Research Project: Rethinking British Democracy

Over the course of the “long” nineteenth century, the British state underwent a slow revolution. The narrowly based aristocratic system of the eighteenth century gave way to the mass democracy of the twentieth. The crown withdrew from the centre of politics, the House of Lords was stripped of its veto and the Commons emerged as the undisputed cockpit of the state. Successive reforms dismantled the Anglican ascendancy, dynastic associations gave way to organised party machines and patronage lost ground to bureaucracy. Reforms in the structure of politics were matched by a transformation in its governing ideas. John Stuart Mill observed in 1859 that in ‘politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world’, and the Tory intellectual Lord Cranborne testified in 1866 ‘how deeply this theory has tinged our political philosophy’ and ‘modified our political action’.

The most striking transformation lay in the right to vote. Before the Reform Act of 1832, the electorate constituted as little as 3.2% of the population, and in whole swathes of the country contested elections were so rare as to make the nominal electorate an irrelevance. By 1928, however, Britain had embraced a fully democratic franchise, with votes cast regularly and in secret. Britain was by no means the only state to make this transition, but it did so in a manner that was unique. In the first instance, it was remarkably peaceful: Britain was the only major country in the Western world to have neither a revolution nor a civil war in this period. It was also surprisingly consensual. Universal suffrage in Britain came about primarily through five great reform acts - passed in 1832, 1867, 1884-85, 1918 and 1928 - each carried by the very Parliament it superseded. This was a revolution from within, a series of unplanned and improvised expedients cascading chaotically into democracy.

Democratisation offers one of the central narratives of modern British history. It transformed almost every area of British politics and society, and it's one of the central preoccupations of modern political thought. Yet the last scholarly account of this process was published 95 years ago, in 1915.1 It's an extraordinary absence, and one that I hope to address through a series of interlocking research projects. There are three themes I hope to explore in detail:

(1) Opponents of Democracy
It's tempting to assume that anti-democrats were Tory bigots, engaged in a fighting retreat against the forces of progress. Yet for much of the 19th century, the most strident critics of democracy were men who saw themselves as liberals, committed to an ideal of government that was enlightened, progressive and self-consciously modern. Drawing on classical analogies, and the democratic regimes of France and the United States, they saw democracy as an archaic system that was despotic, illiberal and fundamentally regressive. From this perspective, it was possible to be a liberal and even radical thinker while placing every obstruction in the way of democracy, a paradox that my work explores in detail.

I also look more broadly at opponents of reform, trying to rescue them from what E.P. Thompson called 'the enormous condescension of posterity'. This is something that historians of women's suffrage have done very impressively. One of the great paradoxes of women’s suffrage is the existence of a large and vocal class of female Anti-suffragists – women like Mrs Humphrey Ward, Elizabeth Burgwin and Violet Markham. These were educated, intelligent and in many respects progressive women, who were politically engaged and experts in key areas of public policy. Taking them seriously as political thinkers has enriched our understanding of what the suffrage debate was about, showing the extent to which there was a dialogue between ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ suffragists, on issues not just of sex and gender but of democratic theory and the foundations of popular government.

We have nothing comparable to this for earlier reform debates. We still tend to assume that there were two, broad groups in play: those who were for reform – who were liberal and progressive – and those who were against it, who are dismissed as Tory bigots. That’s particularly problematic when we find anti-reformers in the Liberal or even Labour parties; and even more so when we remember that one of the great reform bills of the nineteenth century was a Tory achievement. My work seeks to take seriously the case against reform, looking at how it was possible to construct a liberal case against reform; at the relationship between reform and free trade; and at the extent to which there were common assumptions in play between reformers and their critics.

(2) Religious Routes to Reform
Victorian political thought was saturated in religion, and the reform debate was no exception. If you went to a Chartist meeting in the 1840s, or a reform demonstration in 1832, the language, the iconography and the theatre of the event would all be deeply religious. Protestors waved religious placards and sang reforming hymns; there were Chartist churches and Chartist preachers. The official anthem of the Birmingham Political Union proclaimed that ‘God is our Guide’ in the task of reform, while later reformers wrote hymn books linking the Christian message with a wider franchise. (Click here for an example). Both in 1832 and in the Chartist movement, much of the energy of popular radicalism came from a sense of religious mission: a radical social gospel, proclaiming service to the poor, and vesting power in the piety and religious feeling of the country.

