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Monday, 21 November 2016

A Broken Compass or a Necessary Conclusion: Liberals and Conservatives and the Second Reform Act of 1867

This essay, was written for a course on modern British History, but I thought it pertinent to include it in the blog content, because it follows a relatively unorthodox interpretation of the Conservative Party's relationship to the Reform Bill of 1867 politics.  I am yet to recieve feedback on it so your mileage may vary, but I think it is at least somewhat substantive, that and the fact, I have not been able to dedicate writing time justified its publication. 
Historiography of the Victorian Era remains inconclusive when it comes to answering the question of why exactly it was the Conservative Party, under Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Derby, that passed the Reform Act of 1867[1] and not the Liberal Party, which seemed to be the party that would naturally pass such emancipatory legislation.[2] This reality seems to cause even greater confusion when it is placed in the context of Lord Russell’s previous reform proposals and the Conservative opposition to previous liberal motions.[3]
It is my, contention that the Conservative Party of Great Britain passed the Reform Act where the Liberal Party could not, due to schismatic principles of the Liberal MPs’: the Liberal Party itself, in, during, and after, the era of P.M Palmerston existed as a loose coalition of Radicals, Whigs, and Liberals, who all had different and irreconcilable visions of reform.[4] On the other hand, the Conservative Party under Disraeli and Derby, I contend, did not face the same obstacles due to a unique perspective that allowed them to reconcile both considerations of political prudence and political principle; where the Liberal party envisioned a phantom, the Conservative Party saw harmony.
It must be noted that, initially, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party did not oppose Reform in itself.[5] The parties may have disagreed about the constitution of Reform proposals, but by no means did both parties abnegate the notion all together; rather both conservatives and liberals saw reform as necessary based on different initially principles. These principles, in the case of Gladstone, a sense of a-priori right based upon the common bonds between the disenfranchised and current electors as both Englishmen and Christians,[6] and in the principles shared by conservative elements in both factions of alienation, nationhood, and trust in natural prejudice (in the case of the Disraeli),[7] were in turn complicated by the inscrutable political consequences of the passage of any proposed reform bill. Neither party, wished to accidentally disrupt the political equilibrium in favour of the other by ruining the delicate balance between borough and county constituencies.[8] Reform was not, however, supported universally, and certain notable voices in Parliament vocalized their criticisms both in the popular press and in the Houses of Parliament. Members Robert Lowe (Liberal) leader of the Adullamite faction, Viscount Cranborne (Conservative), and Lord Henry Herbert 4th Earl of Carnarvon constituted the primary body fighting to oppose enfranchisement in general.[9]
A second argument, which much be dispensed with is the argument that popular pressure motivated the MPs. Instead, historians concluded that the working class generally acted in an apathetic fashion,[10] and insofar as the Reform League and Reform Union, expressed desire for the secret ballot and manhood suffrage, they also showed themselves willing to compromise.[11] The Hyde Park riot is occasionally written about in the context of militant working class activism, but the public disturbance itself did little to prove that the assembly was in any way militant.[12] Likewise, no MP considered the idea of universal suffrage a valid one, even the leading Radical MP John Bright;[13] MP John Stuart Mill, despite his writings in favour of reform, showed remarkable compromise as well.[14]
If the popular movement showed little vitality, especially in comparison to the Chartists, then Parliament itself became the locus of the debate. The Liberal Party could not pass its desired Reform Bill, via the loose amalgam assembled by Palmerston, and after 1865 led by P.M John Russell and William Gladstone,[15] without capitulating to the multitudinous interests of the party at the expense of additional factions.
Each element of the Liberal Party promoted their own agenda. The Radicals feared the dominance of the Aristocrats and landed interest; the Radical liberals sought to ensure, through representing the capitalist and middle class populations, particularly in the form of redistribution, a fulfilment of the destruction of the noble monopoly on power in Westminster.[16] Meanwhile, the Whigs and aristocratic Liberals, including the Adullamites, perceived themselves as the rearguard of the liberal order defending free trade, laisse-faire economics, individual right, and the middle-class interest.[17] In turn, Gladstone worked from an implicit position as a progressive, his chief aim being the dissolution of class and the emancipation of those deemed responsible and intelligent enough to exercise the vote.[18] Together, all these interests commanded a respectable portion of the assembly, and the invidious nature of their disagreement, frequently focused on the viability of rating vs rent qualifications, led to the dissolution of the government in 1866.[19] In summation, the fall of the Russell Government could be characterised as a failed dialogue on what exactly it meant to be a liberal.
If the Liberal Party could not satisfy its elements, then the Conservative Party did not experience the same intellectual differences; in addition, the Conservative Party, felt pressured, due to its position as a minority government to expedite reform,[20] this in turn left the conservative opponents to reform relatively mute: the pertinent exception being the resignation of Johnathan Peel, Viscount Cranborne, and Lord Carnarvon.[21]
The Conservative government headed by Lord Derby and Disraeli had relatively few considerations when it came to reform and less to lose. Firstly, Conservatives concerned themselves primarily with keeping a clear division between the county and borough franchises. They proved sagacious in the realization that in boroughs already dominated by Liberals reform posed little threat, rather avoiding the expansion of the electoral districts to included any urbanized area within the limits of the counties became imperative.[22] This allowed for the renunciation of the rating provision and other ‘fancy franchises’ with little consequence to the overall intent of the bill.[23] Secondly, unlike the Liberal Party, the Conservatives saw little need to maintain an intellectual body of representatives in the Houses of Parliament; instead, they saw paying of any rates at all as necessary to determine personal responsibility: this drove them to eliminate the provision for compounding in the Small Tenancies Act of 1850, an extremely popular amendment.[24] Thirdly, Disraeli and fellow Conservatives had confidence in the existence of an unrepresented low class conservative voter; the liberals concerned with keeping the middle-class electors dominate could not abide enfranchising that demographic: the ‘residuum’ as Bright termed it.[25] Finally, the Conservatives placed their trust in the nation as unconscious body waiting to be unified into one, particularly in the shape of harmonizing the interests of the low class and the aristocracy, both of which suffered at the hands of the Whigs.[26] Historian and political theorist Russell Kirk claimed the Whigs entered politics and quickly began ‘bullying Crown and Commons,’ eventually ensuring the dominance of the commercial class with the Great Reform Act of 1832.[27] It was then, under these conditions that the Conservative Party in 1867 found itself impelled toward the passage of the Second Reform Act.
1867 was a propitious year for Great Britain. The Conservative Party under Disraeli and Derby, displayed uncharacteristic ability in out maneuvering the Liberal Party of Russell and Gladstone and in turn enfranchising an estimated 1.1 million Englishmen an 82% increase between 1866 and 1868,[28] the other countries of the United Kingdom would have to wait. This ability, to reform, when reform seemed stagnant, yet necessary, arose out of a unique capacity to both make concessions and act on political principle. It should be noted however, that Disraeli hoped that the Reform Act of 1867 would be the last.[29] The Conservative passage of the Reform Act need not confound historians.
The Liberal Party lost much of its momentum due to difficulty cementing the amalgamation of Radicals and right and left liberals, that characterized the party of Palmerston; this failure then accounted for the Tory success: it appears though the act may have been an act more suitable and likely to pass under the Liberal Party, if only it could escape the debate about minutia, such as attempts to balance class interests in the boroughs and the Commons;[30] fear of trade unionism;[31] and the details involved in implicit understandings of the permanence of class itself;[32] the Liberal Party above all feared disruption the equilibrium of 1832 and this prevented the realization of John Russell’s dream.

