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Steps Towards Democracy in Britain 1867-1914

Updated on August 7, 2012
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Democracy in Britain

Between 1867 and 1914 the first notable steps towards democracy were taken in Britain. These steps seemed to have the definitive destination of making the vote available to everybody in the future and giving the public equal freedoms. There was also the aim to allow every member of the public equal access to governmental power as these are all important features of a democracy. During this time of democratic growth many acts were introduced which affected; who could vote, fairness, choice, access to information, national party organisations, accountability and participation, and the opportunity to become an MP.

The vote and ability to vote for who leads and control the country is probably the most important of the features of a democracy, so long as its fairly conducted. It is the franchise which enables the people to have a say and influence on the political decisions of the country. Until the Second Reform Act in 1867 very few people had the right to vote. The previous land qualifications were lessened to: household who paid rate and lived in property for at least one year and lodgers paying £10 a year (in counties); owners of property valued at £5 for rates and tenant of property valued at £12 for rates. This meant that skilled male town workers and well off farmers were not given the vote. The vote still remained in the hands of the upper classes and upper middle classes and also land owners and was therefore discriminatory towards the poor. The percentage of eligible voting men increased, to the 1867 Reform Act, from 1 in 7 to 1 in 3. The act also removed MPs from very small rotten boroughs and counties which totalled 52 seats. The number of people on the electorate grew from 1.5million to 2.5 million as a result of the act removing some of the voting restrictions. However the act did not get rid of the discrimination in the electorate system; the franchise still required a property condition; the act only lowering the price criteria. Distribution of MPs remained uneven with large industrial areas being seriously under represented. And, despite the franchise being extended to more people it still excluded 2 out of 3 mean and all women. Therefore the Second Reform Act was a small but crucial step towards democracy.

Due to previous corruption, fairness was an essential requirement for the future of the democratic state. The Ballot Act of 1872 introduced the secret ballot system after a parliamentary enquiry revealed the large scale of corruption. The act causes a decline in intimidation but corruption still occurred. This was a great barrier to democracy because the public were not able to freely decide who they wished to represent them as the feared intimidation from both politicians and other voters. Some voters preferred to be bought by a arty because they preferred to be bribed and gain money than vote freely and choose who represented what they stood for. The government reacted to the discovery of continuing corruption by introducing the corrupt and legal practices act 1883. This act limited the amount politicians were allowed to spend on elections campaigns and also limited what the money could be spent on. The act also made corruption of elections a criminal offence for which someone could be fined and possibly jailed for a short length of time. The Redistribution of the People Act 1884 targeted the inequality between the franchise in boroughs and counties. But this act was not as simple as it sounds because it had 20 difference regulations so that it wasn’t totally equal. The Redistribution of Seats Act introduced in 1885 aimed to make constituencies equal all of them having around approximately 50,000 people for each representative MP. This meant that all people were equally represented and the therefore had an equal voice with everyone else. The unfair distribution changed drastically in the south of England and many were added to the Northern industrial areas where people had been historically under represented. Britain still had many more steps to take before it could be considered democratic such as choice of representation.

Choice between representatives of different ideas which would affect society is a requirement in a democracy. Without any choice it is not a democratic state because there are no varying ideas to choose from. There was very little choice before 1906 when Labour was founded as an official party. Before then there was only the Liberal and Conservative parties controlling the government, both of which represented the upper and middle classes. This left the working classes with no-one standing for their opinions and this became a problem when some working class men were fiver the vote but had nobody the wished to vote for. To fill this political gap the Labour Representation Committee was formed. This later became known as the Labour Party and was the first party ever to poen stand for the working classes. The new choice of Labout in 1906 made the choice of parties much more democratic as every major sector of society was being fairly represented. The access of information as also important as regards to enabling the publics ability to free choice as it includes everyone’s right to find out exactly what each party stands for as well as information such as political meeting, public libraries, daily newspapers and an efficient transport system to spread information nationally which is vital to the growth of democracy.

Accountability regards the parliaments need to be answerable to the public who voted for them. The growth of working class voters meant that the House of Lords became a much more serious hindrance to democracy than it ever had been before. This is because the working classes voted for a party promising to represent their wants but the House of Lords, although unelected, possessed the ability to scrap proposals for new law which came from the House of Commons. They were able to stop new law proposals which conflicted with their views, baring in mind that the House of Lords consisted of rich members of the upper class, despite the majority view of both the public and the government being that the law should be put in place. This powerful organisation was accountable to no-one and so could do as it wished which often meant them putting their own views above that of the general public. Voters must have to right to people in power representing their wants and controlling the country as they themselves saw fit; this would ne lead to a democratic state. In 1911 the parliament act was introduced which targeted the problem that was the unelected House of Lords having the power to scrap laws voted for bu the House of Commons. The act took this power from the House of Lords but did not get rid of the House, it was merely restricted to only being able to suspend bills being passes for two years. This meant the elected government had much more power and control over such matters as money which they could now distribute and spend freely as they saw fit. The act also said that a general election must be held at least every 5 years to stop unfavourable parties remaining in power when they are no longer working for the people.

The ability for anybody to participate in politics is also a requirement for a true and fair democracy. The payment of MPs act established a salary of £400 a year for parliamentary members. It was put in place because it was thought that it was a public right to be a representative as well as an elector in spite of your wealth status in society and your standing in the class divide. Elections were expensive and, before the wage, would have been impossible to conduct for anyone who didn’t have a lot of money. Even after the wage was introduced only rich people could stand because it cost much more than the £400 a year and the poor would require a wage on top of that used to spend on elections but it was a start.

In conclusion, I agree that the steps taken between 1867 and 1914 were important in the final aim of democracy. The number of people given the franchise increased greatly because the electoral system became fairer. The option of who to vote for increased and a more fuller sector of society was being represented by the parties. There were also many flaws in the system which still had to be worked out in the next few years and decades but Britain was now successfully on the path towards democracy. The most important factor in democracy, the vote, for example didn’t extend to 1 in 3 men and any women which was an improvement to be fixed in the future of politics.


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    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 5 years ago from UK

      What of the enclosure acts and their effect on democracy for decades?

      The Inclosure Acts 1845 to 1882 means:[1]

      The Inclosure Act 1845 (8 & 9 Vict. c.118)

      The Inclosure Act 1846 (9 & 10 Vict. c.70)

      The Inclosure Act 1847 (10 & 11 Vict. c.111)

      The Inclosure Act 1848 (11 & 12 Vict. c.99)

      The Inclosure Act 1849 (12 & 13 Vict. c.83)

      The Inclosure Commissioners Act 1851 (14 & 15 Vict. c.53)

      The Inclosure Act 1852 (15 & 16 Vict. c.79)

      The Inclosure Act 1854 (17 & 18 Vict. c. 97)

      The Inclosure Act 1857 (20 & 21 Vict. c.31)

      The Inclosure Act 1859 (22 & 23 Vict. c.43)

      The Inclosure, etc. Expenses Act 1868 (31 & 32 Vict. c.89)

      The Commons Act 1876 (39 & 40 Vict. c.56)

      The Commons (Expenses) Act 1878 (41 & 42 Vict. c.56)

      The Commons Act 1879 (42 & 43 Vict. c.37)

      The Commonable Rights Compensation Act 1882 (45 & 46 Vict. c.15)