Section 1 - History

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The Liberals, 1865 - 1873

  • 1865 = threshold of social and political change
  • Great Reform Act of 1832 = shaped British political system for over 30 years
  • Increased franchise and bought about a redistribution of seats 
  • Landed classes still held power, although forced to share with middle classes
  • 1.2 million men had the vote out of 30 million
  • No system of voting in private = voters open to bullying, bribery and corruption
  • Second Reform Act of 1867 = extended franchise to the artisan class 
  • New voters ensured victory of the Liberals 
  • Gladstone introduced a number of innovative reforms
  • Could be said to be responsible in helping to establish the basis of our modern State
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Composition of the Liberals


  • Powerful aristocratic landowning families
  • Believed in a consistutional monarchy - monarch's powers of patronage were limited
  • Passed the First Parliamentary Reform Act in 1832
  • In favour of further franchise as long as it was controlled
  • Supportive of the nonconformists 
  • Included in their numbers = Roman Catholic Lords
  • Titled Whigs = House of Lords 
  • Junior Branches = House of Commons 
  • Some began to branch off and call themselves 'Liberals'
  • They believed in individual liberty, freedom of press and religion, and free trade 
  • Many were nonconfirmists = believed the Church should be separate and free from State patronage and control 
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Composition of the Liberals


  • Followed Sir Robert Peel over his repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846
  • Conservative party was split into Protectionists and Peelite free traders 
  • Ensured that Conservatives didn't have the majority for a long time to come
  • They increasingly voted with the Whigs
  • Numbers fell away so they fused with the Liberals by 1859
  • Wealthy and industrial backgrounds 
  • Gladstone = leading Peelite 


  • Free thinking middle class individuals
  • Adopted the doctrine of Utilitarrianism 
  • Belief in taking actions that would be of greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people
  • Wanted change in the social order
  • Opposed political and economic dominance of the landowning classes 
  • Opposed privileged position of the Church of England as the establishing Church
  • Wanted extension of the franchise, the removal of government restrictions and free trade
  • John Brights = influential Radical 
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Gladstonian Liberalism

  • Wider Liberal beliefs = 'Peace, Retrenchment, Reform'
  • If peace could be maintained with other nations, this would enable trade and industry to develop unhindered by the disruptions of war
  • Taxation could be more easily kept under control, too
  • Gladstone wanted to 'live to see the day when income tax would be abolished'
  • Policy of retrenchment would also reduce the neccessity of raising taxes
  • Tax = depriving people of the freedom to spend their money as they wished
  • Concerned with bringing about changes in laws and institutions that prevented people from acting freely
  • Three principles tied in with laissez-faire principles and the doctrine of self-help
  • They believed in liberty of freedom of the individual and religious toleration 
  • Supported free trade = means of creating prosperity
  • Upheld the principle of parliamentary government, within a limited democracy
  • Overhaul of the parliamentary system was needed to reflect the changes in the distribution and wealth of the population that had occured after the Industrial Revolution 
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Liberal Support in the Country

  • Most support for the liberals came from the towns and the boroughs
  • Urban centres of population were still expanding and were full of middle class men 
  • Saw the Liberals as reflecting their aspirations and values
  • They helped to keep the Liberals in power for almost 20 years
  • Support grew from the impact of three key developments:
        • The rise of the provincial press
        • The growth of the new model unions
        • The appearance of the political dimension to Nonconformist movement 
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Liberal Support in the Country

The Rise of the Provincial Press:

  • Until the 1860s = London press dominanted the newspaper industry
  • Coming of the railways, invention of the telegraph and the removal of stamp duties
  • Dramatic increase both in titles and circulation 
  • New press = Liberal in terms of ownership, employees and readership
  • Able to influence large numbers of voters across industrial towns
  • Considerable benefit to the Liberal Party 
  • One example = The Newcastle Chronicle 

The Growth of the New Model Unions:

