Popular pressure served to reinforce the campaign for parliamentary reform throughout the period 1780-1885. It helped convince the more conservative politicians of the need Reform. however it was one of many other factors that eventually led to Parliamentary Reform. Popular pressure, both physical and intangible, should not be confused with the fear of popular upheaval and revolution as a catalyst for reform. the latter existed without the former and produced the ‘reform in order to preserve’ mentality that it was more significant determining dynamic.
Other important factors included the nature of the government at the time, the possibility of securing or regaining political advantage and from 1850 onwards, the increasing belief in the respectable working class. Popular pressure was driven by radicalism and above all the concept of democracy. In contrast, the architects of the three instalments of reform were not concerned with such notions, and they were largely conservative in their aims. The influence of popular pressure was limited to merely fuelling traditionalist worries.
Nonetheless, popular pressure acted as a catalyst, along side other more established aspects. It is important when considering the importance of such pressure to remember that at times it served to shock the movement it was attempting to further, the period 1780-1800 witnessed a rapid emergence of reform societies and movements, their growth accelerated by the inspiration of the French Revolution in 1789, as it showed lower class victory over an aristocracy. Pitt’s Tory government initiated a period of reactionary repression that pushed the notion after the ensuring war with France.
Similarly the rise of popular pressure in the period 1815-1820, when economic hardship continued after peace and no war persisted to undermine reformers’ arguments, caused Lord Liverpool to respond with further repressive legislation and the reform movement was pushed back another decade. Unrest such as the ‘Bread and Blood’ riots in East Anglia and the Spa Field Riots in London again aroused fears. Nobody wished to propose reform for fear of being associated with such distasteful behaviour or being prosecuted under such legislation as the Seditious Writing Act.
The government closed many associations such as the Spencewan Societies deemed too conspicuous, and altogether threatening, form that popular pressure adopted. The campaign for reform left the political arena for the 1820’s. However, the period 1830-1832 saw a revival of popular pressure for parliamentary reform leading up to the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act. Popular pressure now mirrored problems of previous episodes by establishing more unified leaderships and played a distant role in this campaign. Significantly, working class pressure was joined by middle class persistence.
For the latter, anti aristocracy motion and the fear of French style revolution. Particularly unhappy with the landowners’ government unresponsive to calls for relief from currency restriction during the time of economic disturbance, the middle classes provided money, organisation and most importantly respect to the campaign. This class alliance grew stronger by spreading, ‘General Politician Unions between the lower and middle classes of the people’ founded by Thomas Attwood, this placed greater pressure on the government than ever before, especially in light of the French Revolution in 1830. 8 months later, strikes and disturbances such as the Swing Riots kicked off, despite numerous arrests and shocked MPs into voting pro-reform as it showed how the masses were not scared of attacking authoritative figures. Similarly extra parliamentary pressure leading up to the 1867 Reform act, certainly helped to ensure that reform remained at the top of the political agenda and created an outside atmosphere that made reform at least to some extent appear inevitable, although the primary impetus predated any significant revival of working class dissatisfaction.
The extent and the co ordination of popular reaction to the failure of the Liberal Bill is an important factor to consider. In the summer of 1866, a major demonstration took place, in conjunction with protests took place in major towns such as Bristol and Birmingham, and there was violence in Hyde Park during July. The Sheffield Out rages in late 1866 and 1867 saw groups of workers, try to blow up a house of a fellow worker who failed to support their cause. Increasing economic distress, symbolised by high interest rates, meat prices and unemployment brought another hunger of politics to the people.
Again forwarding the opinion onto ministers that a measure of reform must be taken to prevent the ever present upheaval and even revolution. The Reform Union and Reform League were set up in 1864 and 1865 respectively to press for franchise changes; the latter in particular had prominent financial backing from many middle class supporters making it worthy body within Parliament. Through this extra parliamentary pressure, the predominant mood of the working class was clear enough, even if the Reform League provided the organisation, combined with the other reasons mentioned, reasons for reform to instigate the passing of a Reform Bill in 1867.
Popular pressure alone however did not determine the progress of the campaign for reform and only in conjunction with other elements was successful Reform. A great amount of popular pressure was not guaranteed to bring about a surge forward for the reformist movement. Pressure-pre1832 brought about no progress as there was an absence of the other elements that were essential if the campaign was to progress. Similarly the Chartist movements in 1838, 1842 and 1848 which incorporated some of the most ruthless working class demonstrations of the entire period, was distinctly unsuccessful.
Despite the serious violence of the Newport rising 1839 and riots in Preston and Manchester, the parliament did not appear for one moment to consider reform again due to the absence of other factors. Such other elements included the fear of revolution felt by the governing elite, and just how impending social upheaval appeared to be. Although popular pressure served to justify these fears and further disseminate them, it would not necessarily create the atmosphere in which an extent of reform was deemed wise.
For example in the 1790’s and the late 1810’s, Parliament did not perceive the threat of revolution to be especially overpowering and could easily be dampened by legislation. As the reform got underway many feared the explosion of the middle class anger if their hopes and demands were not met. A similar fear was present in 1867 when an expansion of skilled trades such as engineering and modern shipbuilding facilitated a rapidly expanded working class that could combine with existing reformists to form a powerful group for the government to contend with if reform was not enacted in the near future.
Enfranchising the working class would bind them more closely to the middle class, promoting class harmony and thus weakening the threat of more revolutionary realignment. Removing this notability and propriety by initiating exclusive reform would weaken the threat of the far left, thus preventing the build up of potentially revolutionary unrest. Importantly, when more respectable classes expressed a strong desire for reform, the threat of total upheaval was perceived to be of greater imminence and in need of redress; more than any physical realisation of popular pressure would induce otherwise.
Linked with this theme is the notion of reforming to conserve the social and political status quo. No architect of any reform acts was suggesting by its implementation that the ruling classes should cease to rule. McCauley set the tone in 1831 when he advocates his ‘reform that you may preserve’ and this became a significant factor throughout the period. The Whigs passed their reform act in 1832 so as to satisfy the reforming sentiment and consequently prevent any further changes that may disrupt the current political make up.
It is of note that a feeling of easiness amongst the ruling elite preceded each enactment of reform. The possibility of securing political advantage was also a key factor that determined the progress of reform. When a political party had been in office for a long period of time, carefully designed reform and redistribution offered a means to redress the balance in their favour. For Derby and Disraeli in 1867, if their minority Conservative administration were to succeed in the highly contraversal legislation which had tripped up the more ‘liberal’, it would be a huge boost to their party’s play for power and waning morale.
The 1885 Re-distribution act presented an opportunity for the Whigs to impose a firmer majority and their 1884 franchise act encouraged working men in the countries who might bolster their support. Reform was a platform from which political advantage could be secured, a man is most likely to support the party which gave him the vote. Although the campaign for parliamentary reform could not progress without other dependant factors, popular pressure served to speed up such advancement.
It underlined the fear of revolution and provided the much needed justification to many politicians for the need for reform. Popular pressure itself was not always entirely genuine as there are similarities between popular pressure and economic depression. Popular pressure frequently however created little visible results whatsoever and in the early period sent the campaign into turmoil. It must be remembered that reform was not a response to panic. Reform was carefully planned so that its elite architects benefited just as much, if not more so then those that it appeared to benefit.