In a famous phrase John Bright, the mid-Victorian Radical leader, said of the reform bill that ‘it was not a good bill, though it was a great bill when it passed’.1 What Bright meant was that far more important than the actual terms of the bill were the fact and the manner of its passing. The repeal of the Orders-in-Council and the winning of Catholic emancipation had demonstrated that special interests could achieve their ends by exerting extra-parliamentary pressure on the government and the House of Commons. The reform act demonstrated that the whole of the political nation, backed by the fourth estate and conducting a peaceful campaign that contained a threat within it, could do the same. New rules, so to speak, had come to be applied to the game of politics. Yet the bill itself, even though Lord Grey exaggerated when he called it ‘the most aristocratic measure that ever was proposed in Parliament’,2 wrought no immediate revolution in the conduct of electoral or parliamentary politics. The act’s chief significance was its acknowledgement of urban, middle-class status; but it did not usher in a period of middle-class political ascendancy over, nor even parity with, the landed elite.
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