The title, “great” is reserved for a select few characters and documents in history. Alfred earned his through establishing stable change, peace and improvement. So too the Magna Carta, which brought about greater justice and freedom for the common man and limited royal influence. In the same ways, the reform act of 1832 warranted the title. It was by no means a revolutionary measure, nor “the final solution of a great constitutional question” as Russell had put it, but both symbolically and physically, it spelt change for Britain. This in itself showed its greatness – despite Pitt having attempted reform in the 1780s, and the issue having repeatedly returned to parliament, no reform had been achieved. The fact that finally after so much time and so much fight, a reform measure had been brought in, it did not so much matter what was contained in the act, or if it benefited anyone. The symbolic victory and relief that ‘reform had begun’ was enough for most people to perceive it as “great”. The symbolic victory would not have been enough for long though; for the reform act to be considered “great”, it would have to be a step towards a fairer, more democratic government. In addition to this, it would have been imperative for it not to worsen the common man’s situation. Some historians have argued that reform was brought in by the Whigs purely as a political move to secure more seats; if this was the primary motivation it would detract from the “greatness” of the act. In essence, the reform act was “great”. In the short term, it avoided bloody revolution, strengthened and stabilised the current social and political situation and granted a fairer and more democratic system. In the long term, it did open Peel’s feared “door” of reform that the Tories were unable to close (reform continued and advanced), but it did so in a measured, safe and gradual way so as to preserve tradition, maintain peace, and ensure the continued development of a secure, fair and benevolent government.
The greatness of the reform act was more about its context that its contents. The arduous fight for reform, against Wellington, the Tories, the king and the lords intensified Britons’ relief and joy at the reform act. The early 1820s seemed hopeless for reform; while the Tories were secure and unified against it, the Whigs were divided for it. Lambton and Russell’s 1821 and 1822 reform bills (for parliament every three years and disenfranchising 100 small boroughs, respectively) both failed, although the vote for Russell’s bill (164-269) was the largest for a reform bill yet. It was clear that there was support for reform, but the time was not right. Despite the lack of reform petitions between 1824 and 1829, the desire for reform was not dead. The break-up of the Tory party period (1827-30) changed the issue of reform from being a partially necessary luxury for many people to being imperative in order to avert revolution. It is easy to underestimate the ineptitude of Wellington as Prime Minister. His rigid stance against reform increased public desperation for it. He governed with such unwavering closed-mindedness that it bordered on complete insensitivity to the people of Britain. He largely ignored the ‘Swing Riots’, which began in August 1830, despite their seriousness: agricultural labourers were usually the most peaceful and contented group in Britain – now they were burning haystacks and running riot; if these men were rioting, what would the more traditionally radical men do? Despite this obvious alarm bell, Wellington would not budge from his anti-reform stance. Even after the Tory disaster of the 1830 election, with the swing riots continuing and mass public agitation of cotton spinners and miners in industrial areas, Wellington refused to acknowledge a problem. He made a speech in parliament, stating his unbending attitude to reform. With this, public frustration and agitation reached a new high, and Wellington’s government fell within weeks....
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