Why did democracy develop in Britain after 1850?
Introduction Between 1850 and 1928, through the introduction of a series of acts of parliament, Britain became a democratic country. All the features that would be expected in a democracy were put in place. For example, the franchise was made universal, the constituencies were more or less shared equally across the country, voting was protected and the opportunities for corruption were considerably reduced. Whilst appreciating the effectiveness of these acts, it is necessary to examine the various background factors which encouraged governments and parliament to pass them in the first place. They include social changes such as population growth and movement, education and the growth of a national press that contributed to growing public interest and participation in politics. Background factors also include enlightened political leadership as well as naked political self-interest linked to party self-interest and survival.
Social and Economic Change
In the 1850s, the political system in Britain came under increasing pressure as a result of social and economic change. The nineteenth century saw a rapid growth in the size and movement of population. Industrial areas grew at the expense of country/rural areas but the way that political representation was organized was slow to change. The Industrial Revolution changed where people lived, how they worked and how they saw their position in society.
At a time of large scale industrialization, urbanization and social change, the government was still run by the upper class, elected by a small, male minority. Many in the growing business and trade classes felt their efforts were making Britain rich but that they and the towns/cities in which they lived were under-represented. They believed that the upper class, based on land ownership, should not have all political power but that it should be shared with the middle classes. Faced with this pressure, parliament had little option but to take steps that led to the growth of democracy.
Growing Public Interest in the Political System
By the 1860s, there was growing public interest in the political system. Despite the lack of compulsory education, education levels were growing steadily. Linked to this, was the growth of national newspapers, encouraged by the railway system. These papers focused on national issues such as politics and they were also the main reading materials for many in society.
Through the newspapers, the public learnt of the defects and flaws in the political system. Newspapers triggered interest in events in Europe and the USA, whilst also allowing some comparison between Britain’s system and that of other countries. All of this combined to cause people to realize that there was much wrong with the political system and that change was needed.
Influences from Abroad
The American War of Independence, 1775-1783, The French Revolution of 1789 and the revolutions in Europe in 1848 all influenced the formation of reform societies and pressure groups in Britain. Radical, political ideas such as those of Thomas Paine, set out in his book, ‘The Rights of Man’, were discussed and written about.
In the 1860s, popular enthusiasm for democracy and desire for political reform grew with support for the Northern cause in the American Civil War and the struggle for Italian liberty.
Pressure Groups outside Parliament
Following the Great Reform Act of 1832, demands for further reform continued into the 1840s. The prominent reformist group at this time was the Chartists who believed that only by extending democracy to working class people could living and working conditions be improved. They presented a series of petitions to parliament but failed to persuade the government to agree to their demands (see page 5 of textbook).
The writings of John Stuart Mill in his books, ‘On Liberty’ (1860) and ‘Representative Government’ (1861), served to underline the principles of democracy with the educated classes.
In 1864, the National Reform Union was founded to promote the idea that the middle and working classes had similar political aims and should work together. The radical, John Bright, organized large public meetings. Also formed in 1864, the Reform League, a more radical body, gained support from trade unionists, socialists and former Chartists in its campaign for manhood suffrage and a secret ballot. By 1866, the London Trades Council was beginning to campaign actively for manhood suffrage.
In 1866, the demand for reform intensified, leading to marches, demonstrations and even rioting in Hyde Park. This convinced some politicians that it was better to grant some change rather than to try and hold back the demand for reform.
In 1866, the Liberal Party split over the issue of how much reform should be introduced and the government was forced to resign. The Conservative Party, under Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli, formed a government and, in response to the agitation in the country for reform, introduced a bill of their own.
In fact, Disraeli intended to “dish the Whigs” by “stealing the Liberals’ clothes”. In other words, he believed that, if the Conservatives gave the vote to skilled, working class males in the towns, then these men would vote Conservative in future elections. It was “a leap in the dark” (a risky move with unknown consequences).
In 1867, by passing the Second Reform Act, the Conservative Party stole many of the Liberals’ ideas and spoiled their chances of winning support from skilled, working class males. They could now portray themselves as a party of reform.
