By passing the Reform Act of 1832, the Whigs had three main hopes, all of which were related. The first of these was to get rid of blatant anomalies in the old system of representation by altering the electoral map. In doing so they created new borough constituencies where they were required due to a significant gap in representation, and removed defunct ones that were anachronistic. Some of the counties also had their number of representatives increase. Secondly, the Whigs extended the franchise downwards by adjusting the property qualifications and increasing the size of the electorate by fifty per cent. This was done in the hope of making the electorate incorporate all the 'respectable' and 'intelligent' opinion in the land, by which they meant the middle classes. In addition, this would also secure the representation of new sorts of wealth in the realm, such as mercantile and commercial wealth. The chief cause of revolutions, advised Macauley, was that while 'nations move onwards, constitutions stand still'.
Increased representation of the middling interest would fulfil the third goal of the Whigs, which was to detach the respectable middle class from the Radical movement and discourage them from entering into an alliance with the working poor against the aristocracy. The Whigs had not conclusively dug their own graves by the end of 1832, but the assumptions that informed their actions in 1832 also informed their actions throughout the rest of the decade. The reformed parliament did not differ massively from the unreformed one, and through a slow process of attrition the balance of power shifted back to the Tories. The Whigs, it seemed, had got ahead of the electorate so far as further reform was concerned.
The 1832 act was for many people not the end, but only the start. It was a means to the end of making concrete improvements in people's condition, as in itself it would not make anyone’s life better. It changed the structure of politics but not in the way nor to the magnitude that was widely expected at the time. Wellington had declared 1832 to be a 'bloodless revolution' and it was widely believed that a new middle class domination of politics would ensue. In fact, the act had not caused nearly as much change in the representative system as was expected. This was not to be the age of a new dominant middle class, as no such class existed – certainly not as a unified and coherent group working for its own interests, a class-for-itself. The middle class of Whig myth possessed the virtues that Canning designated 'skill, enterprise and sober orderly habits'. It is not at all clear that the middling sort universally possessed these virtues, or even to a greater degree than any other group.
After the Reform Act had been passed it seemed that these 'sober' men were just as susceptible to aristocratic influence as the older electors, and this influence continued unabated. It could never be purged until the introduction of the secret ballot. As the system was still susceptible to aristocratic influence, Whigs working under the assumption that they had passed into the era of middle class control would be disappointed. As the decade wore on they found that, as Wellington put it, 'The country is on its legs again'.
In the December 1832 elections, the first under the new system, only 150 Tory MPs were returned. Although this would appear to suggest that Reform was now ascendant, the situation was not so simple. The landed interest had been concentrated into constituencies following the removal of the county franchise for urban dwellers now in a city borough, and some counties had received additional seats. Although the counties were regarded as more 'open' than the boroughs they were very susceptible to aristocratic influence, and electors tended to vote as instructed by their landlord. The aristocracy might have been willing to countenance reform in 1832, but it was by no means clear that they intended to continue to do so.
In fact, the odds appeared to be stacked against further reform after 1832. The Whig government faced its main threat from the right rather than the left and 40 MPs who had voted for reform in 1832 made their way to the opposition benches by 1837. The Radicals inside Parliament were incoherent and lacked firm leadership, and extra-parliamentary figures lacked electoral influence. The Whigs were liable to criticism for been too reformist, especially after Lord Melbourne's ministry came to power in 1834. Although Peel was unable to run a successful government in 1834, by the end of the decade the Whigs’ image had declined sufficiently for their parliamentary majority to be bled dry. They were particularly susceptible to criticism on the issue of Ireland and the Established Church, and Tories painted them as friends of Irish demagogues and enemies of the Church with glee.
The question of Ireland was particularly trying for the Whig governments of the 1830s. Lay appropriation of the Irish Church's funds was seen as an attack on property and on the independence of the Church, and was opposed by members of the Cabinet and the King. The government of Lord Grey tried to step a middle course and pleased no-one. His support for lay appropriation led to the resignation of four anti-Reform ministers from his Cabinet, as well as the defeat of the government over the bill in the Lords. While the aristocracy and King now saw the Whigs as no sure defenders of the Established Church, they had also managed to alienate English Dissenting opinion and Irish Radicals by failing to retry the bill with the lay appropriation clause in it. Further hardship was to follow, for in 1834 the Irish Coercion Bill was due to be renewed.
Every Commons member of the Cabinet was opposed to such a measure, but Grey was intransigent in his desire to carry it. Grey was forced to resign in the ensuing debacle, which laid bare divisions within the Cabinet. Grey's resignation did much to polarise opinion into two camps, the pro- and anti-Reform. When the Whigs returned to office under Lord Melbourne, they did so knowing they might have no more control over the Commons than before and in demonstration of William IV's impotence, as he had favoured a conservative administration under Peel. Faced with electoral losses in 1835 due to their damaged reputation, the Whigs had to make common cause with the O’Connellites and Radicals. O'Connell was tamed by their allowing the Coercion Bill to lapse and favourable governmental reform in Ireland, but the changes were a scandal to propertied Anglicans in Britain. The Lords continued to block any attempt to increase Catholic influence in Ireland, and lay appropriation became an embarrassment and had to be forsaken.
