Why did democracy develop in Britain after 1850? Introduction

Importance of the Suffrage Movement

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Importance of the Suffrage Movement
The Suffragists (NUWSS)

In 1897, a number of local women’s suffrage societies came together to form the National Union of Women’ Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. The NUWSS believed in peaceful tactics to win the vote, preferring to try to persuade and educate, always working within the law. Suffragists wrote pamphlets, distributed leaflets and posters, sent letters and articles to newspapers, held meetings, organized petitions and lobbied their MPs. By 1914, it had about 500 branches and 53,000 members.

  • Although criticized for not being forceful enough for the government to take notice, recent research suggests that the NUWSS was important in attracting support for the ‘cause’. Membership of the NUWSS remained high in the years leading up to World War I. When the Suffragettes became more violent, particularly between 1912-1914, the membership of the NUWSS rose as women left the WSPU.

The Suffragettes (WSPU)

The Suffragettes were born out of the Suffragist movement in 1903. In that year, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was set up by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia. It was mainly a middle class movement but it got a lot of support from working class women, impatient with the lack of progress from the NUWSS. Many younger women were attracted by its motto, “Deeds, not words”. From 1903-1906 the Suffragettes adopted similar tactics to the NUWSS. However, the failure of the newly elected Liberal Government to introduce women’s suffrage provoked a militant campaign from 1906 onwards. Unlike the Suffragists, the Suffragettes were prepared to break the law as part of their campaign for votes for women. Suffragettes interrupted Liberal Party meetings, chained themselves to railings at the House of Commons, smashed windows and attacked government ministers eg. Asquith (Lossiemouth Golf Club). In 1907, a group of women split from the WSPU and formed the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). Some refused to pay taxes as a protest at not having the vote. In the period 1912-1914 (‘the wild period’), the Suffragettes became even more militant, resorting to more violent protest methods such as slashing paintings, firebombing business premises and cutting telegraph wires.

  • It can be argued that the WSPU kept the issue of women’s suffrage to the forefront as violent tactics eg. firebombing property, attacking politicians etc… made big headlines at a time when there were other issues in the news eg. Irish Home Rule. The Suffragettes gained a high level of publicity and promoted a greater awareness of the issue of women’s suffrage. It could also be argued that extreme militancy embarrassed the Government as they were unable to control the situation.

  • From 1909, many Suffragettes went on hunger strike in prison as a protest at being treated as criminals and not political prisoners. The Government ordered them to be force-fed (liquid food via throat or nostrils). This backfired on the Government as the Suffragettes gained sympathy and support, both in the press and with the public, which their tactics had previously lost them.

  • The Government hit back with the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge Act of 1913 (nicknamed ‘the Cat and Mouse Act’ by the Suffragettes). This allowed for the release of women on hunger strike when their health started to suffer. After a week or two, they would be brought back to continue their sentence. This was meant to demoralize the Suffragettes but only strengthened their resolve.

  • When Emily Wilding Davison committed suicide by throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby, the Suffragettes turned her funeral into a massive propaganda exercise.

  • The decision of Mrs Pankhurst to suspend the militant Suffragette campaign for the duration of the War meant that the Government could grant the vote to women without appearing to give in to violence.

Changing Position of Women in British Society

  • Historian, Martin Pugh, argues that by 1900 it was very hard to justify not giving the vote to women. By 1900, women, especially middle class women, were much better educated than previously, in many cases up to university level. They could vote and even stand for office in local council and school board elections.

  • Women were also increasingly important in the trade union movement (Women’s Trade Union League). Changes in the law had improved women’s social position eg. Married Women’s Property Acts 1870/1882. Therefore, it is not true to say that in 1900 women were second class citizens, treated as their husband’s property. That attitude was common in 1850 but had changed by 1900.

International Pressure

  • New Zealand, South Australia, certain states in the USA and a state in Canada had already given the vote to women. The question then was why Britain, as the leading democratic nation in the world, should not do likewise.

The Trend towards Democratic Reform

  • Some historians believe that women were on their way to getting the vote in 1914 and that the War interrupted this progress. As evidence of this, they cite the introduction of a series of bills in parliament between 1910-1912 as evidence that the Liberal Government was willing to address the issue of women’s suffrage.

