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UE: POL 110-HA: Democracy in Troubled Times: Rise of Democracy in Great Britain

Practical Instruction in Civic Discourse

The Takeaway - What You Need To Know

Overview - The Rise of Parliamentary Democracy in Europe

British Houses of Parliament - J.M.W. Turner

The Rise of Parliamentary Democracy in Europe

Great Britain deserves study as the country that has developed and evolved most of the political cornerstones of modern democracy, including constitutionalism, a limited executive, parliamentary government, and a two-party system.

Great Britain was the first to adopt a modern constitution, although still partly unwritten, by blending the Magna Charta and other written documents to create a legal democratic framework to replace Absolute Monarchy with regulated relations between executive, legislative and judiciary powers.

She was the first to limit the power of the executive by transforming the Absolute Monarchy into a limited Constitutional Monarchy, dependent on Parliament for a national budget, although this relationship evolved over a course of several hundred years -- from the time of the Magna Charta, through the Puritan revolution/English Civil War, to the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688.

She was also the first to develop the modern bi-party system, with two main political parties alternating each other in power, and additional checks on the authority of the Monarchy through the Prime Minister/Premier as dual-executive responsible since the 1850s to parliament, not to the Monarch.  

Great Britain has also struggled with a complex national identity between her imperial trade/industrial and sea-power global supremacy in the 1700s -1970s versus her unwillingness to embrace federalism within its empire, despite the 1774-83 American Revolution (until the creation of the Commonwealth at the 1935 Treaty of Westminster) and at home (until the federal reforms by Premier Tony Blair in the late-1990s re-balancing England with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Germany, by way of contrast, was the last solid European convert to democracy after World War II (1939-45), did implement under American Occupation a regional federal Parliamentary system (Laender), and is also a pillar of European politico-economic integration (European Community/European Union, 1950-current).

Germany long struggled with a fragmented national identity (traditional regionalism versus Austro-German empire versus Prussian pan-Germanism versus the Cold War divisions in pro-Western democratic West Germany, pro-Soviet Communist dictatorial East Germany-DDR and pro-Western “neutralist” Austria), authoritarian traditions (unaccountable Emperors, Kaisers and Kings in the I and II Reich, or Adolf Hitler as Nazi Fuehrer in the III Reich and Communist East Germany-DDR versus democratic politics in the 1920s Weimar Republic, 1949-90 West Germany and a Reunited Germany today).

Copypright © 2013-- Marco Rimanelli, Ph.D. Saint Leo University

Parliamentary Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884

Reforming Parliament

As the 19th century progressed and the memory of the violent French Revolution faded, there was growing acceptance that some parliamentary reform was necessary. The unequal distribution of seats, the extension of the franchise, and 'rotten boroughs' were all issues to be addressed. The Tory Prime Minister in 1830, Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, was resolutely opposed to parliamentary reform. However, there was growing support for limited change within his party, primarily because partially extending the franchise would allow the wealth and influence of Britain's growing middle class to be exploited.

When the Tory government was ousted later in 1830, Earl Grey, a Whig, became Prime Minister and pledged to carry out parliamentary reform. The Whig Party was pro-reform and though two reform bills failed to be carried in Parliament, the third was successful and received Royal Assent in 1832. The Bill was passed due to Lord Grey's plan to persuade King William IV to consider using his constitutional powers to create additional Whig peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the Bill's passage. On hearing of this plan, Tory peers abstained from voting, thus allowing the Bill to be passed but avoiding the creation of more Whig peers.

Reform Act of 1832

The Representation of the People Act 1832, known as the first Reform Act disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales; reduced another 31 to only one MP; created 67 new constituencies; broadened the franchise's property qualification in the counties to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers; and created a uniform franchise in the boroughs, giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers. Limited change had been achieved, but for many it did not go far enough. The property qualifications meant that the majority of working men still could not vote. But it had been proved that change was possible, and over the next decades the call for further parliamentary reform continued


The first Reform Act, which was the most controversial, reapportioned representation in Parliament in a way fairer to the cities of the industrial north, which had experienced tremendous growth, and did away with "rotten" and "pocket" boroughs like Old Sarum, which with only seven voters (all controlled by the local squire) was still sending two members to Parliament. This act not only re-apportioned representation in Parliament, thus making that body more accurately represent the citizens of the country, but also gave the power of voting to those lower in the social and economic scale, for the act extended the right to vote to any man owning a household worth £10, adding 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000. Approximately one man in five now had the right to vote. For many conservatives, this effect of the bill, which allowed the middle classes to share power with the upper classes, was revolutionary in its import. Some historians argue that this transference of power achieved in England what the French Revolution achieved eventually in France.

