The Most Important Steps in British Democracy

I believe that it is quite true to claim that the most important steps in British democracy were taken in the period of 1867 to 1918. Preliminary steps, ones that contributed to democratisation, were also taken in the decades before this, but the most important events that caused Britain to become a democracy, took place in this fifty-year period. British democracy today involves all adults being enfranchised. Steps taken along the road to democracy in the early 1800s did not come anywhere near this level of democracy. Acts after this time, in the second half of the century came progressively closer to this goal.

Before the period of 1867 to 1918, there were limited attempts made towards reform, but there was a widespread belief amongst the ruling parties of the day that the poor and women were unable to form valid or useful opinions for themselves. This was due to the fact that all MPs were landowners, a fact protected by law. These landowners did not see it necessary that the poor should have any say in how the country was run because they were seen as having no valuable views on politics and could not contribute to society due to their lack of wealth, and perhaps more importantly, property.

This prejudice against the poor, non-landowning classes was deep rooted and based on the belief that if they did not own land, they should not be allowed to contribute to decisions about the country as a whole. There was however, in the early part of the nineteenth century, a belief amongst the upper classes that the system, which to some extent had been virtually unchanged for three hundred years, needed some limited reform.

Some viewed certain voting practices as unfair, and the representation of areas in the country, which had been relatively fair in the sixteenth century, did not reflect the large increase in population, in certain areas, due to the emerging British economy. The increase of wealth due to the modernisation of industries and the increased urbanisation of the country left many people under-represented. Less than 5% of the total British population, only 435,000 people had the right to vote in politicians who passed laws affecting the whole country.

Some of the political discrepancies were attacked in the 1832 Reform Bill. This Bill went some way to alleviate the problems. The franchise was extended to 223,000 more people and also changed the constituencies by eliminating rotten boroughs and pocket boroughs and equalised the amount of constituents in a constituency. This reform led to others later in the century because, although the 1832 Reform Bill went further in reforming the democratic system than any previous piece of legislation, it did not, in many people's view, go far enough.

The Chartist movement in the next few years gained support for its radical ideas, but as its demands were too radical for the period, their support dwindled, and finally the Chartist movement faded out. At the beginning of the period 1867 to 1918, there was pressure mounting for a change that went further than the reforms already instituted. The fact that a more representative government structure was needed for the expanding and changing Britain was seen by some MPs. In 1867, the Second Reform Act extended the franchise was extended to over 1.

1 million more people around the country, and so now the right to vote was held by around two and a half million males. The new system was a lot fairer, with all rate-paying men, living in boroughs, who had been paying rent for a year, were allowed to vote, and also lodgers in accommodation which had an annual value of i?? 10 of more, became voters, people occupying buildings with i?? 12 or more in rateable value were also enfranchised. These changes made it possible for nearly one in three people in Britain to vote in elections, a notable increase from the one in seven who could vote previously.

Politicians such as Gladstone were wary of progressing in reform towards a greater level of democracy due to the opposition that would be met, not only by many voters, but also by his own Liberal party. He saw however that the likelihood was that sections of the community enfranchised by him would be likely to support him further on down the line. He therefore introduced a Bill to the Commons for the extension of the franchise. It passed through the Commons; the Lords however opposed this strongly, and refused to pass it. This caused protests throughout the country, and this to some extent speeded up the process.

The Bill was split into two, and both parts passed in 1884 and 1885. These two Acts, the Representation of the People Act of 1884 and the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, created a higher level of democracy in the country. The numbers of voters was doubled, with male householders, who had been in work for a year or more were given the vote, and also more people in the towns could vote. Constituencies were also evened out around the country. The start of the new century saw more equality given to the people. In 1911 power was taken from the Lords and MPs were paid.

The poor could now take positions of power a situation that was nearly impossible before. By the beginning of the 1880s secret balloting had been introduced in the Ballot Act 1872. This had removed a practice which had leant itself throughout the years to cheating, bribery and intimidation. Corruption had not been removed from the fledgling democratic system very much. There were still many un-democratic practices in place in the early 1880s and pressure was building for some of these to be tackled. The mid-1880s saw the institution of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act 1883 which made elections a lot fairer.

It built on the start made in the 1872 Ballot Act, by progressing towards a truly democratic system of government. The practices considered illegal and corrupt were clearly defined by the Act, and candidates considered to be in breach of the guidelines were disqualified from holding office, and participation in the illegal practices was punishable by a prison term or fine. Arguably, the most important piece of legislation to be passed that took Britain nearer being a democratic state was the Representation of the People Act of 1918.

This saw the strong demands of the past decades of the suffragettes made a reality. All women over the age of 30 were now allowed to vote. Another part of this Act, which made Britain a democratic state, was to enfranchise all men over the age of 21. It is clear that the most important steps towards Britain becoming a democracy were taken between 1867 and 1918. The period beforehand had seen the vast majority of the country's population having no say whatsoever in the running of the land.

The 1832 Reform Act, the only significant piece of legislation to be taken affecting the democratic system did not have any lasting effect the fairness of the political system in the Britain. It had to be patched up and changed and built upon so much that it had no lasting effect. I feel that it is quite obvious that in the latter half of the nineteenth and first two decades of the twentieth centuries, the most important efforts towards democracy were taken. The franchise was given to all adult males and a large proportion of the adult females. Britain was almost a true democracy in the modern sense at the end of 1918.