1832 and 1833 were immensely significant years for Scottish reform. 1832 saw the Scottish equivalent of the 1832 Great Reform Act, more formally known as the Representation of the People Act 1832, passed around the same time as it did in England and Wales. 1833 was noteworthy in terms of Burgh (a type of autonomous municipal corporation – essentially a town – in Scotland) reform, since both the Burgh Reform Act and the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act were passed in this year.

Much like in England and Wales, the 1832 Scottish Reform Act greatly boosted the electorate, ensuring that suffrage was no longer a privilege that belonged to a select few families. 60,000 Scottish male citizens received the right to vote overnight, magnifying the electorate from 5,000 inhabitants to 65,000. In percentage terms, the passing of the act saw a growth in representation from 0.2% to 13% of the male population, a mark-up of 1400% (as opposed to an 80% increase in England) . It is also worth noting that this progression in representation continued to gather speed as the 19th century went on. By 1867, about one-third of males were able to vote in Scotland, a figure consistent with the electoral composition of England and Wales . And with the passing of the Third Reform Act in 1884, which applied to the whole of the United Kingdom, all men paying an annual rental of £10 and all those holding land valued at £10 now had the vote regardless of whether they lived in the countryside or urban areas . But there continued to be exceptions. The ballot remained non-secret post-1832, and landowners could also legally manipulate the vote by distributing £10 gifts so as to enfranchise those living in their jurisdiction who were willing to endorse them in upcoming elections . Moreover, although sweeping changes were effectuated in 1884, live-in-servants, soldiers housed in barracks and (under the principle of ‘no taxation with representation’) those who did not pay rates still could not vote . And women, of course, had to wait until 1918 before they received enfranchisement.

Aside from increasing the electorate, the 1832 Scottish Reform Act also had implications for the burghs and counties which sent MPs to Parliament. Edinburgh and Glasgow now had two MPs (in clear contrast to the situation pre-1832 explicated above). ‘Parliamentary Burghs’ such as Paisley were established alongside other older ‘Royal Burghs’, including such as Aberdeen and Dundee, who sent MPs to Parliament for the first time . Although, unlike the burghs, the counties continued to elect one MP per county, there were exceptions to six counties who, prior to the passage of the Act, elected an MP only in alternate Parliaments. This setup was amended in 1832 – but the solutions varied between each constituency pairing. Clarkmannanshire would be merged with Kinross-shire, and Cromarty and Nairnshire with their respective neighbouring counties – namely, Ross and Elginshire . Buteshire and Caithness had, despite being geographically disparate from each other, prior to the 1832 Act sent representatives alternately to Parliament. The passing of the Act saw both Buteshire and Caithness each send one of their own.

A year later, two notable acts were passed which further concerned burgh reform and representation. Firstly, the 1833 Burgh Reform Act “swept away the corruption of self-perpetuating town councils by introducing proper elections for town councillors” instead of elections led by the councils. For instance, it introduced “annual elections of councillors by men with the same qualifications as parliamentary electors, for the annual election of one-third of the councillors” . Moreover, although the 1833 Burgh Reform Act did not weed out all such privileges – for instance, Royal Burghs were allowed to keep their own registers of sasines (a legal document that records the transfer of ownership, usually a sale or an inheritance, of a piece of land or of a building ) post-1832 - such benefits were rooted out of all but the largest and most powerful Royal Burghs by later 20th century reform . Interestingly, municipal reform had been attempted over ten years prior to the passing of both 1833 bills by Lord Archibald Hamilton, MP for Lanarkshire from 1802 to until his death 1827. Opposition to the bill ostensibly derived from concerns that change to the municipalities would “violate the treaty of union and infringe chartered rights”, but de facto disdain for bill came from the fear that “municipal reform would entail parliamentary reform” . Hamilton’s advocation for reform did enact change in the shape of minor economic reform (burgesses were allowed to complain to the Lord Exchequer if they felt that town funds were being mismanaged), but reformists lamented that the bill left untouched the self-elective principle which they deemed to be the “real root of evil” that was preventing meaningful change . Hansard sheds further light on the mood of the reformists; a debate on the bill on the 17th of June 1822 saw that although the Lord Advocate argued that the bill was “consistent with the report of the committee up stairs, and that it went directly to remedy the evils complained of”, Hamilton rebutted that in no way did the bill’s passing assuage “the abuses complained of by the inhabitants of the royal burghs of Scotland, and confirmed by the three reports of committees of that House” . He further argued that “to call it a remedy for these admitted abuses, was a total misapplication of terms… [as it] did not meet the paramount abuse of self-election, from which alone so many mischiefs originated” . Joseph Hume echoed the thoughts of Hamilton, asserting that “no effectual relief could be given, unless by a modification of the absurd and dangerous principle of self-election. The defect of this measure was, that it did not go to the root of the evil” . Indeed – until 1833 – nothing would.

