Why did the campaign for Parliamentary Reform fail to achieve anything in the Period 1780-1820

There were many pushes from a variety of different social and economic groups, but despite their best efforts no such reform happened. The two major factors of civil war in America and the French revolution enabled the Tory government to ignore any such “radicals” in England and simply use the excuse that they were too busy with war to deal with any such reform and help to turn the image of a radical into one of a traitor to the country and therefore halting any parliamentary reform that could have happened.The environment in the United Kingdom before the events of the French revolution saw a number of a number of changes. As Eric Evans states, “Britain in the early 1780’s was already the most advanced nation in the world”1 and that the basis of this powerful nation was land. Land in the early 1780’s in Britain was becoming better integrated with commerce and industry leading to a solid future for the British economy. Land was seen by many as the only way to gain certain wealth and therefore all extremely wealthy men (not simply farmers, but also professionals such as bankers) sought to extend their estates, and seeing as “Britain was more open to wealth than any European society”2, this wealth could bring with it political influence. This political influence came about by the use of patronage, by which people who voted for a certain electoral candidate would gain benefits such as money. For example Samuel Whitbread, who in 1775 bought himself into Parliament as a member for the borough of Bedford.The growth of not only older industries such as the woolen industry, which grew by 14% from 1740 to 1770, but also the iron and steel manufacture industries led to an increase in Urbanisation throughout many British towns, such as Liverpool who’s population grew from 15,000 in 1725 to 35,000 in 1775 mainly because of slave trade between Africa and the West Indies. However this growing urbanisation caused problems, both politically and socially, firstly because of the speed of the changes and the fact that the government was reluctant to reform parliament. This can be seen simply by the many anomalies of the current electoral system where areas like Manchester with a population of 180,000 had no MP’s while the town of Gatton, who only had 6 voters in its entire population had 2 MP’s. Couple this with the fact that there was no secret ballot and that approximately only 5% of the entire population of Britain able to vote, and there would be exploitation of the system. Urbanisation also helped to create and further the rise of a middle class, who were educated and reasonably wealthy, but had no political influence.The enlargement of the working class working together did spark political debate, which was able to grow due to two factors; the fact that communication methods were becoming better such as the increased circulation of newspapers and better road, rail and canal systems meant news traveled faster and with the increasing adult literacy rates debate was inevitable.This increase in debates and education throughout the early 1780’s led amplified the awareness of the middle class to both the inequality in the system and their exclusion from the Parliamentary system.There were also three major catalysts which facilitated the drive for reform. The first was King George III, who after his appointment in 1760 began to interfere with Parliament and was unsympathetic to the idea of Parliamentary reform meaning he would use his power to stop any such reform, which in turn led to the formation of the Rockingham Whigs who sought to undermine parliamentary support for Lord North (‘servant’ to the King), but due to royal disproval they could not form a stable ministry. George III also became increasingly ill and therefore his impact became of little importance to parliament and Pitt. We can see evidence of Parliament interfering with elected MP’s in the case of John Wilkes. Wilkes was an early radical who campaigned for free speech, and who between 1768 and 1770 won an open seat in Middlesex 4 times, but was denied the seat because of his opposition to the crown, and perhaps because he began to highlight corruption in Parliament e.g. his criticisms of patronage. The third catalyst which led to an increase in the appeal of patronage was the US war of independence between 1775 and1783. As Britain was on the verge of a major industrial revolution there army suffered its first setback for over 100 years. The defeat also led to disapproval of the government’s heavy-handed handling of the situation and sympathy for the colonials back in Britain when the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’ after the inevitable tax increases which are synonymous with war. The defeat also harmed Britain economically with British exports falling by 20% between 1772 and 1780, while exports to North America fell by almost 50%.The result of these events led to an increase in the number of political societies which were formed, such as the Yorkshire association founded in 1779 by Wyvill who wanted the government to stop wasting taxpayer’s money, and the society for constitutional information whose goal was to spread the idea of parliamentary reform to the masses.Another result was that of the increase in parliamentary proposals towards reform, such as Pitt the younger who became Prime Minister in 1782 and proposed a bill of reform in 1785 to increase the electorate by 99,000 members, but this bill was defeated by 248 to 174, which shows that opinions were beginning to change but it stung Pitt in the long run as the defeat meant that he did not support reform again and sided with George III to ensure he stayed Prime Minister.Perhaps the biggest blow to those who did not want reform was the French revolution of 1789 where Louis XVI’s absolute monarchy was overthrown, the declaration of the rights of man proclaimed and the constitutional monarchy was established. This revolution was potentially a nightmare for the British government, but at first they saw the revolution as low key, as the French were now only just catching up with the 1688 event which saw the introduction of a limited monarchy in Britain.To the public, the idea of revolution was inspiring to romantics and radicals and it also helped to reinvigorate the political clubs which began to grow before 1789, one such club was the London Corresponding Society founded in 1792 by Thomas Hardy. The inspiration of revolution also helped to shape a new generation of lower and middle class radicals/reformists. The initial reaction of reformers like Charles James Fox was joyous as Fox says “How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world, and how much the best”3. There was also a motion for parliamentary reform in the House of Commons