The legislature had dwelled on countless questions of national importance. Black special interest money flowed freely into the legislative process, and the public could never be sure what interests were being served. Over the course of a generation, as the often corrupt representatives of rural areas with declining populations saw their power increase disproportionately compared to the rest of the country, ordinary people grew increasingly outraged by their lack of voice in government, taking to the streets and threatening to overthrow the system.
Such was the perilous situation of Great Britain nearly two centuries ago, when this nation came as close as it ever was to outright revolution and overthrow of government at the French.
Reform politicians knew they had to let air into the system or the whole country would explode. Thus, Parliament, by dint of tricks and diversions of arms, despite the fierce objection of the aristocrats, adopted the Representation of the People Act of 1832.
The main purpose of the law was to redesign the districts of the gerrymandered Parliament, which still conformed to the boundaries determined in the 12th century when the institution was in its infancy. Parliament was born out of fiscal disputes between strong rural men and King Henry III that Magna Carta reforms had not been able to completely appease. The balance of power between the crown and the nobles was equalized with a traveling council which took its name from the Norman word Speaking-“speak.”
King Edward I formalized this legislature a century later by appointing two knights and two citizens from each large city to confer with him on matters of state. The main arguments, of course, were about taxes and how much to increase at any time to support various wars against regional neighbors. The citizens’ group eventually won the right to elect its own members, which became the start of the House of Commons and the Western tradition of a bicameral legislature.
England has changed over the centuries after Parliament began, but the legislative districts have not. They conformed to the kingdom’s historic counties – Devon, Yorkshire, Cornwall, Essex and others – regardless of drastic population changes. The lines remained static for six centuries even as demographic change swept through the British Isles. Parliament entered the 19th century in a dangerously unrepresentative state.
The Industrial Revolution turned this problem into a crisis, as new towns like Manchester and Birmingham exploded with former country dwellers trapped in urban slums without any representation or protection. Voting was restricted to landowners, defined as those who owned a house with a kitchen fireplace. The saying goes: if you could boil – or ‘kick’ in British jargon – a pot of water in your own home, then you could vote. (The term “potwalloper” has become another word for voter.) This restriction has helped prevent people receiving church aid – especially poor Irish Catholics – from voting.
A particularly infuriating act of a disconnected Parliament was the Corn Laws of 1815. This tariff on imported food was intended to protect the incomes of the farmer gentlemen – often referred to as nobles – who sold their crops in domestic markets at inflated prices. . Riots quickly broke out because of the rising price of bread; famine conditions among the poor accompanied poor harvests.
The main purpose of the law was to redesign the districts of the gerrymandered Parliament, which still conformed to the boundaries determined in the 12th century when the institution was in its infancy.
But Parliament was in the hands of the wealthy, especially a bloc called “The West India Interest” which had investments in Caribbean sugar cane plantations and was dedicated to preserving black slavery. They did not mind the high tariffs on wheat, and many who owned estates in both hemispheres were getting richer.
Although colonies like Jamaica and Barbados officially have no seats in parliament, their large locals were able to find their way thanks to old legislative maps. They also exploited an 1800 law that created a dual-district representation system, which allowed two deputies from each district, regardless of how many people lived there. Medieval abandoned towns with almost no inhabitants could still send two representatives to London. One was a cathedral on top of a hill that had collapsed in the 13e century. Another was a crumbling port city almost entirely under water.
Big interests, especially West Indian slave owners, elected puppet representatives from these hollow areas. A whole class of political consultants called “borough sluggers” have arisen to steer merchants and earls – or their complacent allies – to available seats.
This has created deep inequalities. A handful of people from rotten neighborhoods sent 112 dupes, puppets and aristocrats to the House of Commons each year. No one could ever be sure who paid for a seat; it was the 19th century version of black silver. Abolitionists like William Wilberforce cursed West Indian interests. As long as it remained intact, slavery would persist.
As a result, the English working classes began to sympathize with the slaves of the Caribbean, victims of the same heavy hand that pushed British industrial workers deeper into abject poverty. The radical speakers drew the crowds; at one such rally at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, a militia charged the crowd to disperse it, attacking passers-by with sabers and killing 18 people. The carnage became a major scandal and raised the national temperature. He also drew attention to the extreme dissatisfaction of city dwellers with Parliament.
Then, in the election of 1830, the Reform Whigs gained a precarious majority, their overwhelming popularity spreading even on the high gunwales of the gerrymandered district lines. When the House of Lords blocked three successive bills to add seats in Parliament, more and more rioters took to the streets and citizens’ committees began to talk about the least British subject of subjects: the revolution . The Birmingham Political Union boasted of two million citizens ready “to regain the liberty, happiness and prosperity of the country”.
The government – even the monarchy – seemed to be on the brink, unless a valve could be found to relieve the pressure. Historians have given this period the cinematic name of “May Days”. On May 10, 1832, the Whig Prime Minister Charles Gray, the 2nd Earl Gray, resigned after the failure of the third bill to expand Parliament and was replaced by Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, a famous deaf politician. . He reiterated his support for the status quo, and the commoners erupted. Plans of street barricades similar to the Paris Commune have been disseminated; reform activists prepared for combat and seizure of power. King William IV’s wife told her friends that she hoped she would behave like a lady when executed.
In a panic, the King returned Gray, who pushed a successful bill through both houses, redrawing district boundaries and adding seats in Parliament. Radicals turned their energies to petitions and election campaigns, demanding slavery-abolition pledges from candidates and formulating lists of those who seemed most likely to beat the bourgeoisie and their shills. In the next round of elections (with clear results on Jan. 8, 1833) the Whigs won 70 percent of the seats and West Indian interest was definitely hampered.
That same year, a reformed and reinvigorated Parliament passed the Slave Emancipation Act, setting 800,000 people on the path to freedom. The legislature also approved the Factories Act, which prohibits the employment of children under the age of nine.
Britain’s path to more representative government offers lessons for nations with sclerotic legislatures that have lost the trust of their people. The best solutions in such circumstances are to open the locked box of old customs and minority rule, to expand representation in the legislative branch, and to reduce the intrinsic influence of big business interests. This saved British democracy from collapse in the 1830s and paved the way for an expansion of freedom.