Letters from Westminster: A Leap in the Dark

In which we ask Parliamentary Researcher Robbie Lammas to give us the view from Westminster.

We have been here before, 1867.

Faced with pressure from the working classes over living conditions, Parliament faced a decision to pass a reform act which would essentially overhaul the voting system and double the electorate from 1.36 million people to 2.46 million.

Described at the time as a ‘Leap in the Dark’ or a ‘Cliff Edge’, the political class thought the nation was ‘ill prepared’ for the potential consequences of such ‘hard’ reform. MPs tried to stop the reform bill and insisted on much ‘softer’ reform.

Something funny happened to the reform bill on the way to the statute book. Public pressure on the Commons from outside, such as the big reform demonstration in Hyde Park in May 1867, caused the situation to spin out of the control of its authors. The yearn of the masses to be trusted with their own fate saw the bill that started out proposing ‘soft reform’ mutate into ‘hard reform’ by the time it was law.

The Reform Act of 1867 gained Royal Assent on the 15th August and with it enfranchised part of the urban male working class in England and Wales for the first time. It unleashed a slow trickle of electoral reform which would see equal franchise over the next century.

This cartoon (above) shows Britannia, mounted on a horse with Queen Victoria’s two-time Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s on its face. Unlike the other leading political figures of the age, John Bright, Gladstone and Lord Derby depicted as pulling up short of the hazard, the horse leaps and with it takes Britannia into the unknown ‘Reform’.

Note however that Britannia is shielding her eyes. Those who ultimately voted for reform did so under the sense that it was inevitable rather than desirable. Failing to both own the agenda and go far enough, Benjamin Disraeli lead the Conservatives into a defeat in the General Election that followed.

What this look back into our national character tells us is that it is the people who are sovereign, not the politicians. Learning from his error, Prime Minister Disraeli noted that ‘dark fears’ were unfounded:

“England is safe… with her accumulated experience; is safe in her national character, in her fame, in the traditions of a thousand years, and in that glorious future which I believe awaits her” – Benjamin Disraeli.

Robbie Lammas is a Senior Parliamentary Researcher working for Conservative MPs in Westminster. He is a 2019 Conservative Medway Council candidate in Luton and Wayfield. He holds a first-class degree in Geography, Politics and International Relations from Royal Holloway University and resides in Medway. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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