  • Gave their support the Liberals
  • Represented the interests of skilled workers such as engineers 
  • These workers benefitted from the extension of the franchise in 1867
  • Sought to improve their conditions by self-help and self-education
  • Unions functioned as friendly societies 
  • Set up schemes to give benefits to members in times of hardship
  • Legal position = not clearly defined and funds not protected by law 
  • Unions hoped that once Liberals were in government = they would strengthen the unions' legal position 
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Liberal Support in the Country

The Political Activities of the Nonconformists:

  • Wanted to achieve equal treatment with the Church of England 
  • End its privilege as the established Church
  • Led by the Liberation Society = political wing of the nonconformists 
  • Steady backing of the Liberal party helped to nsure the Nonconformists vote 
  • Support = crucial 
  • 50% of the church-going populaion was Nonconformist 
  • Wealthiest and most influential 
  • Geographically spread 
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Problems of the Conservatives

Finding a suitable leader:

  • Lost power of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846
  • Held short period in office between 1846-1852 and 1858-1859
  • Both occassions = minority governments
  • Difficult to pass any legislation
  • Lord Derby = conservative leader but not entitled to sit in the House of Commons
  • Power of the Lords had weakened after the formation of new constituencies in industrial towns
  • Difficult for Lords to influence procedures in the Commons 
  • Could still use their veto to block measures they disliked 
  • Few Conservatives of real quality to lead the party in the Commons 
  • One exception = Disraeli 
  • However, despised and distrusted by many in the party because of his background 
  • His leadership was an unavoidable necessity as he appeared ot be the person with clear ideas about policy
  • Vital to present new policies to win support of the electorate
  • Important to get the message across by holding public meetings and finding good speakers to inspire the crowd
  • Considerable competition
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Problems of the Conservatives

  • Disraeli bought the party round to accepting the principle of reform 
  • Developed ideas on the need for social reform
  • Conservative defeat in 1868 
  • Set about managing the reorganisation of the party machinery 
  • Helped to bring Conservative victory in the election of 1874
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Issues of Parliamentary Reform

  • Series of reform bills introduced between 1851 and 1866 appeared to have failed
  • Little public pressure and the middle class voters were satisfied with current system 
  • Several factors brought about a change in attitude towards question of reform:

Changing attitudes towards reform:

  • Change in attitude within political parties and make-up of the parties 
  • Helped to bring parliamentary reform to the forefront 
  • Old Whig Party was transforming into the Liberal Party 
  • Commercial and industrial members had growing influence
  • Extend their political status and power, even if only through seat redistribution
  • Gladstone was converteed to a belief in reform and led the party in this direction
  • Radicals were becoming more effective within the Liberal Party
  • Conservatives also accepted the need for change
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Issues of Parliamentary Reform

The Conversion of Gladstone to belief in reform:

  • Gladstone began to defend the moral right of decent working men to have the vote
  • Enough evidence to be confident that they would vote responsibly 
  • Gladstone's statement offered encouragement ot Radical reform groups
  • Became convinced of the need for reform 

The Growth of Interest in the Democratic Ideal:

  • American Civil War and the movement for Italian Uniication 
  • Seen by British people as struggles for freedom and democracy 
  • Created a popular surge of interest in reform
  • Garibaldi - hero of the Italian unification movement 
  • Visited London in 1864 and thousands flocked to hear him speak 
  • Authorities clamped down on public meetings 
  • Angry protests from his supporters 
  • Repressive response led to setting up of "The Reform League" in 1865 
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Issues of Parliamentary Reform

The Reform League (1865), The Reform Union (1864) and Trade Union Pressure:

  • Reform League = working-class alliance with strong trade union support 
  • Aim was to work towards democracy through universal male suffrage and a programme of radical reform
  • Local branches sprang up in the manufacturing towns 
  • Central organisation = chaotic 
  • Able to mobilise its considerable force of trade union members and make presence felt
  • Additional pressure = London Trades Council who organised a campaign for reform
  • Reform League = more successful than Reform Union 
  • Created a few months earlier in 1864 
  • Largely middle-class organisation that called for a secret ballot
  • Focused on seeking the redistribution of seats to correct the imablance caused by changes and movement in the population
  • John Bright encouraged the two to work together but the class divide created tensions 
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Issues of Parliamentary Reform