  • During this period, two bills (‘Conciliation Bills’) were drawn up by an all-party Commons Committee in response to Prime Minister Asquith’s promise for a free vote in Parliament on a Bill for Women’s Suffrage. The first of these bills was eventually passed in 1910 but unfortunately parliament was suspended and further discussion was prevented. A second bill was introduced in 1911 which proposed giving voting rights to women whose husbands were already voters. This would have removed the fears of Liberal and Labour politicians about the prospect of creating more Conservative voters by confining the qualification to single or propertied women. Unfortunately, this bill failed to get a majority.

  • In 1912, Asquith brought in a Bill to widen the franchise to all men and proposed that the Commons could introduce an amendment to it in order to add votes for women. This was also rejected by parliament.

  • In the early summer of 1914, Asquith agreed to receive a deputation from the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Asquith seems to have recognized that these women had genuine social grievances which could have been more effectively

tackled if they had the vote. Although the PM was not going to change his mind on the question of women’s suffrage overnight, there is a good deal of evidence that in time he would have brought in a bill to provide for universal adult suffrage. War, however, intervened and the whole movement immediately scaled down its activities in the face of a greater threat to the nation.

  • Therefore, there is evidence that, prior to World War I, the Liberal leadership were ready to make women’s suffrage part of its party programme and that “in many ways the War may have delayed the franchise, rather than expedited it.” However, it has to be said that negotiations between the Government and the suffrage movement had taken place before but had never led to votes for women. There is no guarantee that this would have been the case on this occasion.

The Importance of World War I
Women’s contribution to the War Effort

  • When war broke out in August 1914, the Suffragettes ended their militant campaign and supported the war effort. Suffragette leaders now diverted their energy into recruiting women for war work. They hoped that the war would give them a chance to show what women could really do.

  • Although the Government was initially reluctant to use women for war work, by 1915 a serious shortage of supplies for the armed forces drove them to recruit women, first of all into the munitions industry, then into many other sectors of the economy.

  • Thousands of women worked in the munitions factories, often in dangerous conditions (‘canaries’), making guns, shells and bullets. Women joined the Land Army (WLA) to help grow the nation’s food. They drove buses and trains, worked as police officers and as posties. Many joined nursing organizations such as VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). In 1917 they joined the newly formed women’s branches of the Army, Navy and Air Force to work as drivers, nurses and office staff eg. WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps).

  • There is no doubt that the sight of women ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort gained them respect and balanced the negative publicity of the pre-war Suffragette campaign. The responsible actions of women and their contribution to winning the War resulted in a change in attitude towards their demands for the vote. By 1916, even Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was agreeing that women could no longer be denied the vote.

Other Factors concerned with the War

  • The setting up of a coalition government (Liberal/Conservative/Labour) in May 1915 helped the women’s cause. There were no longer the rigid party divisions which in the past had hindered the cause of women’s suffrage (see earlier notes).

  • In December 1916, Prime Minister Asquith, who had been the main opponent of the Suffragettes, was replaced by David Lloyd George who was more willing to accept change. As the War went on, more men, who were in favour of women’s suffrage, came into the Government.

  • Britain’s war propaganda, much of which was directed at the USA, stressed the fact that the allies (Britain/France/Russia) were fighting for democracy which implied universal suffrage. The Government therefore had to be seen to be acting in this direction.

  • By 1917/1918, there were plans to change the rules about voting as they applied to men eg. No property qualification, and, as the rules were changing anyway, it was suggested that “some measure of women’s suffrage should be conferred.”

Why did the Liberal Government of 1906-1914 introduce a series of Social Welfare Reforms?

Pressure from Reports on Poverty

  • One of the most famous investigations into poverty was carried out by Charles Booth. He conducted extensive research in London and presented his findings as hard, statistical facts – not opinions. He showed that poverty had causes often beyond the control of the poor themselves. What could any individual do about low pay, unemployment, sickness and old age?

  • Another investigation into poverty was made by Seebohm Rowntree in York and was even more shocking. The Rowntree report showed that 28% of the population of York lived in extreme poverty. People realized that if York, a relatively small English city, had such problems then so would other British cities – the problem of poverty was therefore a national problem (for more details, see textbook, pages 50 & 51).

