With the 1884 bill the second Gladstone administration gave itself some claim to look the government of 1830 in the face. Without a franchise bill it might have been remembered for little more than invading Egypt, sending Gordon to his death and being dominant but not resolving, the Irish problem. — Roy Jenkins

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n his biography of Gladstone, Roy Jenkins argues that “the effect of the bill on Ireland was more dramatic than its effect on Great Britain,” largely because Parliament had kept “Ireland on a more restricted franchise than England” to counter the effects of the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829), which gave Roman Catholics the same rights as other British citizens. By greatly enlarging the numbers of Irishmen who could vote — and, yes, it was only men —  Parliament redressed “more than half a century of discrimination.” Thus, whereas the 1884 Reform Bill increased the number of men in England, Scotland, and Wales who could vote by 60%, it increased those enfranchised in Ireland by 230%.

Jenkins claims that “Gladstone and his supporters did this with their eyes open and rather nobly” because they knew that adding more Irish voters would both double the number of members of Parliament who followed Parnell, the Irish Nationalist, and at the same time also largely eliminate Irish Liberal MPs. Jenkins concludes, embracing “equality for Ireland was a good test of the traditional Whig hallmark of accepting the inevitable with generosity and even enthusiasm. It was a pity that the confidence of the Whig rump, as represented by Hartington, was in the 1880s so low that they did so only growlingly. Their predecessors, from Fox to Russell, had put up a better show.”

Related material


Jenkins, Roy. Gladstone: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.

Last modified 31 May 2018