Changing Political Attitudes
By the 1850s, Liberal leaders such as Lord John Russell and William Gladstone favoured political reform as a step towards other change, to satisfy skilled workers and to avoid unrest. In 1866, there was a good deal of popular demand for reform, underlined by marches, demonstrations and even rioting in Hyde Park, London.
Gladstone believed that moderate, educated, skilled workers deserved the vote as a moral right. The setting up, organization and successful running of trade unions based on democratic principles, was evidence of this. The future Prime Minister became the focus for attention in 1864 when he declared that “Every man who is not presumably incapacitated by some consideration of personal fitness or of political danger is morally entitled to come within the pale of the Constitution, provided this does not lead to sudden or violent or excessive, or intoxicating political change.”
Thus in 1866, Gladstone supported attempts to secure reform and in 1884 his government introduced theRepresentation of the People Act (Third Reform Act).
Gladstone’s Liberal Government introduced this act for the following reasons:
(i). To grant equal voting rights to males in the counties in line with those enjoyed by males in the boroughs.
(ii). To recognise that working class males were becoming increasingly educated and literate and should be included in the political process.
(iii). To include more working class males in the political system in order to reduce discontent and negate the appeal of new radical/revolutionary doctrines e.g. Socialism.
Most of the reasons for the introduction of the Representation of the People Act, 1918 (Fourth Reform Act) were connected with World War I:
(i). The residency qualification for voters had to be abolished. It was politically unacceptable to tell men, who had just returned from the War, that they had lost the right to vote because they had not been resident at their property for some time.
(ii). Women had taken over jobs normally associated with men and had kept the home front going during the War. This gained them respect and persuaded those in power to introduce limited female suffrage.
Conclusion The growth of democracy between 1850 and 1928 can be explained by many reasons. The Acts that increased democracy are of some significance but they would never have become law unless there were other pressures or reasons for change. Of greater significance are the various factors that existed in the nineteenth century. The changing nature of politics, the self-interest of the political parties, the growth and movement of population, the influence of newspapers, the better education levels of the working class, the growth of trade unions and the fear of socialism all contributed in different ways and to different extents toward making governments and parliament more prepared to pass reform and to allow democracy to grow in the period.
How democratic was Britain by 1928?
“Democracy is the government of the people, for the people, by the people.” (Abraham Lincoln, President of the USA 1860-1865) Introduction For any country to be called democratic, certain conditions have to exist. Firstly, all adults should have the right to vote but the right to vote did not in itself make Britain democratic. Between 1850 and 1928, other features of a democracy were created. These features included a fair system of voting, a choice of who to vote for and access to information to make an informed choice. It should also be possible for people from all backgrounds to become Members of Parliament themselves and parliament should be accountable to the voters. By 1928, all of these conditions had been met and consequently, Britain had become democratic.
Conditions for Democracy
The Vote – Probably the most important right is the right to vote. The right to vote is also called the franchise and without it, the people of a country cannot influence political decisions.
Fairness – A country is not democratic if people are scared to vote because of intimidation or if they can’t vote for the person or party they support. There should also be a fair distribution of parliamentary seats amongst the population of a country so that people are represented as equally as possible.
Choice –A country is not democratic if voters have no choice, even if they can vote in secret.
Accountability – Parliament should reflect the wishes of the voters and be answerable to them.
Participation (the opportunity to become an MP)– In a democracy, people who want to be involved in politics, should be able to participate.
Access to Information – People have to be able to access and understand information in order to make a choice in an election.
How democratic was Britain in 1850? In 1850, the state of democracy in Britain had been set by the Great Reform Act of 1832 (First Reform Act). The Act had introduced improvements in two areas of the democratic process – it increased the number of men who could vote in a general election and it redistributed parliamentary seats so that there was a more equal ratio of MPs to constituents. However, Britain was still far from being democratic:
The right to vote was linked to the ownership of property. Consequently, only 7% of the adult population of Britain had the vote. Working class men and all women were excluded from the franchise i.e. they were not allowed to vote.
Voting took place in public at the hustings (no secret ballot). Bribery, corruption and intimidation were quite common during elections.
