Book review: Perilous Question by Antonia Fraser

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Eighteen thirty-two used to be a well-known date in British history. It was the year of the Great Reform Bill, when an outdated political system gave way to a wider franchise allowing a number of middle-class men to vote for the first time. Antonia Fraser’s latest book is a spirited attempt to bring the controversy and passion of the era to a new audience.

Perilous Question by Antonia Fraser

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 336pp, £20

Her prose is charming and fluent. Yet her enthusiasm cannot hide how utterly remote the Reform Bill debates seem from modern political life. The world Lady Antonia describes was, as Disraeli observed, “for the few, and the very few”.

The daughter of a Labour earl, Lady Antonia is perhaps the nearest thing we have to a Whig literary grandee. Of course, the Reform Bill was passed by a progressive Whig government against the opposition of reactionary old Tories. As the champion of fashionable Left-wing causes, Lady Antonia is keen on aristocratic-led reform. Noblesse oblige and all that.

In some instances, admiration for these liberal grandees gets in the way of accuracy. This reviewer was surprised to learn that Viscount Althorp earned a first-class degree in mathematics at Cambridge University. This seemed unlikely as noblemen did not have to take exams to get degrees in the Cambridge of the early 1800s. In fact, his Lordship took a pass degree, after two years, without taking any exams.

“Honest Jack” Althorp, as Leader of the House of Commons, played a big role in the events surrounding the passage of the Reform Bill. He is a representative British figure. Stocky, red-faced, with full sideburns and his hand nonchalantly placed in his pocket, Viscount Althorp was a champion breeder of prize bulls but a rather clumsy Parliamentary performer, though his character won admiration from both sides of the House. Aged only 36 when his wife died giving birth to their stillborn child, Althorp abandoned fox hunting in his grief. He never remarried.

Such luminaries as Macaulay, Earl Grey, Wellington and Sir Robert Peel play roles in this rather hurried narrative. King William IV, the original “silly Billy”, also plays a large and diverting role. But how significant was the Great Bill?

It was simply the first of several, passed in 1867, 1884 and 1918. Fraser says the electorate increased from 439,200 in 1831 to 656,000 in 1832 – a 49 per cent increase. This sounds impressive but, given that the population of Britain was 16 million, there is a strong case to suggest that this was largely irrelevant. Yet this, it could be argued, was more progressive than the corruption that dominated 18th-century politics. In the bad old days, Old Sarum elected two MPs without having any voters. The seat was simply bought and sold.

Antonia Fraser’s vivid account is particularly strong on characters and the fine words polished by parliamentary reporters in publications such as Hansard. The reform debates gave a wonderful platform for young speakers such as Macaulay who, as Bagehot remembered, gave “marvellous rhetorical exercises on the Reform Bill”. However, the great drama of the Reform Bill seems to belong more to an aristocratic 18th century than to the dynamic and industrial 19th century. It did not mark the birth of democracy in Britain.