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Democracy and the Vote in British Politics, 1848-1867

The Making of the Second Reform Act


Robert Saunders


Farnham: Ashgate, 2011

 Hardcover. viii+302 p. ISBN: 978-1409417941. £65.00


Reviewed by Anthony Howe

University of East Anglia



This is a highly welcome addition to the historical literature, for surprisingly no detailed account exists of the post-Chartist history of the numerous but neglected reform bills preceding the successful one of 1867. The Second Reform Act itself has been the subject of two major studies of the minutiae of its high politics (as well being the subject of major sections of several biographies including of those of Disraeli, the 14th Earl of Derby, and Salisbury), but even so Saunders offers a succinct, perceptive, and in parts original, overview of the bill’s passage and significance. He highlights in particular the importance of the often misunderstood Liberal dissentients, the Adullamites, memorably so-called by the Radical John Bright, to denote the political Cave inhabited by ‘every one that was in distress and every one that was discontented’.

The main thrust of Saunders’s account is to reinstate the importance of ideas, above all, what the Victorians understood by democracy and the extent to which they sought to achieve or avoid it. Starting with the final defeat of Chartist democracy in 1848 he carefully evaluates the nature of subsequent reform bills (in 1852, 1854, 1859, 1860 and 1866), their origins, details, and the nature of support they garnered as well as the reasons for their defeat. None of this is startlingly revealing of what we did not know before but this is the first integrated study, going beyond works such as that of Miles Taylor whose objective was primarily to understand the failure of radicalism rather than the history of reform, not all of whose supporters were by any means radicals. Full attention is therefore given to both Whig and Conservative attempts to produce franchise and redistribution proposals which would reshape to their own advantage the system famously deemed ‘final’ by Lord John Russell in 1837. Disappointingly, however, Saunders does not tackle associated reform issues, especially that of the ballot, a somewhat odd omission given the author’s interest in the idea of democracy, which he also illuminatingly, if too briefly, explores in its French and American contexts.  

With regard to bills of 1866 and 1867, Saunders largely succeeds in his aim of demonstrating that the Adullamites were not simply Tories in Liberal disguise but that there were good ‘liberal’ reasons to oppose democracy. He is also expert in unravelling the details of the ‘accidental revolution’ of 1867, but holds no truck with fanciful recent accounts which purport to explain the bill’s provisions in relation to colonial debates on citizenship. Rather he emphasises the counter-productive results of Gladstone and Bright’s efforts at reform, (the latter especially distrusted for wishing to ‘Americanize our institutions’) which made ‘democracy’ more tolerable coming from its supposed enemies. Saunders also fully and lucidly explains the importance of the plural vote in this process, and above all, finally dissects, in a way undergraduates will hopefully at last grasp, the importance of the compounding of the payment of rates and its abolition by Hodgkinson’s amendment. This proved the key turning-point which transformed the Bill into a far more ‘democratic’ one than either Liberals or Tories had intended but one which fitted Disraeli’s long-standing belief that the Tories were a more natural party of democracy than the ‘oligarchical’ Whigs.

This is therefore a well-balanced account, which sensibly does not try to rival previous ones in depth of treatment of high politics but carefully recreates the contemporary parliamentary debate and the political argument over democracy and its limitations. Arguably more scope exists for a fuller reconstruction of that debate in the provinces (this tends to be a metropolitan history of democracy) and the extent to which a grassroots reform movement was created after 1860, rather than confining attention to pressure from without to the much-studied Hyde Park riots. But overall, this is a highly serviceable, lively, and well-written history of reform which will become required reading for all who wish to understand democracy and the Victorians.


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