General elections were only held every seven years.
The distribution of seats was still unequal. MPs still represented county and borough constituencies with great variations in size of population.
The Tory dominated House of Lords was not elected. It could stop the elected majority in the House of Commons getting bills through parliament.
Only wealthy men could stand as candidates for election as there was a property qualification and MPs were not paid a salary.
The Demand for Further Reform Clearly, the 1832 Reform Act did nothing for the vast majority of people who remained powerless. Thus demands for further reform continued in the 1830s and 1840s. The prominent reformist group at this time was the Chartists who believed that only by extending democracy to working class people could living and working conditions be improved. They presented a series of petitions to parliament but failed to persuade the government to agree to their demands. However, gradual social and economic change combined to make further political reform not only desirable but inevitable.
Men who rented property worth £12 per year (£14 per year in Scotland)
Effects of the Act
The number of men who qualified for the vote was increased from 1.5 to 2.5 million. 1 in 3 adult males could now vote (1 in 7 in 1833). 16% of the adult population now had the vote.
The franchise was extended to skilled, male town workers and well off farmers.
The electorate in some of Britain’s newer towns increased dramatically.
The largest increases in the number of voters were in the large, industrial boroughs e.g. Manchester and Leeds.
Criticisms of the Act
Many working class men, particularly in the counties (countryside), were still not
entitled to vote e.g. farm labourers, craftsmen in small, country towns, soldiers in barracks, male domestic servants living in, adult sons living at home.
Women could still not vote in general elections.
The right to vote was still based on the ownership of property.
There was still no secret ballot and bribery, corruption and intimidation were rife.
Representation of the People Act, 1884 (Third Reform Act)
Voting Qualifications This act gave the vote to male houseowners, lodgers and tenants who had lived in a house valued at £10 for at least a year (rateable value).
Effects of the Act
The number of men who qualified for the vote was increased from 2.5 to 5 million.
2 in 3 adult males could now vote. 29% of the adult population now had the vote.
The franchise was extended to male farm workers.
Voting qualification in the boroughs and counties were now identical.
Criticisms of the Act
Many working class men (40% of adult males in Britain) were still not entitled to vote e.g. soldiers in barracks, male domestic servants living in, adult sons living at home, paupers on poor relief and those who failed to pay their rates.
Women could still not vote in general elections.
The right to vote was still based on the ownership of property.
Also, plural voting still existed. This meant that a man could have many votes if he owned property in different constituencies.
Universities still elected Members of Parliament.
Representation of the People Act, 1918 (Fourth Reform Act)
Voting Qualifications The vote was given to:
All men over 21 years of age (an exception was made to serving members of the armed forces who were under 21)
Women over 30 years of age who were householders or wives of householders or graduates of a British University.
Also, general elections were henceforth to be held on one day.
Effects of the Act
21 million adults in Britain now had the vote (8.5 million were female). 74% of the adult population now had the vote.
Male suffrage (the right to vote) was no longer linked to the ownership of property.
For the first time, the industrial working class became the majority in a mass electorate – this led to the growth of the Labour Party.
Criticisms of the Act
Women under 30 years of age and poor women over 30 still did not have the vote.
Many of those who had worked hard and risked their lives in munitions factories were mostly single and in their 20s.
Parliamentary Reform Act, 1928 (Fifth Reform Act)
This Act extended the franchise to all women over the age of 21.
97% of the adult population of Britain now had the vote.
N.B. In 1969 the voting age was reduced to 18 years of age.
2). Fairness Dealing with Corruption Bribery, corruption and intimidation were still very much part and parcel in elections in the late 1860s.In an effort to get rid of this, the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone passed two laws:
(i). The Ballot Act, 1872 – this introduced the secret ballot which allowed working class people to vote as they really wanted. However, corruption was not completely wiped out.
(ii). The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act, 1883 –
Candidates’ election expenses were determined by the size of the constituency.
It was made clear what campaign money could be spent on.
Election agents had to account for their spending.
A detailed definition of illegal and corrupt practices was set down.
A breech of the law disqualified a candidate for seven years.
Active involvement in corruption was punishable by a fine or imprisonment.
