascianting information, and so funny, anyone with even the faintest interest in history should enjoy it.
on 2 August 2013
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.
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.
on 9 July 2013
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.
on 19 July 2013
I had to read the book twice to ensure that my first impression was valid because, although I love British history and particularly the evolution of representative government through a gradual, non-ideological process of compromise, this book, of one of the most enthralling periods, left me flat.
There are two problems. The first is that it fails to contextualise the situation adequately. It is, for example, only at the very end where we learn that Lord Grey had been fighting for Reform for 40 years. Reading the book, one would develop the impression that the movement for Reform suddenly emerged as a fully-formed issue, at the exact same time as the change in monarchs, and primarily because, with a new king there emerges a new people (in other words, almost no reason at all). Another major weakness in contextualising is the role that Catholic Emancipation had in traumatising and dividing the Tories. This is dealt with in scarcely half a page yet plays out in every Tory decision re the question of Reform. It trapped and polarised them. Similarly the survey of the 'rotten buroughs' is rather slight - the sense of absurdity in the situation isn't adequately explored, neither is the peril of 1830 adequately depicted (the book gets better as the situation evolves). The consequences of the Reform aren't explored at all, which is quite an extraordinary omission: after all, the Reform wasn't just important in and of itself: it is because it was a beginning.
My second problem is in stark contrast to several of the reviews in the papers: there are many characters in the story of the Reform and none of them are introduced with any depth, other than, perhaps, the king. It is true that, as the story develops, we come to appreciate one or two of them somewhat, but the overall effect is inadequate. On every occasion the character is introduced just at the time as they enter the story - there is no background of the coalitions of people, the situation, motivation, thinking and disposition of the various principals. The King's private secretary is particularly inadequately developed. We also never discover why the political union at Birmingham was particularly important, why it had such a standing relative to the whole country, etc.
On the other hand, the cover and illustrative pictures are fabulous.
I loved what Antonia Fraser did with Marie Antoinette. That book involved a smaller cast so it was easier to tell in her style of narrative history. This book needed to be at least 50% longer to have the same emotional impact.
on 14 August 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.