My study blog

Growth of democracy Reasons for change

Posted by lednum on January 5, 2007

Social change

In mid-Victorian Britain, the electoral system which had been put in place by the 1832 parliamentary Reform Act was coming under increasing pressure. Society had undergone and was undergoing important changes. There was increased urbanisation and industrialisation throughout Britain and in general, society was experiencing significant change.

However, despite such change, the government of the country was still carried out by the middle and upper classes and was elected by a small minority of the population. As British society changed and developed, the question arose as to who had the right to control that society and whether there should be changes in the political system.

By the mid-1860s, pressure for political reform was building up in Britain and the years after 1850 saw the growth and expression of the working class voice in politics. There was a distinct drift of power to urban Britain from the rural areas and with this shift came the decline in power of the old land-owning aristocracy and the latter’s power declined further with the spread of new political ideas and the changing political ideology of the country.

By the mid 19th century, political ideas of the right of individuals to express their opinions freely and the rights of adults to choose the government which ruled over them were becoming increasingly popular.

In the United States and Europe, the Italian states for example, struggles were taking place for liberty and for the people having a greater political say in the running of their country.

The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 provided a stimulus to reform and renewed the debate of political rights in Britain. Popular enthusiasm for democratic sentiment grew with support for the Northern cause in the war. As the British government tended to support these moves elsewhere it seemed logical that such moves in Britain should also be supported.

political change

According to the historian D G Wright in his work Democracy and Reform which was published in 1970, “Parliamentary reform was largely a reflection of changes in the economic and social structure of the country.” So, what were the reasons why Britain became more democratic between 1867 and 1928?

Political recognition

In 1864 Gladstone, the future Prime Minister, became a focus for attention when he declared that “Every man who is not presumably incapacitated by some consideration of personal fitness or of political danger is morally entitled to come within the pale of the Constitution, provided this does not lead to sudden or violent or excessive, or intoxicating political change.”

Public figures that supported political reform became very popular and caught the public imagination. The generally peaceful behaviour of skilled workers, their interest in political matters and their educational achievements were noted by Gladstone in 1866 when he stated that it would be unwise for Parliament to ignore the “increased fitness of the working class for political power”.

Reform movements

In 1864 the National Reform Union was formed to promote the idea of common interests between the middle and working classes. It argued that the political aims of the two classes were similar and that they could work together in the field of politics. The organisation campaigned for the secret ballot, equal seat distribution and votes for all ratepayers, amongst other things.

Also founded in 1864 was the Reform League which was a much more radical movement, working for manhood suffrage and a secret ballot. The League attracted many followers, ranging from trade unionists, socialists and former Chartist sympathisers.

Within the Liberal Party, radicals believed that before further political reforms could be made Parliament would have to be changed.

By the end of the 19th century the trade union movement was gaining pace. Many Liberals saw the unions as direct competition for the support of the working classes. As membership of the trade union movement grew, some Liberals thought the only way to win back this support was through democratic reform.


By the 1870s, many trade unionists supported a new ideology called socialism which appeared to offer a brighter future for the working class. Socialists believed that industrialisation had made life better for the rich but worse for the poor people. Marxists and some of the more militant socialists believed that the only way this unfair system could be changed would be by an act of violent revolution.

As such, socialism was seen by many landowners and businessmen as a real threat to their interests. If large numbers of people were denied the vote then they might be attracted to such new dangerous political ideologies. Thus, by including more of the working class in the political system they might be more easily controlled and less likely to support such revolutionary ideas.

The Labour Party

By the end of the 19th century, trade unions recognised that they needed a voice in Parliament if they wanted to change the political nature of Britain. A series of anti-union laws had been passed which weakened the position of trade unions and in 1900 the unions agreed to use some of their funds to set up a new organisation called the Labour Representation Committee, this being named the Labour Party after 1906.

The party was initially set up to represent the interests of the trade unions and their members in Parliament. During the early years of the 20th century the Labour Party grew steadily in influence. In the 1906 general election it had 29 MPs elected to Parliament. Four years later it managed 42 MPs. After WWI, the Labour Party changed from being purely the political wing of the trade unions to being a broader political party along the lines of the two other parties – the Liberals and the Conservatives. By 1922, the Labour Party had successfully become the Opposition party to the Conservative government.

World War I

World War 1 influenced the growth of democracy in Britain also. There had been plans to change the rules about voting as they applied to men during the war and it was suggested that some women might be included in the proposals. Further, during the war Herbert Asquith was replaced by David Lloyd George as Prime Minister, the latter being more sympathetic to votes for women. It can be argued that the war acted as a catalyst towards democratic reform in Britain.



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