Why did democracy develop in Britain after 1850?
Between 1850 and 1928, through the introduction of a series of acts of parliament, Britain became a democratic country. All the features that would be expected in a democracy were put in place. For example, the franchise was made universal, the constituencies were more or less shared equally across the country, voting was protected and the opportunities for corruption were considerably reduced. Whilst appreciating the effectiveness of these acts, it is necessary to examine the various background factors which encouraged governments and parliament to pass them in the first place. They include social changes such as population growth and movement, education and the growth of a national press that contributed to growing public interest and participation in politics. Background factors also include enlightened political leadership as well as naked political self-interest linked to party self-interest and survival.
Social and Economic Change
➢ In the 1850s, the political system in Britain came under increasing pressure as a result of social and economic change. The nineteenth century saw a rapid growth in the size and movement of population. Industrial areas grew at the expense of country/rural areas but the way that political representation was organized was slow to change. The Industrial Revolution changed where people lived, how they worked and how they saw their position in society.
➢ At a time of large scale industrialization, urbanization and social change, the government was still run by the upper class, elected by a small, male minority. Many in the growing business and trade classes felt their efforts were making Britain rich but that they and the towns/cities in which they lived were under-represented. They believed that the upper class, based on land ownership, should not have all political power but that it should be shared with the middle classes. Faced with this pressure, parliament had little option but to take steps that led to the growth of democracy.
Growing Public Interest in the Political System
➢ By the 1860s, there was growing public interest in the political system. Despite the lack of compulsory education, education levels were growing steadily. Linked to this, was the growth of national newspapers, encouraged by the railway system. These papers focused on national issues such as politics and they were also the main reading materials for many in society.
➢ Through the newspapers, the public learnt of the defects and flaws in the political system. Newspapers triggered interest in events in Europe and the USA, whilst also allowing some comparison between Britain’s system and that of other countries. All of this combined to cause people to realize that there was much wrong with the political system and that change was needed.
Influences from Abroad
➢ The American War of Independence, 1775-1783, The French Revolution of 1789 and the revolutions in Europe in 1848 all influenced the formation of reform societies and pressure groups in Britain. Radical, political ideas such as those of Thomas Paine, set out in his book, ‘The Rights of Man’, were discussed and written about.
➢ In the 1860s, popular enthusiasm for democracy and desire for political reform grew with support for the Northern cause in the American Civil War and the struggle for Italian liberty. Pressure Groups outside Parliament
➢ Following the Great Reform Act of 1832, demands for further reform continued into the 1840s. The prominent reformist group at this time was the Chartists who believed that only by extending democracy to working class people could living and working conditions be improved. They presented a series of petitions to parliament but failed to persuade the government to agree to their demands (see page 5 of textbook).
➢ The writings of John Stuart Mill in his books, ‘On Liberty’ (1860) and ‘Representative Government’...
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