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How Important Was Popular Discontent in Motivating the Whigs to Pass the Great Reform Act?

By AmberIsALlama Jan 30, 2011 621 Words
Many historians believe that popular discontent was one of the most significant, if not the most significant reason, for the passing Great Reform Act of 1832; Gash said “the unreformed system had by 1830 one gross demerit...It was not regarded as satisfactory by the bulk of informed and influential opinion in the country”. Others however feel that external events such as the revolution in Paris or Catholic emancipation may have triggered the change in mood of the Whigs as well as extra parliamentary pressure from groups such as the Birmingham Political Union and a dramatic alteration in the economic stability of the country. Before 1820 the Whigs would not have tried to impose reform upon Britain as it was too dangerous – the legacy of the French Revolution was fresh and the government saw how quickly the people could turn and so awarding power at such a fragile time would have been madness. However, the revolution in Paris may have marked a turning point for such thoughts – Thomas Babington, a Whig MP said (speaking in a debate on the first Reform Bill) “Reform, that you may preserve...now, while the crash of the proudest throne on the continent is still resounding in our ears” this quote clearly shows that the revolution of Paris was a key feature in the motivation for reform as the Whigs did not want to lose their power for not paying attention to foreign affairs. On the other hand Gash supposed that the revolution was announced too late by the British newspaper to influence any polls and so disregarded it as the reason for reforming yet Quinault defended the claim suggesting that radicals and reformers would have been following events in France closely so would have been consciously influenced by the change. These radicals made speeches to the general public informing them of such developments in Paris, advertising how reform would change living conditions and food prices. This lead to high expectations for reform from the populace, and so such radicals were indirectly responsible for nationwide uproar when the bills were refused. Lord Wharncliffe stated “the demonstrations in favour of reform at the General Election of 1830 satisfied me that the feeling upon it was not...temporary and likely to die away” – he was a Tory MP and so if the Tories, so staunchly against change, were affected by the populace’s movement then the Whigs, who were more reforming, must have been, to some, extent pushed to reform by popular discontent. It is plain to see how radicals influenced the population but political groups such as the Birmingham Political Union and the National Union of the Working Class did the same thing; by uniting the middle and the working classes in one movement Thomas Attwood was able to threatened the government, for the first time, using the force of its own public. Brock allows relatively little importance to political unions but this is not true for all, many see that by using slogans such as “Stop the Duke – Go for Gold” the Unions were able to scare the authorities into passing the reform bill because the alternative was a crash in the banking system. William Cobbett had defied anyone ‘to agitate a fellow on a full stomach’ but bellies were emptying in Britain – the 1829 harvest failed which pushed up food prices and caused the ‘swing riots’. This coupled with unemployment made it seem as though the economic conditions of 1810 were reoccurring and this, the government knew, would be a breeding ground for revolutionary action. The Swing Riots were put down by the Whigs using troops but people realised that if the least politically conscious folk were rioting then society was losing its stability.

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