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British Democracy
Ashish Dharmadhikari IIIrd History Wednesday, 9:40 Q. Outline the main stages in the evolution of Parliamentary democracy in Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Britain has frequently been called the mother of democracy in the modern world, a country where the population would always have certain basic rights that were inalienable, regardless of the particular government in power. While this can be seen as a very important constituent of Britains self image, it has also become a part of her image worldwide. In such a context, it often becomes difficult to remember that well after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, and as late as at least the late 18th century, when the term democracy came into common English usage, it had politically radical and hence decisively negative overtones. The balanced constitution, Britains pride through the 18th century, was in fact very different from the present Westminster model of government. It was only through the 19th century that through a series of parliamentary reforms, fought for long and hard by various civil and political movements, that the British polity gradually began to democratise itself, and began to approximate what many of us look to today as the model, British democracy. This paper shall seek to delineate the various forces and compulsions which gently nudged Britain in the direction of modern liberal democracy, along with the various landmarks on this road, most notable being the various Acts passed by the British Parliament reforming the political system. It shall also attempt to tentatively examine the extent to which such an effort at democratising the British polity was successful, atleast up until the years before the Second World War. We may begin our discussion by giving the general background of Britains political culture in the 17th and 18th centuries, which was noticeably different from that of the continent. British political heritage centred on two primary modes of checking royal or executive governmental power: inalienable civil liberties for all Englishmen, and the institution of the Parliament, representing the rulers obligation to atleast consult some notables of the community for important decisions. Another important influence was the common law tradition, seen as being above both the community and the ruler. In the late 18th century, when the British came to the question of extending the franchise, their manner of dealing with this issue was circumscribed by these factors, particularly a sense of having a functioning representative government, howsoever limited. Britain had emerged from the 1688 Revolution and the 1689 Bill of Rights with the constitutional character of the monarchy firmly established. The monarch, still the executive and the de facto head of government, appointed his ministers, who helped him in deciding policy. The bicameral Parliament, with a House of Lords and a House of Commons, had effective control over legislation, especially through holding the nations purse strings. Balancing between the two was the Prime Minister, who was appointed by and responsible to the monarch, but generally needed the support of the majority in the Parliament in order to get legislation passed. Stability in the working relationship between the crown and the House of Commons was achieved by a set of very fundamental operating conventions. The use of influence by the ministry, acting for the crown, in managing elections and controlling votes in the Lower House, generally assured safe majorities atleast on controversial issues, thus forestalling any major intra-government clashes. This influence worked through a variety

of devices including control over certain elections, pocket and rotten boroughs, distribution of patronage, and place men. Thus worked the famous balanced British Constitution, with a balance between the three pure forms of government, namely the monarchy, the aristocracy and democracy, which were represented by the Crown, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, respectively. The upper house was largely composed of cosmopolitan landlords, living in cities and drawing their income from landed estates. The Lower House was populated mostly by smaller landlords and members of the country gentry; there were also members of the mercantile and professional classes, especially lawyers. Along with the place-men, the first two groups had a kind of instinctive royalist loyalty, and a sense of fulfilling duty through political participation; they would generally tend to vote for the status quo. The 40-shilling freehold qualification for voters in the counties had been established by law in 1430 AD. The boroughs had no standard franchise; further, they varied greatly in size and population, having evolved through long years of historical developments. Most boroughs and all counties sent two members each to the Commons. A law of 1710 set minimum assured annual incomes for candidates 600 for county candidates and 300 for borough candidates. The Septennial Act of 1716 stipulated that the Parliament had to be summoned atleast once in 7 years. The elections reflected vertical linkages (between clients and patrons for example), especially in the countryside, where they were dominated by landowners. In fact elections were often avoided by a mutual division of candidates between local elites. There was no secret ballot, and no restrictions on election expenditures. The two major political parties were the Whigs and the Tories, which had emerged through the revolutionary century of the 1600s. However, both parties had at various points split and regrouped over various issues; these developments had come to redefine the meanings of the terms Whig and Tory. Both were basically aristocratic factions, not mass-organized grassroots parties. They essentially represented two different political perspectives or attitudes: one could be a Whig on one issue, Tory on another, even up until the latter half of the 19 th