I have been, of late, rather disappointed in the state of democracy in the English speaking world. I’m frustrated by partisan divides, the way campaigns can lie with impunity, and parties that only support reform that would directly benefit them. When the British government finds itself in court fighting for the right to make major decisions without having to consult parliament, something has gone wrong.
So I’ve been doing some reading around political reform. What can we learn from history about how change happens, and how arguments are won? I’ve begun with Roger Mason’s broad historical overview The Struggle for Democracy: Parliamentary reform, from rotten boroughs to today. It’s a straightforward and sequential account of why reform was needed, the key bills that improved things step by step, and the many failures in between.
We start with the unreformed parliament – most seats were uncontested, some of them bought or passed on between family members. A small percentage of men had the vote, based on land ownership and wealth. The distribution of seats was ridiculous. A hamlet with three houses, Old Sarum, sent two MPs to parliament. Manchester had over 100,000 people and had no representative.
The trouble is, how would you get the MPs of constituencies like Old Sarum to vote themselves out of a job? In the first reform effort in 1831, a grand total of 168 members would have lost their seats. It’s little wonder it was contentious and failed. When the second attempt failed later that year, widespread rioting helped parliament to focus. The third attempt only squeaked through with the King’s intervention, the resignation of the entire cabinet, and general chaos.
The first Reform Bill made a big difference, but nowhere near enough to satisfy citizens who wanted the vote. Unfortunately, parliament had acted and were in no hurry to have the debate again. The huge Chartist movement, which invented many of the grassroots campaign techniques we use today, came to nothing. Multiple reform bills were voted down. As Mason says, politicians knew they needed to extend voting rights, but “always had an eye on which way newly enfranchised citizens would be likely to vote.” If it wasn’t in the interests of their party, they weren’t going to act, and there was little progress until the second Reform Bill of 1867.
That only happened because, according to the author, Benjamin Disraeli saw an opportunity to advance his own political career. His reform proposal was stuffed with ideas he had rejected only months before when the opposition suggested them, but he got to cast himself as the hero of the hour and deliver what the people wanted.
There was still more to do, with the secret ballot arriving in 1872. Votes for women was first proposed by John Stuart Mill in 1867, but took 50 years to achieve – not helped by Queen Victoria, who said it was a ‘silly and wicked’ idea.
That’s a key theme in fact, those decades-long pauses and then flurries of activity as public demand for change becomes too much to ignore. In the issues we face today – better representation, the end of the primitive first past the post electoral system, reform of the House of Lords – we’re going to need that long term perspective that I wrote about the other day. It’s depressing to see how parliament has basically been dragged kicking and screaming towards democracy, and just how many well known figures from our history have stood in the way of ordinary people getting the vote. On the other hand, it’s encouraging to see how things can suddenly move when the pressure builds, or how clear leadership can cut through opposition and build alliances. And sometimes initiatives that look like failures get what they wanted in the long term. The Chartists didn’t get any of their key demands while the movement was actually operating, but we benefit from them today.
As for the book itself, it’s a very matter of fact account of what happened, with no frills or tangents. Lots of dates, not many anecdotes. It’s informative but not terribly inspiring, opting to tell us what happened without drawing out any real lessons or implications for our modern debates. And that’s fine really, as a place to start understanding the long story of how Britain’s democracy has been shaped over the centuries.