  • While Booth and Rowntree were using careful investigation to define and quantify urban poverty, several other writers had been publicizing, in more colourful and emotive language, the squalor in which much of the working class existed e.g. Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. The cumulative effect of all this literature was to create a greater awareness of poverty amongst the middle class.

The Changing Economy

  • Unemployment had always been seen as a major cause of poverty. Until the 1870s, it had always been assumed that economic growth would lead to an increase in employment. It was only the unwilling or inadequate, it was argued, who would therefore need some limited public support.

  • The Great Depression of 1873-1896 changed that view as foreign competition caused mass unemployment. Individual charity and the workhouse (poorhouse in Scotland) could not accommodate the huge number of genuine workmen involved. The Liberals, while in opposition, committed themselves to some degree of intervention on behalf of the unemployed.

Worries about National Efficiency

  • By the end of the 19th Century, Britain was no longer the world’s strongest industrial nation and was facing serious competition from new industrial nations such as Germany and the USA. It was believed that if the health and educational standards of Britain’s workers got worse, then Britain’s position as a strong industrial power would be threatened even further.

  • In Germany, a system of welfare benefits and old age pensions had already been set up in the 1880s. If a main competitor could afford to do it, why could Britain not do likewise?

Worries about National Security

  • When the Boer War started in 1899, volunteers rushed to sign up but almost 25% of them were rejected on the grounds that they were not fit enough. If men of military age were so unfit for service, the government worried about Britain’s future ability to defend itself against a stronger enemy.

  • The poor performance of the British Army in South Africa and the fact that other countries such as Germany and the USA were overtaking Britain in economic growth, were considered by many as proof of British decline. One response to this problem was to argue for social reforms which would make for a healthy population and improve National Efficiency/Security.

  • A Committee of Physical Deterioration was set up to look into the health of potential army recruits. Their report, published in 1904, recommended a number of social reforms such as medical inspections of children in schools, free school meals for the very poor and training in mothercraft. These recommendations were very importanat in shaping the future Liberal Reforms.

New Liberalism (Key Individuals)

  • A new generation of Liberal politicians believed that the government had a responsibility to help the poor. The ‘Old Liberal’ Prime Minister, Campbell-Bannerman, died and was replaced by Herbert Asquith in 1908.

  • ‘New Liberals’ with new interventionist ideas such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were given important jobs (see top of page 55). These appointments are among the main reasons why so many reforms were introduced from 1908 onwards.

  • Both Lloyd George and Churchill were aware of the effects of social reform in Germany under Chancellor Bismarck which had successfully limited the growth of socialism. Lloyd George actually visited Germany in 1908 to see for himself the welfare schemes that had been introduced there.

Political Advantage

  • Many historians believe that the Liberal reforms were passed for very selfish reasons. Since 1884 (Third Reform Act), most working class men had the vote and the Liberals wanted to attract these voters. However, by 1906, a new party, the Labour Party, was competing for the same votes.

  • If the Liberals were seen as unsympathetic towards the poor, what might happen in an election in the future? It was therefore to the political advantage of the Liberal Government to offer social reform even if they did not fully believe in the principle of government intervention.

How effective were the Liberal Social Welfare Reforms of 1906-1914 in tackling the problems of poverty?

At the beginning of the 20th Century, evidence from the work of Booth and Rowntree, recruitment for the Boer War and a number of small scale social studies indicated that Britain had a number of serious social problems needing urgent action. During the period 1906-1914, the Liberal Government brought in a series of new laws directed towards ‘the Young’ and ‘the Old’. It insured many of those in work against unemployment and sickness and improved conditions for millions of vulnerable workers. It is necessary to examine the key social reforms undertaken during these years and attempt to gauge their significance as steps on the road to the Welfare State. To establish a Welfare State, the Liberal Government would have had to deal with a number of areas affecting the lives of British people – social security, health care, unemployment, housing and education. Any measures introduced, would have had to have been on the basis of being available to all in society according to their need.

The Young
By 1906, education was compulsory. It became obvious to the education authorities that large numbers of children were coming to school hungry, dirty and/or suffering from ill health. Under parliamentary pressure from the new Labour Party, the Liberal Government introduced the following:
The Education (Provision of Meals) Act, 1906

  • This enabled Local Education Authorities (with a 50% grant from the Treasury) to provide school meals for destitute children by levying an additional halfpenny in the pound on the rates. Parents were to be charged if they could afford to pay.