century. Members were often related to each other through ties of blood and marriage. Further, they had a framework of shared existence there was consensus on key issues such as the parliamentary system, opposition to popular democracy (seen as mob rule), emphasis on land as the basis of wealth and social standing, etc. By late 18th century, this system was facing challenges from various quarters. Firstly, the industrial revolution was starting to radically alter the economic balance of the country; the distribution of seats in Parliament was severely out of sync with socio-economic realities. The traditionally important counties of southwestern England were over-represented, 5 of these counties still sending th of the MPs. The emerging industrial cities and rapidly developing midland and northern counties often sent no representatives at all. Another outcome of industrialisation was the emergence of new social classes the workers, industrialists, financiers and institutions, all increasingly clamouring for power and a voice in government. Secondly, there was the influence of the great ideological debates of the time, especially after the American and French revolutions. Ideas of popular representation, republicanism, liberty, equality, liberalism, socialism and the beginnings of democracy, all made their impact felt. Both these strands came together and interacted, and together acted upon the old system, which needed to formulate some kind of a response. One of the forms of this response, was the long-drawn process of the growth of democracy in Britain. By no means was this limited to widening the franchise. Also involved were issues of the changing balance of power between the Crown and the Parliament; and within the Parliament between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. What

was striking about this process, especially to Continental contemporaries, was the essentially peaceful manner in which such radical transformations took place. Also there was the fact that the emphasis was never simply on giving the vote to more and more sections of the population. The aforementioned traditions of civil liberties and an institutionalised Parliament with substantial real powers were also maintained while reforming the system. Possible reasons for this were a long tradition of the Britishs self-image as a free people; loyalty to certain core institutions like property, liberties and individual rights; and the absence of a written constitution. The backdrop for the opening of the era of parliamentary reforms was provided by the reign of George III (r. 1760-1820), marked by the virtually last attempt at old style personal government by a monarch. Prominent in these years was the infamous Wilkes Affair, 1768 to 1774, in which Wilkes repeated expulsion from the House of Commons by the king, despite being popularly elected each time, not only made him a rallying point of parliamentary reformists, but also raised larger issues concerning the monarchys control over the Parliament. By 1782, George III for the most part gave up his efforts at personal rule. The final act was the passing of the Economic Reform Bill in the same year by Burke, which reduced the number of rotten boroughs and thus reduced the ability of the monarch to manipulate the House of Commons. This was followed by a period of relative stability, from 1783 to 1789. The debate over reform was radicalised by the atmosphere engendered by the French Revolution. Britains entry into the European was in 1793 polarised politics, the result of which was the reorganisation of the Tories and Whigs around Pitt and Fox respectively. Pitts Draconian legislation also provoked a continued call for parliamentary reform by the Whigs, who unsuccessfully tabled a reform Bill in 1797. The Napoleonic years saw the emergence and elaboration of the various ideological positions on political reforms. Those opposing reforms largely looked the new conservative ideology epitomised in Burke. The radical reformists quoted Thomas Paine. Those in between these extreme positions particularly the rising middle class tended to turn towards the philosophy of thinkers like Bentham and Mill, i.e. utilitarianism the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In the post-Napoleonic years, the debate over political reforms takes a new form. The social effects of industrialisation start playing a very important factor affecting politics, along with the new ideological ambience of Restoration Europe. Due to these (and other) factors, elite politics starts giving way to mass politics, even street politics. The issue of parliamentary reforms becomes a matter of mobilising the masses on this or that issue. Further, different classes had different conceptions of the desired reforms. The middle classes would often ally with the upper classes against the potentially revolutionary masses. More radical were the movements among the lower classes, particularly socialism. Even some liberal aristocrats start dabbling with ideas of liberalism, proto-socialism, etc. The issues are also majorly affected by the economic business cycles of boom, recession, depression and recovery. In times of hardship middle class leadership was often able to mobilise the working classes for some kind of radical (by British standards) agitation; when such crises were over, the reformers would generally try to break with the masses. Whereas in times of prosperity, there were virtually no broad, cross-class coalitions. We now enter the actual era of parliamentary reforms. This can be divided for convenience into 5 broad phases. The first lasted from 1815 to 1820, and was characterised by demobilisation, rising food prices, economic hardship, and the first of the industrial depressions. Now democracy became a kind of panacea for some groups such as artisan, and sometimes even took on the form of millenarian

