The Essay: Reasons for the Growth of British democracy

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A traditional argument that the Third Reform Act in 1884 (extension of the franchise to skilled workers in the countryside) was the result of political pressure. WA Hayes wrote about ‘the critical part played by popular opinion in making the Third Reform Act’ but in reality such pressure was not significant. It is true that before the 1867, Reform large-scale organised demonstrations in support of change united middle-class and working class voters with members belonging to the Reform Union and Reform League. However, before the reform of 1884 there was little widespread popular pressure. Yes, some pressure did come from Trade Unions, the Reform League/Union and there was a public demonstration procession that took three hours to pass Parliament on 21 July 1884. By the 1880s however reform campaigners used contacts within parliament or political parties to pursue their cause. In short, popular pressure had little impact on governments of the 19th century.

Trade Unions became increasingly popular as the 19th century progressed. Trade Unions had more than 1 million members by 1880, 2 million members by 1900 and 4million by 1914. This was very much a working class organisation and their growing influence and numbers worried the two main parties. Particularly the Liberals as they were traditionally seen as the party of the working class. Trade Unions were instrumental in the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee – what we know as the Labour Party today. However, at the time Labour was established as the third force in British politics by 1906 – the Liberal government was far more interested in delivering social reform and dealing with poverty – and there was no real extension of democracy until 1918 (besides the 1911 Parliament Act).

NUWSS (Suffragists) and WSPU (Suffragettes) were both important groups who propelled the debate concerning female suffrage in to the public limelight. However, more than one shadow has been cast on the argument that they were highly influential regarding reform. These groups were in operation from 1897 and 1903 respectively and whilst they were both successful in canvassing support and gaining publicity they had failed to deliver the female vote before the outbreak of war in 1914. In fact, by 1914 more than 1000 important WSPU members were in prison or hiding by 1914. Although they had the support of some MP’s their militant tactics and aggressive actions had alienated themselves from some of Britain’s more influential politicians. Lloyd George has supported the campaign for a while but this perhaps changed when the Suffragettes bombed his house in 1913. They also attacked HH Asquith and vandalised his car – hardly a wise move when Asquith was Prime Minister from 1908-16. When the war began in 1914 Mrs Pankhurst postponed all Suffragette activities and rallied women groups to unite and actively embrace the war effort. Women proved invaluable during the the Great War and their contribution to the home and western front cannot be underestimated. In short, there is a stronger argument that the war effort delivered the vote and not the Suffragist/Suffragette campaigns. According to the historian John Ray “Women proved by their work that they deserved the vote equally with men. Thus their war efforts succeeded where the Suffragette campaign failed.”

Did the militant Suffragette campaign do more harm than good?

The Historian John Ray is of the opinion that the war effort delivered the vote.

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