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Poor Law Act of 1834

A number of historians, such as Hobsbawm, Falkus, Belchem, and Mathias, tend to overlook the “Great” Reform Act of 1832 and tend to focus more on the Poor Law Act of 1834. Due to agricultural uprisings, rioting, rick burning and machine smashing, two Parliamentary Commissions were sent to examine the poor law question in 1817 and 1824, but no alternative was ever put forward. It was not until after the “Great” Reform act of 1832 was passed, Parliament appointed a Royal Commission on the Poor Laws to examine the current situation and suggest alternatives to a failing system that was causing much disharmony to the working class in England and Wales. Parliament were determined to make radical changes towards the poor to prevent uprising from the masses and in 1834 a new Poor Law Act was formed and the bill was passed.

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Political Cartoon, from Punch magazine.


The chief proponent of the Reform Act of 1867, featured in this cartoon, was Benjamin Disraeli, Chancellor of the Exchequer (treasury secretary) in the Tory administration of Lord Derby.  He skillfully steered the measure through Parliament, where amendments by Liberal members produced a bill that almost doubled the electorate by extending the suffrage to 938,000 urban workingmen. In this American cartoon, Uncle Sam points to the Magna Carta, England's ancient charter of rights, and urges the British workingmen to continue to push for their right to vote under the proposed Reform Bill of 1867.  Even the proponents of the British Reforms Acts, however, still considered voting to be a privilege.  John Bull, the personification of Great Britain, who holds the Reform Bill, reflects that attitude in this cartoon.

Second Reform Act 1867

The 1832 Reform Act proved that change was possible. The parliamentary elite felt that they had met the need for change but among the working classes there were demands for more. The growth and influence of the Chartist Movement from 1838 onwards was an indication that more parliamentary reform was desired. The Chartist Movement had peaked by the 1850s but there was an acceptance among Members of Parliament that there was more work to be done to remove anomalies in the system that the first Reform Act had not addressed. Landowners However, the call for universal manhood suffrage or 'one man, one vote' was still resisted by Parliament and the second Reform Act, passed in 1867, was still based around property qualifications. There was no question of campaigning for the right to vote for women too. They were still excluded. The 1867 Reform Act: granted the vote to all householders in the boroughs as well as lodgers who paid rent of £10 a year or more reduced the property threshold in the counties and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land Men in urban areas who met the property qualification were enfranchised and the Act roughly doubled the electorate in England and Wales from one to two million men.


Although there was no great opposition to extending the franchise in the 1860's, politicians did not see reform as the first installment of democracy. The question was how to ‘popularize’ the constitution without producing a democratic system, which would destroy the representative character of English parliamentary government, which was generally thought to be the envy of the world. This sense was only reinforced by contemporary comparisons with democratic political systems such as the USA and France, .... As one Liberal MP breezily put it in 1866, "All, then, that was proposed was to admit a few of the best of the working men, and thereby to place our representative system on a broader basis and surer foundation."

Any extension of the franchise needed to be accompanied by safeguards to reassure MP's. Liberals, in particular, were keen to preserve a balance in the representation. They feared that too great and indiscriminate addition of working men to the electorate would swamp other interests and classes and produce a political system dominated by a single class. This explains the contemporary interest in various schemes, such as plural voting and proportional representation, to secure minority representation, which were proposed at the time by the Liberal intellectual John Stuart Mill (who was also MP for Westminster 1865–1868) and others. A second major concern was to secure a ‘resting place’ for the franchise. That is, MP's wanted any extension to be based upon a justifiable principle which could be defended against calls for further extensions in the future. Reform was therefore envisaged as a way of preventing, rather than a first step to, democracy.


