British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspended Parliament Wednesday before Brexit, an article in AP News reported. The move will reduce his opponents’ time to prevent the UK from a no-deal EU withdrawal. Looking back in history, Parliament’s voter representation surged in 1832.
The major and controversial effort known as “Brexit” would lead the United Kingdom to completely withdraw from its role in the European Union, a political and economic coalition of 28 member nations primarily located in Europe. According to the AP article, Johnson claimed to have suspended Parliament on Wednesday in order to have the opportunity to outline his own domestic agenda for the UK. However, those wishing for the UK to remain in the EU argued that it gives Parliament less chance to reconvene and develop an alternative to Brexit. British Parliament serves as a democratically elected body of representatives, but this wasn’t always the case. Until the Reform Act of 1832, voting in Britain was far more restricted.
Political Unrest in England in the 19th Century
By the early 1830s, political turmoil in England nearly came to a boil. Voting rights were so uneven from one location to another that many feared a French Revolution-style upheaval overtaking the nation. Then, reform found an early ally.
“The pioneer from the early 1830s was [Prime Minister] Lord Grey, and he recognized that reform of Parliament was necessary,” said Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. “He was subjected to more and more pressure from around the country, particularly from clubs, called political unions, which were arguing that political reform was necessary. Grey himself was a Whig, a member of a political faction which combined very wealthy aristocrats with the merchant elite and most of the political intellectuals of the day.”
According to Dr. Allitt, the Whigs often claimed to stand for “more enlightened and rational approaches to life,” though they were often ineffective at enacting them—sometimes suspiciously so.
On the other hand, the Tories stood against reform due to privileges of influence they’d held in the system up to that point. “The Tories represented the smaller aristocrats and landlords, the country gentry, the backwoods gentlemen,” Dr. Allitt said. “They were opposed to the idea of reforming Parliament because they sensed that they would be weakened by it.”
Yet a new French Revolution sparked in 1830 and so fears of the common people overrunning the government catalyzed the reform movement.
Panic on the Streets of London
According to Dr. Allitt, Lord Grey attempted to introduce moderate reforms to Britain’s House of Commons first, though they were widely rejected. In response, Lord Grey resigned and requested a general election be held. To make a long story short, demonstrations were held in the streets, Tory leader, the Duke of Wellington’s house windows were smashed, public support elected a pro-reform majority, and the Reform Act was passed in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, the House of Lords rejected it, which led to rioting and the burning of a jail in Bristol.
“Lord Grey asked the king to create some new lords if necessary to outnumber the current members,” Dr. Allitt said. “The king has the right to create peerages—to make new people lords. That is the kind of action which is likely to make the current lords rethink. If suddenly a lot of people get made into lords, the title itself loses some of its prestige.”
King William IV refused, but soon the Tories realized that public fervor of reforms was so widespread that they eventually conceded in order to avoid, at worst, a violent governmental overthrow. Dr. Allitt said the Reform Act of 1832 brought direct representation in Parliament to many industrialized cities, including Manchester, Liverpool, and Sheffield. It also standardized qualifications of voting nationwide.
With Brexit’s Halloween deadline fast approaching, Parliament finds itself with less than 60 days to draw up an alternative plan for Britain’s role in the EU. Considering the road to more universal representation of the public, such as the Reform Act, they face enormous pressure.
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt contributed to this article. Dr. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt—an Oxford University graduate—has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School.