CHAPTER XXII - THE REFORM ACTS
The new life brought an inevitable demand for a share in the government of the country, and this brought the old order and the new face to face. The political power was entirely in the hands of the squires, alienated from the peasants in many cases by a difference of language, and in most cases by a difference of religion.
The Act of 1535 had, as we have seen, given Wales a representation in Parliament. Each shire had one member only; except Monmouth, which had two. Each shire town had one member, except that of Merioneth; and Haverfordwest was given a member. The county franchise was the forty shilling freehold; it therefore excluded not only those who had no connection with the land, but the copyholder - who was really a landowner, but whose tenure was regarded as base, on account of his villein origin. This copyholder was undoubtedly the descendant of the Welsh serf of mediaeval times.
The first Reform Act, that of 1832, was won for the great manufacturing towns of England, but Wales benefited by it. It extended the franchise to the copyholder, and to the farmer paying 50 pounds rent, in the counties; it gave the towns a uniform 10 pounds household franchise. It also brought many of the towns into the system of representation. It raised the number of members from twenty-seven to thirty-two; the agricultural districts getting two, and the mining districts two.
The slight change in representation is a recognition of the growing industries of the country, especially in the coal and iron districts. The coal of the great coalfield of South Wales had been worked as far back as Norman times; but it was in the nineteenth century that the coal and iron industries of South Wales, and the coal and slate industries of North Wales became important. Cardiff, Swansea, and Newport became important ports; and places that few had ever heard of before - like Ystradyfodwg or Blaenau Ffestiniog - became the centres of important industries. But, in 1832, Wales was still mainly pastoral and agricultural; and the Act, though it did much for the towns, left the representation of the counties in the hands of the same class. Still, it was the towns that showed disappointment, as was seen in the Chartism of the wool district of Llanidloes and of the coal district of Newport.
The second Reform Act, of 1867, gave Merthyr Tydvil two representatives instead of one, otherwise it left the distribution of seats as it had been before. But the new extension of the franchise- -to the borough householder, the borough 10 pounds lodger, and especially the 12 pounds tenant farmer - gave new classes political power. It was followed by a fierce struggle between the old landed gentry and their tenants, a struggle which was moderated to a certain extent by the Ballot Act of 1870, and by the great migration of the country population to the slate and coal districts.
The rapid rise of the importance of the industrial districts is seen in the third Reform Act of 1885. The country districts represented by the small boroughs of the agricultural counties of Brecon, Cardigan, Pembroke, and Anglesey, were wholly or partly disfranchised. But the slate county of Carnarvonshire had an additional member; and in the coal and iron country, Swansea and Carmarthenshire and Monmouthshire had one additional member each, and Glamorgan three.
The third Reform Act enfranchised the agricultural labourer and the country artisan. In England many doubts were expressed about the intelligence or the colour of the politics of the new voter; but, in Wales, most would admit that he was as intelligent as any voter enfranchised before him; all knew there could be no doubt about his politics.
The character of the representation of Wales has entirely changed. The squire gave place to the capitalist, and the capitalist to popular leaders. Wales, whose people blindly followed the gentry in the Great Civil War, is now the most democratic part of Britain.