Meanwhile, this increased the opportunities for Tories to attack the Whigs as enemies of the Church and Constitution. Russell himself was forced to admit that public support for much of the Irish legislation was limited. However, as the Conservatives continued to make gains in the 1837 elections the bonds between Whig and Radical had to be strengthened further. Facing up to a fairly united Opposition, the Whigs had to respond to the swelling of the Opposition's numbers by further overtures to the Reformist MPs, particularly the Irish. This strengthened Tory claims to be the patriotic party of England, as Irish issues began to preoccupy Westminster. The Whigs were becoming to be seen as the party of dangerous, perhaps revolutionary, reform, whereas the Tories had taken on the mantle of moderate change to strengthen.
Peel's formation of the Ecclesiastical Duties and Revenues Commission during his brief office of 1834 had set the Church decisively on the road to reform, but had done so with the agreement of leading Bishops. The Tories had done very well in galvanising propertied opinion against the Whigs and their reforms with regard to the Church and Ireland, and were helped along by the King’s position on the issue. Whig attempts to continue reforms here as in the spirit of 1832 were surely doomed to failure, and it was the polarisation created by the act that drove them into the alliance with the O'Connellites and Radicals. Anti-Irish feeling was strong in Britain, helped along by racial tensions created by the arrival of poor Irish immigrants in Scotland and on the West coast.
The government also proved less than a match for the trade cycle and harvest fluctuations. There were bad harvest in 1837 and 1838 and wheat prices were at their highest until the Crimean War. This severely depressed demand for manufactures in the country and brought the Corn Laws back onto the agenda. Although the government managed to excite popular opinion against the Corn Laws, this popular opinion did not find expression in parliament. One of the effects of 1832 had been to highlight to those who hadn’t received the franchise that they still weren’t represented, which tended to make them even more radical. The government had decided to move towards Corn Law reform in 1841 partly to woo electoral opinion and to show government responsiveness to popular pressure, but the nature of the representative system did not allow public opinion in favour of repeal to translate into electoral influence. The Tories won their majority in 1841 based on the counties and small boroughs, which were still susceptible to aristocratic influence and had taken an unprecedented swing towards Toryism during the 1830s. As the only part of the political system that was so responsive to public opinion, the Liberals found themselves fundamentally at odds with aristocratic opinion. The Whigs had moved on the Corn Law question before been pressed by public opinion, and indeed the Anti-Corn Law League was formed after an attempt to reform the Act in 1839 had been defeated. They had turned the question into one of public opinion rather than mere expediency (as the Laws had been treated in a technocratic manner to this point), but this was distasteful to the landed interest.
These examples of problems encountered by the Liberals in instituting progressive policies serve to illustrate the difficulty of continuing reform within the system left by the 1832 Act. Having failed to bring about the passing of government from the landed interest to the 'sober' middle classes, the 1832 Act left the Whigs in a sticky situation if they wanted to continue reform. The effectiveness of Liberal policies would always be circumscribed by the undemocratic parts of the Constitution – the King, the Lords and the still corruption-ridden and inconsistent election system. The Whigs had to walk a tightrope between the limitations of a parliament constituted of oligarchic interests and public opinion. They had placed themselves in this position following the 1832 Act and the following polarisation that occurred in 1834. Due to this predicament, they very often appeared indecisive on policy and did not demonstrate much principle.
Rather than taking a firm lead one way or another on questions such as corn tariffs or the secret ballot, they merely made them open. In the words of Gash, 'avidity for office with not much idea of how to use it when obtained was not the best public image'. There were no doubt other contributing reasons for the eventual complete attrition of the government majority, such as Melbourne's lacklustre leadership and very effective Conservative Opposition. But the primary reason was the inability of the Whigs to provide clear and principled leadership to Liberal opinion in the country due to the limitations of the parliamentary system. Sometimes they appeared to rush ahead of public opinion, sometimes they were accused of been too far behind it. As the party of order, the Conservatives could highlight the dangerous and 'revolutionary' tendencies of the Reformers and their alliance with enemies of the Church and Constitution, and then themselves co-opt the Whig principle of gradual reform in response to necessity.
This is not to say the Whigs dug their own graves entirely in 1832; rather, the hole got deeper every year. After the December 1832 returns there were only 150 Tory MPs in Parliament, a situation that deteriorated spectacularly for the Whigs as the decade wore on. In some ways this was beyond their control, as with the start of the 'tithe war' in Ireland when Lord Grey took office. This crisis of order in Ireland could not be met resolutely as the aristocracy wanted because of the reforming impulses existing within both Cabinet and Parliament, but nor could it be dealt with lightly without significant troubles for the Whigs. Pulled between two opposing poles, it must have been hard for them to know where to turn. Whig aristocrats did not by their nature relish an alliance with O'Connell or ultra-Radical elements, and this was rather forced on them by political expediency.
Once the alliance had become necessary and been carried out it simply made the Whigs more vulnerable to attacks from the right. If respectable middle class opinion had indeed become dominant after 1832 (if indeed such a thing existed) then maybe the Whigs could have negotiated the troubles of the rest of the decade. As it was, the inconsistencies in the system and their own lack of firm leadership to at least try and move in one coherent direction through the choppy waters meant they were doomed to slow attrition. The party of retrenchment was painted as the party of revolution and forced by political expediency into a situation where it could not save its reputation.
N. Gash, Reaction and reconstruction in English politics 1832 – 52
Evans, The Forging of the Modern State
R. Stewart, Party and Politics, 1830 – 52
J. Parry, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian England
A. Briggs, 'The parliamentary reform movement in three cities' Historical Journal (1952)
M. Brock, The Great Reform Act
N. McCord, 'Some difficulties of parliamentary reform' Historical Journal (1967)
D.C. Moore, 'The other face of reform' Victorian Studies (1961)