Reform! The fight for the 1832 Reform Act by Edward Pearce

The art of defending the indefensible
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The Independent Culture

"Reform! reform! Aren't things bad enough already?" This grumpy voice comes from a later period, but parliamentary reform was born in the tumultuous events of 1831-32 and its first product deserved to be known as the Great Reform Act.

However modest it now seems, only increasing the electorate from 5 to 7 per cent of the adult population, the Act remains an epic moment. But is there anything new to say about it?

Edward Pearce, with a quarter-century of exuberant Commons reporting and sketchwriting behind him, has sought a new angle of vision by making debates about the Bill into the central narrative.

This could have been unbearably tedious, but Pearce manages to construct an absorbing story. He pulls this off by applying the sketchwriter's craft to leading characters, with vivid portraits of personalities and acerbic judgements on performances.

So Grey is the quintessential Englishman, while Wellington is the soldier-patriot who understands neither country nor people.

There is Brougham the "intolerable genius", and Peel who initiated the "tradition among Tory leaders of actively disliking the generality of the Tory Party". Then there is the sheer venom of the intellectual warfare between the reforming show-off Macaulay and the Enoch Powell-like figure of Croker, for whom "warning of the death and destruction of civilisation was a sort of hobby". By bringing such figures alive, Pearce makes the reader interested in what they were saying.

As the Reform Bill made its tortuous passage through Commons and Lords, the speeches exchanged rival versions of constitution and country. This is why the debates have a significance beyond the modesty of the proposals. They provide a master class in the art of defending the indefensible, as Tory ultras explained how the constitution and civilisation would collapse if the rotten boroughs were reformed. "My Lords, sacrifice one atom of our glorious constitution and all the rest is gone": said the aged Eldon.

Yet it was the Tories, and radicals, who were right about the future, and Whig reformers who were wrong. Russell might present reform as no more than a tidying up of 1688, bringing a solid middle class of "intelligence" and "property" within the pale of the constitution, but this was bogus. Once the old beliefs in "virtual" representation were breached, as they were in 1832, the floodgates of democracy would open.

The dire prophecies about secret ballots, the dominance of the Commons, the reduction of the Crown, universal suffrage and the rest of the Tory nightmare were entirely justified. They came in safe British increments, but they came.

Pearce has been wise to turn to parliamentary history-writing. Speeches are now unreported, and the past an unvisited country. Democracy has triumphed, but it sometimes seems to have strangled both Parliament and civic movements along the way.

The reviewer is Labour MP for Cannock Chase