The Essay: Reasons for the Growth of British democracy

Social and Economic change

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Social and Economic change – this includes industrialisation/urbanisation/ demographic/population changes and the development of railways.

The industrial revolution changed where people lived, how they worked and how they felt about their position in society. It was a major contributor to greater urbanisation – demographic change and the emergence of class structures. These social and economic changes created pressures which politicians in the later 19th century had to respond to.

One of the biggest pressures was demographic change, particularly population distribution. Up until 1750 80% of the population worked in the countryside. However, industrialisation meant towns/cities grew and by 1850 50% of people lived in cities – 75% by 1900.The population of Great Britain increased from 16 million in 1801 to 41 million in 1901. In 1832 Rotten Boroughs were abolished but there was no significant changes made with regards to seat distribution. The migration of people from the countryside to the urban areas meant that growing cities like Manchester and Glasgow had little representation. The political system was outdated and the 1867 Reform Act gave extra seats to industrial cities like Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool. 1885 and 1918 also witnessed the reorganisation of constituencies – this was all down to urbanisation. This is clear evidence that demographic changes influenced political reform and you should remember this for your essay.

The 1832 Act enfranchised members of the urban middle class (in towns and cities) and they began to challenge the old ruling class for power. The middle classes believed that as wealth creators (managers, factory/small business owners) they should have more say in the running of the country. Members of the urban middle class also argued that the skilled working class were vital to the economic success of the Britain and the success of the Empire. During the 19th Century Britain was the world leader in imports and exports. Urbanisation also led to the emergence of a working class identity – even before the 2nd Reform Act of 1867 skilled working class men (known as artisans) were more educated and respectable – they attended night schools, took part in local politics and were concerned with tacking social problems and living standards.

The introduction of a compulsory education basic education for children in England and Wales (1870s) and Scotland (1880s) also helped raise political awareness of politics – many people were now ready to take the fight to the government with many joining Reform organisations or Trade Unions. The growth of public libraries also ensured people were better informed about politics.

With regards to the economy, economic growth caused social problems. Poverty was a major problem in towns and cities and many believed the only way to alleviate poverty was through increased working class involvement in politics. Solutions required political changes. The government granted the vote to the ‘skilled working class’ in towns and the countryside in 1867 and 1884 respectively.

The industrial revolution also demanded a more efficient transport system and the development of railways led to a national network of rapid and reliable communications. The historian Sydney Wood – Britain and Scotland 1850-1979 – strongly argues that this was instrumental to the development of democracy in Britain. A great example is PM William Gladstone taking advantage of the railway system to canvass Liberal support in Scotland as he toured Midlothian – known as the ‘Midlothian Campaign’. Thousands flocked to see him deliver speeches and this is considered the first modern political campaign. Gladstone became MP for Midlothian in the General Election of 1880, wrestling the seat back from the Conservatives and this proves the railways were an important feature of modern democracy. Furthermore, newspapers could be printed and transported all over the country also helped develop a national political consciousness that simply did not exist prior to industrialisation.

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