Britain’s road to democracy: slow and not always steady

With the general election around the corner, Matt Cole looks back on Britain’s uneven path to democracy, from rotten boroughs and rigged elections to universal suffrage…

A British parliamentary election the 19th-century. Britain’s road to universal s
A British parliamentary election the 19th-century. Britain’s road to universal suffrage was far from simple, says Matt Cole. (Getty Images)
 
Two centuries ago, Britain’s voting system was far from inclusive. Elections had developed in a haphazard and localised way so that there were seven different ways to qualify to vote, and at least 95 per cent of adults – including all women and most people without property – did not qualify. Meanwhile, the House of Commons was only representative of the country in the most distorted way, and its remoteness from public interest was growing. 
 
Parts of the country where population had boomed during the industrial revolution, such as Birmingham (population 144,000) and Manchester (182,000), had no MPs of their own, while Cornwall (with 192,000 residents in total) had 42 seats in the Commons. Some depopulated constituencies were known as ‘rotten boroughs’ because of their tiny electorates. Old Sarum in Wiltshire notoriously had seven voters, while most of Dunwich in East Anglia was uninhabitable because coastal erosion had brought it below sea level.
 
Added to this were ‘nomination’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs, where one employer dominated the voters’ interests, and so could rely on their candidate winning. These constituencies were sometimes even put up for sale with the right to choose an MP included. If a contest arose, voters had to declare their preference publicly, so that their employer could see how they had cast their vote. Workers would therefore be reluctant to oppose their employer’s candidate. Before 1832, around a third of parliamentary constituencies were controlled in this way. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that most constituencies – between 60 and 75 per cent – were not contested at all.
 

A political cartoon published in 1832, depicting the need for election reform and the problem of rotten boroughs. The title reads: 'The Reformers' Attack on the Old Rotten Tree; or the Foul Nests of the Cormorants in Danger'. (Getty Images)
 

Calls for reform

 
In the years of industrialisation that followed the Napoleonic wars, when radical political ideas thrived in an environment of hardship, demands for parliamentary reform grew. First pioneered by MPs like Henry Hunt, the cause was taken up by the leadership of the Whig Party in parliament. It was driven forward through three general elections and rioting in Bristol, Birmingham and Nottingham, to the passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832. This act almost doubled the electorate and gave representation to great industrial cities. Yet it still meant that less than one adult in ten could vote, excluding nearly all workers, and there was still no secret ballot. The Whigs who passed the measure reassured opponents that it was the final measure of reform. 
 
The Duke of Wellington, who had bitterly opposed the change, could say nothing worse of the first Commons elected under the new franchise than that he had never seen so many bad hats in his life.
 
The 1832 act quenched the desire for reform amongst political leaders for a generation. However, it could not end the grievances of those still excluded, who hoped – as reactionaries feared – that the Great Reform Act would be the thin end of a democratic wedge.
 
A politician mourning the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill which brought an end to the system of rotten boroughs. (Getty Images)
 
 
The act of 1832 established the principle that representation should follow population, and the new system prompted the beginnings of modern political campaigning. In 1834, Tory leader Sir Robert Peel issued the Tamworth Manifesto (a statement of the new Conservative reform principles) renamed his party the Conservatives, and set up clubs around the country to fight elections. In 1860, the Liberal Registration Association was set up by Liberal MPs to coordinate opposition to the Tories. The proportion of uncontested seats fell immediately to below 30 per cent, and only once ever reached a majority of seats again. In these respects, democracy was advancing in Britain.
 
However, the demand for greater reform was constantly nearing. Urbanisation continued; working-class education and literacy grew; and trade unionism became more organised through the TUC [Trades Union Congress]. The threat of revolution was always present. The ‘physical force’ element of the Chartists, active between 1838 and 1848, gathered petitions of millions demanding universal male suffrage and annual parliamentary elections. In 1866, a Reform League meeting in Hyde Park ended in clashes with the police, and in the 1860s, Gladstone articulated this sentiment in the Commons. While Gladstone lost the premiership in 1867, the political climate made his great rival, Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, feel obliged to concede enfranchisement to some working men in urban constituencies. The size of the electorate was again doubled, to about 16 per cent of the adult population. In 1884, Gladstone went a step further, granting suffrage to comparable workers in rural seats so that over a quarter of the population had the vote.
 