[1] E. J. Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire: Britain, 1865-1914 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1985), 44; Gertrude Himmelfarb, ‘The Politics of Democracy: The English Reform Act of 1867,’ The Journal of British Studies 6, no. 01 (1966): 107-108, 117-118; Robert Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform and the Making of the Second Reform Act, 1848-1867,’ The Historical Journal 50, no. 3 (2007): 572-573.
[2] Himmelfarb, ‘Politics of Democracy,’ 114-115, 117-118.
[3] Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 571, 575-576.
[4] Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire, 27-28.
[5] Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 574; Theodore k. Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation: 1846-1886 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998) 251.
[6] Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation: 1846-1886, 244-245; Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire, 34-35; Himmelfarb,Politics of Democracy,’ 109.
[7] Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation, 240; G. R Searle, Entrepreneurial Politics in Mid-Victorian Britain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 227-228; Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot (Lake Bluff IL: Regnery Books, 1986), 276.
[8] Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire, 39-40; Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 577.
[9] Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire, 30, 39-40; Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 581.
[10] Kirk, Conservative Mind, 265; Searle, Entrepreneurial Politics, 220-221; Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation, 235, 240.
[11] Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire, 29; Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation, 235; Himmelfarb,’ Politics of Democracy,’ 103.
[12] Himmelfarb, ‘Politics of Democracy,’ 104-105.
[13] Ibid., 106.
[14] Ibid., 106.
[15]Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire, 29.
[16] Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 474-575; Searle, Entrepreneurial Politics, 216.
[17] Kirk, Conservative Mind, 265; Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 581.
[18] Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 582.
[19] Ibid., 585-586.
[20]Hoppen, The Mid-Victorian Generation, 251; Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire, 37-38.
[21] Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire, 41.
[22] Searle, Entrepreneurial Politics, 232-233; Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 579.
[23] Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 590; Himmelfarb, ‘Politics of Democracy,’ 107.
[24] Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 590; Himmelfarb, ‘Politics of Democracy,’ 133-134.
[25] Himmelfarb, ‘Politics of Democracy,’ 126.
[26] Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 577; Kirk, Conservative Mind, 270.
[27] Kirk, Conservative Mind, 269.
[28] Feuchtwanger, Democracy and Empire, 44.
[29] Kirk, Conservative Mind, 277.
[30] Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 577-578.
[31] Searle, Entrepreneurial Politics, 218-220.
[32] Saunders, ‘The Politics of Reform,’ 582.