expectations. This was the period of the first big mass-based political meetings, in the new industrial districts. These often threw up exceptional orators, generally from middle-class backgrounds. The Tories, who remained in power from 1806 to 1830, were seen as the party of national victory (against Napoleon), but also as a repressive party. Right up until 1830 they kept in place all of Pitts repressive measures, and showed themselves uncompromising on any of the popular issues. This is best demonstrated in the new Corn Law of 1815, which continued to support the older landed aristocracy over the rising new industrialists, and also frustrated the hopes of the masses for lower grain prices after the Napoleonic wars. Another important illustration is provided by the incident of the Waterloo Massacre by armed troops in August 1819, which resulted from the governments panicked response to a peaceful meeting of principally cotton workers, where certain radical demands such as Universal Male Suffrage were raised. Luckily for the Tory government, the next few years saw an improvement in the socio-economic situation. This brings us to the second phase, from 1820 to 1832. On the whole this was a period of rising prosperity, especially from 1820 to 1825. This led to a decline in mass agitation and radical debate. The consequent relaxation of the Tory governments fears in the 1820s opened the way for reform. The Tories themselves start a cautious programme, and try to adapt the government to the new style of mass politics. They introduced certain social welfare legislation and some police reforms. They also repealed most of the older Combination Laws prohibiting trade unions, repealed repressive legislation against Catholics, and relaxed the Corn Laws. In 1830, the prosperity of the 1820s comes to an end, giving rise to agrarian and industrial depression, fresh discontent and even agrarian riots. Those thinking of radical reforms see their opportunity: a number of radical societies are set up. By now, democracy is definitely on the agenda, and by the end of 1830, issues that were earlier the matter of parliamentary discussions now become subjects of huge mass debates. This was the background to the Whigs coming to power, under Charles Grey, in November 1830; it also resulted in the formation of a number of reform coalitions the middle classes wanted limited reforms to enable them to enter Parliamentary politics, but they needed mass support to push these through. The Whigs hoped to use moderate reform measures to take the sting out of the reform coalitions; they also hoped to get support from landlords and industrialists. Hence they mobilised forces in support of the Reform Bill, introduced by John Russell in March 1831. They argued that it was essential to reform Britains institutions in order to prevent a France-style revolution involving a complete overthrow of the existing system. They coined the phrase reform, that you may conserve. The Tories, on the other hand, mobilised in opposition to the Bill, arguing that the balanced British constitution was perfect and needed no adaptation. After long debates in the Parliament, and threats by the king to create enough Whig peers to get it passed in the House of Lords, the Reform Bill was finally passed in October 1832 as the first Reform Act. This Act, which was most controversial, reapportioned representation in Parliament in a way fairer to the cities of the industrial north, and did away with rotten and pocket boroughs like Old Sarum, which with only seven voters (all controlled by the local squire) was still sending two members to Parliament. This act also extended the right to vote, with the 40-shilling qualification, to a new range of tenant farmers, and in the boroughs to any man owning a household worth 10, increasing the electorate of from 478,000 to 813,000. Approximately one man in seven now had the right to vote. The third phase lasted from 1832 to 1867. The 1830s and 1840s were dominated by the Chartist Movement, which grew out of frustrations with the failure of the earlier trade union movement and the very conservative Reform Act of 1832. The famous Peoples Charter of 1838 enumerated the

six main demands of this movement: universal male suffrage, election by secret ballot, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, payment of salaries to MPs, equal electoral districts and annual Parliamentary elections. [Interestingly, the sixth demand was the only one to not be fulfilled within the next 75 years.] These demands were taken up by workers of the industrial districts, especially in London, Birmingham and Leeds, and the movement became much more radical, particularly in times of economic discontent. The three peaks of Chartist activity were in 1839, 1847 and 1848. The movement didnt really talk of a violent overthrow of the state; in fact in practise, the movement was basically parliamentary in nature, since it took the form most often of petitions to the Parliament; these were rejected all three times. This movement tended to die out during times of economic stability. With the rejection of its petitions, the leadership generally couldnt resolve the problem of what to do next. Eventually the Chartist movement became a spent force by the late 1840s and 1850s, with a tendency to move away from street politics towards more institutionalised forms of agitation, through channels such as the trade unions and collective bargaining. The second great issue of this phase was the anti-Corn Law agitation. Since after 1832 much of the working class was distrustful of middle-class leadership, in the 1840s this movement decided to concentrate on the already enfranchised, seeking to convert them to the cause of Free Trade. This led to much more limited campaigning and employment of parliamentary tactics. Combined with the Irish Famine of 1845-51, this finally led to the repeal of the Corn Laws by the PM Robert Peel, in alliance with the Whig opposition and against his own Conservative party opinion. The period from 1846-65 was one of a relative calm in politics, due largely to Britains immense economic prosperity. With a decline of class antagonisms and the emergence of a new aggressive nationalism based on class harmony, ideology