The Perilous Question, by Antonia Fraser.

The Perilous Question is is the perfect antidote to people who think politics is boring. As a student of history I had heard about the 1832 Reform Act, but I had no idea what dramatic stories surround it. To some people at the time – especially the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, the idea of Reform was anathema. He feared a revolution which would turn the world upside down. He declared unequivocally that he would never introduce such a measure – a speech so clear, so reactionary, that it provoked the fall of his government and, in the end, led to the very measure which he opposed – but only after determined two-year struggle in which it became the major issue of the day.

So what were these reforms? Very minor ones from our point of view, but huge in the eyes of contemporaries. Rotten boroughs, like Old Sarum – a ‘green mound’ with no inhabitants but two MPs – were abolished, and large new cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool gained MPs for the first time. The number of voters – all men of course – was increased by 49% from 439,000 in 1831 to 656,000 in 1832 – an increase from 3.2% to 4.7% of the population.

All the new voters, of course, were taxpayers; very few people at the time believed in all adults being able to vote. That, after all, would be ‘democracy’ – not a positive word as it is today but something horrible, frightening, scarey, reminiscent of the horrors of the French Revolution.

Nevertheless, Reform was in the air. Respectable working class unions – especially the Birmingham Political Union – were led by men Thomas Attwood, at least as well educated and impressive as the aristocrats who ruled the country, and they wanted a say in how their country was governed. These men were respectable, peaceful, and non-violent. They made a clear distinction between themselves, the representatives of ‘The People’ and the millions of less educated workers beneath them whom they called ‘The Mob’. Mob rule led to riots, chaos, destruction of property, revolution – all of which could easily have happened, but didn’t. The battle was between Reform and Revolution – and in a very English way, Reform won, but not without a fight.

Antonia Fraser tells this story clearly and well. She brings many fascinating characters alive – particularly Lord Grey, who led the Whigs in Parliament, and King William IV, a perfectly decent king who most people know little about. Who – apart from a few New Zealanders – knew that he had a Queen Adelaide, for example? A lady who did her best to wreck the whole thing. And what was the significance of the Houses of Parliament burning down, and today’s Parliament being built in its place?

This is part of our history which everyone should know more about, and it’s very entertaining to read. Buy this book and find out!

Tim’s books: http://www.timvicary.com

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