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Reform Acts


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The transition from the unreformed system of 1830 to full democracy in the 20th cent. was effected by seven franchise measures—the Acts of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918, 1928, 1948, and 1969—supported by a number of other reforms.

*Grey's Reform Act introduced a standard franchise of £10 householders in the towns and augmented the franchise in the counties by allowing tenants at will to vote—the Chandos clause. Most of the new voters were middle‐class citizens and many of the working classes were disappointed to find themselves excluded. By the second Reform Act of 1867, introduced by Disraeli after Lord John Russell's measure had foundered on party disunity, the vote was extended to working‐class urban electors on the basis of household suffrage, adding some 938,000 to the existing electorate of 1,056,000. By 1884 natural increase had raised the UK electorate to some 3 million. Gladstone's Act of that year raised it to 5 million, bringing in large numbers of county voters. With the majority of adult males now enfranchised, the total exclusion of women became more prominent. The First World War did not so much change attitudes as enable politicians to climb down with some dignity and the 1918 measure went through with little disagreement. Even so, the vote was restricted to women over 30, so that they should not form a majority in the electorate, bearing in mind the heavy male casualties during the war. Three more measures brought about almost complete adult suffrage. In 1928 the age limit for women voters was brought down to 21, giving the vote to 5 million extra ‘flappers’. The Labour government's Act of 1948 ended plural voting by taking away the business vote and the special university representation. In 1969, with little controversy, the voting age was lowered to 18, bringing in another 3 million voters.

Of equal importance were accompanying redistribution measures, legislation against undue influence and corruption, and the introduction of democracy into local government. The redistributive clauses of the Great Reform Act of 1832 were probably its most dramatic feature, with the total abolition of 56 ‘Schedule A’ boroughs, including Old Sarum and Dunwich, and the award for the first time of parliamentary representation to great industrial towns like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, and Wolverhampton. Further redistribution was effected by the 1867 Act, which deprived 38 small boroughs like Honiton and Dorchester of one of their two seats; brought in Burnley, Middlesbrough, Gravesend, and seven other boroughs with one seat (two for Chelsea); and gave an extra third seat to Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, and Manchester. An even more drastic redistribution accompanied the 1884 Act. Seventy‐nine towns with less than 15,000 population lost both members, and a further 36 with less than 50,000 lost one.

The struggle for purity of elections was laborious throughout the 19th cent. The introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 did not solve the problem. The Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 made more impact by tightening up control of election expenses.

Local government reform was effected by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1834, which set up elected councils in the larger towns; by the County Councils Act of 1888, which replaced the old government in the shires by justices of the peace by 62 elected councils; and by the Parish Councils Act of 1894, hailed as a great measure of local democracy, but hamstrung by financial limits and watered down by 20th‐cent. legislation.

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Subjects: British History.


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