Bribery and ballot boxes

 
Alongside this came the innovation of the secret ballot and the criminalisation of corruption in elections. Polls could go on for weeks, with no limits on electoral expenditure. They had sometimes become the scenes of deplorable ‘treating’ (usually giving voters drinks or meals, but also bogus jobs during the campaign) or threats (of loss of a job, a home, or even of violence), depending on the way votes were cast. Dickens parodied these practices at their worst in his ‘Election at Eatanswill’ in The Pickwick Papers (a satire about the Bury St Edmunds election of 1835). In 1868, for example, three candidates at Bradford spent £10,000 (around half a million pounds in today’s money) on what they described as ‘hiring rooms’ for campaigning.
 
An illustration of the election at Eatanswill in Dickens' 'The Pickwick Papers' satirises the chaos of the electoral system. (Getty Images)
 
 
In 1872 parliament required that votes be cast in the ballot boxes we still use today to protect electors. When two cabinet ministers trialled the system by taking part in a school board election, it was rumoured that one had been unable to fill in the ballot paper correctly. In 1880 it was made a criminal offence to bribe voters and the practice was largely eliminated.
 
To most politicians this represented democracy. Joseph Chamberlain said that the 1884 act was “the greatest revolution this country has ever undergone”, while Randolph Churchill talked of ‘Tory Democracy’. After all, elections were widely contested and fairly conducted, and most men could vote, while those that could not might well earn the right to do so. It was another temporary compromise that meant the issues of democracy would wait another generation to be addressed.
 

A political cartoon from Punch published in August 1872 depicts Britannia curtseying to the newly introduced ballot box. (Getty Images)
 
 

The excluded majority: 20th-century reform

 
While the 20th century has resolved the claims of most adults left outside the franchise in 1917, in doing so we have opened up new debates.
 
The first democratic questions of the 20th century were about parliament: MPs in the Commons were paid for the first time – the princely sum of £400, which was just under twice the average salary (and therefore relatively speaking less than MPs receive today). This resulted from the 1906 election of a Liberal government with a radical element, supported by the new Labour Party. The same combination of forces brought an end to the House of Lords’ veto over legislation in 1911, though unelected lords could delay legislation by two years. This was cut to one year in 1949. In 1958 life peers were introduced, and in 1999 all but 92 of the hereditary lords lost their right to sit in parliament. Nonetheless, House of Lords reform eluded governments in 2003, 2007 and 2011; and the remuneration of MPs has arguably been one of the most toxic political issues of the early 21st century.   
 
After the First World War, the right to vote at parliamentary elections was finally granted to women. Their role in the war effort certainly dealt a fatal blow to vestigial prejudices about women’s courage and competence, but it was the campaigns of the suffragettes before the war that had put the issue on the agenda and politicians were reluctant to see these debates resumed. Even before the Pankhursts’ militancy, middle-class women had been taking on a growing roll in public life through local government, professions, business and education. These forces combined to make the pressure for women’s enfranchisement irresistible. Even so, women under 30 – ‘flapper voters’ as they were contemptuously labelled – had to wait until 1929 to vote. Women also gained the right to sit in the Commons, although there were never more than 15 women in the Commons before the First World War. With under a third of its MPs female, the UK still lags behind most western European states in this regard. 
 

Women under 30 – ‘flapper voters’ as they were contemptuously labelled – had to wait until 1929 to vote. (Getty Images)
 
 
The last tranche of new voters were those aged between 18 and 21. They gained the vote in 1969, at the end of a decade of student protest and social change that transformed the expectations of young people. Cabinet minister Barbara Castle promised sixth-formers in her constituency that “a revolution had taken place” and that “their teachers will never be able to treat them as schoolchildren again.” In fact, the relationship between young people and the political class was to become more distant, with a collapse in the membership of party youth organisations and low voter turnout amongst young people – most recently in the EU referendum. 
 
More recently, referendums and experiments with proportional representation have sought to restore public faith in politics by offering more chances to participate. But turnout at general elections has fallen from over 80 per cent in the 1950s to under 60 per cent in 2001. Where one Briton in ten was once a party member, more recently it has been barely one in a hundred. The message here, as in the rest of the story of enfranchisement, is that democracy consists of much more than voting alone.
 
Dr Matt Cole is a teaching fellow in history at the University of Birmingham and the author of Democracy in Britain (EUP, 2006) and Political Parties in Britain (EUP, 2012).
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