Essay Question: How democratic was Britain by 1928?
“Democracy is the government of the people, for the people, by the people” (Abraham Lincoln, President of the USA, 1860-1865)” For any country to be called democratic, certain conditions have to exist. Firstly, all adults should have the right to vote but the right to vote did not in itself make Britain democratic. Between 1850 and 1928, other features of a democracy were created. These features included a fair system of voting, a choice of who to vote for and access to information to make an informed choice. It should also be possible for people from all backgrounds to become Members of Parliament themselves and parliament should be accountable to the voters. Although the transition from a political system dominated by aristocracy to one of universal suffrage was a long and protracted one by 1928, most of the features of a democracy had been met. Consequently Britain had become more democratic than it was in 1850. It is no wonder that John Kerr describes Britain as being “nowhere near being democratic in 1850.” The state of democracy in Britain had been set by the Great Reform Act of 1832 which increased the number of men who could vote in a general election and redistributed parliamentary seats so that there was a more equal ratio of MPs to constituents. However Britain was still far from being democratic. The system was not fair as voting took place in hustings meaning there was no secret ballot, making it possible for candidates to bribe and intimidate the voters and general elections were only held every seven years. Another aspect of the British political system that was undemocratic was the unequal distribution of seats and MPs still representing county and borough constituencies with great variations in size of population. Moreover, the Tory dominated House of Lords was unelected and it could stop the elected majority of the House of Commons getting bills though parliament and only wealthy men could stand as candidates for election as there was a property qualification. It could be suggested that Britain was undemocratic in 1850 as working class men and all women were excluded from the franchise and only 7% of the population were entitled to vote. Between 1850 and 1928 a series of acts were introduced that extended the franchise. The Second Parliamentary Reform Act of 1867 was the first piece of legislation that tried to amend the political system. As a result of this Act, the size of the electorate increase to 2.5 million including the skilled working class meaning a third of males were now able to vote. However, the vote still depended on property and the one year residency requirement discriminated against a large proportion of the working class. The introduction of the Representation of the People Act in 1884 doubled the electorate making the number of voters five million and the franchise qualification was now the same in both boroughs and counties. Although Sir Albert Maine described the new system as an “unmoderated democracy” there was still a long way to go until Britain became democratic. The men who did not have the franchise in 1867 such as the soldiers and male domestic servants were still deprived of the vote in 1884 and as with 1867 plural voting still existed and no women were allowed to vote. The Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the franchise to all adult males because of their important role in the Great War meaning that all males over the age of twenty one were now enfranchised. For the first time, women over the age of 30 were given the vote provided they were educated, married and had a home. Although this was a major step towards democracy as regards women’s suffrage, it must be noted that there was not equal universal suffrage, and that women would have to wait until the 1928 Equal Franchise Act to be set on equal voting terms as men without qualifications, to receive the vote at the...
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