The Burgh Police Act, of the same year, implemented two significant reforms alongside the changes brought about by the 1833 Burgh Reform Act. The first was the ability for burghs to adopt powers that would see an improvement in various services within the burgh, such as cleaning, lighting, paving and water supply . The second saw royal burghs, as well as burghs of barony, be permitted to hold elections for police commissioners to ensure the safety of the burgh .

However, Michael Pugh notes that despite (or perhaps as a result of) its lofty ambition, the Act was “more effective in principle than in practice, due to significant defects in its design” . One of the most notable defects Pugh spotlights was the sheer inability for burghs to access funding from taxation and loans, meaning that even Scotland’s larger, more wealthier towns failed to fund drainage, water and sewage schemes . Moreover, new burghs such as Johnstone and Galston were not even eligible for this funding as the Act did not cover the erection of new towns . Its ‘partner’ act in England and Wales, the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, entailed similar reforms for English and Welsh boroughs; that act would be repealed 10 years earlier than the 1833 Burgh Police Act with the 1882 Municipal Corporations Act, although the Police Act would undergo changes before 1892 with acts in 1847 and 1850. These tweaks did not ultimately assuage the feeling that burghs required “more extensive and wider-ranging powers” to combat the problems highlighted in 1833. These powers were granted in the 1892 Burgh Police Act, seeing commissioners being given authority to “[fix] the width and level of new streets [and] the making [and maintaining]… of sewers and drains” . It also specified that “power should be given to contiguous burghs to take joint action in constructing sewers” .

In terms of police commissioners, as David Barrie explicates in his 2007 article ‘'Epoch-Making' Beginnings to Lingering Death: The Struggle for Control of the Glasgow Police Commission, 1833-46’, although some police boards in small towns continued to co-exist with reformed town councils (displaying the presence and impact of both Scottish municipal reform acts in 1833), the vast majority of elected police commissions within larger cities were incorporated in local government throughout the mid-late 19th century . Pugh further posits that “the local autonomy conceded under such legislation was typically conditional and circumscribed in practice”, with Parliament in Westminster enjoying sovereignty (as it does in the present-day as per the constitution) and therefore demonstrated reluctance to vest sovereign power on a municipal, local level . Moreover, “the general police legislation did not entertain burghs forming across county lines, even where this would have been most practicable or desirable” , reflecting the lack of rational governance that underpinned the conditional and often-restricted application of the legislation. He also highlights that although police burgh representatives were not permitted to style themselves as provost (chief magistrate) bailie (magistrate) or councillor until 1900, in reality this presented no barrier to them doing so . This, combined with other aspects of the new police burghs that intended to provide a false sense of history and tradition to what were essentially fledgling communities (such as the establishment of custom-built town halls), could imbue an observer with the notion that the act lacked significance or potency, and therefore needed to be cloaked in “ersatz historical provenance and ceremony” to make-up for its shortcomings.

But Pugh is clear that this should not legitimately inform one’s judgement of the 1833 Police Act. For all its flaws, Pugh states, the Police Act (and indeed the Burgh Reform Act as well) importantly symbolised a concession of the principle of local self-government . This represented the presence of so-called ‘civic republicanism’ in Scotland, where administration of a community is entrusted to the people of that community rather than a higher, centralised power, in turn bolstering the notion of ‘civic nationalism’ which was growing within Scottish towns and urban communities during the early-mid 19th century . The 1833 Acts provided the crucial first step in the push for local self-government, enabling further progress in subsequent years demonstrated through the passing of an improved Police of Scottish Towns Act in 1850 which answered calls for “an enabling framework for local self-government” – in other words, a practical apparatus for the powers gleaned by burghs as a result of the seminal legislation passed in 1833.