Creating Equal Constituencies (i). In addition to extending the franchise, the 1867 Reform Act also improved the distribution of seats:
Many smaller boroughs lost one or both of their MPs and these MPs were redistributed to areas of the country that were under-represented e.g. 5 seats were allocated to Scottish constituencies.
(ii). Redistribution of Seats Act, 1885– this aimed to construct constituencies of approximately equal size. The effects were as follows:
79 towns which had a population of under 15,000 lost both their seats.
36 towns which had a population of 15,000 to 50,000 lost one seat.
Towns which a population of 50,000 to 165,000 kept two seats.
Universities kept two seats.
The remainder of the country was divided up into single member constituencies.
The total number of MPs was increased from 652 to 670.
(iii). In addition to extending the franchise, theRepresentation of the People Act, 1918 also provided for a redistribution of seats, with the aim of creating uniform constituencies, each of about 70,000 voters.
3). Choice Socialist groups eventually joined with the Trade Union movement to form the Labour Representation Committee which in 1906 became known as the Labour Party. This party claimed to represent the interests of the working class and campaigned for direct government involvement to tackle the social problems within Britain. As a result, the electorate now had a genuine choice between parties with different ideologies i.e. Conservative, Labour and Liberal. With the passing of the 1918Representation of the People Act, the industrial working class became the majority in a mass electorate – this led to the growth of the Labour Party.
The Parliament Act, 1911 In 1909, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, introduced his famous ‘People’s Budget’. This aimed to finance social reforms e.g. pensions, as well as naval rearmament through increased taxation of the better off. It was rejected by the Conservative dominated House of Lords. The Liberals regarded this as an attack on democracy. After two general elections and the threat of a mass creation of Liberal peers, a Parliament Bill was finally passed in 1911. This Act made the following changes:
The Lords could no longer stop bills to do with taxation or government spending.
The Lords could only delay other bills for two years (cut to one year in 1949).
General elections were to be held at least every five years instead of seven.
This made the elected house i.e. the House of Commons, even more accountable to the voters.
5). Participation Payment of MPs, 1911 In 1858, the property qualification for election candidates had been abolished. In 1911, an act of parliament established a salary of £400 per year for Members of Parliament. This enabled anybody to have the right to be a representative as well as an elector. It made it possible for working class men to seek election for parliament.
6). Access to Information
The Education Act, 1870 (1872 in Scotland)helped to increase literacy within the country so that information about political parties and their policies became more accessible to the mass of the population.
Political meetings, public libraries and daily, national newspapers became vital sources of information.
The development of the railways from the 1850s was also crucial to the spread of information, either through the spoken or written word.
National Party Organisation – as the number of voters in a constituency increased, party leaders had to find ways of persuading the electors to vote for their candidate. They came up with three methods of doing this:
(i). Each political party issued a programme or manifesto which contained a series of measures or policies which they promised to carry out if the voters returned enough of their candidates to give them a majority in the House of Commons.
(ii). Each political party developed a national organisation with a party headquarters and full time paid staff e.g. Conservative Central Office (1870) and the National Liberal Federation (1877). (iii). In each constituency, local party workers, under the guidance of a professional party agent, undertook fundraising activities. At election time, they campaigned by putting up posters, delivering leaflets and organising meetings at which their candidate would speak. National political figures such as William Gladstone began to actively campaign in elections, addressing large, public meetings in various constituencies e.g. Midlothian Campaign, 1880.
How democratic was Britain in 1928? By 1928, Britain had become a democratic country. All the features that would be expected in a democracy were in place. The franchise was universal, the constituencies were more or less shared equally across the country, voting was protected and the opportunities for corruption had been considerably reduced. Payment of MPs and restrictions on election spending made it possible for working class candidates to stand for election. The elected house was finally dominant over the un-elected house, though the latter still retained considerable powers. There was a genuine choice for voters from different backgrounds of three main political parties. Access to information was much greater than it had been in 1850. However, there were still those who criticized the democratic system e.g. without proportional representation, many people argued that it was very difficult for new or small parties to get a foothold in parliament.
Why did some women gain the vote in 1918?