Voting and distribution of representation by elected officials is a vital and fascinating topic today as it was during the Regency.
We can now watch legislative sessions live-streamed, or follow issues of interest via the internet, but the doings of the government during the Regency were communicated by way of a journal that was sold by a publisher. In 1806 Thomas Hansard began producing reports of parliamentary debates in a journal published by William Cobbett called Parliamentary Debates. Hansard bought out Cobbett in 1811 and continued to publish the debates. This constituted a watchdog system of sorts.
The set-up of the voting system was ripe for reform. In the early 19th century there were two types of constituency, country areas and towns or boroughs. In the countryside only the landowners could vote. In boroughs the level of enfranchisement varied but was usually limited. The constituencies had not been changed for centuries and no longer reflected the distribution of the population. Industrial towns like Birmingham and Manchester did not have MPs of their own. On the other hand some settlements had died out but they were still represented in parliament! In ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs there might be only one or two voters! And we think red-lining is bad!
The early 19th century saw increasing demand for reforms. Most people wanted constituencies distributed more fairly and they also wanted enfranchisement extended, but Wellington’s party, the Tories, resisted.
The Whigs formed a government in 1830 and tried to introduce reform. The House of Commons eventually voted for a reform bill but the House of Lords rejected it. King William IV warned that he would create more peers, who favored the bill, unless the Lords agreed to accept it. Eventually the House of Lords backed down and passed the Great Reform Bill. It received the royal assent on June 7, 1832.
The franchise to vote was only extended slightly but more importantly the new industrial towns were now represented in parliament. Before 1832 Britain was ruled by an oligarchy of landowners. After 1832 the urban middle class had an increasing say.