There is a notion that the history of Britain has been written by the Whigs, and that they have put their moderate progressive slant on events. Lady Antonia Fraser would certainly fall into that mould. She is famous enough as a historian for her family and marriages to not be the things that define her. But on this particular subject it is impossible not to remember that she is from a very political background. Her father was Lord Longford who served in a Labour government. She has a distinctly establishment background, and this is an account from the point of view of the establishment at the time. We don’t hear much from the point of view of the common man, or at least not directly. Their main role in the story is breaking the windows of the elites.
But although this perspective is not one that would please the Marxist, it doesn’t do the book any harm. The passing of the Great Reform Act was a drama, but the players in that drama were the establishment. It was perhaps the last time in British history where the personal role of the king was decisive. And while it was also the first time the people first showed any widespread desire for democracy, it was the elite’s reaction to that desire that actually made the history.
As I have said, Frasier has a reputation as an historian. I don’t think anyone can fault her as one, but the reason for reading her is that she has a great eye for character and can tell a good story. So I think it is better to regard her as a popular writer who uses history as her subject matter than anything else. And with this in mind this is what you should expect to get. It is basically a great story told in an interesting way. If you want to some more in depth analysis, well there is plenty of that about. But I think the skill of writing a book like this is rarer.
And it is a great story. How does a basically corrupt and clapped out institution reform itself? The case for reform was easy enough to make. Who could support a hill in Wiltshire having two members of parliament while Birmingham had none? But the two MPs for the hill had votes in the house. Not only that, they or their patrons had invested heavily in bribes to obtain the seat. Who was going to give up something that was not only highly advantageous but which they had paid a lot of money for.
If this book has a hero it is Lord Grey who somehow managed, with great skill, to contrive the narrowest of majorities for the first stage of the reform. (That is a mathematically correct as well as metaphorically; the majority was one.)
But the problem was getting reform through the House of Lords. You only had to read the label. It is a bit hard to imagine in these days of political alienation, but the political developments in Westminster were being followed with great interest across the country. Petitions poured in from all parts of the kingdom. When the lords predictably blocked reform, the mood turned ugly. There has never been a classical revolution in Britain, but the agitation for the reform bill came close. There were riots in the west. An attempt was made to break open a prison in Derby and law and order broke down completely in Nottingham.
The biggest loss of life was in Bristol. Some of this was straight forward rioting, but the bulk of it was down to a large number of people getting drunk and being unable to escape a fire that broke out. But the relatively small numbers of actual casualties is misleading. Revolution was on everyone’s lips. Country estates had already been shaken by rick burning in protest at low wages and mechanisation. The disgruntled population were considered dangerous enough for places like Belvoir Castle to install canons to scare them off. The outspoken Duke of Wellington whose opposition to reform had obliged to resign from the post of Prime Minister had all the windows of his house in London broken. Rather incongruously the King was seen as a pro-Reformer and demonstrations in favour of reform often broke out into renditions of God Save the King.
To add to the crisis, the country also suffered from a severe outbreak of cholera. This affected the poor more strongly than the rich. When the still unreformed parliament tried to combat it with a day of fasting and prayer – try to imagine that as a genuine public health measure, this is before anyone knew about germs – this was widely regarded as an example of the rulers being out of touch.
Lord Grey had a majority in the Commons but needed to get his bill through the Lords he needed to create a set of pro-reform peers. This was a much bigger deal at the time than it seems looking back. The aristocracy were still a big power in the land and letting new members into it was not something to be done lightly. This issue was the one that led to the most wrangling. I love the little details. On one occasion the tired and hungry prime minister and his chancellor were travelling from a meeting with the king in Windsor back to Westminster. They popped into a pub in Hounslow and sustained themselves with some lamb chops and broiled kidneys.
The mood of the country became more ugly the longer reform was delayed. When it looked like the Whig government was going to collapse and be replaced by the arch opponent of reform, the Duke of Wellington, many contemporaries believed the country was on the verge of revolution. But somehow the act got through the long processes of parliament with many stirring speeches on either side being delivered in the early hours of the morning.
The advent of reform was met with popular rejoicing and large dinners were held around the country to celebrate it. The Whigs behind it were feted. The organisers of the popular movements whose pressure was instrumental in getting the act through weren’t.
Looking back it is hard to see exactly what the general population were so excited about. The electoral boundaries were now a bit fairer and the franchise had been extended modestly. Most men still had no vote. No women had the vote. And while the wealthy no longer had a total monopoly on power, they still had very much a monopoly on wealth. But nonetheless it was progress. The Whig version of history gives the Great Reform Act a central position in the development of modern Britain. From the Whig point of view it probably was.
A Whig of the time would not be surprised by the tone of Antonia Frasier’s book nor the fact that nearly two hundred years later somebody is writing about these momentous events. And I don’t think anyone would regret reading it. It is a good story well told. But in a way I think it is an historical artefact in its own right. The view of history it represents is itself one that is now part of history. I don’t think many more books will be written in this way from this angle.