The 19th century was a time period in which many reform acts took place. However, there are many differing views as to the extent of the change and whether politicians were able to control the extent of change. Sources A1 to F2 show opinions on the period of reform acts and are helpful in assessing the view that politicians were successful in controlling or preventing change.
A number of the sources provided would lead someone to believe that the politicians in the 19th century had very little control over change. Both sources B1 and E1 are written by conservatives who are attempting to argue that the politicians are not in control. Source B1 is written by J W Croker1who argues that reform “will lead to as complete a subversion of our ancient constitution, as the long parliament”. This is suggesting that politicians are not in control and reform would lead to parliament losing power. Source E1 is written by Robert Lowe and is similar in that it also argues that parliament will lose power and it also suggests that reform would lead to the “violent people…finding themselves in a full majority of the whole constituency”. Although both of theses sources are convincing in there arguments, it must be remembered that they were both written by people who were in the minority at the time and although they are concerning different reform bills they were both written at times when they were panicking about the possible impacts of reform. We know that they were in the minority as both the bill in 1832 was passed and the later bill was finally passed in 1967.
E2 and E3 also challenge the title and suggest that politicians were not in control. Source E32 puts forward an argument that suggests that the reform was a mere gamble taken to suit party interests and the 1867 reform bill became far more radical that any politician had desired. The source suggests that the presence of the reform league was the only reason for reform. However this is no a strong argument as it is known that the real reason that the 1867 reform act was passed was because Disraeli wanted it to go through. Source E2 can be used to support this argument as it also suggests that popular pressure was present3.
Source C2 is a table of figures for population and the electorate from 1831 to 1918 and can be used to show that politicians were not in control of change in this time period. It indicates that over the whole time period the electorate increased by nearly 21 million from 435,000 whilst the population didn’t even double, increasing form 24 million to 42 million in the same time period. Another factor that also may be used to show that politicians were not in control is the fact that the electorate was still increasing in between reform acts which indicates that politicians may not have realised the extent of the reform acts, which they passed.
There are historians however who would argue that the politicians were in control of change and source C2 can also be used to support this argument. When source C2 is looked at in more detail it indicates that the change was not extreme until the final figure for 1918, which shows an increase of 17 million which was caused by the 1918 reform act which was a huge step after the war which meant that over the half of the population was able to vote and it only excluded men younger than 18 and women younger that 30. Sources C1 and A2 also support this. Source C1 indicates that the number of contested seats was high directly after the 1832 reform act but fell over the following fifteen years. This can be interpreted to mean that over the 15 years people begin to realise that little has changed from the 1832 reform act, and people contesting seats are likely to have been unsuccessful, indicating politicians are in control. Source A2 supports this, writing “it was far from universal”.
Sources B2 and B3 argue similar points and support the title when referring to the 1st reform act (1831). Both of these sources argue a very important point and this is that the reform was one to “preserve”. They are key sources in supporting the title as they are from conflicting sides and points of view but they both agree that the reform was one to preserve. Source B3 is written by Thomas Babington Mcauly who at the time was a well-known Whig MP, although he was a backbencher. In this source he argues that reform was “more a measure of conservation” and that giving the vote to middles classes will preserve power. The writer of Source B2 unlike B3 doesn’t support the move of preserving power but does recognise that this is what is occurring. Source B2 is written by George Elliot and it refers to the fact that the reform act is “bribing some of the people with votes to make them hold there tongues about giving votes to the rest.
Sources D1 and D2 both relate to each other as they both support the argument about the limits of popular pressure. However they take different stances to argue this point. Source D1is a diary entry from commander of the northern military districts, Charles Napier and argues when referring to the side of the government that they ” have physical force not they”. This implies that the politicians were in control as they were strong but source D2, supports this by suggesting that popular pressure was weak and this was the reason for the government being in control.
Finally, sources F1, F2 and E2 furthermore support the fact that politicians were in control of events. Source F1 is taken from the times, 1884 and is written in relation to the third reform act and even (1884), indicating that po9liticians were in control. It suggests that the politicians want to pass a reform act that “will obtain a permanent dominion in the constituencies”, and retain control. Source F2 is a letter written by Gladstone to queen Victoria in 1884 written concerning the reform act, which he is attempting to pass. He writes “Mr Gladstone is convinced that the English rural voters, forming the majority of those to be enfranchised, may prove to be ‘conservative'”. This indicates that Gladstone is of the belief that rural voters are not radical and will allow the politicians to retain power and control.
It seems that although politicians were not able to ‘prevent’ political change, they were generally successful in controlling the political change. Sources B2 and B3 are the most effective sources in showing the control hat politicians had as they both agree that politicians were in control although they are of conflicting viewpoints. The gradual way that the franchise was extended over a period of one hundred years also indicates control. However it must be remembered that although the change was gradual it did take place and by 1918 women had gained the vote supporting the fact that change wasn’t prevented.
1 J.W. Croker was a Conservative politician and journalist. His sources are often useful as he knew ‘everyone’ and was active in the politics of his time
2 This source was written by Rydon Harrison who is a Marxist historian which is why he argues that popular pressure in the form of the reform league was an important factor in reform
3 “the agitation for which was standing in the way of every measure of practical improvement”