Benjamin Disraeli and the 1867 Reform Act (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Benjamin Disraeli and the 1867 Reform Act

Q1: Read the introduction and study sources 1 and 7 and explain why the Liberal Party was unable to persuade the House of Commons to pass the 1866 Reform Act?

A1: Many people in the Liberal Party were opposed to the 1866 Reform Act because they feared the emergence of new political parties to represent the new working-class voters. One MP argued that once trade unionists had the vote they would demand the reduction of the working day to "eight hours".

Lord Palmerston, the prime minister, feared that discussion on the subject would cause "excitement in the working class" and the demand for more reforms. Palmerston (source 1) is telling William Gladstone that it is too soon to introduce parliamentary reform.

Robert Lowe (source 7) feared that with inflation "the £6 houses will become £7 ones, and that £9 houses will expand to £10?" and that " the working men of England, finding themselves in a "full majority of the whole constituency, will awake to a full sense of their power".

Q2: Study sources 4, 5, 9 and 11 and explain the role played by the Reform League in changing the minds of politicians on the subject of parliamentary reform.

A2: The Reform League was formed in February 1865 with main objective "to campaign for one man, one vote" (source 4). They organized mass demonstrations that often resulted in violence (sources 5 and 11). Spencer Walpole (source 10), the Home Secretary, attempted to ban these demonstrations but people ignored the law (source 11). The ruling Conservative government began to fear the possibility of revolution and agreed to consider the possibility of introducing parliamentary reform.

Q3: Select information from the introduction and the sources that helps to explain why Benjamin Disraeli changed his mind about supporting parliamentary reform in 1867?

A3: In 1866, Benjamin Disraeli, was opposed to William Gladstone's proposals as he believed that the working class would "vote as a class" for the Liberal Party or some other they might form.

The following year he argued that if the Conservative Party introduced parliamentary reform, the working class might vote for them "out of gratitude". In March 1867 Disraeli proposed his new Reform Act. It was a more moderate set of proposals than had been suggested by Gladstone. As he explained: "We do not live - and I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live - under a democracy." (source 14)

Annette Mayer (source 11) argues that there were several possible reasons for this change of opinion. Disraeli was worried about the large scale demonstrations being organised by the Reform League. He also thought it would also undermine William Gladstone, his main rival in the House of Commons.

Q4: Explain how the cartoonists used horses and donkeys to discuss the issue of parliamentary reform (1, 8, 12 and 15).

A4: Source 1 shows William Gladstone as a jockey at the start of a race. Lord Palmerson is the starter of the race and is telling Gladstone that he must not start "Democracy! Too soon".