The birth of modern British politics, 1832-3

The birth of modern British politics began in 1832 when the Whig government intervened in property rights. Firstly, ownership of rotten boroughs, which elected MPs, and secondly, slavery. Ownership of constituencies and slaves were felt to be against the public good. Both pieces of legislation followed campaigns from pressure groups. This was especially true of the abolition of slavery. The Whig government passed The Reform Act, 1832, and The Abolition of Slavery Act, 1833. The first began the destruction of aristocratic power with the abolition of medieval constituencies. The second ended slavery, throughout the Empire, by buying every single one. These Acts changed the political world.

The Whig government benefited from political corruption.1 The Prime Minister and ten colleagues weren’t voted into office because they were aristocrats. Many owned constituencies and nominated MPs. The Reform Act, was political altruism. The Whigs forced it through both houses of parliament against opposition, which included many in their own party. All of Grey’s MPs, for example, came from unrepresentative historic constituencies.

Creating MPs for cities meant tiny boroughs were abolished. Grey also radically abolished obsolete election methods (see Addendum) The Act radically reoriented democracy in Britain. The equitable distribution of seats mattered for the first time.

The Abolition of Slavery Act, 1833, politicised moral considerations for the first time. Slavery had been vilified as ‘odious’ in 1772, by Lord Mansfield, who declared no-one in Britain could be a slave. Thousands of slaves, living with their owners, were released without compensation. Abolitionists promptly formed sophisticated pressure groups highlighting slavery as abhorrent. There were, however, important economic downsides to abolition. The Whig government knew that slavery affected many people in Britain. Most slave-owners never saw slaves because ownership was embedded within overseas investments.3 Income was generated by arms-length ownership. An elegant solution was concocted. The government bought slaves and released them.

… ’In 1833, Britain used 40% of its national budget to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. Britain borrowed such a large sum of money for the Slavery Abolition Act that it wasn’t paid off until 2014. This means that living British citizens helped pay for the ending of the slave trade with their taxes’.4

The notion that governments should do good was unknown until Lord Grey’s government abolished slavery. State intervention became part of the political narrative and future social legislation was predicated on a political ‘ought’. (The state can rectify social wrongs and therefore it ought to do so. The logic is flawed but the argument is politically compelling.)

The two years, 1832-3, began modern British politics. The Whig government initiated the destruction of aristocratic power and introduced interventionist social legislation. The use of legislation to shape society became central to British politics.

Addendum: How MPs were elected prior to 1832

  1. Boroughs in which freemen were electors;
  2. Boroughs in which the franchise was restricted to those paying scot and lot, a form of municipal taxation;
  3. Boroughs in which only the ownership of a burgageproperty qualified a person to vote;
  4. Boroughs in which only members of the corporation were electors (such boroughs were perhaps in every case “pocket boroughs“, because council members were usually “in the pocket” of a wealthy patron);
  5. Boroughs in which male householders were electors (these were usually known as “potwalloperboroughs”, as the usual definition of a householder was a person able to boil a pot on his/her own hearth);
  6. Boroughs in which freeholders of land had the right to vote.

Source: Reform Act 1832 – Wikipedia


1 Demography of England – Wikipedia In 1750 London had a population of 675,000. A hundred years later it was 2.8 million

2 Lord Grey’s cabinet of 1830 had eleven aristocrats in it including a duke. There were just two commoners, who were far from being ‘common’. Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey – Wikipedia

3 This is like people owning tobacco shares because they’re embedded in Unit Trusts. It’s probable they don’t know what they ‘own’ because they’re buried amongst 1000s of other shares.

3 FOI2018-00186_-_Slavery_Abolition_Act_1833_-_pdf_for_disclosure_log__003_.pdf ( see How the first Black Community was formed in London after 1772 | Odeboyz’s Blog (

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