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Wellington's beef

27 February 2012

Britain emerged from the Napoleonic wars politically untroubled and democratically ‘balanced’. Many years earlier, the Act of Toleration 1689 and the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1778 had instilled a degree of religious tolerance. The economy was strong and Britain controlled the world’s sea lanes after Lord Nelson’s famous naval victories. Thus, there was little threat of revolution in post-war Britain – making political reform a very low priority. Such a sense of well-being would probably explain why the Duke of Wellington, the conquering hero of Waterloo, considered the political system incapable of improvement.

However, the situation had changed considerably by the 1830s. In the first year of that decade, there were strikes in towns and riots in the countryside. There was a downturn in the economy and growing religious unrest. Lord Grey’s Whig government considered reform essential. Furthermore, the electoral franchise was a muddle and rotten boroughs prevalen...

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