  • The number of school meals rose from 3 million in 1906 to 14 million in 1914. By that time, a publicly-funded welfare service, administered by the Board of Education, had replaced a patchwork of local charitable efforts.


  • The Act was not made compulsory until 1914. It did not compel local authorities to provide school meals, nor did it insist that meals be provided free of charge. By 1912, over half the local authorities had not set up a school meals service.

The Education Act, 1907

  • Publicly funded Secondary Schools were to keep ¼ of all places free to needy children.

  • This increased educational opportunity for the poor in society.

The Education (Administrative Provisions) Act, 1907

  • This made medical inspections for children compulsory. The Board of Education was able to specify that at least three inspections must take place during a child’s school years.

  • The inspections revealed that children were not receiving necessary medical attention because parents could not afford treatment.


  • The Act did not in itself improve the health of children as it did not provide free medical treatment to those in need. Problems which were identified often went untreated because parents could not afford the cost of such treatment.

  • Only after 1912, did the Government introduce a system of grants to help schools establish clinics which could provide treatment for those in need. However, the level of provision was left at the discretion of the local authorities which led to variances around the country.

The Children’s Act, 1908

  • This Act made it a legal offence for parents to neglect their children, bringing together a number of measures designed to protect children and which reflected the view that the community as a whole was responsible for the welfare of children. It became known as the ‘Children’s Charter’.

  • Its main provisions were:

(a). The sale of alcohol to under 18s and tobacco to under 16s was forbidden.

(b). Children were forbidden to beg.

(c). Young offenders were to be separated from the prison system by being tried in juvenile

courts, being kept in remand homes rather than prisons while awaiting trial and being

sent to borstal rather than prison.

(d). Stiff penalties were introduced for those who were convicted of ill treatment or neglect

of children.

(e). It was made illegal to insure a child’s life.

  • This was the first time any government had intervened so directly in the lives of ordinary families.

  • It provided help, not as a charity, but as right and as a service to all who were entitled to it.

  • These were measures designed to remove problem children from the malign influence of adults.

  • However, although these measures were well intentioned, they did little to solve the problem of poverty amongst the young in society.

The Old
The Old Age Pensions Act, 1908

  • This Act provided that single people over the age of 70 would receive a pension of 5 shillings per week and married couples, over the age of 70, would receive a pension of 7 shillings and 6 pence per week. No contributions were required.

  • The full pension was only available (via the Post Office) to those with an annual income of £21 or less. For annual incomes over £21, a sliding scale of descending payments would be made up to a ceiling of a £31 annual income.

  • The payment was seen to be a right. By 1914, there were almost a million claimants, costing the Exchequer £12 million per year. This was an indication of the level of poverty among the elderly.


  • Not everyone over 70 was entitled to a pension. Those who had claimed poor relief in the previous year, those who had failed to work regularly and those who had been in prison in the previous ten years had no entitlement.

  • The Labour Party wanted the age set at 65, arguing that many of the old would not live to see 70. Average life expectancy in 1908 was lower than 70 years of age.

  • The amount of money received was relatively small. 5 shillings was recognized to be 2 shillings short of that needed to keep above the poverty line.

  • The Government admitted that the payment was not enough in itself to lift people out of poverty but stated that it was a ‘life belt’ to be used in conjunction with savings.

The Sick
The National Insurance Act, 1911 (Part 1)

  • This Act entitled insured workers, earning less than £160 per year, to sickness benefit of 10s (shillings) per week for the first 13 weeks (then 5s per week for the next 13 weeks), free medical attention and medicines, and treatment at a TB sanatorium. A disablement pension of 5s per week could be claimed as well as a maternity benefit of 30s per child.

  • Male workers contributed 4d (old pence) per week, employers contributed 3d per week and the Government contributed 2d per week. Lloyd George sold the scheme as ‘ninepence for fourpence’ (covered 15 million people in all).


  • Benefits did not cover any illness befalling the worker’s wife or children.

  • Benefits did not cover general hospital treatment (only TB sanatorium).

  • Benefits did not cover those earning more than £160 per year.

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