Radical Pressure:

  • Kept up the pressure for reform from both inside and outside parliament
  • John Bright toured the country encouraging men to demand their democratic rights
  • Put forward convincing arguments on behalf of the skilled workers in favour of extending the franchise 
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Issues of Parliamentary Reform

The Impact of Rise in Living Standards and Population Changes:

  • Economic prosperity after 1850 led to overall rise in the standard of living
  • Made Liberals keen to accepting the idea of extending the franchise to include skilled working class 
  • Saved wages in friendly societies and the Post Office Saving Bank set up by Gladstone in 1861
  • Formed responsible trade unions through which they provided self-help and a form of social security
  • They had proved themselves to be responsible 
  • For example, the Lancashire Cotton Workers 
  • Responsible attitude had not brought them any political advantage
  • Few of them had the right to vote
  • Many lived in industrial cities with one or two MPs
  • Largely under-represented
  • Size of constituencies became very uneven as a result of population growth 
  • No new constituencies had been formed even though industrial revoltion created new towns and cities
  • Demographic changes were forcing the issue of reform on the political agenda 
  • Tackled by whichever party was in power
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The Second Reform Act, 1867

  • Death of Palmerston cleared the way for Liberals to address the question of reform
  • Gladstone and Lord John Russell drew up a Reform Bill
  • Well reasoned and moderate 
  • Backing of Radical John Bright
  • Proposed an extension of the vote for those in the towns who owned or rented a propery with a rateable value for £7 a year, instead of existing £10 qualification
  • Counties = vot was given to those who rented property with a rateable value of £14 a year
  • Give to vote to skilled workers and smallholders
  • Extended the electorate by 400,000 men 
  • They called a meeting in the Town Hall in 1865 to demonstrate their approval
  • Reform League was disappointed and the Bill was thrown out
  • Damaging = opposition from 40 liberals led by Robert Lowe
  • Claimed the reform would give political power to the 'ignorant' 
  • They rejected the idea that the skilled workers had proved themselves
  • He saw the vote as a privilege to be awarded to those who improved themselves to the extent that they could meet the existing qualifications
  • Amendedment = cutting number of new skilled voters in the boroughs
  • Russell resigned 
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The Second Reform Act, 1867

  • Conservatives formed a minority government under Lord Derby
  • Reform League organised demonstrations across the country
  • They were not going to give up until they had achieved their aims
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Disraeli tackles Parliamentary Reform

  • Lord Derby led a minority Conservative government into office 
  • Disraeli = leader in the commons and chancellor of the exchequer
  • Lack of progress on the franchise 
  • Working classes were feeling the effects of the bad harvest from the previous ear
  • Another outbreak of cholera causing panic 
  • Collapse of London's most successful finance houses, Overend and Gurney 
  • Followed by a stock market tumble
  • Domino effect brough about the collpapse of many other businesses 
  • Threatened high unemployment and helped to spark the huge demonstrations
  • Outbreak fo violence near Hyde Park in 1866, after a Reform League meeting was prevented from taking place
  • Similar demonstration took place in 1867
  • Resulting pressure persuaded Disraeli to seize the moment and take credit for what had generally been regarded as a Liberal reform
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Disraeli tackles Parliamentary Reform

