The Historical Journal


The Role of Redistribution in the Making of the Third Reform Act

Mary E. J. Chadwicka1

a1 University College, London

The Third Reform Act has never received the attention which historians have given to its famous predecessors, though its political effects were arguably the most profound of the three. And though there was not the same pressure from extra-parliamentary agitation as in 1831–2 or 1866–7, the enactment of a major electoral reform in 1884–5 predictably overshadowed other parliamentary business. Lord Kimberley saw this clearly in 1883: ‘From the time when we propose the extension of the county franchise until (by some Government) the Redistribution of Seats is carried, there will be a political crisis and all other measures will be practically postponed.’ But in their explanations of the prolonged controversy, which lasted until the end of November 1884, historians have become absorbed in the tactical aspects of the political game and have tended to lose sight of the substantive issues at stake. Charles Seymour stated in 1915 that ‘the question of reform in 1884 was…fought out, not on principles, but upon the method of procedure’. Professor Weston has depicted the situation in terms of a Tory ‘cave’ fostered by the queen, forcing negotiation upon a reluctant Salisbury; while Dr Fair, in seeking to rebut her argument, has taken a similar standpoint to Seymour's. ‘It was not the details of reform or redistribution which were at stake. It was a spirit of mutual distrust.’