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How democratic was Britain by 1914?

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By “a democracy” we mean that there should be several certain features present. These features consist of universal adult suffrage, equal constituencies, every adult being able to stand as a candidate, a secret ballot, regular elections, a choice of political parties and freedom of speech/press. There is a debate over when exactly Britain actually became a representative liberal democracy. This essay will show that by 1914 Britain was not yet fully a democracy, but well on its way.

One factor that helped Britain on its road towards democracy was the large extension of the franchise. The Second Reform Act in 1867 meant the electorate was marginally increased to 2.5 million and one in three males now had the vote. This was mainly the skilled working class and included householders with one years residence. The Third Reform Act in 1884 further extended the franchise to all male householders, which now increased the electorate to 5 million, two in three men in England and Wales. “The Act left some 40% of adult males in the United Kingdom unenfranchised in 1911, clearly concentrated in the poor and younger working class”. This is quoted from TC Smout taken from “A Century of the Scottish People 1830 – 1950.” So although by 1914 Britain was more democratic due to the large extension of the franchise it still wasn’t fully democratic due to a majority of the poor and working class still being unenfranchised. There was also the issue of women still not having the vote to be addressed.

Another step towards democracy was the equalising of constituencies. In 1867 the seats were increased in industrial areas, along with a number of constituencies being defranchised. There was also great redistribution. The 1885 Redistribution of Seats Act also ended separate county/borough seats and made constituencies approximately equal. The number of MP’s was increased from 652 to 670. Equalising the constituencies was an important factor in Britain becoming more democratic by 1914.

Before 1858 there were rules and regulations which had to be met before you could consider becoming an MP. You had to own certain amounts of land and be considerably wealthy. Many MP’s were also sons of men high up in Government or the sons of pervious MP’s. A further move towards democracy was addressing the rules surrounding MP’s. By 1858 they no longer required a property qualification to stand and the 1911 Payment of MP’s Act meant the working class could now stand. This moved Britain closer to democracy because by 1914 even more people now had an opportunity to stand as a candidate.

An even further step towards Britain becoming more democratic was the reduction of the House of Lords. The 1911 Parliament Act now saw the House of Lords no longer having a veto on money bills and their power to delay bills was reduced to two parliamentary sessions. This was a significant step towards democracy by 1914 because the House of Lords was un-elected and it’s powers had at least been reduced, but by 1914 the un-elected House of Lords still existed and had some power.

Addressing the problem of anti-corruption was another move that Britain made towards democracy. The 1872 Ballot Act meant that there was now a secret ballot. This reduced the threat of bribery and intimidation declined, although it took a further measure from the Liberals in 1883 before corruption was fully dealt with. The 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act meant there was now laws on what MP’s election funds could be spent on, their spending had to be accounted for and they could face disqualification for seven years if these rules weren’t followed. Dealing with anti-corruption played a major part in Britain becoming more democratic by 1914.

By 1914 Britain was more democratic due to the large extension to the franchise, the equalising of the constituencies, more opportunity existing for people to stand as an MP, the reduction of the un-elected House of Lords and the problem of corruption being dealt with. However, there were still many issues to address before Britain could be fully considered to be a democracy. There were still issues such as the voting system of first past the post – which was undemocratic due to its inaccurate reflection of the way the public had voted. Multiple voting was another issue that meant there were still extra votes for men who owned businesses in other constituencies where they did not live. Government secrecy was still present since there was still no Freedom of Information Act. Furthermore, the executive still had a lot of power and could control the legislative system and there were few “checks and balances”. The un-elected House of Lords also still had several law making functions. There was also still the extremely important factor of women still being unable to vote which they weren’t granted until 1918.

This essay has described the state of the political system in Britain by 1914. “By modern standards, Victorian democracy was under-democratic” (from “Democracy and Reform 1815 – 1885” by DG Wright.) Overall, this quotation sums up just how democratic Britain was by 1914. But it is true to say that Britain was definitely well on the road to becoming a democracy, but several things still had to change before it could fully be considered to be one.

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