  • Conservative reform bill contained checks to restrict the number of working-class voters 
  • Balances with 'fancy franchises' and dual votes for many members of middle classes 
  • Dropped these when there was fierce opposition from Gladstone and a chance the bill would be lost
  • Disraeli = accepted the radical proposals in the amendment of Hodgkinson, simply in order to get the Bill throuhg the commons and get the better of Gladstone
  • Derby secured its smooth passage
  • Convinced the Lords that it would ensure a Conservative victory in the next election
  • Ended up being more democratic than Derby or Disraeli imagined
  • Hodgkinson's amendment enfranchised the skilled worker in the towns
  • Further shifting of the centre of political power away from the landed classes
  • Disraeli = opportunist 
  • He thought that the Conservative could win over the skilled workers who were to be enfranchised
  • He hoped that the Conservatives could then break a long record of poor election results 
  • Essential to change public perception of the Conservatives as an anti-reform party
  • They introduced parliamentary reform legislation that was more far reaching than the Liberal Bill of the previous year 
  • Conservatives lost the 1868 election 
  • Gladstone was awarded for his consistent support for the Reform Act 
  • Gladstone had united the Liberals and pleased the Nonconformists by putting Irish Church Reform on agenda
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The Second Reform Act, 1867

The Franchise was extended:

In the boroughs to:

  • All male householders over 21, who had lived at the same address for 12 months
  • Lodgers who paid £10 a year in rent and had lived at the same address for 12 months

In counties to:

  • The forty-shilling freeholders
  • The £5 copyholders and £12 tenants 

Redistribution of Seats:

  • 53 seats were taken from boroughs with a population of under 10,000
  • 25 seats were given to English counties 
  • 20 seats were given to larger English boroughs and towns
  • 8 seats were given to Scottish burghs and counties 
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The Second Reform Act, 1867

Effects of the 1867 Reform Act: 


  • Number of voters had increased - 1.2 million to 2.5 million
  • 1/3 of the male adult population could now vote
  • Greatest increase occured in boroughs, where skilled workers had the vote
  • Parties improved their organisations to capture new voters 
  • Led indirectly to the 1870 Education Act 
  • Expedient to educate new voters 


  • Impact reduced for artisan class because of limited nature of the redistribution of seats
  • No women could vote
  • Huge cities such as Birmingham were only given 1 extra seat to add to the two they had
  • Distribution of seats did not correspond to the size of the population 
  • Rural areas remained over-represented 
  • Industrial Midlands = under-represented
  • Smaller increase in the electorate in the counties 
  • Boroughs with a population of just over 10,000 had same representation as those with 400,000
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'The Best can be the Enemy of the Good'

  • 1868 election = Gladstone became PM for the first time
  • Liberal majority = 106 over the Conservatives 
  • Clear mandate to implement policies based on the principles of Gladstonian Liberalism
  • Administration efficiency, cut backs on government spending, pursuing free trade and prmoting the freedom of the individual
  • Gladstone's cabinet = Liberals, Radicals, Peelites,Whigs 
  • All were Anglican except for John Bright who was a Quacker 
  • Reforms = vast in number
  • Addressed important social and political issues
  • Debate = to what extent they satisfied
  • Liberals = awkward coalition
  • Gladstone held the party together, on the surface, for five years 
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Pressure Groups

  • Several key pressure groups existed 
  • Single issue groups 
  • Shared some of the same membership and the thread of Nonconformism ran through them
    • The Liberation Society: aimed at the disestablishment of the Church of England. In 1871, pressure was put on Nonconformist MPs to accept a disestablishment motion, but it was firmly defeated with a clear lead from Gladstone
    • The National Education League: campaign for free, compulsory and non-religious education in State schools. It's leadership was Nonconformist and included Chamberlain. Its dissatisfaction with the 1870 Education Act caused potential division in the party
    • The United Kingdom Alliance: Temperace movement founded in 1852. It was based in Manchester and sought the outlaw of the sale of alcohol. It regarded the 1872 Licensing Act as a partial success 
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Position of Labour and Trade Union Leaders

  • Little concept of a separate Labour party 
  • Few working-class men who entered parliament did so as Liberals
  • Regional Trades Councils encouraged the setting up of a national organisation for unions
  • A Trade Unions Congress (TUC) met for the first time in 1868 in Manchester
  • Pressure to bear on the government to give trade unions legal recognition 
  • Union leaders = keen to cooperate with the Liberals 
  • TUC became an annual event after its London meeting in 1871 
  • It represented the trade union movement as a whole 
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