The slow journey to limited democracy
The right to a vote as one person and one vote with freedom of expression is fundamental to any democratic governance. This right has emerged slowly by two basic routes. The first is the top down route, the second by popular demand and practice, The rights from top down comes from concessions given by the crown and a wealthy aristocracy, this emerged over time, at first through the royal councils restricted to senior aristocracy and clerics, where each member came to have a vote . By the early thirteenth century the crown needed to widen support to finance wars and was obliged to form a lower council, the Commons, whose membership was composed of the knights of the shires and the burgers of the charted towns, these were classified as free men in the feudal order, a step down from the elite but above the bonded serf, who over time aspired to become free as commoners. The charters were a privilege bestowed by the crown giving freedoms to chosen towns and their guilds and their inhabitants were freed from feudal obligations but not from tax. The House of Commons was their representative body, junior to the House of Lords, the two made up Parliament, the place where the councils of state came to talk. The members of parliament were chosen by a handful of electors which might include members of the guilds and others who held rateable property. Some boroughs had enough constituents with the vote to make a contested election. Some boroughs became the “rotten boroughs” and had hardly anyone living in them; their representation in Parliament was in the gift of the local aristocratic patronage which quite often went to the highest bidder. This state of affairs with a few minor changes remained until after radical ferment resulted in the reform bill of 1832 where the franchise was extended from 4% of adult men to 8% of men, owners of rateable property. Some of the worst rotten Boroughs were abolished; these minimal reforms were enacted after years of popular agitation to extend the franchise and get rid of extensive electorial corruption. This top-down reform was just enough to blunt the near revolutionary ferment of the 1820s to 1850.
The second source of pressure that led to the establishment of democratic rights came by popular demand but this route itself had two aspects. The extension of the franchise came after a prolonged campaign directed at the authorities. As important was the emergent popular expectations that grew by participating in democrtic practice. The universal vote for the common people was preceded by DIY democracy within their own self-governing mutual associations and this became a standard which increasingly was seen as fundamental to the rights of men and also later women. A famous early demand for the universal vote was made by the Levellers during the Putney debates in 1647 just after the English Civil war. These ideas remained latent among the people and resurfaced to influence the democratic constitution of newly independent American United States in 1776. At the same time the issue of extending the franchise was championed by several radicals including Tomas Paine . The French Revolution in 1787 stimulated excitement but this was dampened with the Terror that ensued. Not long after France and Britain were at war, a wave of patriotism swept the country and a reaction set in. Radical democratic opinion was mainly rooted among the emergent, as yet small industrialists and working class, who in the main were initially sympathetic to the original sentiments of the French Revolution, fraternity, equality and liberty. The French Terror, which led to the execution of the French King and his followers, dampened radical enthusiasm and stimulated a patriotic backlash. Tom Paine had to flee to France and after war started a repression set in against radical democratic organization. Radical organizations were repressed which lead to the demise of the London Corresponding Society, the United Irishmen, United Scotsmen and United Englishmen. There was unrest stimulated by radical sentiment in the navy which mutinied at Spithead in 1797; this was repressed, though some improvements were brought in, but the chief ringleaders were hung. The workers’ societies or trade clubs, forerunners of trade unions, were repressed by the Combination Acts. Trade Clubs survived as friendly societies but radical action was checked and driven partly underground, only to resurface after Napoleons defeat at Waterloo
The period just before and after the war was a time of disruption, the industrial revolution was under way, and in addition after the war the de-mobbing of soldiers and sailors added to the social problems. Prices for agricultural producers fell as did wages. Already many had been driven from the countryside by the effects of the agricultural revolution and the process of enclosures. The small self-sufficient farmers became uncompetitive. The cottage industry lost out to new machines especially with the introduction of steam power, these developments increased production making hand spinning and weaving uncompetitive and redundant; a typical reaction of the era was the Luddite campaign of machine breaking by weavers in a desperate attempt to defend their traditional livelihood. The autonomous rural worker became dependent on work provided by the mill owner in the growing industrial towns. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw increasing distress of the rural population. At the time through the Acts of Settlement each parish then was required by the Poor Laws to give a minimal maintenance to the destitute of their area, so each parish would try to drive away any impoverished person from outside; this law was applied in southern England but was done so more loosely in the North where industrial towns began to grow with an influx of migrants from rural areas and Ireland. This dislocation caused much social distress and prompted the upsurge of radicalism. (to be continued)