I listened to Nick Clegg’s first speech as Deputy Prime Minister and found myself agreeing with much of what he said. In fact his key points - repealing of intrusive and unnecessary legislation, reforming politics to be more open and transparent, redistribution of power away from the centre – are all things that I wholeheartedly support, who wouldn't? - after all they are the stuff of Motherhood and Apple Pie.
Getting rid of ID cards, protecting the right to peaceful protest, controls on the £2 billion lobbying industry, recall of MPs, an elected second chamber, reform of party funding, revision of libel laws, and so on are also all things that can be found in my shopping list of “things I would do if I ruled the country”.
So why am I finding it so hard to get excited about this new coalition government?
The problem came when the Deputy Prime Minister referred to these proposed changes as the “biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832” which he describes as a time when “huge swathes of the population remained helpless against vested interests” before some politicians “stood up for the freedom of the many, not the privilege of the few”.
The problem is that the Great Reform Act of 1832 was not great – instead it' greatness is a myth, a scam, a swindle.
After it was passed “huge swathes of the population” still “remained helpless against vested interests” and, in fact, the Whig-led coalition government (later to become the Liberal Party) went on to introduce one of the most regressive pieces of legislation that any British government had ever introduced against those“huge swathes of the population”. This was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 - which declared that “no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the authorities except in a workhouse”, and that “conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help”. What is the point of reform if it abandons the most vulnerable?
That any coalition led by the Whigs would not totally embrace reform might be obvious to those familiar with the writings of an earlier Whig, the MP for Bristol, Edmund Burke who stated in 1780 that “popular election is a mighty evil” before later going on to say that if the franchise was extended “learning will be cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of the swinish multitude”
And so, rather than extending the franchise to the many, the Act merely added some of the better-off to the ranks of the privileged, giving them a stake in maintaining the status quo. Before the Act, some 440,000 adult males had the vote in England, Wales and Scotland; afterwards the electorate had risen to just 720,000 men out of a total adult population of 13 million. In Bristol, where riots usually seen as in support of reform had broken out in 1831, the effect of this “emancipation” was to see its two pro-reform MPs replaced by two anti-reform MPs who campaigned hard against any further extension of the vote. If this is a progressive Liberal Democrat's idea of great democratic reform, we are in for a long hard slog to become a truly democratic modern society.
In fact, a long hard slog was what faced real reformers in 1832. It was to be another 35 years before any further widening of the franchise was pushed through parliament with the Liberal politician Lord John “Finality Jack” Russell being in the forefront of preventing any further reform – insisting that the 1832 Act was final and further reform unnecessary. It was not until 1928 that all adults, regardless of wealth, class or gender were given the vote, nearly 96 years after this Great Reform Act.
Nick Clegg’s reference to the events of 1832 should serve to warn us that we are in danger of being presented with another Great Reform swindle – one in which some of us are once again offered a greater stake in the status quo whilst others are effectively disenfranchised and/or find themselves facing great hardship as new legislation is bought in that will hit the poorest amongst our society disproportionately.
The new government’s proposal to raise tax allowances, for example, will do little to benefit the poorest 3 million households whilst the anticipated plan to increase VAT will hit those same households harder because a higher proportion of their tax is in the form of indirect taxes like VAT. Meanwhile the commitment to reducing the deficit by a ratio of spending cuts to taxation of 4 to 1 will mean that ring-fencing the NHS budget simply means larger cuts in areas such as social housing and public transport which again will hit poorer households hardest.
The fact is that there remains a body of political opinion on the right who believe that the working class housing estates of our towns and cities are still full of “swinish multitudes” for whom being on benefits is somehow a lifestyle choice – these are the same people who still believe that many young girls have only one ambition in life; to get themselves pregnant so that they can claim child benefit. For this body of opinion, a welfare system in which “no able-bodied person out of work was to receive money or other help from the authorities” and where conditions “were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help” seems perfectly acceptable. But the rest of Britain has moved on since the 1830s and so instead we get “The Big Society”, where those who can afford it are encouraged to help themselves, whilst those who are most in need will find it increasingly hard to find any support at all as the state turns it back on them.
Another politician with Bristol links, Henry “Orator” Hunt speaking in 1831 asked a large crowd why they were so keen to support the Great Reform bill which, he said, would give the so-called middle classes “a share in the representation, in order that they might join the higher classes to keep seven millions of the lower classes down”. Paul Foot in his book “The Vote” describes the response when Hunt asked;
“Do they propose to lessen our taxes?” (“NO!” came the roared reply.)
“Do they propose to keep their hands out of our pockets?” (“NO!”)
“To give us cheaper bread, cheaper meat, cheaper clothing, to work us fewer hours, or give us better wages?”
To the deafening crescendo “NO, NO, NO!” Hunt asked: “Then how the devil are you interested, pray?”
Sorry Nick, although I like what you’re offering if it is at the expense of the poor and vulnerable of our country, I’m not interested. I repeat...what is the point of reform if it abandons the most vulnerable?