The Great Reform Act has received a great deal of much needed attention in the last decade. One mode of getting at its significance has, however, been largely ignored. The mode usually followed, particularly recently, has been to examine what the Whig framers of the Act thought they were about, and then, by means of electoral analysis, whether they achieved their object. The two questions are not necessarily the same, of course. For example, most historians of the period would now agree that Professor D. C. Moore, however valuable and stimulating his contribution to the debate, is wrong about Whig intentions. Some may suspect he is also at least in part wrong about the electoral system which grew out of the Act. That, however, has yet to be proven. Yet, even if we could know all about the reformed electoral system, we would still not know all about the impact of the Great Reform Act. For in history what is important is not only what actually happened, but what people of the time believe happened. It is to this sort of question that I want to turn my attention in this paper. Because one of the best ways to appreciate the great significance of the Reform Act is to examine the change it wrought in the attitudes of politicians, particularly of Tory politicians.
Undoubtedly, the two most important of the recent works on the Act are the books of Professors Brock and Cannon. Essentially, both represent a vindication of the main outlines of the old “Whig interpretation.” Thus, both Brock and Cannon see the Act as a response to mounting pressures out-of-doors, the culmination of a long historical process, and an important turning point in the emergence of a more liberal and broadly based political system. Nor does either doubt that the Act marked an important concession to the middle classes, or that it deserves its old designation of “Great.”