Third Reform Act 1884

Parliament’s resistance to ‘one man, one vote’ was partly overturned in 1884 with the third Reform Act which: established a uniform franchise throughout the country brought the franchise in the counties into line with the 1867 householder and lodger franchise for boroughs Redistribution of Seats Act The following year, the Redistribution of Seats Act redrew boundaries to make electoral districts equal. As a result of this Act, most areas returned only one Member to Parliament, although 23 seats, including the City of London and Bath, continued to return two Members until 1910. Parliament and the political landscape changed greatly over the 19th century, beginning with a small ruling elite in Parliament and gradually increasing to be more democratic and representative.

However, one section of society was still completely excluded from the voting process - women. To become truly representative, Parliament still had more changes to make.


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Chartist Movement & Feargus O'Connor (1794 - 1855)

A Tribute to Feargus O'Connor (in Nottingham)

My sympathies lie with radical socialism. In particular, I align myself with the radical reformers of the 18th and 19th Century who fought against poverty, injustice and political inequality, which fight, formed the bedrock of even further reforms over the last 150 years that have given us the priviledges and opportunities that we can all enjoy today. Without these reforms, people like me, from a poor, working class background, would be still stuck in a world with no hope, no promise, and no future. We should never lose sight of the achievements of, and costs to, great men and women of the past.
Feargus O'Connor was a Chartist leader, and became a Nottingham MP in 1847. Born around 1796, he studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and became a lawyer. He inherited an estate in Cork, and during Irish agitation for reform in the early 1830's, he emerged as an advocate of Irish rights and democratic political reform. He became MP for Cork in 1832 but lost his seat in 1835. He turned his attention to English radicalism and toured the country campaigning for political reform. He was described as "a superb orator, powerful, defiant, humorous". (What would I give to be described as such?). In 1840 he was arrested and imprisoned in York Castle for 15 months. As his behaviour, apparently became increasingly irrational, he was declared insane in 1852, and was sent to an asylum in Chiswick, where he died in 1855. It was reported that 40,000 people attended his funeral.


What was it that so drove this man to be a leader among men? It was a belief in the need for political and social reform in the United Kingdom, which resulted in the movement called Chartism. It takes its name from the 'People's Charter' of 1838.










This stipulated the demand for six reforms, which were;

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The secret ballot - to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament - thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.
  5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount or representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  6. Annual parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
It is of interest to note that these were not new demands. Major John Cartwright, Nottinghamshire born, and a Major in the Nottinghamshire Militia, produced a pamphlet in 1776 called "Take your Choice", which was enlarged and re-published in 1777 under the heading, "Legislative Rights". He had a huge influence on others, for in 1780, in the City of Westminster a large public meeting was held for the purpose of promoting a Reform of the House of Commons. A committee was formed, and in April of that year, they recommended:
  1. Annual Parliaments
  2. Universal Suffrage
  3. Voting by Ballot
  4. Equal Polling Districts
  5. No Money Qualification of Members 6. Payment of Members for their Attendance.
The People's Charter of 1838 was basically the same as that produced by the people of Westminster, fifty seven years earlier. People were now becoming frustrated at the pace of change. The anger over the 1832 Reform Act, and fury over the new Poor Law which established the workhouse system, found an outlet in Chartism. People were tired of what one letter writer in 1847 described as "do-nothing, kid-glove reformers". It was time for action.
Chartism was not an organisation in itself, but was essentially an umbrella movement which drew together many strands of radical grievance, and gave working class people a focus, and a voice.

There were two main strands to Chartism. One advocated physical force, while the other argued for moderation. Feargus O'Connor definitely seemed to advocate 'direct action' and the threat of violence to achieve his aims. Perhaps this is why he was so welcome in Nottingham, as the town has a long history of riotous behaviour. A local man said in 1799 that "he had lived seventeen years in Nottingham, and during that period there had been seventeen riots". However, though there was armed rebellion, strikes and clashes with soldiers, the main weapon of the Chartists was the mass demonstrations and signatures to petitions.

