In 1850, Britain was an undemocratic country. At this time the electoral system divided Boroughs and Counties. Voting qualifications were different in boroughs and constituencies. The vote was only given to men over the age of 21 providing their property was valued at ?10 or more, or land was more than ?2 per year in rent. Seats were distributed unequally and traditional ruling families usually formed the Cabinet. Furthermore, bribery and corruption were widespread and only the minority of the population were entitled to vote. At this time there was no form of a basic education for the population masses and there was still a lot of power lying within the House Of Lords and not with elected officials. A certain degree of money was necessary to stand for election because this was not a paying job, which, as a result stopped vast numbers of people standing for election because the did not have the finances to support themselves. Nor were they able to afford to stand for election as due to bribery and corruption, the poor stood no chance of winning as they did not have the money to provide voters with what they wanted in return for their support. For democracy, there needed to be regular elections and although at this time elections were every seven years, this was not often enough.
However between 1850 and 1918, progress was made towards Britain becoming a democracy. Now there was better communication and education increasing political interest and this influenced people in trade, industry and finance. Economic changes made people better off and left them wanting to take part in politics, and be represented in parliament.
The Extension of the Franchise was helped by the Second Reform Bill passed in 1867. In this act, all householders who paid rates with 12 months residence and all ?10 a year lodgers with one years residence in the Boroughs were given the Franchise. In the Counties, the Franchise was given to those ?5 property owners and all those who occupied property with a rateable value of ?12 or in Scotland, ?14. This act changed the views of The Liberals and The Tories as they now saw that many people backed the idea of a widening of the franchise. Party opinions changed in order to woo voters in the towns, but these changed opinions alone helped in bringing Britain towards democracy as now these political parties wanted to give the people what they wanted and were, agreeing with the populations views on this issue. Examples of policy changes prompted by this Act was that Trade Union rights were extended and the Civil Service was now to be based on talent and not privilege. A serious of Social Reforms were also introduced, a serious of which promoted education and attacked privilege. This act also helped the problem of redistribution of seats as it meant seats were organised in a more reasonable way with 25 in the Counties and 19 to the Boroughs. As a result of this Act, the electorate almost doubled to 2.5 million and now 1 in 3 men had the vote. However, the right to vote was still based on property and it?s value. MP?s were still unevenly distributed, with too many in the counties and small boroughs. Highly populated new industrial areas were still seriously under-represented. Nevertheless, this Act of 1867 was an important step towards democracy.
This act did not address the level of bribery and corruption. This was dealt with by the Corrupt and illegal Practices Act of 1883. This ensured candidates guilty of corruption would be fined or imprisoned and anyone guilty of breaking the rules was disqualified from voting for 7 years. This Act also limited what funds could be spent on. This virtually ended corruption at British elections and also moved candidates from paid professionals to volunteers. In 1872, the Secret Ballot Act had reduced intimidation but failed to stop bribery.
In 1884, The Reform Bill was passed to extend the franchise and there was also a Representation of the People Act passed which made the franchise in the counties the same as that in the Boroughs, increasing the vote to 2/3 of Britains male population. A Redistribution of Seats Act, 1885 helped bring Britain closer to becoming a democracy as it meant towns with a population of less than 15,000 lost two seats. Towns with a population between 15,000 and 50,000 lost 1 seat and universities were now allowed only two seats. The country was now divided into single seat constituencies and the number of M.P?s rose to 670 from 652. Scotland, who previously had 58 M.P?s now had 72. This act meant that power of landlords was reduced even further and the South West was no longer over-represented. The North also gained seats increasing their previous number from a mere 14 to a substantial 58.
In 1911, the Liberals introduced the Parliament Act to reduce the power of the House Of Lords. Now, if a bill passed three readings by the House Of Commons it automatically became law and no delay could be put on financial bills. This Act also cut the length of Parliament from 7 years to 5. Now MP?s were also being paid an annual wage, so this allowed the poorer classes to become MP?s as this was now a paying job. This meant there was now no reason why only the wealthy would be able to stay in the position, as finance was no longer an issue.
The Education acts in 1870 set up school boards and provided schools in areas of England and Wales, which previously had none. This allowed more people to receive a basic education. Children were also to attend for free if their parents couldn?t afford to pay. Also the 1872 act in Scotland made education compulsory for 5 to 13 year olds. Education was free after 1889. This greatly added to the struggle to increase democracy in Britain as now all children, regardless of background or financial situations, were receiving the same education, even though basic, and individuals were not required to pay for this.
The last major act passed in the period was in 1918, a representation of the People Act which not only gave the vote to adult males over 21 with a 6 month residency, but gave it to women for the fist time providing they were over 30 years old, and were householders, married to one or had a university degree. This Act also made voting a one-day affair instead of over several weeks and ended the old division of the Boroughs and Counties. This act also meant that party agents no longer decided who was on the register as now local government officials made up lists of voters annually. Public funds now paid back election expenses under this act, not the candidates, which allowed even the poorest people to stand. Although this act limited plural voting, this was a direct limit on the level of democracy being introduced as the wealthier were still regarded as being superior. This act did limit the plural voting to two votes, but the second vote only counted as university or business premises. The fact that conciencious objectors were banned from voting for 7 years, as were the insane, prisoners, or members of the House of lords limited the democratic system being implemented here. This seems undemocratic as new limits were being added against peoples right to vote, not taking limits away to lead Britain towards democracy.
All of these Acts helped to bring Britain towards democracy between 1850 and 1918, but there were also limitations.
At the end of this period women were still not equal to men. There were more conditions they had to meet to be part of the franchise than men had to. They had to be ver 30 where men only needed to be over21. Conscientious objectors couldn?t vote, arguably, why should they? They did not help their countries war effort. But should this not have been a right they had? Many may argue that it was fair to exclude conciencious objectors from voting as they were not active in helping their country so why give them a say in how it best be run. On the other hand, these people should have had the right to object, but then they are not proving themselves worthy of the vote and say in the government. The length of time that voting was banned for was five years but it is perhaps more democratic to lower this time to allow people to object but not have to pay for their decision in as much severity. In order to bring Britain towards a democracy people have to be free to make their own decisions and choices. Plural voting was also still an issue in Bringing Britain towards becoming a Democratic Country.
Even today there are ongoing arguments about the democratic state of the British Political System. Many argue that our ?First Past The Post? system is undemocratic and think we should operate by means of ?Proportional Representation?. This way even the smallest parties will be represented in some form. Also, would regular referendums not make Britain more democratic because this would allow people to be consulted between elections on important issues? There is also arguments for devolution of power which would certainly bring more democracy to Britain as there would be better representation throughout the country and not only to have the majority of power centred in one of the large towns such as, in today?s case, London. This would also mean better representation of ethnic minorities. There is still the issue surrounding the House Of Lords. Many argue for this to be abolished and for more accountability of top Civil Servants. Finally, would democracy not mean a Freedom of Information Act? It seems undemocratic for so much Government Secrecy to exist.
As shown, Britain had made vast progress to becoming a democracy between 1850 and 1918, but limitations of each individual act decreased the level of democracy, which was slowly rising in the Political System. In order for Britain to be democratic, all involved had to find a common ground and a great desire for equality and Universal Suffrage.