in 1784 by Henry Flood4; he argued that developments across the Channel had made reform more urgent than ever. However the parliamentary attitude towards the idea of reform because of French revolution began to harden quickly. Evidence of this can be seen through Edmund Burke’s book “Reflections on the Revolution in France” published in 1791, which was written in the form of a long letter to a gentleman in Paris. This book was read all over Europe and encouraged its rulers to resist, his opposition to revolution cost him the support of his fellow Whigs such as Charles Fox.Thomas Paine then in 1792 published his book “The Rights of Man” in response to Burke’s book, and it is said that “The publication of his Rights of Man is perhaps the single most important event in the history of British Radicalism”5. Perhaps the reason why his book was so successful was because I was written in a vivid and popular style which means it was more desirable to a wider audience. Paine insisted all men possessed “…the rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness”6. While it was an influential and controversial book, many of the British Jacobins were reluctant to agree with Paine’s view on the creation of a democratic republic because any obvious attack on the monarchy or aristocracy would antagonise the elite, whose arrogance, pride and ambition produced much if the misery in the world because they taxed the poor so a few wealthy men could live in luxury. Paine followed “Rights of Man” with his book “Agrarian Justice” in 1796 where he proposed the idea of taxing the elite so that when a man turns 21 he gains a grant in order to “set him out on life”.The first hard line movement of the government to stop books such as Paine’s which sought to fuel radical ideas, was introduced in May 1792. The Kings Proclamation against Seditious Writings aimed to stop the spread of radical propaganda. The government also drafted legislation to stop mass public meeting when, in October 1795 the London Corresponding society attracted tens of thousands of people to discuss parliamentary reform. This repression by the government was a major reason why the initial optimism created by the French revolution ultimately collapsed around 1793, but the seed for reform was sown.In February 1793 the French and the British were at war with each other, and the fighting did not stop until 1814. This time of war was when the British government really began to repress any idea of a reform of Parliament. Throughout the war the British government continuously published anti-French propaganda which turned anyone who wanted reform into an enemy of the country and a supporter of the French ‘savages’. This led to the formation of loyalist political societies to counteract the influence of radicalism, the most famous of these societies was the John Reeve’s Association which was founded in November 1792 and received government support. These societies emphasized the need to support the church and “heighten the nation’s sense of patriotic duty”7.After 1794 economic discontent was relied upon for radicals to keep their hopes alive. The widespread unemployment and the fact that wheat prices rose by %75 to �3.75 a quarter led to massive outdoor meetings calling for parliamentary reform. In October 1794 radicals threw stones at the King’s carriage, Pitt used this to launch an offensive against the radicals. He introduced the ‘Two Acts’. The ‘Seditious Meetings Act’ prohibited any meetings of more than 50 people without consent of a magistrate and the ‘Treasonable Practices Act’ extended treason to those who spoke or wrote against the constitution. Habeas Corpus was also suspended in 1794-1795.After 1795, radicalism was driven underground, but it did help create a new generation of radical leaders and because of their new ideas, radical activity turned increasingly to the possibility of a coup d’�tat. The government introduced an effective spy-system so that any such threat of violence was stopped but 1797-1802 did prove to be a crisis for the government because of another failed harvest and growing unemployment. This elongated economic downturn caused by war called for economic reform which people thought would come about with Parliamentary reform.The poor economic situation continued after the end of the Napoleonic wars, and in 1816 there was a stunted harvest due to an absence of rain and sun, a trade depression, a glutted labour market which would get worse as 300,000 de-mobilised troops returned looking for work and widespread unemployment. There was also a fall in the demand for iron, coal as well as in the traditional industries like handloom weaving which led to radicalization of major industrial areas. The government then introduced unsympathetic laws like the Corn Laws on 1915 which protected large land owners and the repeal of income tax which harmed the poor more than the rich. These laws, the poor economy and the fact that the government could no longer use the excuse of war led to an increase in violence, such as the ‘Bread and Blood’ riots in East Anglia (1816) where 2 were executed.The restlessness and radicalism culminated in 1819 in the Peterloo massacre, led by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, where 12 people were killed in a crowd of 60,000. This led to the introduction of the ‘Six Acts’ which further repressed radicalism. The act restricted gatherings, outlawed private armies and also increased stamp duty on pamphlets which harmed the radicals.Riots like Peterloo began to worry the middle classes who did not want to see violence and they therefore detached themselves from the radicals who used violence.The lack of mass support was a key reason why parliamentary reform did not happen, the various classes remained dislocated because of the different opinions each held on the best way to obtain parliamentary reform and the reasons why they wanted it for example for true political reasons or simply because they wanted lower taxes or more food. The growing violence also began to become associated with parliamentary reform, and incidents such as the Cato street conspiracy of February 1920 meant that ordinary people saw those who wanted reform as too radical as the members of the conspiracy (5 of whom were executed) wanted to kill the entire cabinet, this damaged any sensible cause for reform that others had. Ultimately the lack of any real mass support both in physical presence and in ideological terms and the increasing government repression under Pitt, along with the government’s use of the Napoleonic wars to implement their new acts to repress radicalism and turn it into a shell of its former self all contributed to the fact that the campaign for Parliamentary reform failed to achieve anything in the period 1780-1820.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top