Houses of Parliament

17: The rise of democracy

The political representation of Wales before the coming of Reform

The Act of Union granted Wales 27 Members of Parliament, a number that remained unchanged until the Reform Act of 1832. The MPs constituted some 7% of the membership of the House of Commons, a percentage which in 1536 was roughly similar to Wales' proportion of the population of England and Wales.

In the county constituencies, the vote was vested in freeholders owning land worth £2 a year; in the boroughs it was the burgesses who were generally the voters. Both the county and borough systems were open to manipulation by landed families.

There were few genuine freeholders and most county voters were enfranchised through leases granted to them by their landlords. Almost all boroughs were controlled by estate owners and it is they who decided who became burgesses.

By the late 18th century, a tight group of some 20 families controlled the parliamentary representation of Wales.

The system in Wales was less corrupt than it was in much of England. There were no completely rotten boroughs, fewer towns with no representation at all, and the inequality between the counties was not as blatant.

Nevertheless, with voting a public act, less than 5% of adult males enfranchised, bribery rampant and estate owners virtually the only moneyed class, landlord dominance of the electoral process was inevitable.

By the late 18th century, a tight group of some 20 families controlled the parliamentary representation of Wales. It was generally decided not by the casting of votes, but by private arrangements which ensured the emergence of a single unopposed candidate. In the general election of 1830, for example, not one of the Welsh constituencies was contested.


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