Property rules

Reform!: the fight for the 1832 Reform Act

Edward Pearce <em>Jonathan Cape, 343pp, £20</em>

ISB

According to its author, Reform! was written to be enjoyed. I did enjoy it, but cannot imagine it will be the holiday choice of many people next summer. Its strength - and, to a lesser degree, its weakness - is its erudition. There may be a fact about the Reform Act of 1832 that Edward Pearce has omitted, but only the greatest authority on the subject will be able to identify it. Despite the chatty asides, this is a serious book for serious people. And judged on these terms, it is excellent.

Often the erudition works to great effect. The opening account of "The Old System" is enlivened by contemporary and near-contemporary accounts of how rotten the rotten boroughs were. Inevitably, those of Mr Pickwick at Eatanswill (based, apparently, on Sudbury) are among them. But Pearce also quotes from John Galt's The Member, Adam Sisman's life of Boswell and Melincourt by Thomas Love Peacock. Perhaps by referring to Gogol's Dead Souls he is trailing his coat too far. But we can be assured that he has not viewed parliamentary reform from a narrow perspective.

The scene was set for reform by what Pearce rightly describes as the disintegration of the Tory party - a fascinating phenomenon at any time. The cause of the collapse was measures as well as men. But while the old guard's complaint was the recognition of the South American republics (after they had broken free from Spain) and Catholic emancipation, irreconcilable personalities added to the problem. The return of the Duke of Wellington as his majesty's first minister only exacerbated the tension. Today's Tories will be fascinated to learn that his powers of leadership were undermined by a "soldierly dismissiveness".

The final benefi-ciary of the bitter disagreements was Lord Grey, who formed a coalition made up of "a core of Whigs and slowly evolving Canningites, plus the Duke of Richmond, a pure Tory". It contained four future prime ministers - Melbourne, Stanley, Russell and Palmerston. Most important of all, it included Henry Brougham as lord chancellor. He is the hero of the Reform Act, despite almost losing his nerve at the last minute. The laurels might also be divided among the "mobs" of Birmingham and Manchester who, by pressing for a real democracy, at least extended the vote to more of the property-owning classes.

There was a time when every schoolboy knew that 1832 was the year of the Reform Act and believed that it was the first step towards universal suffrage. In one sense they were wrong. Although some of the bill's advocates were agitating for an extension of the franchise, the real stimulus was to maintain the rule of property and wealth more efficiently. The idea was to treat property with no less respect but with more common sense.

That objective was clearly understood, though equally clearly rejected, by the bill's opponents. Lord Eldon warned: "Sacrifice one element in our glorious constitution and the rest has gone." The eventual consequence would be "universal suffrage, annual parliament and vote by ballot". Pearce identifies the motives of both sides exactly.

The House of Lords rejected reform not by directly defeating the bill but by "laying it aside" for six months. The Commons came at it again and the second reading was carried by 324 votes to 162. Much of the establishment - fearful of the protest led by Thomas Attwood of Sparkbrook, Birmingham, and others - urged that the Lords be brought to heel. The Times called for a "powerful creation of Liberal peers" to avoid Britain becoming "a sea of blood and terror".

The chapters devoted to the conflict between the two houses - foreshadowing in almost every detail Asquith's confrontation with the Lords 80 years later, after the rejection of Lloyd George's Budget - show Pearce at his very best. The description is vivid, the analysis perceptive, and the reader is spared the cross-references to interesting but only loosely connected matters that are a feature of the earlier chapters. Reform! is a fascinating book on a fascinating subject and needs no signposts pointing to the author's erudition to make it essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand our history.

Roy Hattersley's most recent book is A Brand from the Burning: the life of John Wesley (Little,Brown)