To What Extent Was Gradual Democratisation of Britain Between 1830-1931, in Particular the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884, Conceded by the British Ruling Classes as a Response to the Threat of Revolution?

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  • Topic: Chartism, Reform Act 1832, Suffrage
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The period between 1830-1931 saw significant extensions of the franchise in Britain. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a narrow elite held a dense concentration of both economic wealth and political power, with little sign of wanting to concede either. Certainly there had, until then, been no major electoral reform since 1432, when Henry VI franchised male owners of property worth 40 shillings – which, by the 1830s, allowed only 635,000 out of a population of 20 million to vote. Bribery, intimidation and rotten boroughs, in which some MPs could be elected into seats with less than 100 voters whilst entire cities such as Manchester went unrepresented, were common.

As Thomas Paine succinctly put it, “The man who is in the receipt of a million a year is the last person to promote a spirit of reform, lest, in the event, it should reach to himself.”# Nevertheless, by the end of the period, suffrage had been extended to all men and women over the age of 21 in what some have called a ‘democratic revolution’.# Five Reform Acts, passed in 1832, 1867, 1885, 1918, and 1928, had this effect, whilst other reforming Acts removed rotten boroughs and corruption, and implemented a secret ballot. That the democratic revolution occurred peaceably between 1830-1931 requires explaining, as it was certainly not the case in many other European countries, where revolution was an integral part of reform.

“Only when the dusk begins to fall”, wrote Hegel, “does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.” He meant that a historical era could only be properly understood as it drew to an end. Today, with few more apparent changes in suffrage on the horizon, there is perhaps no better time to evaluate the era of history that gave us our current democratic settlement. That social unrest gripped the country during this period is hard to deny, but the abiding question asks: was the social unrest sufficient to catalyse democratisation? Indeed, why did the elites on these occasions take the vox populi to be vox dei? Was it fear of revolution that forced their hands were into placatory gestures, or were other factors at work? And was the ceding of power by the elites done willingly, or reluctantly, at the end of a musket barrel?

It can be said that the British ruling classes conceded power when, as E. P. Thompson wrote, "in the autumn of 1831 and in the 'Days of May' Britain was within an ace of revolution."# In this case, the revolutionary threat was sufficient. However, for the other instances of reform, these occurred only as an indirect result of the threat of revolution. Despite the manifestations of unrest at these times, “most historians now accept that there was relatively little threat of general insurrection, at least on the British mainland” (Lee, 1994)#. An environment of instability pervaded, but it was not enough in itself to bring about democratisation. For that, other factors must explain the phenomenon in process. The fear of revolution among the elites created the unstable context in which these other factors, minor by themselves, could have a more profound effect. Ultimately, it was the culmination of all these factors in varying degrees that ensured the continued evolution of democracy in Britain.

According to Lee (1994), “An essential prerequisite for revolution is economic upheaval, usually exacerbated by war.”# Indeed, the beginning of the nineteenth century saw Britain at war with France and in the throes of social and economic change. War brought with it higher taxation on staples such as salt, soap, leather, sugar, tea and candles. The economic blockade by Napoleon and European Decrees in 1806 closed European markets to British wool and cotton exports, worsening the economic situation of the poor; exacerbated further by Corn Laws. The Industrial Revolution introduced processes that increased productivity and profit, but little that the working class would benefit from, only serving to deepen dissatisfaction...
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