Friday, 8 January 2016

Gladstone, Disraeli, and the creation of a mass electorate

Gladstone in old age

Politics in the 1870s and early 1880s was dominated by the figures of William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Both rose from middle-class backgrounds to lead their respective parties, and both presided over major reforms to the electoral system. 

The Second Reform Act

In 1859 Gladstone, previously a Peelite, now a Liberal, joined Palmerston’s government as Chancellor of the Exchequer. By the mid-1860s he had come to accept the necessity of further political reform, but everyone knew this could not happen while Palmerston was still alive. The old man had set his face against further reform and as long as he was Prime Minister there would be no changes to the Reform Act of 1832.

The first Earl Russell, the former Lord John Russell
Palmerston died in October 1865, shortly after winning another election for the Liberals, and he was succeeded by Earl Russell (the former Lord John Russell). Gladstone remained Chancellor of the Exchequer, but also became Leader of the Commons. Because the Conservative leader, the earl of Derby was in the Lords, Disraeli was the Tory spokesman in the Commons.

In March 1866 Gladstone introduced a bill for modest electoral reform, designed to enfranchise the ‘respectable’ working class. This was opposed by the Conservatives and some Liberals (whom the radical Liberal, John Bright derisively called 'Adullamites'. The bill was passed but by a very narrow majority. In June the bill was defeated on a wrecking amendment and Russell resigned. The Queen then sent for the Conservative leader.

Edward Stanley-Smith, 14th earl of Derby

For the third time in his political life, Derby found himself head of a minority Conservative administration, with Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House. But the change of government did not mean that the reform issue was going away. With this in mind, Derby wrote to Disraeli: 
‘I am coming reluctantly to the conclusion that we shall have to deal with the question of reform’.
By early 1867 the Conservative government was in deep crisis. Derby and Disraeli believed that some reform was necessary but they were a minority government and they faced cabinet resignations and a backbench revolt. The only way to survive was to bring in a measure of reform. On 18 March Disraeli introduced a bill giving household suffrage in the boroughs, with other clauses, derisively known as 'fancy franchises' designed to ensure that the middle classes retained their political dominance. At this stage he did not want anything too radical.

As the bill made its way through the Commons, Disraeli found he had the support of radical Liberal backbenchers, who disagreed with him about almost everything, but were ready to prop up the Conservatives in order to bring about parliamentary reform. As the bill was debated clause by clause they threw in amendments which removed the 'fancy franchises', making the bill much more radical than the government had intended. Disraeli, always the supreme opportunist accepted most of the amendments, and the result was that when the Act was passed in August, it was unrecognisable, with the more conservative provisions all thrown out. 

The Act extended the vote to householders and £10 lodgers in the boroughs, adding just short of a million voters — including many working men — and doubling the electorate to almost two million in England and Wales. In England and Wales one in three adult males now had the vote, in Scotland one in five. Somewhat apprehensively, Derby called the Act 'a leap in the dark', rightly recognising its potential to transform politics.

Further reforms

Though it was the Conservatives who had brought in the reform, the general election of 1868 saw the Liberals return to power under Gladstone. His government of 1868-74 saw further reform. The Church of Ireland was disestablished, and the army was reformed. The Ballot Act of 1872 was intended to free voters from intimidation. Politics was changing, and with the growth of a working-class electorate, the dominance of the upper classes was now seriously challenged for the first time. 

Thomas Burt,
miners' leader and MP for Morpeth
The election of 1874 saw the Conservatives returned under Disraeli. However, for the first time two working men were elected to parliament, the miners Thomas Burt and Alexander Macdonald, who stood as Liberals 'in the labour interest'. Because MPs were not paid, they were sponsored by their unions. Both parties now faced the question of how to attract working-class voters.

Disraeli's premiership was dominated by imperial issues, but nevertheless his government passed two Public Health Acts (1872, 1875), the Artisans Dwelling Act (1875). The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875) gave full recognition to trade unions and legalised peaceful picketing. He shrewdly calculated that a substantial proportion of working-class voters would rally behind the twin Conservative themes of imperialism and social reform.

Prime Minister 1874-80

The Midlothian campaign

Modern electioneering can be dated to Gladstone's announcement in January 1879 that he would abandon his Greenwich constituency and accept an invitation from the marginal (and small) Conservative seat of Midlothian. By this time the government of Disraeli (now Lord Beaconsfield) was in trouble. Britain faced an agricultural depression and abroad was involved in a war against the Zulus and a difficult campaign in Afghanistan. Gladstone was determined to smash ‘Beaconsfieldism’ which he saw as an amoral programme of profligate expenditure and an unjust foreign policy. He was not the leader of the Liberal party (that position was held by the marquess of Hartington), but he acted as if he were.

In November 1879 he arrived in Scotland and began a fortnight’s ceaseless campaigning in Midlothian and the surrounding districts (24 November to 8 December).  What was novel about Gladstone’s actions was the delivery of a large number of connected speeches over a short period, which were widely reported in the press. Enthusiasts came from all over Scotland to hear them. It was the Americanisation of British politics.

In March 1880 Disraeli, buoyed up by some by-election successes,
The second Midlothian
announced the dissolution of Parliament. A week later, Gladstone journeyed to Edinburgh from London and was greeted by thousands at all the major stations of the east coast route. He then delivered a second round of speeches, as electrifying as his first.  

The Liberals won the election, increasing their seats from 243 to 351, with a Conservative loss from 352 to 239. 

Who was to be Prime Minister. The Queen wanted anyone but Gladstone. She wrote to her Secretary, Ponsonby: 
 'She will sooner abdicate than send for that half-mad fire-brand who wd ruin everything & be a Dictator. Others but herself may submit to his democratic rule but not the Queen.' 
However, on 23 April 1880 Gladstone became Prime Minister for the second time. The monarch had lost the power to veto the appointment of the Prime Minister.

Parliamentary reform

Gladstone's second administration ran into troubles over Ireland and the death of General Gordon in the Sudan, and it was defeated by a parliamentary vote in 1885. However, it saw significant measures of parliamentary reform that enabled his admirers to describe him as 'the people's William' and 'the grand old man'.

The Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 restricted ‘treating’ at elections, and could be seen as the prelude to further reform.

The Third Reform Bill was introduced in February 1884.  It essentially created a uniform householder and lodger franchise based on that introduced for the English boroughs in 1867. 

This ended the distinction between urban and rural voters and did much to undermine the power of the landlords over their tenants.

The Redistribution Act in the following year engineered the most extensive reform of the constituencies since 1832, creating, in effect, the modern constituency. The majority of seats were now single-member and of roughly equal size though the largest cities received between three and six new MPs apiece.  

Because this measure disaggregated city constituencies into smaller units, many of them suburban, the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries. This was unlikely to have been what Gladstone had intended!

Following these reforms the United Kingdom electorate increased from 2.53 million in 1871 to 5.68 million at the end of 1884. By 1891 61 per cent of adult males had the vote. However by this time both France and Germany had manhood suffrage. The British were  not as progressive as they liked to think.


  1. By the mid-1880s the franchise had been extended to include a significant number of working-class men. Legislation passed by both Liberal and Conservative governments reflected their concern to woo working-class voters.
  2. However, Britain was still far from being a democracy, and two large groups were denied the vote: working-class men who were not registered as heads of households or who lived in cheap lodgings; and women.