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The New British Reform Bill[172]

Karl Marx

London, March 1, 1859

On the night of Feb. 28, Mr. Disraeli initiated the House of Commons into the mysteries of the Government Reform Bill[a]. That bill may be shortly described as Mr. Locke King's bill, for the reduction from £50 to £10 of the county franchise[173], mitigated by the disfranchisement of the forty shilling freeholders[174] residing in boroughs, so far as their county votes are concerned, and embellished by a complex medley of fancy franchises, which, on one hand, are altogether nugatory, and on the other hand, would only strengthen the existing class-monopolies. The broad questions of admitting the majority of the people into the electoral precincts, of equalizing the electoral districts, and of protecting the vote by the ballot, are not even touched upon. The exactness of my description of the bill, may be ascertained from the following summary of its principal details: The occupation franchise is to be reduced to one uniform standard, both for the counties and boroughs; or, in other words, the Chandos clause of the Reform Act of 1832[175], which established the £50 tenancy franchise in the counties, is to be repealed. The occupation franchise is extended to all descriptions of real property, whether a building is or is not included in the occupation.. The introduction of the £10 county franchise, would, according to Mr. Newmarch's calculation, in-crease the number of county voters by 103,000, while Mr. Disraeli estimates the addition to the county constituencies at 200,000 votes. On the other hand, the forty shilling freehold would nominally remain on its, old basis, but the forty shilling freeholders dwelling in towns, who have heretofore exercised their suffrage in the counties on behalf of their freeholds, would lose this privilege, being obliged to vote in the boroughs in which they reside. By this process, about 100,000 votes would be transferred from the counties to the boroughs, while about 40,000, if not more, non-resident voters would be disfranchised altogether. This is the pith of the new scheme. With the one hand it would extract from the county franchise what it adds with the other, taking good care to break down whatever influence the towns, since the Reform Act of 1832, have wielded on county elections by the purchase of forty shilling freehold. Mr. Disraeli in his long speech in bringing in the bill, worked hard to show that during the last fifteen years the manufacture of forty shilling freeholds on the part of the boroughs, had proceeded at such a rate,

"that the number of county voters who do not dwell in the county, now exceeds the number who vote under the occupation clause"; so that on the election day "some large towns would pour out their legions by railway, and overpower, by some Club in ,the town, the persons who resided in the county."

To this county gentleman's plea, Mr. Bright made the following victorious reply:

"Your object is to make the counties more exclusive. There is nothing of which you seem to be more afraid than to have a good constituency, especially in the counties. It is a very remarkable fact that in a large portion of England, the county constituencies, for a considerable time past, have not been extended, but many of them have been diminished. Mr. Newmarch has shown that there are eleven counties in which, in the space of fifteen years, from 1837 to 1852, the whole constituency diminished by not less than 2,000 voters; whereas the whole county franchise of England and Wales only increased in these fifteen years by 36,000—more than 17,000 of that increase[b] took place in Lancashire, Cheshire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire. In the rest of England, such are the difficulties in the purchase of freeholds, such the mode in which farms have been increased in size, that the whole constituency of almost all the counties is stationary, or has absolutely been diminishing."

Passing now from the counties to the boroughs, we arrive at the new fancy franchises that are partly derived from Lord John Russell's abortive schemes of 1852 and 1854[176], and are partly due to the genius which hatched the convoluted perplexities of Lord Ellenborough's unhappy India bill[177]. There are, first, some so-called educational qualifications, which, as Mr. Disraeli ironically remarked, independent as they are of scientific acquirements, betoken the education of the classes they concern, "to have involved some considerable investment," and may, therefore, be considered to belong to the general category of property qualifications. The right of vote is consequently to be conferred upon graduates, the clergy of the Church of England, ministers of all other denominations, barristers, pleaders and conveyancers, .solicitors and proctors, medical men, certified schoolmasters; in a word, on the members of the different liberal professions, or, as the French used to call it in Mr. Guizot's time, on the "capacities." Since the greater portion of these "capacities" already share in the franchise as £10 leaseholders[178], this is not likely to augment the number of voters in any perceptible degree, although it may contribute to an increase of clerical influence. The other new franchises are created in favor of—1. Lodgers or occupiers of any house, whether furnished or unfurnished, at the rate of 8 shillings per week, or £20 per annum; 2. Persons in the receipt of an income from personal property invested in government funds or annuities, East India stock, or bank stock of £10 per annum; or in receipt of a pension or superannuation allowance for services rendered in any department of the army, navy, or civil service, and not on active duty, of £20 per annum; 3. Depositors in a savings bank to the extent of £50.

On first view it will be understood that all these new franchises, while admitting some new middle-class sections, are framed with the express purpose of excluding the working classes, and chaining them to their present station of political "pariahs," as Mr. Disraeli had the indiscretion to call the non-voters. Now, it may be considered a new feature of the opposition raised within the walls of the House of Commons that all the adversaries of the Ministry, from Mr. John Bright, down to Lord John Russell, dwelt upon this point as the most objectionable feature of the new Reform bill. Mr. Disraeli himself stated,

"when the Reform bill was introduced in 1831, it was generally avowed that the object was to give a legitimate opposition in the Legislature to the middle classes of England."

