Democracy and the Vote

Democracy and the Vote in British Politics, 1848-67: The Making of the Second Reform Act


'an excellent book, an enjoyable read, and an important contribution to the political history of Victorian Britain'

'comprehensive, well-written, subtle and incisive … a major contribution to our historical understanding'

'a brilliant piece of political history and one that undoubtedly deserves a wide readership'


'Robert Saunders’s first book is a comprehensive, well-written, subtle and incisive discussion … a major contribution to our historical understanding … His important, lucid and richly rewarding study places our understanding of the mid-Victorian Reform debates on a new, secure and sophisticated footing'. LINK
Angus Hawkins, University of Oxford, English Historical Review

'This is an important book that offers a fresh perspective on one of the great questions of modern British politics … Saunders skillfully interweaves the history of “high” and “low” politics, while also paying due attention to intellectual debates about constitutional government and especially the lessons of democracy in America and France. … This is, in short, a subtle reframing of mid-Victorian politics that deserves to be widely read by all those interested in modern political history. If you are a specialist in British history, or in the history of democratization, then you need to follow Saunders’s painstaking reconstruction of the politics of reform chapter by chapter. If not, I would still strongly recommend that you read the introduction to this excellent study. … This is a brilliant piece of political history and one that undoubtedly deserves a wide readership.' LINK
Jon Lawrence, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Journal of Modern History

'This is an excellent book, thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and well organized … Saunders demonstrates real command of his sources and the relevant historiography … [He] has added a great deal to this body of scholarship'.
Michael J. Turner, Appalachian State University, American Historical Review LINK

'This is an important book on an important subject. Saunders provides yet another reminder that this so-called "age of equipoise" should not be dismissed as lacking in interest, controversy and vitality. He manages to convey the detail but also the drama and tension of the debates – in sum this is an excellent book, an enjoyable read, and an important contribution to the political history of Victorian Britain.'
David Brown, University of Strathclyde , Scotland

'Saunders’s well-written and accessible book will be essential reading for scholars and students of mid-Victorian politics'.
Henry Miller, History of Parliament Trust, Reviews in History

'This is a fine, and long overdue, scholarly examination of an important stage of British democratization and constitutional change … an important contribution to our expanding understanding of politics, ideology, and action in Britain’s long nineteenth century'.
Nancy Lopatin-Lummis, University of Wisconsin, History: Reviews of New Books

'this is a highly serviceable, lively, and well-written history of reform which will become required reading for all who wish to understand democracy and the Victorians'.
Anthony Howe, University of East Anglia, Cercles

'elegant and well-researched … Saunders offers one of the best modern accounts of the transformation of Britain into something like a democracy'.
Rohan McWilliam, Parliamentary History


Contents: Introduction: democracy and the vote in British politics; Reform and revolution, 1848–1852; Peelites, protectionists and popular Toryism; The coalition and the Crimea, 1852–1855; Grasping the nettle: the Reform Bills of 1859 and 1860; Democracy in practice: France and America; 'The Liberal dilemma'; The Liberal collapse; The accidental revolution: the making of the second Reform Act; Epilogue: 'Toryism on a national foundation'; Select bibliography; Index.


The Second Reform Act, passed in 1867, was one of the most important statutes in modern British history. It created a million new voters, doubling the electorate and propelling the British state into the age of mass politics. For the first time in British history it created a mass, working class electorate, recasting the relationship between Parliament and people and calling into life the institutions and practices of democratic politics. With the passage of the Second Reform Act, the power to make and unmake governments moved out of Parliament and into the constituencies, establishing the ‘general election’ as the crucible of political life. Parties built national organisations to mobilize support, while men like William Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain and Randolph Churchill pioneered new techniques of popular engagement.

The Reform Act marked the climax of a twenty year struggle for the working class vote. Seven different governments had tried to extend the franchise, six tabled legislation and two fell as a direct result. Reform was debated in Parliament, on the hustings and in the press, and was a major issue in successive general elections. The Act itself marked the close of a two year political crisis, and signalled the re-emergence of the Conservative party as a major force in British politics. Yet the standard works on 1867 are more than forty years old and no study has ever been published of reform in prior decades.

This study provides the first analysis of the subject from 1848 to 1867, ranging from the demise of Chartism to the passage of the Second Reform Act. Recapturing the vibrancy of the issue and its place at the heart of Victorian political culture, it focuses not only on the reform debate itself, but on the growth of trade unionism, the impact of the 1848 revolutions and the influence of French and American democracy.

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