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Reform or Retrenchment

Historians' Views
  • Gash writes ‘there was scarcely a feature of the old unreformed system that could not be found in existence after 1832’
  • O’Gorman seeks to argue that there was a strong element of continuity between the new system and the old and even, that in many ways the old system was preferable to the new. Far from reforming the system, the architects of 1832 attempted to make the new political order as alike as the old one as possible.
  • J C D Clark is sees reform in a wider social context rather than just the number of people were enfranchised and the distribution of seats. Clark argues that the crisis of 1828-1832 which included the Catholic Emancipation Act marks the dissolution of the social order which had characterised early modern England.
  • Bagehot: in The English Constitution, summarised the 1832 Reform Act by stating simply that, ‘the aristocracy and gentry lost their predominance in the House of Commons; that predominance passed to the middle class’.


a) abolition of pocket boroughs removed King’s Friends, thus more reliance on ‘party’

b) House of Lords’ role was diminished

c) Aristocracy retained their ‘cultural hegemony’ but see theses of Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime; Rubinstein, Men of Property, Cannadine, Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, J Vernon,Politics and the People  who argue that politically and economically they were still dominant

d) Monarchy -  a shadow of its former self

e) Anglican church also under attack after Catholic Emancipation and Reform

f) the people were incorporated into politics



See F O’Gorman, Voters, patrons and parties; N Gash, Politics in the age of Peel

a) pocket and proprietary boroughs remained

b) distribution of seats remained anomalous

c) Electoral patrons persisted

d) Corruption remained - Sudbury and St Albans disenfranchised for venality

e) Electoral practices such as exclusive dealing, cooping and deference still continued



See J Phillips, The Great Reform Act in the Boroughs, Beales as above.

a) Registration changed electoral practices and gave the electorate some substance

b) Participation increased. Number of voters actually voting trebled and turnouts were much higher

c) Ushered in a period of partisan voting which was not established in the unreformed system