"Well, Sir," said Lord John Russell, "since the time when I departed from the position of finality, I have done so on the ground, which appeared to me the only ground for disturbing a settlement, so vast and complicated as that was, namely, that there was a great body of persons, and those persons belonging to the working classes of this country, who are very competent to exercise the franchise, excluded."

"The bill of 1832," said Mr. Roebuck, "was to give power to the middle class. Without the working classes on that occasion there would have been no Reform bill. They behaved in a way that I shall never forget, and the middle classes of England ought not to forget. And I now appeal in the name of the working classes of this country to the middle classes."

"I," said Mr. Bright, "I should have the utmost contempt, and I would not say contempt, but should be utterly hopeless with regard to working classes of the country, if I thought they would remain content under an exclusion like that."

The exclusion of the working classes, coupled with the disfranchisement of the freeholders of the towns, will be the war cry under which the present Reform bill, together with its authors, will be attacked, at the same time that discussions in the ministerial camp, already marked by the secession from the Cabinet of Mr. Walpole and Mr. Henley, and originating in the repeal of the Chandos clause, will by no means contribute to strengthen their means of defense.

As to the other clauses of the bill, they are relatively unimportant. No nomination borough is to be disfranchised, but 15 new seats are to be created, of which the West Riding of Yorkshire will receive 4; South Lancashire, 2; and Middlesex, 2; while 7 new members will be given to boroughs of recent growth, viz.: Hartlepool, Birkenhead, West Bromwich and Wednesbury united, Bromley, Staleybridge, Croydon and Gravesend. To gain room for these additional Members of Parliament, a reduction from two to one is to be effected in the numbers of representatives returned by fifteen boroughs whose population is under 6,000. Such are the proportions in which the "equalization" of electoral districts is to be carried out.

Polling places are to be provided for in every parish, or group of parishes, containing not less than 200 electors; the additional polling places to be supplied at the expense of the county. As a sort of compromise with the partisans of the ballot, the elector, anxious not to give his vote on the hustings, may have recourse to the voting paper, sent to the voter, returned by him to the returning officer by a registered letter, signed in the presence of two witnesses, one of them a householder, and to be opened on the day of polling by a special deputy. There are finally some improvements to be introduced into the registration of county voters. There is not a single London paper, except The Times and the Government organ[c], that holds out any prospect of success for this bill.[179]

Written on March 1, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5586, March 17, 1859;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1441, March 18, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] The speeches of Disraeli, Bright, Russell and Roebuck made in the House of Commons on February 28, 1859 were published in The Times, No. 23242, March 1, 1859.—Ed.

[b] The Times has: "...by 30,000 votes, and of that increase more than half...".—Ed.

[c] The London Gazette.—Ed.

[172] Besides this article, Marx wrote two more articles on the 1859 Reform Bill, on March 22 and April 1, 1859, but they were not printed in the New-York Daily Tribune and have not reached us.

[173] Locke King's Bill, introduced in the House of Commons in February 1851, envisaged the reduction of franchise qualification for people renting land from £50 to L10 annual income, thus giving them the same rights as house tenants in the towns; the Bill was defeated.

[174] Freeholders—a category of English small landowners dating from feudal times. They paid to the landlord a fixed money rent and had the right to dispose freely of their plots of land. Under the Reform Bill of 1832, the smallest property qualification for them was fixed at forty shillings (£2) annual income.

[175] The reference is to the Reform Bill which was finally passed by the British Parliament in June 1832. The Reform Act of 1832 consisted of three acts adopted accordingly for England and Wales on June 7, for Scotland on July 17, and for Ireland on August 17, 1832. It was directed against the political monopoly of the landed and finance aristocracy and enabled the industrial bourgeoisie to be duly represented in Parliament. The proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie, the main forces in the struggle for the reform, remained disfranchised.

[176] In February 1852 Lord Russell made a preliminary statement of his intention to introduce an electoral Bill. It envisaged measures aimed at strengthening the political power of the industrial bourgeoisie: abolition of the so-called rotten boroughs (having a population of less than 500 and sending deputies to Parliament) that continued to exist even after the 1832 Reform, redistribution of seats in favour of the big towns, and reduction of property qualifications. The Bill was not debated.

In February 1854 Lord Russell introduced a new Bill envisaging equal rights for rural and urban boroughs, the right to vote for all citizens whose annual salary was not less than £100, who received not less than £10 dividend from state securities, bank or East India Company stocks, or had not less than £50 savings in savings banks; the Bill also envisaged the right to vote for people with a University degree. This Bill was rejected by the House of Commons.

[177] This refers to what was known as the Government of India Bill drawn up by Ellenborough and introduced in the House of Commons in April 1858. It envisaged an extremely complex procedure for electing the Indian Council and was finally adopted by the two Houses in July 1858.

[178] Leaseholders—small holders of land by right of a lease, the period and terms of which were determined by an agreement between the landlord and the lessee.

[179] At its second reading in March-early April 1859 the electoral Bill failed to receive a majority vote and was rejected by the House of Commons.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.202-205), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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