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he first or 1832 Reform Bill famously expanded the number of men who could vote, in essence sharing the power held solely by large landowners and nobles with the more prosperous members of the middle classes. One could argue therefore that the 1832 Reform Bill produced essentially the same results as the French Revolution without any of its major violence. Victorian and later commentators on the 1867 Reform Bill often concentrate on its expansion of the electorate and consequent sharing of power with those lower on the social and economic scale. Certainly, major Victorian authors like Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin saw a major part of their responsibility involved educating the new voters by sharing what had previously been the knowledge of culture only of wealthier classes.

In his biography of Gladstone, Roy Jenkins argues that the two major political parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, took a more nuanced approach to electoral reform, pointing out that

as with all nineteenth-century franchise measures the question of the distribution of constituencies was just as important, in some ways even more so from a party point of view, as was that of who should vote. Even after 1832 the boroughs, particularly the smaller ones, were grossly over-represented in relation to the counties. And the counties maintained their Conservative tradition despite Derby and Disraeli having abandoned protectionism at the beginning of the decade. The affiliations of the boroughs were more mixed, but there was no doubt that a transfer of seats from them to the counties would produce some tilt in the political balance towards the Tories, and might easily more than counteract the effect of a lowering of the property qualification for a vote, about the political effect of which there were in any event greatly varying views. [200]

Disraeli then presented to Parliament a complex bill that extended the “£10 householder franchise from the boroughs to the counties (that is, widening the electorate there),” while also permitting those who were not householders to vote if they paid £20 or more rent. Furthermore the bill took “seventy seats away from the smaller boroughs to give eighteen to the larger boroughs and fifty-two to the counties” (201). Finally, Disraeli’s bill created what John Bright mockingly termed “fancy franchises,” which gave votes to any man “with an income of £10 a year from the funds, or £20 a year from a government pension, or £60 capital in a savings bank account, or (if not otherwise qualified) were doctors of medicine, lawyers, university graduates, ministers of religion or in some categories of schoolmasters” (201). Disraeli, in other words, added to the rolls precisely those conservative voters most likely to vote for his own party.

Quoting his biographer’s charge that Disraeli viewed his proposed Reform Bill solely in terms of “party expediency” rather than any high-minded political philosophy, Jenkins asks, “Were his motives worse than anyone else’s?” Except for the Radicals, who believed in democratization, most politicians of all parties thought “an extension of the electoral base was inevitable, even if not particularly welcome, and that it was legitimate to manoeuvre so that the maximum advantage was achieved both from their party’s being the agent of the change and from the form in which it was done” (201). This was not quite the result that many expected or feared.


Jenkins, Roy. Gladstone: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.

Last modified 29 April 2018