Support for Chartism in Nottingham is hardly surprising, and in September 1838, James Woodhouse, a local Chartist told a meeting of 2000 loom operators that political reform was "the means by which they could furnish their houses, clothe their backs and educate their children". This is what the poor and disenfranchised people wanted to hear. The first major Chartist meeting held in Nottingham was on the 5th November 1838 at the Forest where 3000 met on "a wet and uncomfortable day". There were further meetings held in Nottingham during 1839, and in July of that year the first national petition was presented to Parliament. It is said that of 1.3 million signatures, 17,000 came from Nottingham. The House of Commons threw out the petition, provoking a wave of unrest across the country.

Fergus O'Connor had first spoken in Nottingham in 1836, when he urged radicals to form a party for themselves. The winter of 1841-42 produced harsh economic conditions which fuelled the flames of discontent again, and as a result of this, O'Connor received a "tumultuous welcome" when he came to speak in the town in February 1842. A second petition with over 3 million signatories was presented to Parliament in May 1842 which was yet again rejected.

Feargus O'Connor had set up The Northern Star as a Chartist newspaper in 1837, and following the rejection of the 1842 petition (there was to be another rejection in 1848), The Northern Star wrote,
"Three and a half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest.  Three and a half millions of people have asked permission to detail their wrongs, and enforce their claims for RIGHT, and the 'House' has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is still to be maintained. The people are not to be free".

      [Am I the only one to see echoes of this in Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech?].

There was further national and local unrest that year, culminating in the battle of Mapperley Hills in August, when around 5,000 Chartist supporters assembled. The Riot Act was read, and despite the fact that the people were "quietly sitting down to eat their dinner", troops arrested 400 men, who were handcuffed, tied with ropes and marched four abreast to the House of Correction. Needless to say, this insensitive treatment provoked a riot. Because of his popularity with the people of Nottingham, there was no surprise when he was elected their MP in 1847, but by the early 1850's, Chartism was beginning to decline.

Did Feargus O'Connor and the other Chartists fail? Certainly most of them did not see the People's Charter reforms happen in their lifetime, but all except one of the six points in  the Charter is now law - the one exception being the call for annual parliaments.

Who knows where we would be today if it had not been for the Charter Movement. Chartism is important because it gave birth to the first ever mass working class political party; it created a political culture that endured for decades, and it paved the way, in terms of ideas and the training it gave to young working class radicals, for the ultimately successful campaigns for a universal right to vote. Chartism created a long-term political culture in which later left-wing ideas flourished. I for one salute those radical reformers (whose names are too numerous to mention), and in particular Feargus O'Connor, who fought long and hard for those privileges that we so enjoy today. Let's not ever forget them.

-- by John Evans <>

[Retired at the start of 2010 after spending many years as Chief Executive of a homelessness charity on the south coast of England. Now realising that there really are enough hours in the day to do everything. Moved to Nottingham to be nearer my sons and to bask in the glow of Robin Hood - there's quite a bit of that here.]

The Labor Party & the Welfare State

The Post-War Election of 1944

At the end of World War II, the British people were eager for a change. The Conservative Party had been in power since 1931. During his years as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had led Britain to victory, but Britain no longer felt the need for war leadership.

The Conservative Party's prewar record did not match its wartime success. The Conservatives were slow to enact measures to overcome the miseries of the Great Depression. Joseph Chamberlain's appeasement policy was not only a failure but a disgrace. The Conservative Party's further failure to begin rearmament left Britain scrambling to catch up in the face of Nazi aggression.

The Labour Party, by contrast, had no embarrassing prewar record to overcome. Moreover, Labour was a highly visible and effective coalition partner in Churchill's wartime government. In fact, Labour MP Clement Attlee served as Churchill's deputy prime minister.

When a general election was announced in 1944, both Attlee and Churchill hit the campaign trail. Churchill traveled in a motorcade. Attlee traveled in his own car, driven erratically by his wife. Churchill preached on the dangers of socialism. Attlee's mild-mannered presence refuted Churchill's rhetoric.

 Attlee's platform was simple:

If in war, despite the diversions of most of our energies to making instruments of destruction, and despite the shortage of supply imposed by war conditions, we were able to provide food, clothing and employment for all our people, it is not impossible to do the same in peace, provided the government has the will and the power to act.

There was little doubt in the minds of the British public that they could expect more social reform from Labour than from the Conservatives. In July 1945, a month before Japan's surrender, the British electorate celebrated the end of the war by voting out Winston Churchill's war government.

