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Great Britain Democracy
In Britain by 1850, democracy had begun to take on an effective face. However throughout the UK, equal representation did not exist, and it was the wealthy aristocracy that had any form of political power. Even in this elitist system there existed much corruption and bribery. Changing social attitudes lead to a series of acts being passed over the span of 80 years which would eventually lead to suffrage -the right to vote- for working class men, and eventually women, bar a few exceptions. In a true democracy in the purest sense of the word, there must be freedom of speech, regular elections, secret ballots and equality between genders and people. In he mid-nineteenth century, this was not the case. Historian Sydney Wood suggests that: "the parliamentary system of the 1950s was not democratic. Democracies were regarded as being at the mercy of the ignorant people unfit to possess power. It favoured the wealthy in a number of ways." Prior to the passing of the first reform act in 1832, Britain’s political system had not changed since the sixteenth century.
The First Reform Act of 1832 increased the electorate from 435,00 to around 652,000. Every man owning property worth ?10 (per annum) now had the vote. Prior to the Act’s passing, there were no standard laws that said who could vote. Before the Act, there were two types of constituency; counties and boroughs. The passing gave rise to a greater number f MP’s. The Act corrected some anomalies of the voting system, and it made the working class more politically minded.
William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were politically competing for credit as to who lead to the passing of the 1867 Second Reform Act, in order to gain support of working class voters. It was seen by many in parliament that in order to coincide with social changes, the voting system had to be updated. With the passing of the vote, the electorate became around 2.5 million, with working class men from towns and cities allowed the vote. All householders with one year’s residence got the vote, or those living in residence worth ?12. Overall, one in three men got the vote. However, the vote was not yet afforded to those under twenty-one, or women. The constituencies were reorganised, and some smaller ones were disenfranchised. The greatest change that this Act made was granting vote to those who occupied the boroughs. Also, the increased electorate meant that the parties had to nationally organise themselves.
Before the Ballot Act was passed in 1872, voting was carried out in the open, which meant that many votes were dictated by intimidation, bribery and corruption. The Act allowed voting to take place in private. The Third Reform Act of 1884/1885 gave the vote to working class men in rural areas, increasing the electorate to around 5 million. Still, around half of the male population was excluded. Those excluded included soldiers living in barracks, and sons still living at home. There was still no mention of women getting the vote.
The Representation of the People Act passed in 1918 allowed all adult males over the age of twenty-one who had a six month residence to vote. A large step however, was giving women over the age of thirty (provided they were householders or university graduates) the vote. Plural voting, which had been a thing that took place among the aristocracy, was minimised to two, and even then applied only to university graduates. As a result of Suffragist pressure, women were on the same footing as men in local elections. The 1928 Representation of the People Act finally put women on the same level as men in terms of voting, and the First-Past-The-Post system was confirmed. Historian Morrison feels that "As a consequence of the growing electorate, politicians were forced to abandon the nineteenth century principal of laissez-faire in favour of state interventionism."
Another criticism that can be aimed at British democracy in the mid-nineteenth century was the lack of fairness. Elections were held in the open, and so many people were bribed to vote for a candidate, or forced to. The passing of the Ballot Act in 1872 changed all this, affording the voters to place their vote in secret. In densely populated areas the secret ballot made a difference. M Willis says "Since the passing of the Ballot Act we have never had the slightest trouble at any election that has taken place in London…" However, in the boroughs and counties where the populations were sparse, the boxes were still open to view, defeating the purpose of the Act.
In 1883, the Corrupt and Illegal practises Act was passed, limiting the amount of money that a candidate could spend upon their election campaign.
Taking into account the rising number of voters, the second part of the Third Reform Act, The Redistribution of Seats Act reorganised the seats available, and increased the number of MP’s in Scotland.
Before say, the passing of the First Reform Act in 1832, often MPs were chosen by the wealthy landowners. Following the passing, and MP still had to own land. BY 1885, the number of MPs increased from 652 to 670, and universities still elected MPs, but using proportional representation, another of democratic governing. The 1911 Act, which allowed MPs payment, was very important in making parliament more representative, because before this, only the wealthy could afford to be Mps, but this legislation meant that working class men could become MPs. The Parliament Act did truly alter the face of parliament.
The Parliament Act of 1911 also changed something that before the act had been a large part of parliament. The House of Lords, whose positions were hereditary, lost much of their influence in terms of government spending and taxes. Instead, the decisions lay in the hands of the popularly elected House of Commons.
By the early 1900’s, there were three national parties to vote for. These were the Conservatives, the Liberals and Labour. Labour was a party that represented the working classes, Conservatives were middle/upper class, and Liberals were not unlike the Conservatives, but according to historian Henry Pelling: "In small towns and country villages the ministers and the lay preachers were the backbone of Liberal strength." The introduction of the Labour party gave a party that the working class could support, giving them a voice in parliament.
Not only did the working class become better represented, they became more aware of politics and their country, as a result of social advances. In 1870 in England and 1872 in Scotland, education acts were passed, which required children to attend school. This act also led to the development of libraries in many communities.
The building of nationwide railway lines meant that tabloid newspapers came into existence since news could now travel across country with ease. Railways also meant that MP s could freely travel over the country, making speeches. In this way, the people were far more aware of current events in the world of politics.
Party agents were paid to organise publicity. These agents worked alongside branch associations. They were places where drinks were served and billiards played. Their purpose was to boost morale and increase support, as well as provide volunteers. In the Liberal parties, one of these branches grew and expanded into the National Liberal Federation in 1887. This branch served as a radical challenge to Whig leadership within the party. There was a similar branch that existed in the Conservative party: The Conservative Central Office. Unlike the NFL though, it mainly followed the orders of the party leadership. In 1881, the Primrose league was formed, and it seemed invaluable in maintaining party support. H Pelling observes that this support came from: "…the visit to village feasts, the chat in the village schoolroom, or pleasant friendly musical evenings in the winter." In other words, providing such hospitality and warmth to the constituents kept support. The massive increase in the electorate called for this parry organisation to exist.
It can be strongly argued that in Britain by 1928, democracy had indeed been widely achieved. There was gender equality in terms of voting rights, for those over the age of twenty-one. There were regular elections, and voting was now free of corrupt activity, due to a secret ballot. MPs were now paid, enabling working class to be able to afford to enter into the House of Commons. There was a range of parties to choose from, and electoral districts were reasonable in size as well as roughly equal to each other. The House of Lords had far less influence over taxation and government spending. The various acts had improved the face of British democracy.
However, there were still flaws in the system. Those in the House of Lords got their position mainly by inheriting it, rather than voting. The basic democratic principal of ‘one man, one vote’ was still not truly enforced, since university graduates were entitled to two votes. Women, whilst having equal voting rights as men, still did not have social equality. They had received far lower wages than men did, and many careers were restricted, since it was still seen as a woman’s duty to tend to domestic life. Finally, in relation to the electoral system -such as the benefits of proportional representation over first-past-the-post- still remained unsolved, and mainly not addressed. Donald Morrison suggests that: "The development of liberal democracy had been slow and piecemeal. The system which had evolved by 1928…had in place most of the apparatus necessary to satisfy the democratic aspirations of the nation. Nevertheless, the essence of a democracy is that of a system of government which promotes and encourages political change from below. Thus issues such as electoral reform, devolution and the promotion of equality continue to be debated…as part of our ongoing democratic political culture."
It can be concluded that by 1928, Britain was not purely a democracy; however, the acts and reforms that were passed over the decades prior had aided in bringing Britain close to it.
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