Two dates for liberty

June 7th was a significant date for liberty on two occasions. The first was the royal assent to the Petition of Right by Charles I in 1628, and the second was the royal assent to the Great Reform Act of 1832 by William IV.

Charles I, anxious to support his foreign wars, had taken to collecting “forced loans” in the absence of Parliamentary subsidies, and imprisoning those refusing to pay. In addition he had soldiers billeted in private homes, and imposed martial law in several places. The Petition, signed on June 7th, imposed prohibitions on the monarch. It limited non-Parliamentary taxation, forced billeting, martial law and unjustified imprisonment.

It ranks alongside Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights as one of the landmark documents that embed liberties into the Constitution. Its influence can be seen in the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh amendments to the US Constitution, and it remains in force today, not only in the UK, but in many Commonwealth countries.

It was also on June 7th, in 1832, that the Great Reform Act was signed into law. Many historians mark that as the beginning of the UK’s modern democracy. The Act was designed to do away with many of the abuses that had crept into the old system, and to recognize that Britain had become different following the Industrial Revolution. It abolished the rotten boroughs, which in some cases had ceased to exist, and got rid of most of the pocket boroughs that were under the control of the local landowner.

In place of the 143 borough seats it abolished, it created 130 new ones, including many of the new towns and cities in the North. In county seats it effectively enfranchised the new merchant class of property owners, though it did not extend the franchise to the working class or to women. It increased the electorate by over 60 percent, and turned a ramshackle system into a fairly smooth and logical one. It paved the way for future reforms that would lead eventually o universal adult suffrage.

The Bill had a fraught passage, and for a time civil disorder was threatened. Eventually Prime Minister Wellington persuaded the Lords to let it through, rather than have hundreds of new peers created to ensure its passage.

Both Acts played a role in asserting the liberties of the people. The first represented a block on monarchical power, and the second severely diluted that of the aristocracy. Both of them were mileposts on the road to modern Britain.