The Labour Party was elected with a mandate for change. With a majority of 146 seats in the House of Commons, Clement Attlee formed a Labour government that became known for the scope of its reforms.

TEXT: Labour landslide buries Churchill - Report on the 1945 British elections

The Beveridge Report In 1941

Winston Churchill commissioned William Beveridge (1879-1963) to create a report on how Britain should be rebuilt after the war. The resulting Social Insurance and Allied Services (1942), also known as The Beveridge Report, was adopted by Clement Attlee's Labour government as a blueprint for Britain's post-World War II welfare state.

Beveridge was an obvious choice to write the report. His lifelong interest in solutions for unemployment began in 1908 when he served as the sub-warden of a London settlement house. His first book, Unemployment: A Problem of Industry (1909), led to him being asked to advise Asquith's Liberal government on the formation of their national insurance and pension legislation.

The settlement movement, popular from the 1880s to the 1920s, held that poverty could be alleviated if the rich and poor lived together in interdependent communities. The movement built settlement houses in poor urban areas, where middle-class, volunteer “settlement workers” lived and provided education and services to their neighbors. The best-known settlement house in America was Chicago's Hull House.

In Social Insurance and Allied Services, Beveridge laid out three guiding principles for the government to follow in combating what he called the “five giants on the road to reconstruction,” want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness:

  • “Sectional interests” formed in the past should not limit proposals for the future: “A revolutionary moment in the world's history is a time for revolution, not for patching.”
  • Social insurance should be only part of a “comprehensive package of social progress.”
  • Policies of social security should be achieved through cooperation between the state and the individual. The state “should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.”

The proposals that followed included a free National Health Service that would prevent medical bills from becoming a source of poverty and a commitment to full employment to ensure that wages were there to help fund benefits.

Beveridge opposed means-tested benefits, arguing that they created a poverty-trap for their recipients, making them unable to afford to make small improvements to their situations for fear of losing their safety nets. Instead he proposed a flat-rate contribution from everyone and a flat-rate benefit for everyone. This principle of universality became one of the defining characteristics of welfare socialism.

John Maynard Keynes

British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) provided the theoretical basis for government full-employment policies in his revolutionary General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). Keynes argued unemployment results from insufficient demand for goods and services. Government can directly influence the demand for goods and services through its tax policies and public expenditures, indirectly increasing the level of employment.

The British Welfare State

The Beveridge Report was an unexpected bestseller. Eager to get a copy, people lined up outside the Stationary Office the night before it was released, as excited as if it were the latest volume of Harry Potter. More than 100,000 copies were sold the first month; 800,000 copies were sold in total. It was translated into twenty-two languages, distributed to the British troops, and airdropped over Nazi Germany.

Beveridge became an unlikely popular hero, known as “The People's William.” Between 1945 and 1951, Attlee's government built the British welfare system using the Beveridge report as its guide. The National Insurance Act provided retirement pensions, unemployment benefits, sick pay, maternity benefits, and funeral benefits. The Industrial Injuries Act paid for occupational disabilities. The National Health Service Act, passed in spite of the hostility of Britain's medical community, made complete medical care available to all residents of Britain.


During the same period, the Labor government nationalized the Bank of England, railways, long-distance hauling, telecommunications, coal mines, civil aviation, canals and docks, electricity, gas, and the iron and steel industries. All were basic to the economy or public utilities. None of them were flourishing prior to nationalization, with the exception of long-distance hauling.

The idea of introducing industrial democracy or worker control over the nationalized industries was never considered. Government appointed boards managed the nationalized industries. Unlike the seizure of major industries in Russia, former owners were compensated for their property.

The only serious opposition to Attlee's program of nationalization came over the iron and steel industries, which were stable and had good relationships with their unions. The act of nationalizing these industries was the only measure proposed during Labour's term in office that the House of Lords delayed. The act became law in 1949, and took affect in 1951. Soon after the law took affect, Labour lost the general election. The Conservative Party re-privatized iron and steel as soon as they took office in 1951.

Iron and steel were the only industries to be returned to the private sector prior to the 1980s.

from A Mandate for Change by Pamela D. Toler, PhD.
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