parliamentary reform

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Is a general term covering a variety of proposals and changes which need to be carefully distinguished. Alterations to the composition, powers, procedure, and structure of Parliament have continued since the first parliaments were summoned in the 13th cent., but a sustained campaign for parliamentary reform did not develop until the 18th cent. After the Septennial Act of 1716 there were intermittent calls for shorter parliaments, for a reduction in the number of placemen, and for the abolition of some rotten boroughs to give more representation to the counties. These were modest proposals that would have increased the already overwhelming influence of the aristocracy and gentry. More radical suggestions were put forward during the Wilkes agitation in the 1770s when the case for manhood suffrage was deployed for the first time since the Civil War period. A comprehensive reform programme was put forward by the Westminster Committee, affiliated to the Yorkshire Association in 1780, calling for manhood suffrage, equal electoral areas, annual parliaments, secret ballot, payment of members, and the abolition of the property qualification for MPs—the six points of the Charter 60 years later.

Legislative response was at first slow. A few small boroughs were reformed in the 1770s and 1780s for gross corruption but no review of the entire electoral system was undertaken. Statutes against bribery were largely ineffective. But a series of major changes came 1828–32. Repeal of the Test and Corporations Acts in 1828 allowed protestant dissenters to become MPs and the following year the same concession was extended to Roman catholics; the Great Reform Act of 1832 abolished 56 of the smallest boroughs and brought great new towns like Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Leeds into the representation, introducing a standard franchise for the boroughs. Further legislation in 1867, 1884, 1918, 1928, and 1969 extended the right to vote eventually to all men and women over 18. Religious disabilities were removed when Jews were allowed to become MPs in 1858 and atheists in 1886. The long‐standing problem of bribery and intimidation at elections was dealt with by secret ballot in 1872, reinforced by the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883.

Subjects: British History.

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