There was also, however, a religious case against reform. As a student at Christ Church, William Gladstone called the Great Reform Bill a ‘Satanic’ measure, the work of the Anti-Christ, and condemned its sponsors as 'the enemies of God’. When the Chartists gathered in London in 1848, a Tory peer called them ‘false to the country, traitors to the Queen, and rebels to their God’. The women’s suffrage movement inspired furious debates within women’s Christian organisations – similar to those taking place today about women bishops. This was, after all, a Constitution 'in Church and State', and the two were not easily disentangled. Click here to read about my work on 1832 as a religious crisis.

(3) Men and Women
My third theme is the need to think more creatively about the role of gender in the reform debates. It’s tempting to divide the reform movement into two parts, focusing on male suffrage up to 1884 and women’s suffrage thereafter. But some of the best writing on 1832 recently has been on women’s involvement and its role in shaping the reform campaign. As Kathryn Gleadle has shown, women were deeply involved in 1832 – as fundraisers, campaigners, songwriters, journalists and pamphleteers. At one meeting of the Birmingham Political Union in 1832, more than half the audience was made up of women. Chartism, too, was very much a women’s movement. It was women, very often, who organised the National Petitions; who encouraged men to sign them; and who maintained the organisation at a local level. In some parts of the country, women worked as bouncers at Chartist meetings, while the female Chartists of Ashton imposed a sex-ban on non-participants. ‘We are determined’, they declared, ‘that no man shall ever enjoy … our hearts, or share our beds, that will not stand forward as the advocate of the rights of man’.

All the great movements of the 19th century worked hard to win women's support; and they did this because it mattered. As controllers of the household budget, women could put pressure on traders in such a way as to influence their votes. They could boycott produce, and give their custom only to reformers. At the same time, the presumption that women were more moral than men made them crucial allies. Building a large, female support base could damp down allegations that a movement was irreligious or revolutionary. At the same time, women’s involvement helped shape the language and the demands of radical movements; and it reminds us that you didn’t have to be a potential voter to care about the issue.

So it’s crucial that we reintegrate women into the history of ‘votes for men’. But it’s just as important that we don’t lose sight of male suffrage after 1900. It’s easy to forget that, before 1918, between 30 and 40% of adult men were still not enfranchised. There’s not a great deal of pressure to change this, but the tendency to think solely in terms of ‘women’s suffrage’ does have a distorting effect. Any measure of female suffrage was likely to have implications for male non-voters – either by opening up or by shutting down a larger male franchise. So where a person stood on women’s suffrage depended very largely on where they stood on male enfranchisement.

So here we have three principles for the rethinking of reform: a greater attention to anti-reformers; a new emphasis on the politics of religion; and a broader attention to gender. In each case, I aim to set the reform debate within a broader international context, looking at the influence of foreign systems of government and the relationship between reform and the empire. I hope, too, to look in more detail at the intellectual history of democracy. Reformers were often loud in their condemnation of democracy, yet the word itself had no stable meaning. In different hands and at different times, democracy could be a form of government, a condition of society, or a particular social class. The railways and the cotton loom were often described as ‘democratic’ innovations; and Disraeli once claimed that there was ‘not a more democratic institution in the country’ than the Church of England. As John Morley grumbled in 1867,

The notions which cluster round this … term are indescribably various. Old ladies, if you tell them that democracy is coming on apace, think dreamily of the guillotine and Marie Antoinette. Others suppose in a vague way that it … will cause Mr Gladstone and Mr Disraeli … to chew tobacco, and to shoot at one another across the House with revolvers.

We still lack an intellectual history of the very word ‘democracy’. What did Victorians understand by democracy; and how did that change? What national examples did they draw upon, and what lessons did they derive? How were democratic ideas integrated into British political thought, and what strains did that impose?

These are just some of the themes that I want to explore in this project. I hope that it will be of general interest, and that it will help students to think in a new way about some of the broad themes of Victorian Britain: the relationship between politics and religion; the peculiar character of English socialism; the growing violence of British politics in the years before 1914. I want readers to think about why, at certain points in British history, ordinary men and women have mobilised around the issue of the vote; when at other times they have not. And by looking at the influence of America and France and the colonies on this debate, I hope to break down some of the insularity of British history. Finally, I hope readers will think about the origins of democracy – what it needs to succeed, and why they value it.


This is an ongoing project, but it has already generated a number of publications. I have written a book about the making of the Second Reform Act, and articles on Chartism, Lord John Russell, constitutionalism and the road to 1867. I have also written on British responses to American democracy, and on the relationship between reform and free trade. I am currently working on a study of 1832 as a religious crisis.