played a lesser role in parliamentary politics, which seemed to have settled into the realm of consensus. This was also the last period of party lines being porous. An outstanding example was Lord Palmerston, head of the first Liberal party in 1859, who epitomised the trend of manipulating public opinion to pressurise and deal with political opponents. An important Act passed in this period was the one in 1858, which removed property qualifications for MPs. The demand for democracy received a further thrust from the debates over the American civil war, which was seen by the British lower classes as a war for democracy, especially since the upper orders supported the Confederate cause. These years saw the emergence of new leaders who were more adventurous in their thinking. They were thinking in terms of actually giving the vote to more sections of society, not just of manipulating public opinion. The two stands Liberal and Conservative were personified in the figures of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli respectively. Gladstone represented the rising mercantile and industrial section of the ruling elite. He saw politics as a moral crusade. He argued that the vote should be given to the relatively skilled and prosperous workers, as a reward for the increasing sobriety of their behaviour. Disraeli, on the other hand, stood for the older, land-owning aristocratic section of the ruling elite. He viewed politics as essentially an irrational affair, and romanticised many British institutions such as the Crown, Parliament, and aristocracy as preserving Britains liberty. He saw the extension of the vote as a manifestation of aristocratic benevolence, with the aim of rallying the masses around the existing institutions. These two strands ultimately manifested themselves in the political philosophies of the new Liberal and Conservative parties formed after Palmerstons death in 1865. Both were speaking of parliamentary reform in the 1850s and 1860s.

The third phase was brought to a close with the passing of the second Reform Act in 1867 by Disraeli. This extended the right to vote still further down the class ladder, adding over a million voters including many urban working men and nearly doubling the electorate. Although it also had redistribution clauses, in sum the old balance was maintained, in which the south and west of Britain were over-represented. This Act created major shock waves in contemporary British culture, some of which appear in works such as Arnolds Culture and Anarchy and Ruskins Crown of Wild Olive, as authors debated whether this shift of power would create democracy that would, in turn, destroy high culture. The fourth phase lasted from 1867 to 1885. With the creation of rival mass constituencies, it saw the emergence of the two main political parties of Britain in the form recognisably similar to todays. The Liberals presented themselves as champions of desirable changes. The Conservatives presented themselves as the preservers of Britains traditional institutions and the Empire. But both were appealing to much the same electorate the middle and working classes. Both shared a commitment to the new industrial economy, modernisation, the existing social order and class divisions, the parliamentary framework. Hence post 1867, electoral reforms was not really a Party issue. Some of the important reforming Acts passed in the 1870s and 1880s were as follow: in 1872, the Ballot Act established voting by secret ballot. In 1883, the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act attacked money power by restricting election expenditure. The 1884 Representation of the People Act (often called the third Reform Act) gave the vote to the rural working class, increasing the electorate from 2.5 to 5 million. The Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885 made a thorough redistribution of seats, in line with the new economic balance. The entire United Kingdom was divided into roughly equal electoral districts of roughly 50,000 voters and one Parliamentary seat each. The final phase can be seen as lasting from 1885 onwards till the present. An important development was the decline of the old Liberal party, and its replacement by the Labour Party in the two-party dominated system. This was accompanied by a strengthening of the Conservative Party. Important Acts in this phase include the Local Governments Acts of 1888 and 1894, which applied the principle of democratisation to rural areas, which had been applied to the urban areas by the Municipal Acts some 50 years ago. Especially significant was the Parliament Act of 1911, which dealt with the residual powers of the House of Lords. This House lost all power over money bills, and kept only a suspensory veto of two sessions over other bills. Also, the maximum time between Parliamentary elections was reduced to five years. In 1918, the Representation of People Act gave universal franchise for all males above 21 years of age, and finally gave the vote to women; atleast, to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of 5 or graduates of British universities. This inequality was removed by the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, which provided for universal adult franchise above the age of 21. Later, the voting age was reduced to the present 18 years. Lastly, a few years ago, an Act was passed further reducing the powers of the House of Lords. Having traced this development of parliamentary democracy in one of the foremost nations of todays world, it is tempting to conclude that Britain indeed should and does serve as a model for all aspiring democratic states. But one must not loose sight of all that Britain has failed to accomplish in this direction. Recent events, in which the Prime Minister of Britain seems to be freely going against the will or opinion of not just a majority of the population, but also of a significant portion of the Parliament, lead one to question the attainment of the ideal of democracy, even in as politically advanced a country as Great Britain.